To celebrate World Bee Day (May 20), let’s read about the history of the bee in Ireland and how it came to be recognized not only as important for ecological balance but also for its money-making potential
In 1731, the Dublin Society was set up by a group of men from Trinity College to promote the development of science, agriculture and the arts. Two years later, it published a detailed paper, Instructions for Managing Bees, by an unnamed author.
The paper admonished those who were solely interested in keeping bees without proper care and attention. The author also highlighted the monetary benefits, about five shillings per hive, of raising bees.
The Great Famine
Over a century after this document was published, Ireland suffered the Great Famine. The Famine claimed the lives of over one million people. A further one million people emigrated from Ireland. By the late 19th century, the plight of the Irish people had not improved.
During the Famine, most of the inhabitants of the West of Ireland eked out a meagre existence in conditions proximate to pathetic. Parents and offspring shared cramped accommodation with farm animals. Incomes were paltry – ranging from less than £10 per year to just under £50 for families.
Bees for the poor
In spite of this destitution, interest in beekeeping around Ireland remained alive. It prompted the establishment of the Irish Beekeepers Association in 1881 in the Royal Dublin Society. The RDS was previously known simply as the Dublin Society.
In 1890, Arthur Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland, undertook a tour of the ‘congested districts’ of the west of Ireland. These were areas that were regarded as exceptionally poor and undeveloped. He launched many initiatives to build new homes, improve animal husbandry, and achieve higher returns from growing vegetables, fishing, and beekeeping.
“One hive may in a good year produce as much profit as a pig,” Francis Sheridan, chief clerk at the Congested Districts Board (CDB) wrote in 1915. He gave beekeeping special attention. This was because of “its particular suitability as a cottage industry.”
The Bee Man’s beginning
Existing beekeepers needed to achieve higher levels of production with improved methods and better equipment. Turlough O’Bryen, a native of Louth and now living in Co. Clare, was a member The Irish Beekeepers Association. He started beekeeping in the mid-1870s, initially without much success.
O’Bryen joined the Board in 1893 as an instructor. When he joined the CDB, he moved to Kingstown, now Dun Laoghaire.
“Commencing the week’s work, he travelled by train from Kingstown Station into town on Mondays, and went to the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society in Thomas Street, Dublin. There, he ordered his supplies of hives, wax, frames and sections to be delivered to whatever railway station he was working from.”‘The Bee Man of County Clare – Turlough Butler O’Bryen 1853-1928’ by James K. Watson
This initiative proved successful, thanks to the Bee Man of County Clare. The CDB offered to buy everything offered for sale by beekeepers, even from the remotest parts of rural Ireland. They provided special boxes for transporting the honey harvest to Dublin, all under the supervision of O’Bryen.
The 6th Annual Report of the CDB stated that the “majority of those who adopted improved methods of beekeeping […] are satisfied with the results.” It added that 104 hives had been supplied to beekeepers. In one case, a farmer paid his farm rent from honey sales.
The CDB needed to find buyers for selling the annual liquid harvest. It made contact with a successful young shopkeeper in England, Thomas Lipton. He was the son of Irish parents who left Monaghan for Glasgow during the Famine.
The Irish self-made millionaire
Young Lipton started off with a small grocery store and progressed to growing an international business. He was a millionaire by the age of 30. In 1880, he decided to make tea available at affordable prices by investing in a tea plantation in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Thus, he created the Liptons brand, which became the world’s leading tea brand. When he died in 1931, he left a substantial amount of his money to aid the poor of Glasgow. “He was the supreme benefactor of the beekeepers of Ireland,” wrote Watson.
Lipton wrote to the Board to say the Irish honey was selling remarkably well. He requested further supplies. Lipton’s inspectors went to Dublin to inspect the honey on offer, and all of it was accepted. The CDB reported: “Mr. Lipton’s action in the matter… will be of much service to beekeepers in the West of Ireland.”
In one year, the CDB purchased 3,002 sections and 431 pounds of honey from beekeepers for £96. Sir Thomas Lipton sold the honey for £109. This resulted in a loss for the Board, as expenses for bottles, crates and freight came to a total of £30. However, the overall objective was achieved.
Learn more interesting facts about bees and the history of beekeeping in Ireland in The Bee’s Knees by James Morrissey.