Economic history of Ireland: Wikis


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Ireland's economic history starts at the end of the Ice Age when the first humans arrived there. Agriculture then came around 4500 BC. Iron technology came with the Celts around 350 BC. From the 12th century to the 1970s, most Irish exports went to England. During this period, Ireland's main exports were foodstuffs. In the 20th century, the Republic of Ireland's economy diversified and grew. It is now one of the richest countries in the world.


To 1800

The first settlers in Ireland were seafarers who survived largely by fishing, hunting and gathering . This was the extent of the Irish economy for around 3500 years — until 4500BC when farming and pottery making became widespread. Sheep, goats, cattle and cereals were imported from Britain and Europe. Wheat and barley were the principal crops cultivated. There was an economic collapse around 2500BC, possibly because too much time was being spent building grandiose tombs,[citation needed] and the population declined from its peak of around 100,000. Metalworking began in Ireland around 2500BC, with bronze being the principal metal used. Swords, axes, daggers, hatchets, halberds, awls, drinking utensils and horn-shaped trumpets were produced in the period 2500BC – 700BC (the Bronze Age). Mining began also around this time. Mines in Cork and Kerry are believed to have produced as much as 370 tonnes of copper during the Bronze Age. The Celts brought iron technology to Ireland around 350BC. They established kingdoms and a system of rule, this enabled the economy to be regulated for the first time.

In the 12th century Ireland was invaded by the Normans. During these times, the economy was predominantly one based on subsistence farming, mainly oats and potatoes (after the sixteenth century) and other forms of tillage. The island's main resources were exported to Britain and thus the country's economy went undeveloped. An important industry developed on the south coast involving catching, processing and exporting pilchards (see Munster pilchard fishery 1570-1750). One major change was the large amount of infrastructural development of Ireland by Britain — roads, railways and canal lines were established.

In the eighteenth century English trade with Ireland was the most important branch of English overseas trade1. The Anglo-Irish absentee landlords drew off some £800,000 p.a. in the early part of the century, rising to £1 million, in an economy that amounted to about £4 million. Completely deforested for timber exports and a temporary iron industry in the course of the seventeenth century, Irish estates turned to the export of salt beef and pork and butter and hard cheese through the slaughterhouse and port city of Cork, which supplied England, the Royal Navy and the sugar colonies of the West Indies. The bishop of Cloyne wondered "how a foreigner could possibly conceive that half the inhabitants are dying of hunger in a country so abundant in foodstuffs?"2. In the 1780s, under pressure from salted meat exported from the Baltic and from the United States, the Anglo-Irish landowners rapidly switched to growing grain for export, while the Irish themselves ate potatoes and groats.

19th century

For much of the 1800s, the only factories in Ireland were the textile mills of the north, and the Guinness brewery and the Jacob's biscuit factory in Dublin. For much of the period, the Irish economy provided cheap raw materials such as timber, beef, vegetables and marble to the far more industrialized British economy. Ireland underwent major highs and lows economically during the nineteenth century: from economic booms during the Napoleonic Wars[citation needed] and in the late nineteenth century (when it experienced a surge in economic growth unmatched until the 'Celtic Tiger' boom of the 1990s), to severe economic downturns and a series of famines, the latest threatening in 1879. The worst of these was the Great Famine of 1846-1848, in which about 750,000 people died and another million had no option but to emigrate, with millions more leaving in the following decades.

Ireland's economic problems were in part the result of the small size of Irish landholdings. In particular, both the law and social tradition provided for subdivision of land, with all sons inheriting equal shares in a farm, meaning that farms became so small that only one crop, potatoes, could be grown in sufficient amounts to feed a family. Furthermore many estates, from whom the small farmers rented, were poorly run by absentee landlords and in many cases heavily mortgaged.

When potato blight hit the island in 1845, much of the rural population was unable to access the remaining food - wheat, livestock etc. which was due to export to Britain. Unfortunately at this time British politicians such as the Prime Minister Robert Peel were wedded to a strict laissez-faire economic policy, which argued against state intervention of any sort. While some money was raised by private individuals and charities (Native Americans sent supplies, while Queen Victoria personally donated £1,000) British government inaction (or at least inadequate action) led to a problem becoming a catastrophe; the class of cottiers or farm laborers was virtually wiped out.[1]

The famine spawned the first mass wave of Irish emigration to the United States. There was also a large amount of emigration to England, Scotland, Canada, and Australia. This had the long term consequence of creating a large and influential Irish diaspora, particularly in the United States, who supported and financed different Irish independence movements, beginning with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. From 1879 a "Land War" developed, and by 1903 many farmers were able to buy their land, but usually chose small and uneconomic lots.

In east Ulster the industrial revolution led to rapid urbanization. Belfast grew from a population of 7,000 in 1800 to 400,000 in 1900, having outgrown Dublin, the former capital.

History since partition

After the War of Independence, most of Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom. Twenty-six counties of Ireland became the Irish Free State, later described as the Republic of Ireland, while the other six remained in the Union as Northern Ireland. There had already been a significant economic divide between these two parts of Ireland, but following partition both regions further diverged, with Belfast, as the North's economic centre, and Dublin becoming the capital of the Free State. Partition had a devastating effect on what became Ireland's border area. County Donegal for example was economically separated from its natural regional economic centre of Derry. The rail network struggled to operate across two economic areas, finally closing across a vast swath of Ireland's border area (the only cross-border route left being that between Belfast and Dublin). Both rail systems could not have operated after 1922 without government support.

Both parts of Ireland in effect used pound sterling (to which the Irish pound was pegged) until 1979 (when the peg was removed). As a result both parts also shared in any inflation or deflation in the value of sterling, with interests rates being determined in London. The continuing link to sterling from 1922 to 1979 underlines how much the economy of the south depended upon exports to (and remittances from) Britain, even though it was politically independent.

In general the economy of the Republic was much weaker than that of the North throughout the twentieth century, being based on agriculture; and much of that also being based on uneconomically small farms. Protectionism was introduced by Seán Lemass in 1932 and the economy became isolated. From 1945-60 Ireland missed out on the European economic boom across Europe, and 500,000 people emigrated. A major policy change followed the issue of TK Whitaker's economic model in 1958, and the Republic slowly embraced the industrial world. Most Irish exports continued to go to Britain until 1969. Lemass reversed his policies in 1959 and the economy started to grow as a new member of the EFTA.[2]

Meanwhile the main northern industries based on shipbuilding, ropes, shirts and textiles declined from 1960, and then more so due to the 1970s 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland, despite government investment in projects such as the Belfast DeLorean plant. In 2005 the northern economy was supported by a net annual "subvention" from London of £5 billion, an amount that has risen over time.[3]

Conversely, after a bleak period in the 1970s and 1980s, the Celtic Tiger era in the Republic was spurred on by the high technology industries that took root in the country after 1990. The southern economy also benefited relatively more after 1973 up to 2002 from the European Structural Funds system. It grew markedly until 2007, but no corrective measures were taken to control the process, leading to the 2008 crisis and continuing economic problems. The main reason for this was that the economy was still operating at a very high level of consumption which can be simply put as "living beyond ones means".


  1. See: Braudel, F, 1979.
  2. See: Plumb, J.H., 1973.



  • Braudel, Fernand, The Perspective of the World, vol III of Civilization and Capitalism (1979, in English 1985)
  • Plumb, J.H., England in the 18th Century, 1973: "The Irish Empire"

See also



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