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The History of Ulster
Unhappiness and Halfpence


The Earl of Sunderland, Lord-Lieutenant—The Method of governing Ireland in the Time of George I—Hugh Boulter, Primate of all Ireland—An Exodus to enlist in Foreign Service—Ship seized at Killybegs—Wretched State of the Country—Swift's Pamphlets on Irish Manufactures—Lack of Copper Coins— Wood's Halfpence—Clamour raised against them—Swift's Drapier's Letters— The Patent granted Wood withdrawn—Steady Stream of Emigration—3000 Protestants leave Ulster—Swift on the Condition of Ulster—Death of George I.

One of the first acts of the regency in England, appointed by King George I pending his arrival from Hanover, was to remove the Lord Chancellor, Sir Constantine Phipps, from his position of Lord Justice (1714), and appoint William King, Archbishop of Dublin; John Vesey, Archbishop of Tuam; and Robert FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare, to govern the kingdom of Ireland as Lords Justices. The vacant chancellorship was given to Alan Broderick, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. In the same year Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, was declared Lord-Lieutenant. It was then the custom of the Viceroy to reside in England, and visit Ireland every second year while Parliament was sitting, the government being carried on by Lords Justices.

The English Government having determined to make as much as they could out of Ireland with as little trouble as possible, the methods of ruling the country were peculiar. One of the Lords Justices was, as a rule, the special confidential agent of the English ministry, and he generally contrived to manage affairs through some of the magnates who owned the major portion of the Parliamentary representation, and who were known as undertakers. At that time Parliamentary representation was a kind of property, and it therefore did not reflect the opinions of the people. The chief business of the managers of the King's concerns was to get supplies passed, to oppose any tendency displayed at independence, to prevent any interference with English trade interests, and to discourage the growth of "Popery". One of the most successful of the managers of the undertakers was Hugh Boulter, an English bishop, who, in 1724, was translated from Bristol to be Primate of all Ireland. For the eighteen years he was resident in Ireland, during which he was thirteen times Lord Justice, he was practically the ruler of the country.

After the accession of George, prosecutions for enlisting in foreign service were carried on with great vigour, but, although many recruiting agents who were caught were hanged, it was found that the practice still continued. A large number of active agents were employed raising recruits, who appear for the most part to have been driven to enlist by the distress to which the population had been reduced. Some of these recruits were sent to Spain, where the Duke of Ormonde, who had joined the Pretender, was preparing an expedition against King George. Others were sent to France. Towards the close of the reign this enlistment was carried on with increasing activity, and seems to have alarmed the Government. On one occasion a ship which entered the harbour of Killybegs to carry away some of those who had thus enlisted was seized, and Boulter wrote to the Duke of Newcastle concerning the incident: "We have daily new accounts from several parts that the lusty young fellows are quitting the country on pretence that they are going to England for work. Such as have occasion to employ many hands, begin to feel the effects of this desertion, and nobody here questions but that all these really are going into foreign service." The destruction of manufacturing industry, the restrictions on trade, the falling of the land out of cultivation, the conversion of arable land into pasture, the drain from absentee rents and pensions, had gradually impoverished Ireland to an alarming extent. The peasantry were almost on the brink of starvation.

A potent voice was now to be raised on behalf of the wretched country. In 1720 Swift published his first pamphlet on Irish affairs: A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufactures. Swift became Dean of St. Patrick's in 1713, but he had lived seven years in Dublin as an undergraduate of Trinity College, and though he left Ireland when he was twenty-one, and took his M.A. at Oxford, he returned in 1694 to become Vicar of Kilroot, near Carrickfergus, becoming, five years later, Rector of Laracor, in the Diocese of Meath, so that he was well qualified by residence in the country to call attention to its most urgent needs. In a letter to Pope he gives an interesting account of the events connected with the pamphlet referred to, which throws much light on the government of Ireland at the time. "I have written in this kingdom", he said, "a discourse to persuade the wretched people to wear their own manufactures, instead of those from England. This treatise soon spread very fast, being agreeable to the sentiments of the whole nation, except those gentlemen who had employments or were expectants. Upon which a person in great office here immediately took the alarm; he sent in haste for the chief justice, and informed him of a seditious, factious, and virulent pamphlet, lately published, with a design of setting the two kingdoms at variance; directing at the same time that the printer should be prosecuted with the utmost rigour of the law. The Chief Justice has so quick an understanding, that he resolved if possible to outdo his orders. The grand juries of the county and city were effectually practised with to represent the said pamphlet with all aggravating epithets, for which they had thanks sent them from England, and their presentments published for several weeks in all the newspapers. The printer was seized, and forced to give great bail. After his trial the jury brought him in not guilty, although they had been culled with the utmost industry. The Chief Justice sent them back nine times, and kept them eleven hours; until, being perfectly tired out, they were forced to leave the matter to the mercy of the judge, by what they call a special verdict. During the trial, the Chief Justice, among other singularities, laid his hand on his breast, and protested solemnly that the author's design was to bring in the Pretender, although there was not a single syllable of party in the whole treatise; and although it was known that the most eminent of those who professed his own principles publicly disallowed his proceedings. But the cause being so very odious and unpopular, the trial of the verdict was deferred from one term to another, until, upon the Duke of Grafton's, the Lord-Lieutenant's, arrival, His Grace, after mature advice and permission from England, was pleased to grant a nolle prosequi." The reference to the jury having been "culled" proves that jury-packing in political trials is by no means a recent institution in Ireland.

In 1723 the value of all the coin in circulation in Ireland did not exceed about £400,000; the copper coinage was deficient, debased, and in great part counterfeit. Owing to the high standard of gold in relation to silver, the latter decreased in proportion, with the result of a lack of small change. Bishop Berkeley alludes to this in the Querist when he asks: "Whether £4 in small cash may not circulate and enliven an Irish market which many £4 pieces would permit to stagnate?" He also enquired in a later number: "If we had a mint for coining only shillings, sixpences, and copper money, whether the nation would not soon feel the good effects thereof?"

In Ulster trade was hampered, on account of the lack of small coins, to such an extent that weavers were frequently paid their wages in cloth, which they were occasionally compelled to exchange for half its value. The great want of small money at this time is further proved by the common use of raps, a counterfeit coin of such base metal that what passed for a halfpenny was not worth half a farthing; which raps appear to have obtained a currency out of necessity, and for want of better small money with which to give change. Under these circumstances application was made on more than one occasion to the English Government for permission to supply the deficiency, but on every occasion it was refused. At last, in 1724, a patent under the broad seal was granted to one William Wood, a large ironmonger and mine-owner, to coin £108,000 (Irish) worth of halfpence and farthings.

No sooner did the news of Wood's patent get abroad than a violent clamour was raised against his coin. Both Houses of Parliament voted addresses to the Crown accusing the patentee of fraud, affirming that the terms of the patent had been infringed as to the quality of the coin, and that its circulation would be highly prejudicial to the revenue and commerce of the country. The Commons asserted "that the said William Wood had been guilty of a most notorious fraud and deceit in coining the said halfpence, having, under colour of the powers granted unto him, imported and endeavoured to utter great quantities of different impressions and of much less weight than was required by the said patent".

There is little to be gained by following the history of Wood's halfpence save to learn how much political capital can be made out of a small matter. The flame of controversy on the subject was fanned by Swift, who in his Drapier's Letters roused the public ire to fever-pitch. The first of the series of letters was addressed: "To the Tradesmen, Shopkeepers, Farmers, and Country People in General of the Kingdom of Ireland". Under the fictitious character of a draper he began by assuring his illiterate audience that the subject to which he called their attention "is, next to your duty to God and the care of your salvation, of the greatest concern to yourselves and your children: your bread and clothing, and every common necessary of life, entirely depend upon it".

"Now you must know", said Swift, "that the halfpence and farthings in England pass for very little more than they are worth; but if you should beat them to pieces, and sell them to the brazier, you would not lose much above a penny in a shilling. But Mr. Wood made his halfpence of such base metal, and so much smaller than the English ones, that the brazier would hardly give you above a penny of good money for a shilling of his; so that this sum of £108,000 in good gold and silver, must be given for trash that will not be worth eight or nine thousand pounds real value. But this is not the worst; for Mr. Wood, when he pleases, may by stealth send over another £108,000, and buy all our goods for eleven parts in twelve under the value. For example, if a hatter sells a dozen of hats for 5s. a-piece, which amounts to £3, and receives the payment in Wood's coin, he really receives only the value of 5s."

After a long delay, and only after an intimation that no Money Bill would be passed, an answer came to the petition of Parliament asking for the withdrawal of the patent. The answer was evasive. An enquiry was promised, which was entrusted to a Committee of the English Privy Council; samples of the halfpence were assayed by Sir Isaac Newton, then Master of the Mint, who reported them to be in accordance with the patent. The Committee reported that the King had acted within his prerogative, and that the patent could not legally be withdrawn. The report was sent to Dublin and circulated, but had no effect. The whole country got into a state of wild excitement; no one would take the halfpence.

The Duke of Grafton was not considered strong enough to cope with such a storm, so he was recalled, and in 1724 Lord Carteret was sent in his place; but, the storm continuing with unabated violence, the Government, under the advice of Primate Boulter, withdrew the patent and compensated Wood.

The steady stream of emigration caused by the unhappy condition of the country threatened to become a cataract. The Restoration had driven the greater number of sturdy, energetic Puritans out of three-fourths of Ireland. The disabilities under which the Dissenters laboured, joined to economic causes after the Revolution, were now doing the same thing with the Presbyterians of Ulster. In one year, according to Primate Boulter, 3100 Protestants emigrated from Ulster. They repaired chiefly to Pennsylvania, Western Virginia, and North Carolina, which were in a great measure peopled by them. The effect of this emigration upon the emoluments of the Presbyterian clergy was very serious. In a letter to Sir Robert Walpole the Primate stated that, owing to the emigration to America, the scarcity of corn, and the consequent loss of credit, Presbyterian ministers were in a very bad way, some who used to get £50 a year from their congregation not receiving £15.

The evils of absenteeism and the exaction of landlords aroused the wrath of Swift. "The landlords," he says, "either by their ignorance, or greediness of making large rent-rolls, have performed ... so ill, as we see by experience, that there is not one tenant in 500 who has made any improvement worth mentioning; for which I appeal to any man who rides through the kingdom, where little is to be found among the tenants but beggary and desolation; the cabins of the Scotch themselves in Ulster, being as dirty and miserable as those of the wildest Irish."

Swift then proceeds to deal with the condition of the clergy in Ulster and the exodus to America, incidentally remarking that "the Ulster tithing-man is more advantageous to the clergy than any other in the kingdom". He says that in his opinion "the directions for Ireland are very short and plain, to encourage agriculture and home consumption and utterly discard all importations which are not absolutely necessary for health or life".

Such was the state of affairs in Ulster at the close of the reign of George I. The King was seized with apoplexy while travelling in his coach to Osnabruck, and died on the nth of June, 1727.


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