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England’s ancient beef with Ireland This isn't the first time Ireland has rivalled Britain for Europe's custom

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

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. 

_paullay

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David Boulding
David Boulding
3 years ago

“The cool heads and shared humility that made the Good Friday Agreement possible are rare exceptions in a troubled, assymetric history.”
You mean the heads that allowed terrorists to go free and left our soldiers – who had risked life and limb – to spend the rest of their lives under threat of prosecution? Those heads? And the IRA still murdering people today…

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  David Boulding

Exactly.The disgraceful GFA* was one of the worst “sell outs” since we shot ‘Breaker’ Morant’ or indeed, Admiral Byng.

Good to see the recent case against two former members of the Parachute Regiment was dismissed . The Judge was particularly scathing about the Prosecution, who by rights should dragged to Tyburn to suffer the traditional penalty.

(*Good Friday Agreement)

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
britishislesantivax
britishislesantivax
3 years ago

Get out of your own way Charles. NI was always going to blow. I’m afraid you’re not in reality if you can’t acknowledge the mistake that was made in giving in to a minority of Protestants in NI who’d been sabre-rattling against Irish Home Rule. These stubborn people can’t and won’t run the show any longer in NI and on the island. They are a small minority of people who have for too long sucked English teat.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

Couldn’t agree more. We should have ditched the place in 1914, had Asquith not been, to lapse into the vernacular, such a gobshite.
1921 was a farce, yet it is surprising how long it endured. Still on the ‘home’ straight now!

Karen Jemmett
Karen Jemmett
3 years ago

Extraordinary institutional failures, tut, tut

Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago

“The circumspection that the Irish use in their treaties in that court (Spain), who considering that their affairs do in no way pertain to us [v. dishonest], are wont not only curiously to conceal the same from us, but also to desire the King’s ministers not to communicate them with us.”

Thomas Fitzherbert (1602)

An interesting article. English intolerance, insularity and above all ignorance have repeatedly brought damage to Ireland, but paradoxically too they have also provided the solutions for us to that damage. One does not have to go back as far as the seventeenth century either. Along with partition (the wonderful fruits of which we all still reaping, sigh), Britain generated an economic war with Ireland in the early 1930s, in a failed attempt to strangle the infant Irish Republic at birth. It was incredible really. Never in history has a conquering power, after (finally) leaving demanded ‘compensation’ from the ‘natives’ for the lands which they had stolen from them in the first place. Bonkers really. The consequences were legion and profoundly stupid: the ‘sanctions’ were rebuffed as Britain wanted Irish beef, the ‘treaty ports’ were wisely recovered and the whole episode ensured that Ireland effectively had to remain neutral during WWII so as to ensure our independence (though we gave you lots of help, unofficially, of course).

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Irish_trade_war

It is amazing really, but many in Britain, appear still to be blissfully unaware (one-sided history teaching perhaps) that Ireland has a v. long history of independent relations with continental Europe. The same incidentally is also true of Scotland, of which I know less, but there was always a strong Scottish-French connection. Between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries the Irish HQ-in-exile, both church and state were at: Salamanca, then Louvain, then Paris. We have become used to this, you see. Seen from this side of the Irish Sea there is a regular pattern in English history of repeated ‘Brexits’. So, it’s always wise to have a Plan B. Intolerance, envy and spite are a costly business, and ultimately nobody ‘wins’.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.bbc.com/news/56201463.amp

Last edited 3 years ago by Spiro Spero
Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
3 years ago
Reply to  Spiro Spero

The amount of Irish centres in continental Europe between the Flight of the Earls in 1607 and the Act of Union and its aftermath (even later) are legion. I recall being in the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt some time ago at a reception and wondered were there any Irish officers among the portraits of Austrian and Holy Roman Imperial generals. Just above me was Laval Nugent Graf von Westmeath, after which I looked no further (which I regret now). Though these links were heightened after the Reformation and Penal Law period, they built on older links. There was a network of Irish monasteries on continental Europe which proceeded the Norman invasion of Ireland by centuries.

Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago

True. Also, I think some evidence has begun to emerge in recent years that there was a domus Scottorum in Rome at a much earlier period than previously known. The eighth century, if not earlier. In hindsight, it was no coincidence that Maynooth was founded, with a royal grant, the same year as the Orange Order. Dividia et imperia, Greeks and their gifts … mar a deirtear!

Last edited 3 years ago by Spiro Spero
Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
3 years ago
Reply to  Spiro Spero

Somebody ought to do a study of the position that Maynooth and the Pontifical Irish College in Rome took during the Irish Civil War. Maynooth supported the Treaty; the Roman seminary opposed it and made representations to the Vatican on behalf of the Republicans. This is one of the reasons that W T Cosgrave’s government wanted a Nuncio in the Irish Free State and an Irish embassy to the Holy See though the Irish bishops were lukewarm on the topic. The Pope already had an alternative Irish embassy of nearly three centuries standing.

Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago

True. I don’t know enough about that, but perhaps the difference was generational too. Were they generally younger men who were seminarians in Rome at that time?

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
3 years ago
Reply to  Spiro Spero

I think it was more the staff than the students – there was little age difference between the student groups in both colleges. It could be that the bishops preferred to locate academically gifted firebrands in Rome rather than at home where they could do less harm.

Last edited 3 years ago by Peadar Laighléis
Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago

Very possible. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago

By the way Peadar, a chara. In the end, as far as I know, Thomas Fitzherbert (quoted above) and his family were reconciled to the Faith. They perhaps made the mistake of leaving him too long in Madrid! Interestingly, while loudly denounced back home for ‘going pope’, he had one very vocal defender re rights of conscience; none other than Dr Bedell of Kilmore, optimus Anglorum.

Last edited 3 years ago by Spiro Spero
Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
3 years ago
Reply to  Spiro Spero

First translator of the Old Testament into Irish.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Spiro Spero

“Divide et impera”, or alternatively “Divide ut regnes”.

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago

Stand corrected. MĂ­le buĂ­ochas.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Spiro Spero

tĂĄ fĂĄilte romhat!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Spiro Spero

Over roughly the same time period say 1600-1812, where the British failed to eradicate Catholicism in Ireland the Germans*, succeeded in Bohemia with the outstanding assistance of the Society of Jesus, it must be said.

After the Battle of the White Mountain, in 1620, (which precipitated the 30 years War), no effort was spared to exterminate the heresy of the Hussites.

German ruthlessness triumphed over British indolence.

(* In this particular case mainly a sub-species known today as Austrians).

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago

Indeed. Nor should be forgotten the shameful treatment of the French Protestants, following the revoking of the Edict of Nantes.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

You’ve seen the 16th century Irish College at the University of Salamanca?

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
3 years ago

This was once the jewell in the crown of Irish colleges overseas. Though the mid-20th century Irish bishops didn’t want young priests coming back from Spain with Falangist sympathies, they way they treated the last rector of the college was shameful.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

St Gallen being perhaps the most famous?

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
3 years ago

I think its probably the clearest example of an Irish monastery right now. But at various times, Bobbio, Salzburg, WĂŒrzburg or Regensburg might have taken the leading position. A lot of people in Ireland missed the fact Benedict XVI included the badge of the Irish monastery in Regensburg in his papal arms.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

You might have mentioned that Laval Nugent Graf von Westmeath, spent his later years crushing both Italian and Hungarian insurgents with some brutality it must be said.

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
3 years ago

The Wild Geese were far from perfect, but I will leave that aspect to the Cancel Culture

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

The performed well at Fontenoy, as I recall. Taking quite a few British Colours in the process.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Spiro Spero

Churchill’s vilification of the Eire in 1945 didn’t help.

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago

True. I suppose he was acknowledging the sacrifice of the sons of Ulster. Thousands, from both sides of Ireland fought in WWII but the Ulstermen suffered huge losses in France. Also, Churchill had ‘offered’ the North during the war to Ireland in exchange for neutrality, but was rebuffed by De Valera, though I’m not sure that was common knowledge immediately after the war. It certainly wouldn’t have been broadcast in east Belfast! Dev’s own visit to the German embassy after Hitler’s death has to be similarly contextualized. It was a move that was largely for ‘domestic’ consumption. Ireland had only come through a bitter civil war, and Dev came down hard on some former comrades in the IRA. It would have been suicide to have allowed a British soldier to set foot in the country.

The Irish state has since ‘disappeared’ many of it’s records for the period, but there was much more interaction than is generally known. While there was a minister ‘officially’ in Berlin (Charles Bewley, a Quaker (of the Dublin coffee shops) and fervent republican) who spent his time throughly annoying the British, there was also Daniel Binchy (uncle of novelist Maeve Binchy), who had been, before the war, the Irish Minister for External Affairs. He acted as a special (British) envoy to the Vatican throughout the war, but remained in as much contact with Dublin as London. Also, although not in any of the official British biographies, it’s ‘well-known round the village’ (as we say over here) that Churchill’s special protege, Brendan Bracken, was a much more frequent visitor to his homeland than he was often letting on.

German POWs when intercepted were imprisoned in the Curragh for the duration of the war, British ones were driven immediately to the border.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Spiro Spero

In his younger gun-ho days, Churchill was all for sending the Royal Navy to Belfast during the 1914 ‘crisis’ and shelling the Loyalists into line. He was no supporter of the Curragh disobedience either.

I have heard of many ‘breaches of neutrality’ by the Free State Authorities during the War. Vital parts of Halifax bombers being retrieved etc.
Wasn’t it also a Irish Weather Station that gave the ‘OK’ for D-Day?
Plus the Dublin Fire Brigade went north to assist in the Belfast Blitz.

So, as usual, as is not necessarily as it appears.

Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago

Too true. Fact is often more interesting than fiction.

Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago

Yes, I think you’re right about the D-Day thing. My mother grew up in Dublin city. In the years after the war there were regular visits of (unionist) kids from the north, Belfast especially, and some of them stayed with Dublin families for a few weeks each year and went to my mum’s school. You might find this difficult to believe, but one of the things she most remembered about them was their amazement on arrival that the people ‘down south’ lived in cities, had houses, with roofs, running water, cars … that we didn’t actually eat our children, etc. God only knows what they were told from the cradle. With the Covid thing of late, there was plenty of cooperation, with quite a few of their hospital overspill being brought down to be treated here. Of course, it’s possible that Arlene Foster has forgotten to mention that!

Last edited 3 years ago by Spiro Spero
Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
3 years ago

All true – the Dundalk and Drogheda fire brigades also went north during the Belfast Blitz. There was recently a piece in the Irish Times about the weather station assistant in Belmullet who noticed the squall on the Atlantic which narrowed the time frame for a successful landing in Normandy and passed the information on. These things were kept quiet. The US envoy to Ireland was David Grey, who shared Roosevelt’s hatred for de Valera, who did much to publicise Ireland’s Axis leanings at the time.

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
3 years ago
Reply to  Spiro Spero

Binchy was a Celtic scholar who was engaged in research in German institutes in the 1920s and served as representative of the Free State to Weimar Germany. Bewley, though originally Quaker, became a Catholic via High Church Anglicanism (which is why he ended up as a diplomat to the Holy See). I gather he was an unpleasant character in many ways. Bracken is a fascinating character complete with a Fenian family. I like the story of him being stranded in Shannon when he was supposed to be on the way to a conference in Canada with his Conservative cabinet colleagues (I heard Anthony Eden might have been among them). He invited them to see where he was from in Tipperary and brought them. They thought he was making it up on one of the rare occasions he was being truthful about his background.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 years ago
Reply to  Spiro Spero

‘Intolerance, envy and spite’ – just so.

Armand L
Armand L
3 years ago

Very good read, thank you Ed!

Don Bryan
Don Bryan
3 years ago

Excellent insight in the historical and continuing attitude of “imperial” England to Ireland.

Eamonn Toland
Eamonn Toland
3 years ago

Pre Brexit Ireland imported twice as much from the UK than it exported – the UK had a substantial trade surplus. UK exports of goods to Ireland have fallen sharply since January – by more than 50% in February 2021, while Irish exports of goods to the UK fell 11% in the same period.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Eamonn Toland

Presumably Ireland has followed plucky Sweden and had a fairly relaxed Lockdown?

Eamonn Toland
Eamonn Toland
3 years ago

Pendular swings in policy – seeing a massive spike in cases after relaxing controls over Christmas to having one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. Some of the trade issues are covid-related, others due to stocking up in advance of the Withdrawal Agreement taking effect. Hopefully trade on both sides will recover soon.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Eamonn Toland

Many thanks.