The social and economic decline of Ireland, and especially that of Dublin, was bemoaned throughout the nineteenth century. The subject was ever on the lips of Daniel O’Connell and those who came after him. The broken economy was seen as both a great injustice and a consequence of self-serving decisions taken in London. Ireland’s condition was bad but, if it was, it could be corrected by self-rule. Political autonomy would see an end to chronic poverty, unemployment and emigration and would herald an era of economic growth. This proposition was central to all strands of nationalist thinking throughout Ireland’s long nineteenth century.
The “bad decision” at the heart of Ireland’s problems was the Act of Union, which came into force in January 1800. Within a relatively short period the political intelligentsia of the majority community argued that the principles of reason and justice required that the Irish should manage their own affairs and that the Union should be repealed. A fully-fledged campaign to restore the Irish parliament emerged under O’Connell, whose modern political language, together with his flamboyant and energetic leadership, resulted in an extensive international recognition of the campaign’s legitimacy.
At the height of the campaign O’Connell declared 1843 “Repeal Year”. As part of the events to mark the year he organised a debate on Repeal in Dublin Corporation, treating City Hall as a sort of surrogate parliament. The event thoroughly irritated conservative councillors, who maintained that the corporation should only concern itself with local matters but conservatives were a minority and the debate ran for three days. One Councillor Thomas Kirwan, an elderly member of the corporation, spoke in favour of the motion advocating repeal of the Union. His speech, as it touched on economic matters, was a classic rendering of the argument that traced Dublin’s economic decline to the Union:
But, speaking of the commerce of the country, was there, he asked, any trade in Dublin? He [Mr.K.] said no; there was no merchant in Dublin; there was no foreign trade carried on in Dublin [hear]. During the time the hon. gentleman had alluded to, that was from the time they obtained free trade in 1782 to 1797, had they commerce in Dublin? He [Mr. K] said they had, and there was he a living witness of it. He recollected the time when there was commerce, and the wealth arising from commerce in the city of Dublin [hear, hear], when there was business in their Custom-house, when they had ships in their docks from Virginia, New York, Philadelphia, Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Denmark and when that Irish Parliament, bad as it was said to be, gave 45,000l. to build docks for the accommodation of the merchants of Dublin. These docks were built, graving docks and dry docks; they were then filled with shipping, and contained foreign shipping too, but, he asked, was there a foreign ship to be seen in them at present (hear, hear). Was there a foreign ship, he asked to be seen in Dublin, either in her docks or in her Liffey? Not one (hear). Were the stars or stripes of the ships of the United States to be now seen on the river? They were not seen there for years, though he [Mr.K.] remembered the time when he saw 25 of them there. In the year 1784 a respectable and honourable friend of his now sitting at the table [Mr. M’Clelland], had come to Dublin with a cargo from Smyrna, and that cargo consisted of 110 bales of silk. He went into the Liberty – that Liberty that is now forlorn, miserable and deserted – that Liberty, where their hearts would ache if they walked through its streets at that moment – and how many hours he was selling his 110 bales of silk in the Liberties of Dublin? He sold them in less than four hours. He was there himself to answer the question. He would take the liberty of asking his lordship, who knew something of the Liberty, how many hours, how many days, how many years, would it now take to sell 110 bales of silk there? (hear); and if they were sold, how many centuries would it take to pay for them?(hear). Was there a bale of silk now sold in Dublin, or imported in all Ireland from abroad? (hear). He [Mr. K] had once the honour to be called a merchant, but he was sorry to say there was no such class now in Dublin (hear). He appealed to the gentlemen of the other side, and there were respectable mercantile men amongst them, if he were wrong in that statement? (hear, hear, hear). They who had been merchants were come to be merely retailers for London, Liverpoool, and Glasgow. That was the state of the merchants of Dublin. He would then ask them, what was the state of their shopkeepers, for as to their artisans and tradesmen they all knew these people were begging in thousands? Were their shopkeepers able to pay the rents to which they were subjected, or the heavy taxes which pressed on their unfortunate city? They had no trade, they had no profits, and whatever was done had been monopolized by a few great places called marts, which deprived the legitimate trader of almost his means of subsistence.