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Estates and Landed Society in Galway.

Patrick Melvin, Estates and Landed Society in Galway (Dublin: Eamonn de Burca, 2012, 484 pp., [euro]75 hardback)

Readers' fascination with life on the landed estates in Ireland is understandable because it concerns a virtually lost world of interaction among landowners, their servants and tenants in settings which contrast luxury with appalling poverty. The study of a landed estate involves lengthy research, often in several different archives, and the examination of thousands of letters, deeds and estate papers so, understandably, the majority of authors concentrate on a single family and estate. Only a very courageous scholar attempts to tackle several families, and indeed no other scholar has successfully examined a whole county of landed families in depth. The great exception here is Patrick Melvin, whose volume is a highly insightful foray into the landed families of County Galway on which he has worked for more than two decades.

To put his achievement into perspective, there are only a very few volumes on county families which usually concentrate on a string of case studies - e.g. T. Bunbury and A. Kavanagh, The landed gentry and aristocracy of County Kildare (2004); T. Bunbury, The landed gentry and aristocracy. Wicklow, vol. I (2005). Then there are the seminal works by Dooley (2007) and Vaughan (1994) which chronicle the landed classes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries across the island. In contrast, Melvin's summarises the activities of 180 families in County Galway, one of Ireland's largest counties. He provides exhaustive information on both main and cadet branches, and, most unusually, he is quite prepared to admit to any gaps in his knowledge, though these gaps are few. His long research into family and official archives, unpublished records, newspapers, records in the Registry of Deeds, State Papers, government reports and travellers' accounts, have permitted Melvin to unearth many new facts and bring new insights to our attention. His text is heavily footnoted with a vast source material, which readers with a special interest in County Galway may wish to explore.

The volume starts with a laudatory foreword by the late Knight of Glin and is organised into nine chapters - origins of estates; estate management; social life of the gentry; marriage, family and careers; gentry as landlords; county governance; politics; class and historical identity - and a conclusion. In addition there are two appendices: one on Galway country houses, and another on Galway landowners at the end of the nineteenth century, showing the acreages and valuations of their estates. The volume also contains 240 valuable images of country houses in County Galway and 35 illustrations of individuals and tombs

The history of the landed families in County Galway is markedly different from the history of such families in other counties, a point that Melvin illustrates in a masterly fashion. By the end of the nineteenth century the county had 108 proprietors of 3,000 acres and over, the largest grouping of landowners in any Irish county by far. Almost one-third were descended from the 'Tribal' families, who had resided in the city of Galway since the Middle Ages while the survival of so many Irish and Norman or Old English families in the county is also distinctive. A good proportion of Galway families remained Catholic despite confiscations and the Penal Laws of the eighteenth century. Wolfe Tone noted that Counties Galway and Mayo 'had the cream and flower of the Catholic gentry' (p. 395).

The background of these families varied. Some descended from the city of Galway 'Tribes' who, largely because of their association with lawyers, managed to escape Strafford's attempts at confiscation in the early seventeenth century. Several of these landowners, unlike many of the Burkes (all connected to the Clanricarde family), were restored to their lands after the Cromwellian period. Another category descends from Catholic families of the Pale, transplanted into the county by Cromwell. A good number of these families, including the Bellews, Nugents, Geoghegans, Nettervilles, Chevers, Aylwards, Butlers and others, survived 'as substantial landowners' (p. 49).

The Galway gentry differed from that in other counties by the fact that the tribal families were so active in town and country affairs. Many estates survived only through external income (from sources other than land), including the legal profession, commerce and banking: indeed 'economic diversification, land mortgages and legal expertise' were often key to survival (p. 57).

Another unique aspect of County Galway was the overlordship and dominance by the Clanricarde family. Historically, the Clanricarde Burkes owned most of the county and claimed headrent from much of its land. Aside from their seats at Portumna and Loughrea, they had country houses at Dunkellin, Kilcornan and Clondagoff. Latterly, they also held the influential office of Lord Lieutenant of the county for a very long time, and they served as a major stabilising influence.

Many of the gentry families had family, army and commercial connections with France, Austria, Portugal, Russia and the West Indies. Members of Catholic families like the Kirwans and the O'Kellys served in the French and Austrian armies in the eighteenth century, while Catholic families such as the Dillons, O'Kellys, McDermotts and the O'Connors intermarried with the European (especially French) aristocracy. In addition, it was common for younger sons to be employed (or to seek employment) in the British army and the civil administration of the Empire.

Commercial contacts remained crucial for the survival of many of the landed families. For example, the Nolans of Loughboy, who became Protestant, had their decaying 'estate ... secured by merchant members in Lisbon' (p. 53). Robert Percy French of Monivea, who married in 1863 the heiress of a Russian aristocrat, left his child seven estates on the Volga, along with five large mansions. The West Indies was another important source of revenue for several Galway families, who held highly lucrative estates worked by slaves. Younger sons of the ousted Kiltolla Blakes moved permanently to the West Indies.

The volume contains many novel insights and debunks several widely accepted conclusions. Absenteeism was not all that common, because most of the County Galway landowners resided on their estates, while agents were often relatives. On the topic of absentee landlordism, Melvin agrees with the contemporary view that 'if estates were properly managed the charge of absenteeism had little validity' (p. 96). On the other hand permanent residence did not necessarily make 'good' landlords or ensure their estates would be improved. The Martins of Ballynahinch were an example of resident landlords whose vast estate was largely undeveloped.

The county was by no means isolated from advances in agriculture and records show that several estates were characterised by extensive improvements, including drainage and afforestation on a very large scale (e.g., Lord Ashtown at Woodlawn; Lord Clonbrock on the Clonbrock estate). Richard Geoghegan of Bunowen visited Holland in the eighteenth century to learn about reclaiming land, while the steward of the Kylemore estate travelled to Scotland for a similar purpose, and he subsequently converted 3,000 bad Galway acres into good land. Women even participated in improvements. For instance, the wife of the third Lord Clonbrock was fond of formal gardens and brought designs to Clonbrock from her home in Oxfordshire. Several of the gentry were on the forefront of agricultural innovation in the 1830s, such as for example, Robert Bodkin of Annagh and Pierse Blake of Corofin, stimulated by the founding of agricultural societies, such as that at Ballinasloe, which was of pivotal importance in the county.

Melvin writes eloquently about the social life of the gentry and the founding of their clubs - the Connaught Club in Dublin (1825) and the Galway County Club (1836), the huge sums of money spent by the gentry on electioneering, and the casualties of duelling, a custom which persisted into the early nineteenth century. Edmund Kirwan of Woodfield claimed that the Tribes never paid any debts, defied all persons by duelling and kept their houses guarded by tenants. Many of the families concealed their Jacobite leanings or Cromwellian descent, while others were inordinately proud of their ancestry: a member of the D'Arcy family had an eleven-foot-long pedigree.

Melvin relates how and where the gentry travelled and concluded that, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, many of the 'secondary' gentry seldom thought of going to Dublin or other big cities and purchased their requirements from travelling peddlers. They tended never to visit England or the continent. In contrast, the richer families were quite cosmopolitan, and regularly visited England and sojourned on the continent.

The volume is strong on description of estates. The 240 illustrations of country houses (mostly photographs, some of which are unique) include several English seats and show that there were relatively few really large country houses in the county (e.g., Dunsandle, Garbally, Castle Hackett and Woodlawn). Most of the remaining seats were of a modest size. The gentry ranged from grandees to 'parish gentry' (p. 387), some of whom lived a very shabby existence, despite their substantial houses, by the middle of the nineteenth century (e.g., Ballynahinch, Eyrecourt). Melvin contrasts these households with beautifully furnished seats, many with stupendous libraries and art collections, and all which were later sold (e.g., Mount Bellew).

A very interesting chapter on relationships with tenants deals with criticisms of the landlord class and the elaborate interdependence and interaction between landlords, servants and tenants. Annual service duties for tenants, a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, survived for a long time on some estates. Once-a-year traditional celebrations, paid for by landlords, included large gatherings of tenants and servants, and took place on country house lawns and in large barns. Several landowners subsidised the building of houses for their tenants, including Lord Clancarty on the Garbally estate, Lord Clonbrock at Ahascragh; and Lord Ardilaun at Cong. The effectiveness of several of these landowners was only possible through the presence of very competent land agents (e.g., Thomas Bermingham on the Clonbrock estate). Not all villages and small towns flourished. Problems occurred at Clifden under John D'Arcy, and at the smaller villages of Eyrecourt and Lawrencetown. The lack of any manufacturing industry had a more negative effect, although Melvin notes exceptions such as the Monivea estate.

Enforced consolidation of tenant holdings and clearances were uncommon; according to Melvin, 'none of the gentry' appears to have favoured this (p. 113) and, although there was a proposal to transfer tenants to Connemara at the height of the Terry Alt troubles in 1831, this did not materialise. There were no major evictions or clearances and the scale of emigration was modest, so relationships with tenants remained cordial on most of the estates for a very long time, though, inevitably, these soured later.

Many of the Catholic gentry supported Catholic Emancipation. Nevertheless, agrarian discontent and unrest, and sectarian conflict hit the county as they did in many other parts of the island. At first the Landleaguers primarily turned their wrath against Protestant landowners but Catholic landowners were also faced with violence and abuse. Many of the larger Catholic landlords had much less enthusiasm for Home Rule, remained conservative in their political leanings and were not necessarily supportive of Catholic issues. However, some of the failing or declining gentry actually supported the Repeal movement.

A few notables among the Protestant gentry advanced the cause of Nationalism. Examples were Lady Gregory and her nephews Shawe-Taylor and Hugh Lane, who became more aristocratic nationalists than nationalists in the political sense. Edward Martyn put his considerable fortune at the service of his beliefs and became a prime mover in the Celtic Revival movement but, like Yeats and O'Grady, he was an elitist with an abhorrence of democracy.

The volume chronicles the waning of the gentry's political power. For example, the Famine led to higher Poor Rates levied on landowners, and an increase in powers of government bureaucracy. These powers were expressed through the Board of Works, through government-sponsored drainage works, and a government impetus toward more progressive agricultural production and instruction. The decline of the Grand Juries was largely caused by an increase in the power of civil servants and the growing influence of Dublin Castle on county affairs. Melvin documents how the gentry lost out to government bureaucracy and growing nationalism, but they also lost out to the Catholic clergy and, eventually, they lost most of their land. This process was accelerated by the Famine.

Many estates were plagued by long-term leasing, high mortgages, entails and multitudes of claimants. In the province of Connaught 'not even 5% of the land was free from settlements ... and not 1% was free from mortgages' (p. 75). Together these factors placed many estates away from the sort of development that could have resulted in full productivity. Melvin cites O'Shaunnessy who believed that the land system was 'good for the preservation of the aristocracy but bad for agriculture' (p. 76). Starting in the 1850s, the Encumbered Estate Courts were kept busy selling bankrupt Galway estates, which ultimately constituted the greatest change in landownership since the seventeenth century. Melvin also illustrates how the break-up of the Clanricarde estate during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the takeover of the vast Martin estate of Ballynahinch, benefited the new owners and created a more varied landownership.

There is no doubt that Melvin has set a very high standard for future books on the landed gentry of other counties and it will be hard for anyone to exceed his standards. He has a high reputation as an expert on Galway and its families, and his generosity in sharing information is well known, but there are a few matters that one wishes he had done differently. Some of his text is redundant. He has made extensive use of family memoirs (e.g., those of the Blake, Clanmorris, Dillon, Eyre and de Stacpoole families) but, as authors often exaggerate the importance of their own families while omitting important facts that are less creditable, a more critical approach to these sources might have been appropriate. Also, the link between the photographs of country houses and the main text, despite a relatively brief appendix, is underdeveloped. More importantly, the index does not cover footnotes and sometimes omits keywords from the main text. However, these limitations are minor in comparison to the very large contribution to scholarship that Melvin has achieved, for which readers and scholars can be truly grateful.

Rolf Loeber University of Pittsburgh George Gossip Ballinderry Park, Co. Galway
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Author:Loeber, Rolf
Publication:Irish Economic and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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