The image on the cover of my new book reproduces the Ten of Clubs from a famous set of playing cards produced in London in the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble, the famous stock market crash of 1720. Each card in the deck depicted a different group of investors in the South Sea Company, often describing them in terms of national, racial, or gender, stereotypes. This card is no exception, describing as it does the imagined experience of Irish investors in the bubble. The character on the right is exclaiming how ‘by God and St Patrick’ he had sold his potatoes to purchase South Sea stock. This exchange of potatoes for shares in the South Sea Company has gone well for him but his companion on the street has been less successful. This man, given the derogatory Irish name of Teague, seeks the position of footman in his countryman’s household, and promises ‘Ara by my shoul’ to inform the latter’s friends and relations of his success, so that they too can come to London to share his bounty. Teague’s name and exaggerated brogue, together with the references to potatoes and St Patrick point to the prevalence of already well-worn stereotypes of the Irish in early eighteenth-century London as well to the presence of Irishmen (and women) in the London financial markets during the boom and bust summer of 1720.
Their experiences lie at the heart of my new book, which explores the stories of the many Irish men and women who ventured their fortunes in the London markets during “South Sea Year’. These stories are situated within the wider context of both the bubble, which I argue was a truly transnational affair, and the development of Irish banking, investment and speculation during the so-called ‘financial revolution’ of the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century. Readers will be able to discover not just who the Irish investors in the South Sea Bubble were, but also how they made these investments, and even more importantly what the impact of these investments was.
This is a story that involves a number of well-known characters including Jonathan Swift, Esther Van Homrigh and Robert Molesworth, as well as a whole variety of less storied individuals whose experiences, like those of the two gentlemen featured on the playing card above, reveal much about this perennially fascinating episode. It also a story that tells us much about the emerging ‘public sphere’ of the coffee houses of early eighteenth century Dublin and London, about the impact of a growing media on the spread of ideas, schemes and commentary, through poems, pamphlets, prints and even as we have seen playing cards. Much of this material has survived and on of the most exciting places to start examining this material is in the online collections of the Kress and Bancroft Collections at the Baker Library in Harvard Business School. There you will find the complete run of South Sea Playing Cards, realising as you do that that the depiction of the potato selling Teagues is relatively mild in comparison to some of the other cards produced.
— by Patrick Walsh
Patrick Walsh’s The South Sea Bubble and Ireland: Money, Banking and Investment, 1690-1721 (Boydell & Brewer, 2014) is available here