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Opinion: 'If we want to create a sustainable, successful, domestic industry, let's grow hemp'

The plant is almost magical, with a range of applications from paper to building to medicine, writes Brian Houlihan.

Brian Houlihan

LAST MONTH THE GAA’s longest running competition, the Sigerson Cup, reached its climax when St Mary’s University, Belfast beat University College Dublin.

The competition, which features the higher education institutions on the island, was established in 1911 when George Sigerson commissioned the first trophy. Few people know about the man who gives his name to the GAA competition and even fewer are aware of his work on hemp.

Sigerson: A biography

George Sigerson was born in Co Tyrone in 1836 and was a doctor who specialised in neurology. He was also a scientist, a zoologist, a botanist, a politician, a writer and much more.

Seemingly self-taught in Irish, he became one of the leading figures in the Irish Literary Revival movement. After the formation of the Irish Free State he served in the first Seanad.

It was in 1866 that George Sigerson published his pamphlet entitled “Cannabiculture in Ireland: Its profit and possibility”. A copy of it still exists and can be found in the National Library of Ireland.

It was Sigerson’s 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.

sigerson George Sigerson's pamphlet entitled Cannabiculture in Ireland: Its profit and possibility, 1866.

The many uses of hemp

On the many uses of hemp Sigerson wrote that:

It is hardly necessary to remind the reader of the many uses to which hempen fibre is put. 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 argues 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 wrote that 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 writes 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.” Sigerson believes that in Ireland 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.”

Medicinal properties

While Sigerson’s pamphlet focuses on industrial hemp it does make references to the narcotic and medicinal properties present in cannabis family. On the medicinal properties of cannabis Sigerson writes that:

It was first introduced as a medicinal agent into Europe, by our countryman, Dr O’Shaughnessy, of Calcutta.

Here Sigerson is referring to the Limerick born Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy who discovered the medicinal properties of cannabis and other indigenous plants while in India.

It was O’Shaughnessy’s research which led to cannabis being readily available in chemists from the 1840s until the beginning of the 1900s, when prohibition began.

A long and colourful history here

Nowadays many people view hemp as a product of the hippie or new age movement, after hemp came back into fashion in the 1990s. But hemp has a long and colourful history in Ireland.

Based on the limited archaeological evidence available, and from my own research of the available sources, it seems hemp has been in Ireland for at least 2,000 years and used by various cultures.

Hemp is still grown here but on a smaller scale and subject to some restrictions.

A hemp economy

As Sigerson argued over 150 years ago, hemp has the potential to create jobs and become a significant part of the Irish economy.

Hemp is already available in Ireland for a variety of purposes. It is sold in food products like seeds, juices and cooking oils, and CBD from hemp is sold as a food supplement.

Hemp is used here in building houses, with materials like hempcrete and hemp insulation available. Industrial and consumer textiles made from hemp are also sold here. Hemp cosmetics have also become popular in recent years.

Alongside current industries which could be expanded there is also the potential for new industries. Hemp can be used for biomass and biofuel, in making plastics and biocomposites which are biodegradable, for animal feed and bedding and much more. Hemp research in universities is also another area with great potential.

Stigma lingers

Hemp has a long history in Ireland and potentially a bright future. But with the restrictions around it and the stigma attached (due to its association with cannabis) its potential remains limited.

In an era where Ireland should be looking to create more domestic and sustainable industries, rather than relying on foreign direct investment, utilising a crop like hemp is a must.

And it’s just not the hippies that have been saying this for years.

Brian Houlihan is researching the history of hemp in Ireland and is the curator of the Dublin Hemp Museum which is located below The Hemp Company on Capel Street. The museum is planning an exhibition on George Sigerson later this year.

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Brian Houlihan

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