The Last County - Agriculture and Industry

William Byrne of Ballymanus

Baptista Boazio’s map of 1599

Map of proposed counties of Wicklow and Ferns 1578


Over the two hundred and fifty years covered in this book, the practice of agriculture and the nature of goods produced in the county was to change drastically. In 1600 agriculture was predominantly pastoral. Pasturage was still practised through the ancient system of booleying, whereby livestock (cattle, goats and pigs) were kept on lowland pastures during the winter months and then moved to mountain grasslands in summer. This semi-nomadic lifestyle was unsuitable to large-scale tillage farming. Some crops were grown, mainly cereals such as oats, barley and rye. Ploughing was done by oxen, as horses were not considered suitable for such work. Claims that the oxen were forced to pull ploughs by their tails are hard to substantiate, although a law forbidding this practice was passed in the early seventeenth century.

As the century progressed farming became a less and less reliable occupation. The scorched earth policies of the 1640s all but destroyed agriculture in the county. However, with the arrival of new settlers, new methods and crops appeared. As has already been mentioned, the potato became more commonplace, mainly amongst the poorer farmers, who at this time were virtually all native Irish. The English settlers brought with them the closed field system. Holdings were now clearly marked, horses began to be used as beasts of burden and fruit was fanned for the first time. Farms became more efficient for many; a two tier agricultural structure was being born. Large farmers owning or renting up to three or four hundred acres could avail of any innovations in the agricultural or marketing sectors, and thereby increase their efficiency. At the other end of the spectrum, the ever-increasing number of poor farmers barely managed to maintain subsistence level.

By 1776 this can be seen in the writings of Arthur Young, a noted English agriculturalist, whose “Tour in Ireland” was the first conclusive, scientific survey of the state of the industry in Ireland. His journey through Wicklow was to take him along its east coast. After making a number of favourable remarks on the state of agriculture between Arklow and Newtownmountkennedy, he stopped at Mount Kennedy estate where he stayed at the home of General Cunninghame who owned ten thousand acres in the immediate area. The General, as well as renting out the greater part of his land, ran a large farm himself. From Young’s account he seems to have been a model, progressive farmer. His crops included potatoes, oats, rye, wheat and barley. He also had a thriving coppice forest industry (this type of forest is dealt with below). Slash and burn tactics were employed, along with the use of dung as fertilizer (lime was too expensive). These methods seem to have been highly profitable and they gained the approval of the visiting expert. Livestock was also reared, though only a few calves were raised for the Dublin market and there was very little evidence of a dairy industry. He, along with the majority of Wicklow farmers whose acreage would allow it, ran a thriving sheep farm. Lambs were bred for sale at the city markets. The work was quite labour intensive; in addition to their mother’s milk the lambs were also treated to cow’s milk in order to increase their growth rate. This was the main reason for keeping cows in the area. It was also claimed that in order to encourage ewes and rams to perform at the right time, to ensure that the lambs were born in time for the market, they “treat the ladies with a cup of generous Wicklow ale” (1). This, and another claim that claret was used, was repudiated by Robert Fraser in 1801, who noted local resentment to Young’s remarks.

Arthur Young

Compared to the rest of the country visited by Young, rents in Newtownmountkennedy were the highest, at two pounds an acre per annum. Most of the smaller farmers rented from middlemen at an even higher rate. Given that the productivity of these farmers’ land was about equal to the national average this must have caused quite a deal of hardship amongst the less well off in the area. On the whole, Young remarked that the tenantry in Wicklow were in a very backward state. Mixed farming was the norm, with most of the profit from cash crops and livestock being used to pay the rent. Another factor that hampered the profitability of farming in Wicklow at this time came in the form of a bounty paid on the inland carriage of corn to Dublin. This corn had to be weighed at designated cranes in the capital. As none of these cranes were suitably situated for Wicklow farmers, many were unable to claim the bounty. A petition was sent to parliament on 20th April 1785 in an attempt to try to rectify this situation, which appears to have eventually been successful.

As the eighteenth century drew to a close and the nineteenth century began, little changed in Wicklow agriculture except the increasing poverty of the small farmers and labourers. These numbers were not as great as in most other counties because, unlike most rural areas in the south of Ireland, Wicklow had a safety valve in its other industries; textiles, mining and fishing. It was partly due to these that the county was to fare better than most during the famine of the 1840s.


The fishing industry in Wicklow was centred in Arklow. It was not until the eighteenth century that it became the main occupation in the town, employing up to three hundred fishermen in the years 1810-1820. Herring was the main catch; the average yearly catch per boat at this time would be valued in the region of fifty pounds. With boat crews of six men this income would be supplemented with oyster dredging and other seasonal catches. Oysters were sold in Liverpool, while coal and earthenware were brought back to Arklow on the return journey. This seeming prosperity was not reflected in the condition of the harbour which was in a wretched state. When the harbour was improved later in the century it was to be of great benefit to the town’s fishing industry. The industry’s importance to the local area cannot be underestimated; the growth of the town was helped in no small way by the spin-offs from fishing and the profits made by the boat owners. 


The textile industry of the county was founded on cotton and wool. Cotton was woven and printed at Stratford-upon-Slaney, while the county-wide wool industry had its marketing centre in Rathdrum. In 1792 a company from Paisley, Scotland, established a factory just outside Stratford. Calico yarn was imported from Scotland to be woven, bleached and printed here. This labour-intensive business brought large scale employment to the area, with over five hundred people working in its manufacture by 1812. Men and women were paid up to two guineas a week and children were employed at a rate of three pence per day. As many households would have had a number of people working as either weavers or printers, this small town and its surrounding area was a thriving area of industry and prosperity for most of the nineteenth century.

Wool was used extensively throughout the county for clothing. Sheep owning farmers wove a kind of frieze which was usually sold at local fairs. Travelling tailors were often employed, but for the most part families made their own clothes from locally produced wool. It is unlikely that great amounts of wool were used in this way, as the reports of travellers to the county invariably include descriptions of raggedly dressed peasantry. Arthur Young noted that while English peasants tended to be well dressed and poorly fed, their Irish counterparts were much healthier and better fed, but badly dressed.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Irish wool industry was in a very poor state. Wars, high tarriffs and trading bans ensured that the industry could not prosper. For much of this time it was illegal to sell Irish wool to any country other than Britain, where it was subject to high tarriffs. With the repeal of these laws and the introduction of protection laws for the Irish woollen industry, the situation began to improve.

In order to cater for this growth, Earl Fitzwilliam had a flannel hall built in Rathdrum in 1793. Here rolls of flannel, woven at factories and cottage industries across the county, were sold to buyers from other parts of Ireland and abroad. The Earl received 2d. for each piece of twelve yards sold. Depending on market conditions, the seller could get a price varying between 1s. 2d. to 2s. 6d. per yard. This rebirth of the Irish woollen industry was possible only through the recruitment of English weavers and other labourers skilled in the industry, as the Irish had forgotten many of the methods needed.

Unfortunately, the Rebellion of 1798 caused an enormous fall off in this industry for a number of years. The hall was used as a barrack for some of the period of the Rebellion. In the years between March 1797 and March 1798, 6,341 pieces of flannel were sold at the hall. This had fallen to 899 over the next twelve month period and only a very slow recovery followed. By 1808 it had risen to 5,905 pieces. The hall never became the success that its founder had hoped for, mainly due to the lifting of protections. It did, however, provide many smaller manufacturers with an outlet for their goods and the benefits of an open market system.


At the beginning of the seventeenth century, roughly 13% of the entire country was covered with forests. By 1800 this had fallen to 2%. The destruction of the country’s woods was carried out on a commercial basis and was initially used as a lure to attract immigrants from Britian. By 1600 much of Britain’s woods had been destroyed and in an effort to save the remainder they looked to Ireland as a new source of timber.

The man responsible for starting the commercial destruction of Wicklow’s forests was Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford and Lord Deputy of Ireland in the 1630s. As was explained in an earlier chapter, Wentworth came into possession of much of south Wicklow, including the famed Shillelagh oak forests. He viewed the destruction of these woods as being advantageous, since they had long been used as a place of refuge by rebels and criminals. The timber from these oak woods was used for tanning, house and ship building and to make pipe staves. However, the most destructive of all was the use of oak in iron smelting.

Thomas Wentworth

Before coal was utilised, oak was the only fuel available on these islands that could reach a temperature high enough to smelt iron. The ore was imported from Britain and a smelting works would be set up near an oak wood. As the timber was used up the works would move on, following the course of the retreating woods. Wentworth was to make a personal fortune from these Wicklow woods and after his execution his descendents, on what became known as the Wentworth Watson estate, continued in the same vein.

All of the forestry work carried out on the Wentworth-Watson estate was not of a destructive nature. For a large part of the eighteenth century the woods were exploited through the practice of coppice wood management. At Shillelagh, Cosha and Rathdrum as well as felling trees they also planted them. A deforested section would be surrounded by a ditch or wall and replanted. A workforce of land agents and other woodsmen were employed to ensure the woods would be exploited as a renewable source of wealth.

The trees used in this method were oak, birch, hazel, alder, willow and holly. The surviving accounts from 1720 show that the profits gained for that year broke down as follows; 50% from ship and general building timber, 30% from bark (used for tanning leather), 8% from cordwood (used for charcoal) and 6% from coopers’ ware and other small products such as farm implements and buttons. Profits were enormous; between 1714 and 1720 the estate’s average annual income was £7,805, while the outgoings were only £1,280. Considering that the coppices occupied 800 hectares of land which was unsuitable for farming, it was an ideal method of turning unprofitable land to profit.

As it was, it provided the local tenantry with regular seasonal work as woodcutters, squarers, sawyers, cleavers, barkers, ditchers, hedgers and carters. Given the quality of the land, these people would not have had much else in the form of income. It prolonged the life of the woods in the region, some of which, such as Tomnafinnogue, still stand. The timber sales that regularly took place at the coppices themselves attracted considerable attention from all over Ireland and England. The carters employed at these times would then transport the wood to Wicklow town or Dublin. Sometimes, as Thomas Wentworth had done, the timber would be transported by floating it down the river Slaney to port.

Coppice management was practised on many Wicklow estates into the nineteenth century, although the practice seemed to die out on the Wentworth-Watson estates. By 1776 Young recorded that the Shillelegh woods were no more. All that remains is a large stump known as the Sprig of Shillelegh. There were, however, still some natural forests left in the county. Young noted that those he saw in the Dargle Valley were the most extensive he had ever seen.


Next to agriculture the highest employing industry in the county was mining. The extent of the county’s mineral wealth was well known across the United Kingdom. In 1856 in “The Mines of Wicklow” it was claimed that, with the exception of Gwennap in Cornwall it was doubtful that “there exists in the United Kingdom any tract where, within such a small compass, greater returns of valuable minerals have been made” (2). Wicklow’s mineral wealth consisted of lead, copper, iron, pyrites and gold.

Typical mining method of the eighteenth century

Gold has long been associated with the county; in ‘The Book of Leinster and Lucan’ it is recorded that gold was first smelted in the forests south of the Liffey. The numerous archaeological finds of gold hoards in the county also indicate that the precious metal had been found in the region during antiquity. In 1795 gold was discovered in a river in the Croghankinsella area of south Wicklow. At first the local peasantry began to pan the river, retrieving up to eight hundred ounces in six weeks.

The government then moved in and took possession of the stream. They stationed a detachment of militia in the area to prevent the local peasantry from panning what was now the property of the state. From 1776 until 1801 when the area was abandoned, the quantity of gold found was valued at £2,259 9s. 11 1/2d. The river was only worked for four of these six years, as the Rebellion caused work to stop between August 1798 and September 1800. As the government’s four year operation produced little more than the peasants’ six week search, the gold works was viewed as unprofitable and consequently it was halted. Apart from a brief period of excitement and profit in 1795, the discovery did not have any great effect on the local population, as jobs were not created to any large extent. John O’Keefe’s comic opera ‘The Wicklow Mountains’, which is set in the area during the short gold rush, gives some idea of the excitement in the region for those brief few weeks.

The other minerals found in the county had a far greater effect on the lives of the people. The lead mines in the Glendalough/Glenmalure area and the copper, iron and pyrite mines in the Avoca district were to employ thousands of people from their localities, as well as attracting skilled workers from the mining districts of Britain.

Henry Inglis, writing in 1838, claimed that 2,000 people were employed on high wages in the lead mines. He observed that the miners were “a drunken and improvident race” (3). One miner, who earned thirty shillings a week, bemoaned the fact that” it was impossible for him to drink the whole of the sum”. Obviously there were many more respectable people employed by the industry. The church records from these areas show a large number of miners who settled and raised families in the mining district. They also show how many miners travelled from mine to mine and area to area in search of work.

Lead was found in the Luganure and Glenmalure mines. These were the only profitably run lead mines in the granite mountain range that was host to a number of lodes of varying sizes. The Glenmalure lodes were by far the largest, being up to twenty feet wide in places. They were mined by a Mr. Hodgson of Ballygahan under lease from the Earl of Essex, who was to build his own railway line linking his main lode with the port at Arklow. The mines at Luganure, near Glendalough, were leased by the Mining Company of Ireland from the Archbishop of Dublin. The Luganure mines, despite earlier profits and a high level of investment, were consistently making a loss by the 1840s, The annual reports of the company, while recording losses of up to £169 15s. 10d. in 1844, they were optimistic, assuring their shareholders of the company’s profitability in the future.

The mines of the Avoca area produced copper ore, copper pyrites, iron ore and iron pyrites. Mining had been carried out here on a sporadic basis for centuries. However, it was not until the 1840s that the boom time arrived. Smelting works had been established in the century before, but by this time the ore was exported in its raw state to England. It was the pyrites that were to be the jewel in this crown. The pyrites of this area are the only source of sulphur in the British Isles. Until this time sulphur was imported from Naples, but a dispute between the British and Neapolitan governments cut off this supply. The Avoca mines were thus guaranteed a monopoly position in the market.

There were over a thousand people working in the mines in the Avoca area in the 1840s. Coupled with the two thousand employed in Glenmalure and Luganure, they would have created many more jobs in spin-off industries and services. As a result of this large, well paid workforce, the population of these areas was not as dependent on the potato as it was elsewhere. Consequently, this area was to escape the worst ravages of the famine.


(1) Young, Arthur, Tour in lreland 1776-1779 (Dublin, 1780), vol .l,p.l27.

(2) Law, C. H., The Mines of Wicklow (London, 1856), p.1.

(3) Inglis, Henry D., Journey Through Ireland (London, 1836), p.20.

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