Growing Hemp In Irish Bogs To Fight Napoleon Bonaparte

By Brian Houlihan

(Please consider becoming a patron to support the creation of more unique content)

In my previous blog about Irish rebels and hemp I mentioned that hemp was not only used in warfare, but that sometimes it was the cause of war. One example of this is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. This invasion was in part aimed at cutting off Britain’s vital hemp supply.

Napoelon attacked Russia because the British were reliant on them for hemp. This was due to various trade embargoes and difficulties the British were facing. The lack of a vibrant domestic hemp industry was also significant.

During this period (roughly 1803–1815) Britain and France were at war, as were other countries in Europe. Hemp was vital to the British war efforts, and the empire as a whole, as their large navy relied heavily on it. In fact many countries relied on hemp for various industries.

Contemporary painting of Napoleon

A few years previously the British, who were aware of hemp's strategic importance, drew up various plans for meeting their demand. Among these plans was one which envisaged the draining of Irish bogs for sowing hemp.

Research done by Dr. Arnold Horner from UCD’s School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy revealed this piece of history. It emerged following the discovery of the ‘Bog Commission’ artifacts at an auction. Among the materials were 50 detailed maps and various reports.

In 1808, Ireland which was under British rule, was proposed as the base for a massive hemp growing operation in order to aid the war effort against France. The hemp was to be grown in drained Irish bogs and used to support the demands of the British navy.

One of the largest ever surveys of the Irish landscape was commissioned to assess how viable the plan was. In 1809 the ‘Bog Commission’ was created and a team of engineers travelled to Ireland to survey numerous bogs.

The commission lasted a total of four years and covered about one tenth of the country.

The main areas of focus were the midlands, Munster and large parts of Connaught. There were plans to extend the survey further but the engineers were re-called and the plans scrapped as the threat from Napoleon faded.

How viable the plan was is questionable. The draining of bogs wouldn’t have been easy, nor would it have been cheap. This shows the pressure the British establishment was under to come up with solutions to meet their hemp demand.

Some commentators suggest the British considered the plan as “growing hemp on bogs had the great merit that it would not interfere with established tillage land, already under pressure to provide food for a growing nation.”

Interfering with tillage land could have been met with fierce resistance by some farmers. An unhappy and often hungry peasantry were unlikely to welcome requests to sow crops not for their use.

One contemporary source suggests around 300 acres of hemp was sowed annually in Ireland during the early 1800's. Some of this hemp was sowed in drained bogs, but this was quite rare. The hemp that was grown in drained bogs was said to perform exceptionally.

Ultimately no hemp for the purpose of fighting Napoleon was sown in Ireland, or at least not under this plan. However the ambitious plan did leave some materials of historical value. The ‘Bog Commission’ provided very detailed maps of pre-famine Ireland, and some insightful social commentary from the team of engineers.

The plans would also inspire other individuals to undertake hemp research in Ireland. But more on that in a later blog.

Thanks for reading and be sure to visit us at 167 Capel Street in Dublin.

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

You can find an archive of my blog posts here