Directors: Liam Kennedy and Professor Peter Solar,
“The History of Prices is a history of change”, according to DH Fischer in The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History (Oxford, 1996, p. 3). It is a safe bet, nonetheless, that among the historical topics that excite the popular imagination, price history does not feature highly, if indeed at all. By contrast with stories of monarchies, marital infidelities and military history, one just cannot visualize the television series-in-the making. Despite lacking in drama and colour, prices and price change have exercised a pervasive, sometimes unseen influence on the life chances of millions of people.
Prices, after all, bear directly on people’s material conditions of life, a subject of enduring historical and contemporary concern. From the viewpoint of the historian and the social scientist, prices are perhaps at their most productive when joined with other source materials in tracking social change. Even on their own, price data can offer perspectives on issues as diverse as market integration, living costs, relative price movements, inflation and deflation.
Sources for Irish Prices
Compared to Britain and western Europe, sources for Irish prices are not plentiful. For food and other agricultural commodities it is the market reports in Irish national and regional newspapers that constitute the single most important source for this project. These sources have been supplemented by price quotations from estate records, government reports, the accounts of public institutions and monastic records.
For the first phase of this project, the fruits of which are currently with our book publisher (The Royal Irish Academy), we have assembled price series for all the major Irish food commodities, stretching in some cases from 1755 to 1914. These are based on some 20,000 individual price quotations. We have also constructed some composite prices series, the most important of which is a general agricultural price index for Ireland (see below). An earlier publication presented cost of living indices for Ireland spanning the years 1698-1998 and was funded by the Economic & Social Research Council.
The project has also engaged with relative price movements, including the Crotty thesis that land use patterns, and ultimately population levels, were driven by a relative price shift in favour of livestock and against labour-intensive tillage crops, following Waterloo and the end of the French Wars. In fact, as we show, this shift had taken place a generation earlier, at the outset of the French Wars, and without the socio-economic implications suggested by Raymond Crotty and other historians. Relative price movements shed new light, inter alia, on the Great Famine of the 1840s, the Land War of the later 19th century, and more generally on economic aspects of nationalism and unionism in Ireland.
Energy Prices: Peat & Coal
A specialised part of this research, as much in the realm of ecological history as price history, is the study of energy prices in 19th and 20th century Irish society. The key energy sources for this period were peat (turf) and coal. What is striking is how late in time it was before King Coal largely displaced the indigenous fuel source. An intriguing issue, particularly for the 19th century, is whether or not coal and peat catered for different markets, or were in fact substitute fuels. An analysis of price series for the two fuels, using co-integration techniques, helps illuminate the question. Peat prices are hard to come by. Our main sources are Franciscan monastic records and market reports that are to be found, perhaps surprisingly, in a Belfast newspaper, the Belfast News-Letter.
Britain and Ireland
The second phase of this collaborative programme of research involves looking at market integration as between Britain and Ireland. This means collecting new British food prices. British prices certainly exist in abundance, at least relative to Ireland, but there are some question marks over the various and indeed varying methodologies employed in assembling the existing British price data. So we are gathering London prices afresh, using the methodology employed for the Irish prices’ study. We are also particularly interested in relative price movements in the two markets, seeking to establish not only the extent to which British and Irish prices moved in tandem but also to identify purely ‘Irish’ relative price movements of a distinctive kind.
Time for Fun:
Some preliminary analysis suggests that there were distinctive Irish price movements apparent during the French Wars, and most spectacularly during the Great Famine, but the Irish dimension, as it were, had largely disappeared by the later 19th century. International prices movements almost wholly dominated Irish markets from the 1870s onwards. It is the earlier ‘deviations’ that promise the most fun in terms of analysis and interpretation. We suspect close links, including interdependencies, with potato cultivation, proto-industry, the availability of waste land, and explosive population growth.
A composite price index of Irish agricultural produce, using different weighting schemes. Source: Kennedy & Solar (2007).