Throughout much of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries linen textile production made an important contribution, in terms of output, exports, employment and capital accumulation, to the economy of north-east Ireland. However, for a brief period of a few decades, from the 1780s to the 1830s, the dominance of linen was challenged by a mechanised cotton industry centred on the Belfast area producing both mill-spun yarn and hand- and machinewoven piece goods. This period witnessed a shift of local resources of capital and labour from linen into cotton and back into linen in the space of half a century.
The story of Belfast’s brief flirtation with cotton is a difficult one to put together. Both narrative and analysis are constrained by a lack of records, especially by a dearth of statistics on inputs and on output. The traditional view has been that the industry was made up of units of production which, smaller than their British rivals and lacking supplies of local coal, produced at an uncompetitive unit cost. Its relatively brief existence was sustained by a combination of war and protective tariffs and with their removal the cotton industry in Belfast, unable to compete with its rivals in Great Britain, quickly disappeared. The validity of this view has been challenged recently. It has been shown that at least for the 1830s when data are available horse power per establishment was not significantly lower in Belfast than for the United Kingdom as a whole; nor was the absence of local supplies of coal a major disadvantage given local wage costs. These revisions cast doubt on the notion that Belfast cotton spinning establishments were inherently uncompetitive. Not every observer is convinced however. Ollerenshaw in his essay on industry in nineteenth-century Ulster remains certain that the exit from cotton spinning was to a large extent forced and that wet spinning was a timely and fortuitous alternative. Similarly Cullen argues that the local industry was uniquely unable to withstand the depression of 1825 and after.