Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History

By Hugh F. Kearney | Go to book overview

Chapter Fourteen

The Politics of Mercantilism, 1695–1700
(1959)

The Irish Woollen Act of 1699 and the linen measures which accompanied it are commonly looked upon as a classic piece of mercantilist policy. The episode is regarded as a carefully contrived piece of official policy by which the exportation of Irish woolen goods was prohibited while in compensation the Irish linen industry was to be allowed and encouraged to expand. As Sir George Clark put it:

If the English had wished to impoverish Ireland they would not have lacked
an excuse for restricting the Irish linen trade as they had restricted the Irish
woollen trade. So far from doing all this they promised to encourage it by
all possible means, as an equivalent for the lost opportunities for the
woollen manufacture. They kept their promise.1

The historian of the Irish linen industry, Conrad Gill, also refers to a “bargain” between the English and Irish governments as an essential part of the story.2 At the same time, however, it is generally recognized that the English woolen industry also played an important role in pressing for restrictive measures against Ireland, but the political background to the whole episode has never been fully investigated. This essay is an attempt to fill in the relevant political, constitutional, and religious details to a story which has hitherto been treated in purely economic terms. It may also be said to raise the general question as to how far economic history can be treated in isolation from the rest of social history. This may seem a commonplace, but as C. H. Wilson has recently pointed out, “the nature of policy has hardly anywhere been related sufficiently to the resources, geography, politics and social structure of the different states.”3 His advice is not least relevant for the last decade of the seventeenth century, most

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