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When Sligo had 3 markets - for butter, linen and corn

changes in the economy brought about by the industrial revolution and the revolution in transport can be seen by looking at the history of Sligo, county and city, over the 19th century. The best information sources for this period are McParlan, the Trade Directories for the town and the books on Sligo by John McTernan.

James McParlan carried out a study of the economy of County Sligo in 1802 for the Royal Dublin Society. McParlan estimated that the population of county Sligo was above 60K in 1802 (reached 189k by 1841). According to McParlan most of the population spoke bad English and lived at a low standard of living. McParlan commented on the importance of the butter and linen industries in county Sligo. Many farmers produced butter which they brought to Sligo for sale and export. McParlan described the linen industry as the "chief manufacture of this county".

McParlan does not refer to the rapid growth of the population but at this time the rural population of Sligo, like the rest of the country, was growing rapidly. In the early years of the 19th century Sligo was more prosperous than in prefamine times as a result of high food prices and a thriving linen industry.

Food prices including grain, meat and butter were high in Britain and Ireland as a result of the Anglo-French wars. Sligo was a major center of the linen industry and this industry generated economic activity in Sligo city and rural areas. It was only after 1820, with the fall in food prices, linked to the defeat of Napoleon, and the decline in the linen industry that Sligo began the slide into the abject poverty of pre-famine Ireland.

McParlan observed that the major crops being grown in Sligo were potatoes and oats. Small quantities of barley and wheat were also grown. The land was cultivated either with the Irish plough or the "loy". A loy is a timber spade curved for leverage fitted with an iron cutting-blade. County Sligo had about 200 corn mills in 1802 which ground the corn for local consumption and export through the port. Most of these mills were very small "horizontal" mills powered by small streams.

Sligo town, according to McParlan, had a population of over 10k (reached 17 – 18k by 1841) and was the principal market town for the county. In 1802 the Sligo to Boyle road was under construction with at that stage about 10 miles completed. The completion of the road was expected to allow the development of mail coach services to Dublin. This mail coach service actually commenced in 1808 and continued until 1862 when the railway made it redundant.

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There are Sligo Trade Directories for Sligo town available for the years 1820, 1839, 1881 and 1912. The 1820 directory refers to Sligo as "an attractive town with an export trade in butter, meal, grain, mess beef and pork, linen and linen yarn". The Town Corporation was, according to its 1612 Charter, also a Merchant Guild and this gave it the legal authority to regulate trade.

There were three major markets in the town. These were the butter market, the linen market and the corn market. The butter market was located on the site of the new Quayside Shopping Centre which opened in 2005. The linen market was located in the Linen Hall. The corn market was located in the Market Yard. The Market Yard was also the location for large cattle fairs, held twice a year, and the weekly market for food and local produce. The butter and linen markets were controlled by Boards established by the Corporation in its role as Merchant Guild.

The butter trade is described as follows in the 1820 directory "The butter trade forms a very prominent feature of commercial interest; it commences in May and continues till December following, and is transacted in the Butter Market, which is a spacious new and convenient erection (built 1819). The Merchants here make their purchases from farmers etc who bring the butter from the surrounding country, packed in casks ready for exportation, previous to the sale taking place, it undergoes an examination by the butter taster, (appointed for that purpose), every cask is then marked according to its quality, such a quality regulation prevents all possibility of imposition, which probably at one period of the trade was practiced".

The linen industry started in Sligo at the beginning of the 18th century. In 1736 the port of Sligo was one of only five harbours in Ireland designated as locations to keep records of flax production.

Trading in linen took place at first in the market yard. The linen market was the centre of a large linen industry in the county. This industry grew the flax and carried out all the processing operations until the rolls of linen were ready for sale. The linen industry gave part-time employment to a large part of the rural population. For example in 1809 a total of 5192 persons were engaged in the growing of flax. The peak year for flax production appears to have been 1817 when almost 3k acres of flax were grown in county Sligo.

Trading in linen was transferred to a "Linen Hall" in Old Market Street in 1760 and continued there until a new "Linen Hall" was built on Cochran's Mall (Toff's Night Club) in 1799. By this time the linen industry was being described as "the chief manufacture of the county" McParlan). In 1799 Ballymote was described as a village almost entirely inhabited by weavers and there were over 100 weavers in Ballisodare/Collooney in 1815. 1815 to 1820 was the high point of the industry and weaving was almost extinct by the time of the great famine though some spinning continued. The 1841 census lists 4,383 spinners compared with only 269 weavers. The Linen Hall closed around this time. The early decline of the linen industry was caused by the spread of factory production in the textile industry and by competition from cotton.

The Wynn family of Hazelwood owned the Market Yard and controlled the corn market. The Wynns also owned and controlled the butter market. The Wynns collected a toll on all grain, and all other produce, sold in the Market Yard. The grain toll was 1/32 part and was collected in kind until 1817 when a money toll was introduced.

The Sligo Trade Directory for 1820 listed all the retailers and craftsmen operating in the town. Sligo had a very limited range of retail outlets including 23 "Grocers and Spirits Dealers" (then a relatively new trade) including one who was also described as a wholesaler, 11 "Linen Drapers", 12 "Linen and Woolen Drapers", 4 "Woollen Drapers", 6 "Salt Retailers", 2 "General Shopkeepers" and 2 "Booksellers and Stationers".

The limited range of shops was balanced by a wide variety of crafts. Before the arrival of the railways most other towns in Europe had a range of crafts similar to that recorded in the Sligo Trade Directory for 1820. Sligo's craft businesses included 13 coopers, 5 tallow chandlers of which 4 were also soap-boilers, 4 tobacco manufacturers, 3 brewers (4 in 1839), 3 watch and clock makers, 2 gunsmiths, 2 leather-breeches makers, 2 ropemakers and one each of the following craftsmen, pipe-maker, dyer, cork cutter, comb-maker, distiller and nail-maker.

The emergence of a modern economy required banking services. Banking came to Sligo in 1820 when a Sligo Savings Bank was established. The Provincial bank (now part of AIB) set up a branch in Sligo in 1825 and was followed by the Bank of Ireland in 1828.

Sligo got its first regular steamship service in 1833. This was a combined passenger and merchandise service between Sligo and Liverpool. This service was used for the export of goods directly to Britain including most of the butter sold in the Butter Market, although even before 1833 Sligo butter had a high reputation in the Liverpool market. The Dublin to Sligo railway was completed in 1862. The improved transport, especially the railway, had an immense impact on business in the town.

Large-scale manufacturers, especially Dublin firms, could now sell their products in Sligo in competition with local craft producers. It is therefore not surprising that a large number of the craft manufacturers including all the tallow chandlers, leather-breeches makers, gunsmiths, rope-makers, pipe-maker, comb-maker, distiller and 3 of the 4 brewers had gone out of business by 1881. The last Sligo brewery closed before the 1912 directory was published.

The improved transport led to a massive increase in retailing. The 1881 Directory lists 11 booksellers, 14 boot and shoe sellers, 3 chemists, 6 china and porcelain sellers, 3 confectioners, 8 fancy goods sellers, 57 grocers (up from 23 in 1820), 6 provisions merchants not listed under the grocer heading, 6 haberdashers, 2 hatters, 6 leather goods sellers, 19 drapers and 62 shopkeepers (up from 2 in 1820). The grocers were in competition with the weekly market in the Market Yard and the expansion of the grocery trade was matched by the decline in the weekly market.

The improved transport also had a massive impact on the milling industry. The number of corn mills declined continuously during the 19th century with the introduction of large-scale production powered by water wheels or steam. By 1900 there were only 11 mills operating in county Sligo and the largest of these, in Collooney, had a weekly production capacity of almost 1,000 tons. The large mills by-passed the grain market and it died by the end of the century.

The Butter Market remained successful until the 1890s when the agricultural coops brought factory methods into the dairy industry. The first cooperative creamery in Ireland was established in 1889 and the movement spread rapidly in the south of Ireland in the period 1890 to 1895. County Sligo was organized by the cooperative movement between 1895 and 1900.

By 1900 the entire county was served by 10 cooperative "creameries" who churned the milk to make butter. Over 5k farmers supplied milk to the new creameries during 1901. The creameries bypassed the Butter Market and sold their butter directly to wholesalers and retailers. Around 30k firkins of butter (each firkin held 70lb of butter) were sold in the Butter Market in 1890 but as farmers switched to the creameries this amount declined to about 10k firkins in 1900. The Butter Market, which was in the ownership of Sligo Corporation since 1885, started to lose money and was finally closed in 1924.

The growth of large-scale manufacturing and the spread of retailing created significant opportunities for wholesalers and agents because manufacturers did not normally engage in the distribution and marketing of their products. The late 19th century was a great period for wholesalers and Sligo, with its port and railway, developed into a wholesale centre for the northwest region.

The number of wholesale grocers, for example, grew from 1 to 15 between 1820 and 1881. Sligo also became a centre for agents. In 1880 there were agents for leading manufacturers based in the town including agents for Singer sewing machines and Nobel dynamite. There were also 23 insurance agents acting for most of the large UK insurance companies. Emigration especially to the US became a major feature of post famine Ireland so it is not surprising that there were also 4 "Emigration" agents in Sligo in 1880.

In general what happened over the 19th century is that Sligo went from being a town with a balance between retailing, craft manufacturing and three important markets to being predominantly a retailing and wholesaling centre for goods produced by large-scale manufacturers elsewhere. Over this period the number of manufacturing operations in the town declined from 67 to 25 while the number of retailing operations increased from 89 to over 200.