We're on the cusp of a new Anglo-Irish trade war. Credit: Timothy Seren/ullstein bild/Getty

May 6, 2021   5 mins

In 1665, as plague grabbed hold of London and Parliament was driven to Oxford, one baronet had other things on his mind. Indebted and ambitious — those two factors may have been related — Sir Richard Temple decided to propose a bill to ban Irish cattle imports to England. The trade had already been restricted, two years earlier, by Charles II’s Cavalier Parliament. But to approve the new bill, said Heneage Finch — the solicitor general and the bill’s most outspoken opponent — would be to “publish to the whole world that we had rather hate Ireland than improve it”.

The export of cattle was crucial to the Irish economy, then almost entirely agricultural, and its main market was England. Can the king, Finch continued, the “common father of the people… ruin the younger brother only  to comply with the impatient unmindness of the older?” Charles, less powerful than his predecessors, was utterly opposed to the bill, but he needed the money that Parliament could deny him if he thwarted it, not least to continue his expensive war with the Dutch.

But it wasn’t Irish beef that had weakened England’s economy. As Finch pointed out: “to believe that the very passing of this Bill will raise your rents in spite of plague or war hath in it many errors”. But MPs were in no mood to listen, having convinced themselves of the logic of this economic non sequitur. This belief, though, that Irish cattle could be a decisive factor in English rental rates, when it was such a small part of the economy “could only be based on emotion”, says the historian Carolyn Edie. and emotion is never far from the surface in Anglo-Irish relations, even now, as the bitterness and suspicion aroused by Brexit demonstrates. The cool heads and shared humility that made the Good Friday Agreement possible are rare exceptions in a troubled, assymetric history.

In 1666, after the Great Fire, Parliament returned to Westminster. Charles needed more money than ever to rebuild his capital and to carry on the war. He received from Parliament on 12 October, a very generous financial settlement of £1.8million, but there would be a price to pay. The import of Irish cattle earned the epithet of a “common and public nuisance”, a legal term, which limited the king’s options to oppose. The Irish Cattle Bill went to the Lords.

A bitter debate followed. The Duke of Buckingham, newly energised — previously he had been in the habit of rising at 11 — led the support, backed by the former Cromwellian, Lord Ashley, whose hostility to the Irish was well known. It’s easy to assume that the English Protestant Parliament’s antagonism to Ireland was, in great part, due to its population’s Catholicism. This was, after all, the age of the Clarendon Code (a misnomer if ever there was one), and the Popish Plot. Catholics had been widely blamed for the Great Fire of 1666. And yet much of Irish agriculture, trade and manufacture was in the hands of Protestants, and Anglican ones at that, English settlers who had sought to spread English civilisation.

On the the 100th anniversary of Partition, we may still ask who the English think the Irish are — and discover that the answer has more to do with the Irish Sea than any land border or cultural heritage or religious persuasion. A part of the UK remains, for many in England’s governing class, inseparably Irish, by virtue of merely being part of an island too often ignored or taken for granted.

Opposite Ashley was the Earl of Ossory, the hot-headed son of Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant, the Marquis of Ormonde. Formerly imprisoned by Cromwell, the Earl became the king’s youthful voice on the matter in the Lords, even challenging Buckingham to a duel when it was claimed that the Bill’s only opponents had either “Irish estates or Irish understandings”. But despite strong arguments opposing it, the Act against Importing Cattell from Ireland and other parts beyond the Seas became law on 2 February 1667.

The Irish economy was expected to collapse. Inevitably, an illegal trade in cattle continued, despite the efforts of customs officials; there was, after all, no law in Ireland that forbade export to England. But there was to be a twist in the tale. Ormonde — close to Charles, having endured years of exile with him — persuaded the king to allow the Irish to trade with mainland European states. At first, the concession offered little comfort. Some Irish cattle ships sailed to Rotterdam, but the expense proved extortionate, with costs tripled. But necessity begets invention, and the opportunity to sell to Europe proved a gamechanger — a liberation for England’s bullied younger brother.

With the trade in live cattle unfeasible, Ireland was forced to diversify. England’s self-inflicted difficulty became Ireland’s opportunity. Irish cattle had gained a poor reputation: its meat was considered “thin, light and moist”, hides were “thin and lank” and even the butter was “better on the top and bottom of the barrel”. But Irish farmers and manufacturers produced something of a miracle, enhancing their produce, with their barrelled beef to the fore, at half the price of its English competitor. Irish merchant ships were seen in Ostend, Dunkirk, Nantes, and in Spain and Portugal. Throughout Europe the vessels of Cork, Kinsale and Waterford were “loaded with leather, butter, cheese, tallow and salt meat”. By 1671, Irish revenue from Europe had risen by £40,000, a significant sum. Ireland was fostering a new, more independent relationship with Europe, from which it benefited enormously. After Brexit, Ireland has sought to establish more direct transport links with the EU, particularly via sea routes, with both sides bypassing Britain — though not Northern Ireland. Concerns have been raised about Britain missing out on Irish trade, even enabling a potential competitor. These echo the warnings of previous centuries.

England’s trade with Ireland, after the Cattle Bill, fell precipitously. Its barrelled beef industry, once a lynchpin of the economy of the south-east, lost out to its Irish rivals. Potentially of even greater hazard to England’s interests was Ireland’s increasingly close trading relationship with the Dutch, and, God forbid, the French: it was largely Irish provisions that sustained Louis XIV’s navy in the 1670s.

Despite appeals to embrace free trade by English political economists such as Roger Coke, English MPs doubled down, embracing irrational emotion rather than economic logic. In 1674, they debated whether French goods, such as wine, brandy and silk, should also be declared “nuisances”. Whether there was any English wine, brandy or silk manufacturing that might benefit was a question that seemed to elude them. Meanwhile, Irish land values continued to rise while English rents fell. As one commentator observed: “Prohibiting Irish cattle, French goods, etc … do but make things worse, and to stop one hole make three.”

At Charles II’s third parliament, in April 1679, Thomas Papillon, a City merchant who sat for Dover, spoke calmly but eloquently against the policy of protection that had failed, failed utterly.

“The state of the question is … to make Ireland serviceable and advantageous to England, and not to set up Ireland in competition with England … If all the commodities of Ireland must pass thro’ England, then all foreign commodities that Ireland wants would be supplied the same way, which would be of great advantage to England.”

For now, more than 50% of Irish beef still goes to British markets, where it is regarded rather more highly than it was in the 1660s. Under the Protocol, it remains tariff free. But the roles are now reversed — and to whose advantage, it’s not clear. Ireland, within the EU, is now the protectionist; if Britain strikes trade agreements with major beef exporters outside the bloc, the younger brother may suffer. But with Britain now the EU’s junior partner, the older sibling will need to be as fleet of foot in its enterprises as the Irish were in the wake of the Cattle Act.

Paul Lay is Editor of History Today.