229 – Life and Landlords 1830s

John and Hannah Gallagher and their children lived a meager lifestyle in the northwest part of County Donegal. They and their families and neighbors weren’t much affected by the “outside” world.

Gweedore family – 1870

The lands of The Rosses and Gweedore were rocky and hilly, with bare mountainous peat bogs. The residents were ethnic Irish Catholics that had been displaced from better lands in the 1600s by protestant English and Scottish immigrants.

The area was isolated. The residents were poor. But the 1830s would bring major changes.

A road 1834

In 1834, the Board of Works built a road from Dunlewey to the Gweedore River. That let the outside world in, for better and for worse. This was just the area where the Gallaghers and Roartys lived.

Up until the 19th century, the population of the area remained low and the lack of roads in the area meant that landlords, agents, and the police generally did not interfere in tenants’ lives. It is evident that this wasn’t from lack of trying. Around 1834 local people had beaten up “two revenue police parties” who had been collecting tithes for the (Protestant) church. The police gave up and left Gweedore.

Those Uncertain Roots — Retracing the Past in Gweedore, Donegal – Emma Cownie
New road from Dunlewey to Gweedore River – 1834

Harsh conditions

The opening of roads in The Rosses and Gweedore helped to expose the bleak conditions of the residents.

In 1837, schoolmaster Patrick McKye of Annagry penned a now-famous letter to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The Lord Lieutenant was the highest-ranking Irish government official, appointed by the British King. McKye’s letter described the awful conditions of residents in this northwest corner of Donegal.

Sir James Dombrain was the estate landlord at Dunlewey. His large estate covered much of the southeast part of Gweedore, including Money Beg and Beltany Mountain.

A schoolmaster’s letter

In 1837, Lord Lombardy, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland came to Dunlewey House. There, schoolmaster Paddy McKye presented Lord Lombardy with a letter describing the awful conditions of the local residents. Here are some excerpts:

“To His Excellency the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland,

“That the parishioners of the parish of West Tullaghobegly, in the Barony of Kilmacrennan, in the County of Donegal, are in the most needy, hungry, and naked condition of any people that ever came within the precincts of my knowledge, although I have traveled a part of nine counties in Ireland, also a part of England and Scotland, together with a part of British America; I have likewise perambulated 2253 miles through seven of the United States, and never witnessed the tenth part of such hunger, hardships and nakedness.

“There are about 4000 persons in this parish, and all Catholics, and as poor as I shall describe, having among them no more than —

“One cart,
No coach, or any other vehicle,
One plow,
Thirty-two rakes,
Seven table-forks,

Ed. Note: McKye’s letter contains a long list of the meager communal belongings. He then continues…

“Or any other garden vegetables, but potatoes and cabbage, and not more than ten square feet of glass in windows in the whole, with the exception of the chapel, the school-house, the priest’s house, Mr. Dombrain’s house, and the constabulary barrack.

“None of their either married or unmarried women can afford more than one shift, and the fewest number can afford any, and more than one half of both men and women cannot afford shoes to their feet, nor can many of them afford a second bed, but whole families of sons and daughters of mature age indiscriminately lying together with their parents, and all in the bare buff.

“Their beds are straw — green and dried rushes or mountain bent: their bed-clothes are either coarse sheets, or no sheets, and ragged filthy blankets.

“And worse than all that I have mentioned, there is a general prospect of starvation, at the present prevailing among them, and that originating from various causes, but the principal cause is the rot or failure of seed in the last year’s crop, together with a scarcity of winter forage, in consequence of a long continuation of storm since October last, in this part of the country.

“All these circumstances connected together, have brought hunger to reign among them to that degree, that the generality of the peasantry are on the small allowance of one meal a day, and many families cannot afford more than one meal in two days, and sometimes one meal in three days. Their children are crying and fainting with hunger, and their parents weeping, being full of grief, hunger, debility and dejection, with glooming aspect, looking at their children likely to expire in the jaws of starvation.

“Also, in addition to all, their cattle and sheep are dying with hunger, and their owners forced by hunger to eat the flesh of such.

“I must acknowledge, that if reference were made to any of the landlords or landholders of the parish, they would contradict it, as it is evident it would blast their honors if it were known abroad that such a degree of want existed in their estates among their tenantry.

Your most obedient and humble servant, PATRICK McKYE

The Memorial of Patrick McKye to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland – 1837

It’s shocking that these conditions existed in The Rosses and Gweedore before the Great Famine in Ireland of 1845 to 1852. There had been crop failures in these earlier years from weather, but not from potato blight.

Conditions were bad in 1837 when McKye wrote his letter, but they were soon to get worse.

Landlords and Estates

The standard of life was to deteriorate with the arrival of new landlords in the 19th century, in particular Lord George Hill.

Gweedore – Wikipedia

The estates in Gweedore would change hands and would begin to change the way of life of the peasant tenants.

In 1838, Lord George Hill purchased an estate that covered the western part of Gweedore. James and Jane Russell bought the Dunlewey estate in the southeast of Gweedore. And Francis Forster, a former estate agent of Lord George Hill, began purchasing lands southwest of Gweedore, including Meenderrynasloe and Annagry.

In Griffith’s Valuation of 1857, all the Gallagher and Roarty and other families are tenants of either Lord George Hill, Francis Forster, or Jane Russell.

Lord George Hill

Lord George Hill was born into a titled family. He married two of Jane Austen’s nieces: Cassandra Jane Knight in 1834, and then Louisa Knight in 1847.

In 1838, just a year after Patrick McKye revealed the extreme poverty and hunger in this area, Lord George Hill bought the estate in the western part.

Over the next few years, Hill expanded his estate to over 23,000 acres. He estimated that his estate had 700 rental tenants and around 3,000 total residents.

Hill was a controversial landlord. He built and improved roads. He modernized farming methods. He built a school and a church and some shops for baked goods and food. He even built the Gweedore Hotel for travelers and visitors. It was surrounded by a model farm.

Gweedore Hotel grounds – 1870

Hill wrote a five-volume book “Facts About Gweedore” in which he espoused these improvements.

But along with these improvements, he enraged and devastated his tenants.

He raised rents on the tenants, sometimes three-fold. The rents were collected by his agent and local police. If a tenant didn’t have the money to pay, the agent might confiscate the tenant’s cow or food or oats.

He did away with the rundale system of communal fields and pasture. He outlawed the building of any new homes, and re-allocated “squared off” fields to each tenant. This prevented sharing land with sons, so often their only recourse was to emigrate.

Rundale vs. Squared-off

He didn’t allow tenants to run any shops – they must buy from the “company” store. Margaret Sweeney was evicted for trying to set up a bakery without permission. Hill evicted other tenants that he considered troublemakers.

Hill confiscated the land from tenants for his hotel and model farm with no compensation.

Hill took away tenants’ grazing rights on 10,000 acres of the mountain bogs, and rented the land to Scottish sheep grazers.

Hill built a protestant church, but never succeeded in converting the Irish Catholics.

Francis Forster

Perhaps the worst of the estate landlords was Francis Forster. He had been agent for Lord George Hill, responsible for collecting rents with a body of police escorts. He was ruthless. There were no excuses for leniency.

Forster began buying lands in The Rosses at the southwest edge of Gweedore. Then he would raise the rent, often to the extent that he could pay for his purchased land in a year or two.

We come now to the property of an individual who appears in a double, or rather a treble capacity in the wilds of Donegal. He is an agent, a landlord, and a magistrate. We have already encountered him on the estate of Lord George Hill, who speaks of him lovingly in that little volume of romance—“Facts about Guidore”—as his agent, Mr. Forster.

He has, evidently, a higher notion of the value of the property than had the previous owner, to whom he was agent, and on whom the arrears grew up; for he has most ingeniously increased the rents. I suppose the tenants grumbled at this rather unpleasant change, and did not love as a landlord the gentleman who was so forbearing as an agent; for Mr. Forster represented them to the government as riotous and dangerous, and contrived to get down a force of police, who are stationed in one of his own houses, and pay him a “tall” rent for the same.

Mullaghderg and Cruit—Forster’s property—border the Atlantic, and the tenants gather kelp. The landlord is reported to have observed, after a nice calculation, that he could make at least one hundred pounds a-year out of that kelp. Accordingly, he resolved to appropriate it all to himself, and forbade the tenants gathering any more.

The Landlord in Donegal: Pictures from the Wilds – Denis Holland – 1858

James and Jane Russell

James Russell married Jane Smith in 1825. He made a fortune as a hops merchant in London. In 1845 they left London and bought the Dunlewey Estate in the southeast of Gweedore. Their estate adjoined Lord George Hill’s. The estate grew to over 9,000 acres.

The Russells were cut from the same cloth as Hill, doubling and tripling the rents of tenants. It was said that Jane Russell was more aggressive in raising rents than were her male landlord counterparts.

James Russell died in 1848, just three years after moving to Gweedore. Jane built a protestant church as a monument to her husband. He was buried in the church.

Church of Dunlewey – Errigal Mountain in background – c. 1870

The church at Dunlewey is capable of accommodating five hundred persons; but I understand that the whole congregation does not exceed eleven adults, not one of whom is a native of the district.

The Landlord in Donegal: Pictures from the Wilds – Denis Holland – 1858

Nibbles Extra Credit – a reporter’s expose

Denis Holland was editor of The Ulsterman, a Belfast newspaper. He traveled to Gweedore in 1858 and did an expose of Lord George Hill and Lady Jane Russell and Francis Forster and their exploitation of tenants.

The following quotations are from Denis Holland’s newspaper series: “The Landlord in Donegal: Pictures from the Wilds”

I have already mentioned that remarkable book written by Lord George Hill, or written by somebody for him. He called it, as I have said, “Facts from Guidore; with useful hints to Donegal tourists.” The newspapers extolled him to the sky as the model landlord of Ireland.

The truth has, at length, come out; and I hope to be able to circulate that truth widely before I am done.

The following “Notes” originally appeared in the “Ulsterman” newspaper. The object with which they were written was to call public attention to a district where, most free hitherto from exposure, landlord oppression and rural misery have been most cruelly developed.

Look Here Upon This Picture

Great is your satisfaction, then, when you reach the snug hotel of Guidore. You pause at the gate. You look round you. The road is smooth and level here. The stone walls are straight and regular. The fences are high and trim.

You think of the desolate moor, and the barren hills over which the stout serviceable mountain-pony has driven you; and you naturally exclaim, rubbing your hands, and smiling at the pretty bar-maid—“Well, now, here is comfort, here is civilisation, here is the territory of an improving landlord.”

Round here now, and down to the little harbour of Bunbeg: this fine building is his lordship’s mill, and this to the right is the handsome store where various necessaries are sold. These are the improvements which Lord George Hill has effected in Guidore; and charming things they are for tourists to look on who combine an eye for the picturesque with a taste for the comfortable and cosy. Drive back now to the hotel. Take a light supper; mix a genial glass of punch; and when you have drunk it turn into bed.

And On This

Where, then, are the peasantry? Mount with me, and drive off here to the right. Now you stare in amazement, and your jaw drops. Yes, these mud and dry stone cabins down in the “shough” are the homes of the tenants of Lord George Hill. These miserable ribands of land, on which the sands of the ocean are encroaching, are the “farms” for which they pay incredible rents. Jump down with me into the ditch, and enter one of these huts. Here is a space, of some ten feet-square, the sole residence of this poor man, with his wife and four children—shared with them by the little ragged mountain cow, which crouches beside the turf-heap in the corner. There is a small, broken deal table here. There is no cheap nothing to sit on but an old stool; and that hair: [sic] of rags beside the fire-place, which will be the bed by and by. They are at dinner: what a horrid mess! Sticky potatoes and an abominable sea-weed which they call “doulamaun.”

How Improvements Are Cheaply Made

When Lord George Hill bought this property, the tract of land on which the hotel stands was in the possession of Bryan Boyle, whose tenant-right interest in it was valued at One Hundred Pounds. The land was taken from Boyle by the new philanthropic landlord—the proceeding being quite legal—and not a shilling’s compensation was paid him.

A Model Landlord’s Tenant

A poor old woman from a place called Maheralosk passed me on the bleak, mountain road. She was bare-footed, in mid-winter, and hobbled along with the help of her stick. She had not worn a shoe for ten years. Yet that woman keeps a “farm,” and has been obliged to pay rack-rents, and sheep-tax, and police-tax. Poor Meva Dubh, or black-haired Margaret, has received alms from the very policemen who were commissioned to collect the taxes from her at the point of the bayonet.

The Real Improvers

Why, take this case of Lord George Hill. He has more or less improved, a tract of reclaimed land which he took without compensation from the tenant who had reclaimed it; and all the profit goes into his own pocket.

But he never expended a shilling in improving the lands on which his tenants dwell. He never drained a field. He never raised a fence. He never built a cottage. The miserable peasants themselves have done everything; and for every improvement they have made he has doubled and trebled their rents. I have said that these people were in the habit of making their own clothing from the wool of their own sheep. But, since the mountain pasturage was taken from them, they cannot feed sheep—they cannot have wool; and they are all in rags.

A Zealous Stipendiary

Shortly before I visited the district the stipendiary magistrate—a person named [Cruise]—had marched three hundred police thither and collected the taxes. This individual distinguished himself by extraordinary zeal in gathering the rate. The head-constable of police, Young, was the appointed collector—no one else having been found willing to undertake the obnoxious duty. They marched from cabin to cabin, seizing this man’s horse, that poor fellow’s sheep, the other one’s solitary cow. The wretched inhabitants, overawed by the armed force, begged, and borrowed, and sold—and many of them travelled thirty miles to the distant town—to raise the money.

The Priest and the People

I visited those dwellings of misery. I saw the ragged father nursing his babe at the hearth, before the damp smoking turf heap that was not a fire. I saw the two bare naked children trembling beside him: they may have sold their clothing to pay the tax. I saw the solitary stool, the broken table, and the cracked iron pot—the sole furniture of that squalid hut. This was the home of a “farmer” on the land of a model landlord in wild Donegal. This was a sample of the starving suffering race, whom model landlordism had reduced to misery—whom the benevolent agent had said “you might trample down like grass on the wayside.”

Gallagher is Dead

When I was in the district, some forty-six of the sheep, under the care of the one Scotchman who still remains, had disappeared. It was a wet and stormy evening, and winter wore its worst horrors in that bleak and desolate region. On such a night, and in such a season, the police compelled the unfortunate peasants—those ragged shivering creatures who were starving on potatoes and sea-weed—to wander over the mountains in search of the missing sheep, whilst the lucky Scotchman, probably, sat at home and drank his toddy.

And mark the issue: so fearful was the fatigue which the unhappy beings underwent in that search for the Scotchman’s strayed sheep, in the blackness of winter night, through marsh and over mountain, that one man—a fine, manly, handsome young fellow, named Cornelius Gallagher, of Dore, sunk down under the labour, eight miles from his own residence.

I was present when the priest—a few hours after Gallagher had sunk almost lifeless on the mountain—returned from his side, and mournfully cried—“They have killed him: he cannot live.” Early next morning, a messenger was at the door with the sad words, “Gallagher is dead!”



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