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L. M. Cullen, John Shovlin and Thomas M. Truxes (eds), The Bordeaux-Dublin Letters, 1757: Correspondence of an Irish Community Abroad.

L. M. Cullen, John Shovlin and Thomas M. Truxes (eds), The Bordeaux-Dublin Letters, 1757: Correspondence of an Irish Community Abroad, Records of Social and Economic History 53 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2013, 330 pp., 70[pounds sterling] hardback)

Few things are more exciting for a historian in the archives than to find documents unopened, and seen by nobody else, since their authors wrote and sealed them. That was the happy experience of Thomas M. Truxes, a leading authority on Irish commercial history, when he came across this collection of letters in the records of the High Court of Admiralty in the British National Archives. They had been carried on board The Two Sisters, a small vessel plying between Bordeaux and Dublin in the winter of 1756-57. Britain and France had just gone to war, but because she was carrying a cargo mostly of wine and cork purchased in France before war broke out, the ship sailed under authorised free passage between what were now enemy ports. On the way home, however, she was seized by a British privateer who refused to recognise her papers and took her into Bristol as a prize. The privateer's attempt to legitimise the seizure of a British vessel through the Court of Admiralty was contested by the Dublin owners of The Two Sisters, and their plea was upheld. The court ordered her release, with her cargo. She returned to Dublin, but inexplicably without the private letters she had also carried.

All the official documents relating to the case before the court are printed in a series of appendices to this volume, but its essence is contained in the texts of the 125 letters. They are set fully into context in a 78-page introduction jointly written by Truxes, his New York University colleague John Shovlin, an expert on eighteenth-c entury France, and the doyen of Irish economic historians L. M. Cullen. Here the case is made that together the letters offer a precious series of insights into the multifarious links between Ireland and southern France under the ancien regime, links severely tested by the onset of a war fought mainly on the seas.

While remarkably few of the letters contain hard commercial information, there are plenty of allusions to the economic difficulties of the times. A poor vintage in 1756 had been disastrous for the wine trade out of Bordeaux, and an embargo on beef exports to France when war broke out had devastated the staple of Irish maritime trade. Significantly, The Two Sisters' outward journey had been made on ballast. There were ways round such restrictions, and again the letters frequently allude to them: goods and letters could be sent under neutral flags to Spain, or to Holland, for onward shipment, although this increased costs and uncertainties, and both British and French privateers were always on lookout for false papers and flags. The letters also offer plenty of evidence of a market for consumer goods such as clothing, footwear, ornamental items or practical ones such as cooking pots or needles, which the Irish abroad seemed to prefer to source from home rather than in the land of luxury where they were living. What were they doing there? Many were passing through, whether willingly or under duress. A large number were prisoners of war, most of them writing from the citadel of Bayonne, where hundreds were held in Spartan conditions and where diseases were rife. Another substantial contingent were seminarians training for the priesthood in Bordeaux or Toulouse, a well-known category of Irish expatriates in penal times. More unexpected are a number of letters to Irish Huguenots from relatives and co-religionists who had remained in France. Their bond seems to have been as much commercial as religious; and indeed the largest number of letters overall was from young members of commercial families sent out to maintain and develop links with the wine and spirits trade, in which Ireland, not bound by the Methuen Treaty, had maintained a loyalty to claret rather than port.

Yet what most correspondents write about is family matters - births, marriages and deaths, debts both moral and financial, and affections, or misunderstandings, between siblings. Commerce was overwhelmingly a family affair, but this meant that there was plenty more to correspond about than business. None of these letters ever arrived, and they are full of references to others that did not arrive either. With a fair wind, and without the intervention of privateers, the 600 miles between Dublin and Bordeaux could be travelled, and letters delivered, in a remarkably short time. But that remained the exception. The normal expectation was clearly for long delays, months or even years. In these conditions, the patience and optimism of these correspondents is not a little surprising, and sometimes quite touching.

William Doyle

University of Bristol
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Author:Doyle, William
Publication:Irish Economic and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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