restricted access "Compelled to their bad acts by hunger": Three Irish Urban Crowds, 1817–45
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"Compelled to their bad acts by hunger":
Three Irish Urban Crowds, 1817–45

At an early hour on Monday, 1 June 1840, throngs of people passed through the streets of Limerick. Their first port of call was a few miles away, at Plassey, where laborers on the Shannon Navigation Works were demanding a pay rise to enable them "to meet the state of the markets."1 Manager William Owen was surrounded by men clamoring for work but insisting that they would not accept less than the 1s. 6d. a day sought by those already employed. Owen refused and the men departed.2

By 8 am, when it marshalled on the city quays, the crowd had swollen to two thousand, having been reinforced by Plassey workers and others. At Baal's Bridge, within sight of the police barracks, carts and kishes were seized. These belonged to "forestallers," dealers accused of charging eight pence per stone for potatoes—three times the usual price, and two-thirds of a laborer's daily pay. Depositing the potatoes on the quays, members of the crowd dumped the containers in the river. Proceeding next to the house of the mayor, the people waited to place their complaints before him. In the mayor's absence lesser officials assured the protestors that [End Page 128] their distress would be alleviated if they showed patience and dispersed.3 The people remained patient, but rather than dispersing, their numbers grew. Among those joining the crowd were laborers employed in building the new workhouse, whose arrival was heralded by a man bearing a venerable and widely recognized symbol of distress—a pole with a loaf of bread impaled upon it.4

An Irish Moral Economy?

The Limerick demonstration of 1840 had several features in common with the English protests described in E.P. Thompson's 1971 article, the analysis of which were central to that historian's influential theory of "moral economy."5 Perceiving that the popular mobilizations characterized as "food riots" involving men, women, and children, which occurred during periods of scarcity and high food prices, were frequently restrained and somewhat ritualized, Thompson deduced that such assemblies were not elemental "rebellions of the belly." Rather, he argued, they were instances of collective bargaining between the crowd (pejoratively, the "mob") and local authorities.6 The objective of food-rioting crowds, it followed, was not to win redress through plunder, but to draw attention to breaches of an age-old social contract and to demand that the authorities enforce compliance with its terms. (That is not to imply that the protagonists did not face immediate hunger, for the lion's share of the incomes of the poorest families was spent on food.)

Urban elites had long recognized the importance of ensuring the food supply of their poorer citizens, and by-laws evolved to regulate the quality and the weight of staple items, to prohibit exports in times of scarcity, and to prevent market abuses by "forestallers"—speculators in food who drove up prices by hoarding supplies and thereby creating artificial scarcities. From the second half of the eighteenth century, advocates of laissez faire began to challenge such restrictions on free trade, with the result that statutes and by-laws providing for such interventions began to be repealed or to fall into [End Page 129] disuse. This was a slow process, however, and municipal authorities in Ireland—including Limerick—continued well into the nineteenth century to appoint market juries responsible, inter alia, for regulating the assize of bread and for preventing forestalling and other antisocial market practices.7 In Galway, Limerick, and Ennis the expansion of an export trade in grain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries created fresh sites for conflict about food.8

As self-consciously "moral" assemblies, crowds seeking to regulate food prices and food supply observed a "protocol of riot": eschewing theft and plunder; engaging in limited exemplary violence; sometimes enforcing taxation populaire (i.e., seizing food, selling it publicly at a "fair" price, and presenting the "fair" total to the owner). In the "classic" food riot the property and tools of the trade of the forestaller might be destroyed, but they were not...