Transnational News and the Irish Free Trade Crisis of 1779

By Joel Herman

The gravitational pull of the American Revolution has been given new focus by the transnational turn, as scholars have begun to uncover the influence of the revolution elsewhere in the world.[1] One place where the American revolutionary example was felt with particular force was Ireland. While Irish historians have been skeptical of the influence of American thought on Irish minds, few have discounted the power of the American example on Irish political actions.[2] Especially in the year 1779, a series of domestic and transnational economic factors sparked a movement for Free Trade in Ireland that was not unlike that of the American Revolution. 

Radical Irish voices, including Presbyterian lawyer Joseph Pollock, and Dublin surgeon Frederick Jebb, took to patriot newspapers like the Freeman’s Journal to pen fierce critiques of imperial political and economic policy.[3] Their ideas galvanized the Irish Volunteers, a militia formed in the absence of the British regiments fighting on North American battlefields, and county associations formed in protest against the importation and consumption of British goods. These radical voices found supporters through those patriot newspapers, not only in these popular movements, but also in the Irish parliament, as leading patriot MPs, including Henry Grattan and Henry Flood, gave their assent to an amendment in an address of the house of commons to the king, declaring: “That it is not now by temporary expedients, but by a Free Trade alone, that this nation is to be saved from impending ruin.”[4]

These political, economic, and social factors would force the British parliament to relent to the demands of an Irish Free Trade Movement that was well aware of events transpiring across the Atlantic, and well-versed in transnational patriot critiques of imperial political economic policy. Taking note of the recent and timely call by Steven Pincus and his co-authors to “think the Empire whole,” we need to re-think the imperial public sphere as a whole.[5] A network of publics linked together through interconnected mediums of information and communication existed and was facilitated by empire, but not necessarily hemmed in by imperial boundaries.[6] The emergence of “the news” was critical in this construction. Individuals, communities, and publics in Britain, Ireland, and America were often reading the very same news. Accounts that fail to measure the interplay this allowed between patriot communities, and patriot sentiment more generally, whether intentional or accidental, in what was a transnational empire are missing important pieces of the puzzle. The newspaper accounts of the Irish Free Trade Movement in 1779 regularly referenced the American Revolution and therefore serve as evidence of this transnational spread of news and its nascent construction of an international public sphere.

Irish newspaper coverage of American events was well established when the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.[7] However, the Irish response to the rebellion of the American colonists was a mixed bag, and the complexity of different Irish reactions to the outbreak of hostilities has been noted.[8] Indeed, it would take some time for Ireland’s own revolutionary situation to develop, but two years into the conflict an economic downturn in 1778 provided the conditions for a more agitated, and coordinated, Irish response to a British trade embargo instituted in 1776.[9]

The three most critical radical Irish patriot newspapers were the Protestant mainstay, the Freeman’s Journal, the Catholic-edited Hibernian Journal, and the Presbyterian run Dublin Evening Post. A sustained analysis of these papers offers examples of the varieties of patriotism in late eighteenth-century Ireland, but for a period of time these patriotisms would merge in the late 1770s and early 1780s to dominate Dublin’s public sphere and contribute to an empire-wide critique of the political economy of the British Empire. A notice appearing in the Hibernian Journal in February 1779 is a telling example: “Should it be demanded from whence those Evils originate, we shall point out the wanton Introduction of the American War, the jealous Restrictions of our Trade, by an ungrateful people, and the unpardonable Apathy of a Senate who are swallowed in the Vortex of corruption.”[10] This assessment, offered in a patriot newspaper, of the transnational origins of the Irish economic crisis was informed by the flow of the news in the Atlantic world. 

In April at the spring assizes (periodic courts accompanied by other local rituals), County Grand Juries across Ireland began to establish political associations for the non-importation and non-consumption of British goods. The patriot newspapers represented these associations as the united movement of a patriot nation in opposition to the economic tyranny of the British Empire. In his Letters of Guatimozin, Dublin radical Frederick Jebb claimed that the “present spirit of GENERAL ASSOCIATION” was to be “the only means of relief for our own people.”[11] In the months of May and June these county associations were buoyed by the rapid increase of Volunteer Companies throughout Ireland. 

The Irish Volunteers—first established in 1778 to protect against the possibility of a French invasion—were quickly politicised adding a military dimension to the developing Free Trade Movement. An illegal force, the Volunteers gained a level of legitimacy both when the British administration issued them arms, and by their close links with parliament as many officers were MPs including Grattan, Flood, and their eventual commander and chief, James Caulfield, 1st Earl of Charlemont. In a veiled reference to the situation in America, the Hibernian Chronicle drew transnational parallels in warning: “They are such as should teach England to beware in future, how far they push an injured people to those dangerous extremities, from whence the most fatal revolutions have often taken place.”[12]

On October 12th, in the first session of parliament that year, patriot MPs including Grattan, Flood, and prime sergeant Hussey Burgh raised the issue of Free Trade, voicing arguments that had been appearing in the patriot newspapers since the beginning of the year. The appearance of the amended address of the House of Commons to the king in the Freeman’s Journal on October 19th would prove a symbolic victory for the developing patriot majority.[13] News of this victory and the wider Free Trade Movement was celebrated in a poem appearing in the Hibernian Journal:

But PADDY’s brave Sons will disdain to be Slaves
And never bow down their free Necks to the
Yoke;
They scorn the Tricks and the Arts of vile Knaves,
Nor will ever be frighted by false Fire and Smoke.
The Americans wise
Have open’d their Eyes[14]

The interplay of radical print patriotism and the news of the American Revolution is prevalent in this poem and is perhaps even more evident in a statement appearing in the Dublin Evening Post on October 7, 1779: “Who but a weak and indifferent prince would suffer himself to be surrounded by such men?…What has emancipated the Americans, those sons of liberty…their intuitive foreknowledge of taxes.”[15]

A few weeks later, at the Free Trade protest of November 4th, the Dublin Volunteers added an insurrectionary threat to the parliamentary address in decorating the statue of William of Orange, located in the central political square of College Green, with four placards. The last placard concluded with the statement, “A FREE TRADE—OR Else!!!”[16] This, along with a later popular protest outside the Irish parliament building on November 15th, led to British parliamentary debate, which was reported in the Irish newspapers. In the Dublin Evening Post, Lord Shelburne offered the following summary of the situation on the December 7th: 

The association of the inhabitants for their own protection, had gradually introduced a military discipline among them; and at this moment there were 40,000 men in arms. That any measures we could now enter into, would hardly wear the aspect of wise concession; that the language of their parliament, inforce by those military associations was now boldly spoken out, and nothing less than a FREE TRADE would satisfy them.[17]

Just a few days later on December 9th, in response to these conditions, the Lord North and the British parliament would relent and grant concessions.[18]

Early patriot newspapers in Ireland distilled and shaped a transnational critique of imperial political economy in the Atlantic world in the second half of the eighteenth century. By bringing news of revolutionary events to greater numbers of people, and wider publics, in urban entrepots in Ireland and across the Empire, the newspaper allowed increasing informational exchange and facilitated the emergence of global ideologies. We need to rethink the empire whole as information was not broken into national parts, but rather passed through webs of sociability, information networks, and institutions of a global empire of trade and commerce. The Irish patriot newspapers reported events as such, and in doing so made ready use of the revolutionary American example. A quote from the weekly newspaper, Magee’s Weekly Packet, offers a final example: “May Britain soon, tyrant no more…Of this encouraging truth, the Americans have recently exhibited a most illustrious proof.”[19]


Joel Herman is a PhD researcher at Trinity College Dublin. His current research project, funded through a Trinity Provost Project Award, traces the revolutionary currents that flowed between Ireland, America, and Britain in the Age of Revolutions. He has previously published on the subject of imagined communities in Ireland and America during the American Revolutionary Period, and is particularly interested in the transnational dimensions of revolutionary conflicts in the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world. 

Title Image: Francis Wheatley, The Dublin Volunteers on College Green, 4 Nov. 1779, National Gallery of Ireland.

Further Readings:

Pincus, Steve, et. Al. “Thinking the Empire Whole.” History Australia 16, no. 4 (2019), 610-37.

Morley, Vincent. Irish Opinion and the American Revolution, 1760-1783. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Higgins, Padhraig. A Nation of Politicians: Gender, Patriotism, and Political Culture in Late Eighteenth-Century Ireland. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.

Conway, Stephen. The British Isles and the War of American Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Herman, Joel. “Imagined Nations: Newspapers, Identity, and the Free Trade Crisis of 1779,” Eighteenth Century Ireland35 (2020).

Endnotes:

[1] David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007); Steve Pincus, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Jonathan Israel, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[2] Vincent Morley, Irish Opinion and the American Revolution, 1760-1783 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Padhraig Higgins, A Nation of Politicians: Gender, Patriotism, and Political Culture in Late Eighteenth-Century Ireland (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010).

[3] [Frederick Jebb], The Letters of Guatimozin, on the Affairs of Ireland (Dublin, 1779); [Joseph Pollock], Letters of Owen Roe O’Nial(1779).

[4] Francis Dobbs, A history of Irish affairs, from the 12th of October, 1779, to the 15th September, 1782, the day of Lord Temple’s arrival (Dublin, 1782), 12.

[5] Steve Pincus, et. al, ‘Thinking the Empire Whole’, History Australia 16, no. 4 (2019), 610-37.

[6] Ian K. Steele, The English Atlantic 1675-1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[7] See especially Irish patriot newspapers: Freeman’s JournalHibernian Journal, and Dublin Evening Post, but American colonial affairs were given coverage in all Irish newspapers from the Stamp Act on.

[8] Morley, Irish Opinion, 1-39.

[9] David Dickson, New Foundations: Ireland 1660-1800 (Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2000), 162.

[10] Hibernian Journal, 5 February 1779.

[11] Freeman’s Journal, 6 May 1779.

[12] Freeman’s Journal, 20 July 1779.

[13] Freeman’s Journal, 19 October 1779.

[14] Hibernian Journal, 25 October 1779.

[15] Dublin Evening Post, 7 October 1779.

[16] Freeman’s Journal, 4 November 1779.

[17] Dublin Evening Post, 7 December 1779.

[18] Dublin Evening Post, 14 December 1779.

[19] Magee’s Weekly Packet, 6 November 1779.

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