A week ago the Irish government presented its annual budget for the fiscal year 2016. The summary of taxation and expenditure was designed to facilitate the re-election of the government in the general election that must take place in the early spring. Whatever about the intricacies of modern government finance, back in the early seventeenth century things were rather different. The early modern period saw the government attempt to transplant English methods of raising revenue to Ireland with varying degrees of success. The Nine Year’s War (1594 to 1603), which included the great revolt of Munster from 1598, played havoc with the whole fiscal system in Munster. One of the causes of the Munster Revolt was the burden of taxation imposed on the province. Much of this burden came from the tax known as composition. Composition was itself a replacement of a medieval practice called cess (from ‘assessment’). During the conquests of the sixteenth century, the government quartered soldiers on the inhabitants of the province. This meant that a householder was obliged to house and feed a soldier (and his horse, if he had a horse) without any remuneration from either the soldier or the authorities. Effectively this was military taxation, and it fell most heavily on the peasantry. The Gaelic and Anglo-Irish lords used a similar process called coign and livery so the government cess was predicated on the idea that the peasantry were accustomed to this system. The reality was that cess and coign and livery ate into the often meagre surplus produce of the peasantry and denied them access to a surplus that could be sold to be re-invested in their holdings. For the government, this system meant that there was no need to build accommodation for the soldiers – a substantial saving in funds at a period when soldiers were normally housed in expensive fortresses.
The composition was not imposed by Act of Parliament, instead it was imposed by proclamation. The process began in Connacht under Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney in 1575. The idea was to pay for the two new provincial Presidencies in Connacht and Munster by means of an assessed levy on the baronies in each county. The process of imposing the composition was by means of an agreement between the Lord President of the province and his fellow commissioners on the one hand and the landowners of all classes on the other hand. Once the figure for the composition to be imposed on the barony had been agreed a written contract was drawn up and signed by the government officials on one hand and by the leading landowners on the other. The landholders, large and small, agreed to a fixed overall amount to be paid in composition for a stated number of years, and the government undertook not to quarter its soldiers on the people. The irony of this was that sometimes these same soldiers had to be used to squeeze the composition out of the people who, for whatever reason, wouldn’t or couldn’t pay the sum demanded.
The composition was collected twice a year, as agreed, for example, in 1604, when the proprietors of Barrymore, Ibane, and Orrery agreed to pay equal amounts at the Feast of All Saints (1st November) and the feast of St John the Baptist (24th June). It should be noticed that at the time the daily pay of a labourer was 6d for work done. The annual salary of the Lord President of Munster was £133 6s.8d. All figures are given in sterling value (the Irish currency was of a lower value).
How did the composition work out? In September 1592 many of the baronies of Cork agreed to pay sums as follow: Orrery was to pay £20 per annum for three years; Kerrycurrihy would pay £62 19s per annum for seven years; Barretts contracted to pay £23 per annum; Coursies (modern Courceys) agreed to £5 per annum; Duhallow would pay £30 per annum; Muskerry agreed to £35 per annum; Beare and Bantry agreed to pay £13 5s 8d per annum and Imokilly agreed to 90 marks per annum. This latter figure was the equivalent of £60 per annum. What this suggests is that the two richest baronies were Kerrycurrihy (stretching from Ballincollig to Crosshaven, just south of Cork City) and Imokilly. Admittedly several other baronies, such as Carbery, Barrymore and Fermoy, etc., were not involved in this particular composition of 1592.
The 1609 composition records are more complete. The total amount paid in composition by County Cork that year was over £574, which was almost half the amount of composition paid by the whole province (without County Clare, which was included in Connacht at the time, to the great irritation of the O’Brien, Earl of Thomond). What is interesting is to examine the amounts paid by the baronies and lordships. Carbery paid £54 6s 8d at Easter and £53 6s 8d at Michaelmas. Imokilly paid £40 at Easter and the same again at Michaelmas. Kerrycurrihy paid £36 9s 1 1/4d at Easter and £40 13s 4d at Michaelmas. Barrymore paid £28 at both Easter and Michaelmas. Muskerry paid £23 6s 8d at both Easter and Michaelmas. All the other baronies and lordships paid less than £20 at each semester. What this shows is that the wealthiest baronies were Kerrycurrihy, Imokilly and Barrymore. The figure given for Carbery was actually misleading because Carbery was a very large barony which was later divided into two more compact baronies (Carbery East, Carbery West). The same happened with the sprawling lordship of Muskerry. Thus the composition figures show very clearly that the landed wealth of County Cork was concentrated around Cork Harbour at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
(The taxation figures used in this post are derived from the article referenced below.)
Reference: Margaret Curtis Clayton, ‘Taxation in early Stuart Munster,’ in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Vol 116 (2011), pages 11-18.