Irish History of Hemp
Hemp is not native to Ireland but based on the available archaeological evidence we know it has been utilised here for well over 1000 years. One of the oldest hemp artefacts, a piece of cord, is located in the Dublin City archives and is around 850 years old. Essentially the story of hemp in Ireland is linked to agriculture, migration, global trade, war, politics, economics, social policy and much more.
Many travellers to Ireland over the past 1000 years reference hemp growing here. An early example is the ‘Topographia Hibernica’ also known as the ‘Topographia Hiberniae’. This is an account of the landscape and people of Ireland published by Gerald of Wales in around 1188. In this work Gerald mentions hemp cultivation in Limerick.
Much of the known Irish hemp history occurs during British rule in Ireland (late 1100’s – early 1900’s). During the plantation of Munster and Ulster in the 16th century settlers were encouraged to set aside land for hemp. During the 19th century the use of drained Irish bogs to grow hemp was proposed to fight Napoleon.
During this period hemp was largely tied to the Irish linen industry which also utitlised crops like flax. At its height spinning mills were located across the island but particularly in Ulster where the linen trade remained until recent decades. In 1866 a pamphlet was produced by George Sigerson which argued that hemp had the ability to revolutionise the Irish economy.
Hemp itself has often been linked to wars and rebellions. Renowned Irish rebel Robert Emmet was executed with a hemp rope in 1803. During the 1916 Rising hemp bales were used during the fighting and hemp seed was among the items looted by civilians. In the 1920’s during the War of Independence hemp was among the items sought from Russia. During WW2 Ireland saw hemp shortages just like other Western countries. In the USA these shortages inspired the Hemp for Victory campaign.
Hemp research in Ireland isn’t new either. In the 1930’s University College Cork grew hemp and researched the properties of hempseed oil. In the 1960's hemp research was undertaken by An Foras Taluntais (The Agricultural Institute) which was the predecessor to Teagasc. Teagasc itself has undertaken hemp research in more recent decades.
In the 1990’s hemp cultivation returned to the EU and since at least 1997 individuals in Ireland have grown hemp under licence. In 2017 around 200ha of hemp was grown by 17 farmers. This year we hope with the help of the Hemp Cooperative Ireland that these figures will be surpassed.
World History of Hemp
Hemp is one of the oldest plants that has been cultivated. There are suggestions that the plant was cultivated as far back as 8000 B.C. It has been found that hemp has been used in all corners of the globe from China to the Americas.
There have been findings around the world to show that hemp was used to produce products in some of the oldest civilisations. Shennong an ancient leader and herbalist in China wrote about hemp and its healing properties over 7000 years ago. We have seen the hemp rope appear in Russia (600 B.C), hemp paper has been found in the Arabia and China that dates back to 900 B.C. Hemp paper and rope have been found across the United Kingdom dating from 100 B.C and up to the 18th century.
We take a leap forward to the 16th century in Great Britain where King Henry VIII supported farmers to grow and harvest hemp to hemp provide materials for the royal naval fleet. It was grown and produced at this time to supply multiple components of the shipping industry from oils to rigging and sails.
There has been a multitude of famous documents penned on hemp. Although it is suggested the American Declaration of Independence was written and signed on hemp it was not. Although this is the case the first two drafts of the document were indeed penned on hemp paper. This is one of many famous documents that were written on hemp and these include:
The King James Bible along with the Gutenberg Bible were both written on hemp paper and the American dollar was printed on hemp paper.
Following on from this in the 17th-century farmers in Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut were legally obliged to grow hemp. Within a century farmers who weren't growing this plant could be sentenced to pay fines and even face jail time. At this point not only was hemp being grown to produce an array of products but it was also being used as a form of legal tender and even to pay taxes.
The American census of 1850 documents over 8,000 plantations of at least 2,000 acres (or 810 hectares) growing hemp on an industrial basis. By the late 1800’s the auto industry was taking off and Rudolf Diesel the famous inventor behind the diesel engine intended his new engine to be run on Hemp Fuels. Along with the most famous car manufacturer of all time, Henry Ford created cars entirely from the plant. See below video. In February of 1938 Popular Mechanics Magazine explained that the American hemp industry had been revolutionised due to the involvement of machinery for harvesting the plant and valued the American hemp industry at $1,000,000,000 (1 Billion) taking inflation into account that converts to $1,676,611,111.11
So at this point, you must be wondering why did the industry of hemp not become one the largest and most successful industries. Prohibition in America.
Prohibition in America began in 1920 and continued until 1933 with the outlawing of alcohol and other substances. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 in the United States saw the decline of the hemp industry in America. As Hemp and Marijuana are a related plant there were both placed under this Act. A smear campaign against marijuana began in the states and this created a fear for those involved in the industrial hemp industry. This was followed worldwide and it became the norm to have both marijuana and hemp together in the same bill.
Although the growth of hemp was prohibited the importation of the plant was not as was and is the case in Ireland. With the second world war breaking out the importation was halted from the Philippines and American farmers were required to grow hemp for the war effort. The plant was cultivated all across the Midwestern United States and over 1,000,000 acres of hemp were sown. Once the war was over the industry disappeared in America again. A timeline of the American Hemp industry can be found here.
Brian Houlihan, a member of HCI and the curator of the Dublin Hemp Museum (Irish History)
Adrian Fay, one of the founding members of HCI.