Category Archives: Agricultural Revolution

The First Agricultural Revolution, the role of the Potato in letting of Irish land for exorbitant rents.

First Agricultural Revolution

The First Agricultural Revolution is said to have began in the 1500s’ may have in some ways explain the treatment it gave to Ireland during the 16th and 17th century. In England of that period social justice was not a priority. In England before the growth of towns as we know them to day, life in England centred mainly around the local village. Each village had its own allocation of land – the precursor of the modern parish – and each village had the right to own or hire certain areas of this land for grazing, hay and tillage. Most of the land was unfenced and farmed on a system of strips and patches. Thus within any given area, a farmer might have one or more patches depending on the system of allocation. The system of cropping was winter corn, spring corn and fallow. Some areas of land were enclosed or fenced so as to provide hay, but the bulk of the grazing land was held in common. When autumn came all farmers had an equal right to stubble grazing and so all cattle were turned loose on the cultivated ground at a specified date. Once the stubble grazing was finished all unwanted animals were killed off and salted down for winter food. Naturally the only cattle and sheep that were kept were those that were intended as a nucleus for breeding and in many cases the reserves of animal fodder were barely sufficient to see through the winter. By the middle of the eighteenth century English agriculture was well on its way to becoming fully commercialized economic activity, organized and administered to the needs of the market.  This constituted a decisive change from the mediaeval economy which had been based largely on subsistence farming, and governed by tradition and custom rather than by calculation of profit. The development of capitalist agriculture was pivotal for the economy as a whole, since agriculture accounted for between 40 and 45% national income and, of course, it dominated the rural economy, despite the continued presence of much smaller-scale manufacture and handicraft. The growth of the system was unique in the world: rural England contained the first capitalist economy. While the ‘English model’ was never to be repeated elsewhere in its exact form, it did represent in a general sense a prototype – the economic system that had developed in rural England by the latter half of the eighteenth century was destined to become global in its extent.

England’s rural sociologists of the day varied on the benefits of the the capitalist model of agriculture that evolved. In part, the difference stems from divergence of purpose and method. The more pessimistic interpretations of the period stress the unequal distribution of the benefits gained from commercialization, and emphasize the social and cultural dislocation which the rise in capitalism entailed. The more optimistic perspective stresses the gross gains in productivity which the new innovations provoked. The emphasis is placed upon necessary economic advance in order to achieve the modernization of medieval agriculture. The latter employs state records and agrarian change through the eyes of the ‘improvers’, the former elaborates the view from the village rather than the estate, pays considerable attention to forms of social protest and develop a ‘history from below’.

 

The Irish Countryside after The First Agricultural Revolution

This new generation of people in England became very dissatisfied about the productivity of Ireland and the Reformation became a further excuse to invade. Between 1580 and 1690 Ireland was three times devastated: first by the Elizabethan conquest; then by the rising of 1641, followed by the Cromwellian conquest and settlement; and finally by the Williamite Wars. This new departure began with Henry V111. Before his reign, the English crown was powerless in most parts Ireland. However, following Henry’s successor Tudor Monarchs Edward V1, Mary and Elizabeth the entire island was completely under English rule. Not only did they bring the whole country for the first time under the control of a central government, but they ensured that that government would be an English one. Each upheaval represented the violent rejection by the old Irish order of the new order which its English exponents sought to impose. Apart from the immediate destruction of men and materials, which in each case was in frightful scale, each wave of havoc exacerbated the enmity between the two sides and together they made impossible any relationship of the conqueror and conquered.

The history of the seventeenth century precluded compromise between planters and the Irish. To the former it made it clear that their position in Ireland was only secure only as long as they commanded, or could obtain from England, the force necessary to maintain it. For the latter it removed hope of alleviation other than by complete overthrow of the newly imposed political, economic and social system. It gave rise not alone to two classes but two nations, between them there could only exist friction and enmity. Political or economic co-operation was made almost impossible. The repercussions saw the re-distribution of 250,000 acres of land in Munster the Flight of the Earls and their lands taken over by the Crown. Six counties Donegal, Derry, Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh and Cavan – more than three million acres in all were taken over. About 600,000 acres of the best land was set aside for new settlers. The remainder made up of moor, woodland, bog and marsh was left to the peasant Irish. The new settlers were given estates of 1000, 1,500 and 2,000 acres. All were compelled to take the Oath of Supremacy, that is an oath recognizing the King as head of the Church.  Niall O’Donnell was given land in Co. Mayo, the O’Reillys were left a small estate in Cavan. Conor Maguire retained a portion of his land in Fermanagh, and Magennis did in Co. Down. The new settlers or colonists were English Protestants and Scottish Presbyterians.

Following on the clash between the new order, as represented by the Elizabethan and Cromwellian conquerors, and the old order was unusually bitter. Exasperating as well as complementing and reflecting the fundamental economic differences were the religious and cultural differences. The old order was Catholic and Gaelic, some Anglo Irish Land owners refused to convert to Protestantism, the vast majority complied to protect their estates, while the new planters were Protestant and very English. In the words of Tawney: “the elements were so alien that assimilation was out the question (and) the result was a wound that festered for three centuries”.

Killarney Ross Castle

The castle was the chief seat of the O’Donaghue Mors, hereditary rulers of this district and descendants of the ancient kings of Munster. After the Desmond rebellion their fortified lands were acquired by the MacCarthy Mors from whom they were purchased by Sir Valentine Browne, ancestor of the Earls of Kenmare. In 1652 the castle was held by Lord Muskerry against a Cromwellian force of 1,500 foot and 700 horse soldiers, commanded by Edmond Ludlow. It fell after floating batteries were brought over land to bombard it from the lough as well as from the land. The Brownes, who retained the old faith, remained in the castle until they lost their estates in 1690 for supporting the Jacobite cause. Although their lands were recovered around 1720, they were unable to regain possession of the castle, which had been taken over as a military barracks. The Earl of Kenmare had 22,700 acres in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century.

The sixteenth century in Europe was a time of unprecedented change. It was the beginning of the modern era, and it saw a revolution in almost every aspect of European life. The century opened with the discovery of a new continent. The renaissance in Italy was peaking and spreading north, even arriving in backwaters like England (Hale – The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance). Life was largely prosperous for the average person, the economy was growing. The mechanisms of commerce, systems of international finance, ocean-going trading fleets, an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, were all building a recognizably capitalist, money-based economy. Geniuses were stepping all over each other on the street corners producing scientific innovation after innovation. Technological innovations like gunpowder were changing the nature of warfare and the military caste nature of society — the cannon probably had a great deal to do with the rise of the centralized nation state as we know it. The printing press created a media revolution. It brought ideas, partisan rhetoric, and how-to manuals to the people. Most of all, it brought the Bible, in its original tongues and in the vernacular, to the masses. A spirit of inquiry, a desire to return to first principles, was blowing through the Church, which had been the unifying cultural foundation of Europe for a millenium.

 

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh was regarded by his fellow countrymen as one of the grand scalawags of the Elizabethan Age. He made a name for himself fighting the Irish at Munster; later he was introduced at court and became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. Known for his wit and womanizing, Raleigh was in and out of Elizabeth’s favour. He was involved in Ireland between 1579 -1602 – took part in the suppression of the Desmond (Fitzgerald) rising. His letters prove that he was the advocate of a ruthless policy against the Irish, and did not hesitate to recommend assassination as a means of getting rid of their leaders. Got 42,000 acres on the Blackwater river valley and the towns of Youghal and Lismore.  Youghal had been a walled and very important trading town and port from the Viking Norman times.

The Rennaisance and the European Countryside

In the start of this website we spoke of Ireland beginnings and its land parting from America some 385 million years ago – see ‘Rock of the Hooves’.  Then in 1492 Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue’ and found America. Consequently a link was renewed not of land masses but of its peoples. Suddenly the word European became meaningful to  Renaissance scholars. In all likelihood the great majority of those who lived in Europe and could read only with difficulty, if at all, had not even heard of the word.  Likewise Ireland became known by the Venetian, Spanish and Grecian explorers who heretofore have sailed eastwards to India and China as from the 13th century. The physical nature of Europe could not be assessed until the sixteenth century.  Well organized smaller powers could still hold their own against the greatest rulers in Europe. The best example was the Swiss confederation of townsmen and free peasants. In the corners of Europe in particular, communities prospered such as the Cossacks bands of the Polish and muscovite frontiers on the steppe. Ireland was no different where Gaelic Ireland beyond the English Pale had native Irish began building castles also in their new location and recovering some of the land stolen by the Normans.

The sixteenth century in Europe was a time of unprecedented change. It was the beginning of the modern era, and it saw a revolution in almost every aspect of European life. The renaissance in Italy was peaking and spreading north, even arriving in backwaters like England (Hale – The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance). Life was largely prosperous for the average person, the economy was growing. The mechanisms of commerce, systems of international finance, ocean-going trading fleets, an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, were all building a recognizably capitalist, money-based economy. Geniuses were stepping all over each other on the street corners producing scientific innovation after innovation. Technological innovations like gunpowder were changing the nature of warfare and the military caste nature of society — the cannon probably had a great deal to do with the rise of the centralized nation state as we know it. The printing press created a media revolution. It brought ideas, partisan rhetoric, and how-to manuals to the people. Most of all, it brought the Bible, in its original tongues and in the vernacular, to the masses. A spirit of inquiry, a desire to return to first principles, was blowing through the Church, which had been the unifying cultural foundation of Europe for a millenium.

Gold silver and spices brought from India and China and traded by Merchant Princesses had drove the Renaissance. The countryside in those countries did not escape. Land had to be worked, stomachs had to be filled, rents had to be found, taxes had to be paid. Yet in all European countries most people lived on the land. The total population of France was still only 7 or 8 million in mid 15th century, while England’s population was only 5 million by the late 1500s and did not reach 8 million until 1800.  While London’s population was still only 500,000 in the 1650s’, nevertheless  it and other towns and city population expansion put pressure on the agrarian economy. The price of land rose rapidly resulting in marginal grain growing land in England being cultivated. Some peasants in England and the continent benefited greatly from the grain price and market opportunities. Those with surpluses for sale began to make profits, enabling them to consolidate their holdings and strengthen their position. The yeomen in England, coqs de village in France and Volbauer, or wealthy tenant farmers with full rights in communal resources in Germany, were all emerging as rural elites by the mid-sixteenth century.  They managed this by refusing to subdivide their properties (even where partible inheritance was the local custom) and keeping strict control over their children’s marriages. By the later sixteenth century their increased wealth was obvious. They boasted the largest, most richly decorated houses, the most servants, oxen, barns, grain, wine, and silver. Their dominant economic and social status meant they were entrusted with seigneurial tasks (like collection of dues and taxes, or acting as local administrative officials and often acted as creditors within their local community.

England was jealous of the great power of Spain, and became increasingly preoccupied with the necessity of extending her own dominion and her trade overseas. And so Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Ralph Lane were sent to our shores and the power Gaelic Irish Clansmen who had re-established themselves during the 1400s’ was once more threatened.