Dr. George Sigerson’s Hemp Pamphlet From 1866

By Brian Houlihan

Dr. George Sigeron (1836–1925)

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In 1866 a pamphlet on hemp was published by one of Ireland’s prominent thinkers. Much of what he wrote is still as relevant today.

Dr. George Sigerson was born in Co. Tyrone in 1836 but spent most of his life in Dublin. He was a doctor who specialised in neurology. He was also a scientist, a zoologist, a botanist, a politician and a writer. Sigerson served as Professor of Botany and Biology in the Catholic University School of medicine and later in the National University of Ireland.

Seemingly self taught in Irish he was one of the leading figures in the Irish Literary Revival movement. This movement helped reignite Ireland’s Gaelic heritage and assisted the growth of Irish nationalism from the middle of the 19th century. In 1922 following the formation of the Irish Free State Sigerson served in the first Seanad (Irish Senate) until his death in 1925.

Sigerson’s name maybe familiar to some, especially students with an interest in GAA. The Sigerson Cup, a competition featuring teams from higher education institutions, gets its name from him. He designed the trophy himself and donated his salary from UCD in order to commission the first trophy.

Few know about the man who gives his name to the GAA’s oldest competition and even less are aware of his work on hemp.

Even the otherwise brilliant biography by Ken McGilloway omits his hemp work. After speaking to Ken I learned this was an accidental oversight and he was welcoming of my revelation. Ken’s book ‘George Sigerson: Poet, Patriot, Scientist and Scholar’ is a great read for anyone interested in learning more. Interestingly Ken is a distant relation of George Sigerson through marriage.

I discovered an original copy of Sigeron’s pamphlet in the National Library of Ireland and managed to copy it. The quotes in this blog are from this copy.

Sigerson released a pamphlet ‘Cannabiculture in Ireland; its profit and possibility’ in 1866. It was his belief that hemp would boost the national coffers, disperse wealth among the classes, create sustainable jobs and even help reverse emigration.

Sigerson wrote in depth about the potential economic benefits of hemp, the botany of the plant, its ideal soil conditions, the cultivation and harvesting of hemp and much more. He also drew comparisons to the experiences of hemp cultivation in England, Russia, the USA and elsewhere.

Sigerson wrote that “It is hardly necessary to remind the reader of the many uses to which hempen fibre is put.” He added that “Ropes of all kinds, from the huge cable to the tiniest twine, fisherman’s nets, sail-cloths, sackings, and the finer descriptions of canvas, are things which need only to be named to enable us to form a correct appreciation of the value of the material, and of the services which it renders to man.”

Sigerson suggested that “To an island-kingdom like our own, it is evident that, even irrespective of other considerations, the home-growth of a crop from which such articles can be manufactured should be of superior importance.” Sigerson believed there is “a market for it in almost every large town; a certain market for it in Derry, Belfast, Dublin, and Cork, not to mention other places.”
Sigerson wrote that “that the soil and climate are not only suited to the growth of hemp, but so admirably adapted for it, that the country could afford to export it.” However he warns that “hemp will make but a poor appearance on cold, stiff clays, or on shallow, sandy soils. The crop grown on strong, rich loams, and on moist friable alluvial soils, will, on the other hand, yield a luxuriant return.”

Sir. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (1809 – 1889)

While Sigerson’s pamphlet focuses on the industrial uses of hemp he discusses the narcotic and medicinal properties of cannabis. Sigerson writes that “It was first introduced as a medicinal agent into Europe, by our countryman, Dr. O’Shaughnessy, of 

Sigerson is referring to the Limerick born Sir. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy who discovered the medicinal properties of cannabis and other indigenous plants while he in India. Click here to read my blog about O’Shaughnessy.

Aside from its insights into hemp the pamphlet also provides a snapshot of contemporary Ireland. Sigerson discusses the problems facing Ireland and the difficulties posed by issues such as emigration. Other constraints on the island are also explored such as foreign rule and the economic reliance on cattle.

Over 150 years on from Sigerson’s sentiments it’s fascinating (and concerning) that similar woes face the country. Perhaps its time we acknowledged that a thriving hemp industry could offer a remedy to some of this woes, just like Sigerson did in 1866.

Brian Houlihan is the curator of the Dublin Hemp Museum and regularly writes about hemp. Follow him on Twitter @dubhempmuseum and @houlihanbrian. You can also find the museum on Facebook.

You can find an archive of my blog posts here

[ Please note: A version of this post appeared on an old blog of mine (Irish Cannabis Blog) and was part of an article I wrote for TheJournal.ie ]