Up in smoke — Frank McNally on the once-thriving Irish tobacco industry

During the American and Napoleonic wars, Ireland supplied most of the product used in British tobacco factories

It is common knowledge that Sir Walter Raleigh helped introduce tobacco to Europe via his Irish estates in Youghal, circa 1584.

Less well known is the extent to which the plant then took root in Ireland, starting in the sunny southeast but spreading northwards and eventually making its last great stand in 20th-century Meath.

Like income tax, which we were discussing here yesterday, the first major flowering of Irish tobacco dates back to 1799, when the British parliament repealed all acts prohibiting cultivation here.

By 1830, as a result, Wexford alone had 1,000 acres under the plant, feeding 10 tobacco factories and employing 1,500 people.


The mild, damp Irish climate seemed to suit it perfectly. So did the local soils. And during the American and Napoleonic wars, Ireland supplied most of the product used in British tobacco factories.

Alas, the smell of Irish tobacco’s success eventually got up the noses of growers in Britain. Under pressure there, the government suppressed the industry here to the extent that tobacco producers packed up and emigrated, along with their accumulated expertise.

So at least was the verdict of a Meath landlord, Nugent T Everard, when he gave a potted history of Irish tobacco’s rise and fall in a 1925 letter to The Irish Times.

But by then, thanks to him and others, the plant was rising again in Ireland, and once more with official encouragement.

The vagaries of British royal regard for tobacco had ranged from Queen Elizabeth I’s indulgence – resulting in such a vogue that even “some of the great ladies would not scruple to blow a pipe” – to King James I’s suppression of the crop as a “perversion of the soil”.

Now, from 1898 onwards, the industry experienced another officially approved upturn, during which the Prince of Wales would smoke an Irish cigarette at a London agricultural show, and Irish-filled “pipes, cigars, and cigarettes” would be puffed in a parliamentary PR promotion at Westminster.

Everard believed that the impediments to an Irish tobacco industry were political rather than horticultural. And for several decades his estate at Randalstown, near Navan, was the focus of an attempted revival, supported first by the outgoing British regime and then by the fledgling Free State.

At its height, the Meath project employed 100 people, processing leaves grown by independent local suppliers as well as its own. After Everard died in 1929, the experiment outlived him, via the Meath Co-operative Tobacco Growers Society, which survived another decade until the outbreak of the second World War.

But at one point of the resurgence, there were also government-aided tobacco farms in Wexford, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Limerick, “King’s County” (Offaly), and as far north as Smarmore in Ardee, Co Louth.

And the very labour-intensiveness of the work involved also seemed to suit it to Irish conditions. Producing an acre of tobacco demanded more than twice the number of hours’ labour than the equivalent in potatoes.

Whole families could be temporarily employed in such tasks, for example, as covering every plant with cloth at the first sign of frost.

Unfortunately (or otherwise, depending on what you think of smoking), the Irish tobacco growing industry flunked the ultimate test – public taste. Big Tobacco then provided the coup de grâce.

According to a history of the Meath experiment by Liam McNiffe, the revival here died from a combination of “the failure of the Irish leaf to win over smokers who preferred the Virginian brands . . . and manufacturers [curbing] the native industry by buying its crops but not using them.”

Still, the experiment lingered fondly in the memories of some.

An Irishman’s Diary of 1949 recorded the adventures of one Robin Adair, detained during the war in occupied France, where he avoided execution by pretending to be insane.

Smoking in a Paris lunatic asylum one day, he had been asked by an inmate of French peasant stock if the cigarette was Irish. No, English, said Adair. To which the man replied: “I thought that I detected the characteristic smell of the Irish cigarette. You see, I myself smoke only Irish cigarettes. I get thousands of them every week from my relatives in Ireland.”

Whether that was all strictly true is unclear, because the man also claimed to be “the father-in-law of the High King of Ireland”.

But the Irish cigarette had a presence in the land of the land of the Gauloise Bleu for years after that. In another Parisian dispatch, postwar, our diarist was interviewing people on the set of a film there, when a French producer joined them and flourished a packet of Irish cigarettes.

He preferred them to anything available locally, he explained, and his suppliers included the actor Micheál MacLiammóir. But maybe those cigarettes were Irish in brand name only.

Or perhaps, even as late as then, Irish tobacco had not yet gone entirely up in smoke.