William Sydney Clements, 3rd Earl of Leitrim (Lord Leitrim)
After the famine
Population decline and social change
Leitrim lost a third of its population between 1841 - 1861, when it went from over 150,000 to 104,000. (Today, it is about 25,000.) In those twenty years, not only were the numbers significant, but also the type of people that were most effected. The whole labouring class effectively disappeared. Between 1841 and 1851, 83% of the poorest houses were destroyed or left empty; at the same time, the number of large farmhouses doubled. See Figures 13 and 12 on Housing in County Leitrim. Many of the labourers and their families had perished in the famine. For the survivors, the solution for a majority was emigration. Of those who emigrated from Ireland between 1851-55, it is estimated that 80-90% were common farm labourers or servants, ie Catholic, Irish-speaking and illiterate. Leitrim had one of the highest emigration rates of all - due mostly to a combination of large number of smallholdings and high rates of eviction. There was also the pressure of heavy poor rates: a large proportion of rate payers held lands valued at £4-£5 - just above the rates threshold. As the population decreased, small landholdings were subsumed into larger ones. The nail in the coffin for the labouring class was a move, after the famine, from arable-based agriculture to less labour-intensive livestock farming. Some of the surviving landless, unemployed became small farmers or joined together to rebel against the new farming class.
For all those who remained, the social map of Ireland had changed. Many of the old values and traditions were lost, and English mores were adopted. Irish ceased to be used at all: it was discouraged by English-speaking teachers and parents who believed their children had a more promising future if they spoke English. Men and women waited longer to marry and more people remained single and the land became the focus of attention. Substantial dowries were offered with farmers' daughters and marriages were calculatedly arranged around the land and its potential productivity, which helped to give Irish wives a higher economic status than in most other rural societies. Illegitimacy rates also decreased - due less to the Church's influence and more to obligations to family and kin. Education was important, with high levels of literacy and attendance at school encouraged. Though you were twice as likely to attend school if you were a boy than a girl. By 1861, two-thirds of men over 15 could at least read, and nearly half could read and write. Newspapers were widely read - and they were by no means limited to local stories: they carried a wide range of news, from Egypt and Abyssinia, to India, the United States, Britain and the rest of Ireland. Advertisements from London-based watchmakers and wine sellers ran alongside those for local services and products.
For the new farming class, increased comfort meant meat more than once a week, probably a new deal table and dresser in the kitchen, perhaps a new parlour - with a piano, and maybe a son entering a profession.
Through the 1850s, the political climate changed. Prior to and during the famine, Leitrim was one of the most `disturbed' counties in Ireland. The situation was so bad in Mohill that it was one of the areas covered by the Prevention of Crime and Outrage in Ireland bill passed at the end of 1847. This legislation had been brought in to deal with the immediate perceived threat of crime and violence, and prohibited the carrying of unlicensed arms or the holding of unlicensed arms in a dwelling house. Over 60% of victims of crime were farmers; the main grievances and motives were occupation of land, rent, unemployment and labourers' wages. At this time, there was more animosity between labourers and farmers than against landlords, and Leitrim was one of the few counties to produce `intense sectarian convulsions' in 1852. As tenants recovered from the deprivation and disease after the famine, the old resentments rose again, but this time it was accompanied by a growing sense of nationalism. This would culminate later in the Home Rule and Land League movements, but in the 1850s and `60s was manifesting itself in resentment and petty acts of rebellion.
In 1851, there was a fire in Lough Rynn Castle, but the local Royal Irish Constabulary managed to extinguish it before it could cause much damage. It's not known what caused the fire, but at that time groups like the Molly Maguires were very active in Leitrim and it could well have been an act of arson.
Land and tenants's rights - and organised societies
While there was also a rise in general disorder in the county, much of the recorded crime originated from disagreement over land and tenants' rights. Much of it was organised and the courts could not rely on victims helping them get a conviction. Even though the victims frequently knew the perpetrators, they tended not to co-operate with the police or courts and there was general suspicion of any actions by the magistrates or police. In 1853, shops were banned from opening on Sundays. A local shopkeeper called it a `harsh illegal and arbitrary order . . . rendered still more so when enforced by our tyrannical police officer Mr Waters, whose bad feeling towards the poor people of this country has already been well tested.'
Evictions were frequent and those who took over the homes and lands of evicted tenants were often subject to abuse, their new homes burned or wrecked. Some were murdered. In 1851, two threatening letters were found in the house of Obadia Mee in Mohill directing him to `clear out of that country' or to `expect the same death as Brooks', who had been brutally murdered. The notices also threatened William Lawder, the Agent and Henry Huson, the Bailiff with similar treatment, for `presuming to stock the country with Co. Cavan Protestants'. It appeared that a number of those who took over lands from which tenants had been evicted were from Co. Cavan and were `now daily suffering injuries' from their new neighbours. Labourers were also targeted and threatened as another way to get at the landholders. In one instance, workers on their way to Francis Nisbett's farm were warned by a gang, armed and firing shots, not to work for under a shilling a day or to `mark the consequences'. These assaults were usually carried out by organised gangs of `Ribbon Societies' like the Molly Maguires. According to the court there was `a gang of able-bodied robbers committing outrages every night in the town and neighbourhood who carry out their depredations without the least fear of molestation'. After two particularly brutal murders, the priest in Mohill pronounced a curse for five years on all those who joined these groups. (It was not uncommon for priests to use the pulpit to impose curses, `stares' or `threats of sickness' to direct their parishioners rather than relying on Roman law.)
Petty crime and disturbance
As local Justice of the Peace, Sydney had his hands full. Mohill was apparently a lively spot with frequent riots and fights, most of which had no political or sectarian basis. Fair day could be hazardous: as well as avoiding one of many fights that erupted, people had to watch out for the `numerous gangs' of petty thieves and pick-pockets that roamed the fair. The local constabulary had a busy time breaking up the regular fracas. Sometimes the police themselves were the subject of attack. In one case, two constables who tried to break up a riot were assaulted and beaten `in a most savage manner'. It is not recorded whether one of them was the tyrannical Mr. Waters.
Among the catalogue of offences recorded in the Petty Sessions in Mohill, there are reports of shots being fired, windows broken and arson attacks on houses - not to mention burglaries, robberies, poisoning, infanticide and cattle-stealing. Even the Church in Mohill was burgled, the thieves making away with chalices, surplices, pew candles and other items. And individuals did not hesitate to use the law to right injustices. In one session at Mohill, a Maria Cashian won a case against her employer Pat Conefrey who, she claimed, failed to pay her a quarter's wages. In the same session Ann McGarty, four months into her marriage, sued her husband Pat for beating her and making her life miserable. Every week, there were cases of farmers suing each other over cattle and asses trespassing on neighbours' property.
The magistrates' sentencing policy is somewhat difficult to understand in a modern context. Outlaws accused of taking forcible possession of land usually got a sentence of three months in gaol and assault and riot charges usually merited a fine of about20 shillings (£1). Though sometimes the offenders got gaol sentences, like John Clyne who found himself serving two weeks in gaol for striking John Hunt with a horse-whip on Fair Day. In contrast, the standard sentence for robbery was ten years transportation, with little distinction between seriousness of the crime or the criminal. At one court, a woman was convicted for stealing linen and a twelve-year old boy was found guilty of stealing bread and clothes: both got ten years transportation. Other offences were dealt with more pragmatically. When fourteen men were brought into Mohill Gaol for drinking during unlicensed hours, the Governor `cut their hair close-crop and gave each a cold shower or bath, twenty-four hours in solitary, and then sent them home'. There is some evidence that Sydney and his agent, George West, were not too harsh in their sentencing - at least in the early 1850s. In November 1851, West got a threatening letter signed Maryanne Maguire directing him forthwith to dispossess Richard Reynolds the Clerk of the Petty Sessions from a house in Cloone rented to him by West, because Reynolds was `obnoxious' and refused public access to a pump on his land. The note implies that they are treating West kindly by giving him notice of their intentions, since he was always a `parchal (sic) juror'. In another, the Earl wrote to West, telling him of two outstanding riot cases in Mohill - one at Burbidges Public House, the other a fight on the previous Fair Day - and suggesting that he might dispose of them `by a small penalty the parties being all in Gaol'.
Another concern for the authorities was the anomalous number of people attending the public Dispensary in Mohill. In October 1867, the Medical Officer urged that there be an Enquiry into why there should be 1,104 seeking treatment in Mohill - three times the number in Carrigallen. The high cost (£175 a year) of keeping the Dispensary going was one issue, but the other was a deep suspicion that the good people of Mohill were taking undue advantage of the service.
Mohill 1856: a thriving town
Mohill, however, was not all crime and lawlessness. Slater's Directory in 1856 gives an account of the town which offers another perspective. In it, Mohill was described as a prosperous, thriving market town whose principal trade was in `corn, provisions and yarn'.
(Main Street) contains several good shops well-stocked with the various articles of fashion and of local requisites. Great progress is manifest in its general appearance and of its size is considered one of the most stirring, and is certainly the most thriving town of any in the surrounding counties.
The town had no less than three hotels and posting houses. The main street was lined with shops including two apothecaries, haberdashers, bakers, nail-maker, two leather shops, a feather dealer and five drapers. Further progress was planned with the completion of the Dublin-Sligo railroad in 1862. There were also regular social events like the Mohill Races, held in May each year. While some of these holidays were marred by fights, others were peaceful days out when the extra police brought in for the day could join in the festivities. And they drew large crowds. The first race of the annual races, the Mohill Traders' Plate carried a prize of 30 sovereigns and would attract a `vast concourse of people' spread out across the hills of Boeshill and Coolabawn. From these vantage points, the spectators had a perfect view of the racecourse below and of the surrounding countryside stretching as far as Lough Rynn. A contemporary reporter writes of his contentment contemplating a view that was `a prospect seldom to be seen in other parts of Ireland yet quite unknown and less appreciated'.
From benevolent paternalism to autocratic control
Leitrim would have been no different from other places except that, as time went on, the general discontent among tenants was exacerbated by resentment against Lord Leitrim's increasingly high-handed, and eventually tyrannical, approach to managing his estates. But the tenants were not the only ones on the receiving end of the Earl's autocratic actions. Throughout Thomas Larcom's under-secretaryship, Dublin Castle found itself engaged in noisy squabbles with Lord Leitrim. In 1856, Larcom, wrote `the County was always troublesome, but by far the most troublesome and turbulent thing in it was the noble Earl of that name'.
It seems that the inheritance of the earldom in 1854 marked a turning point in the way Sydney played his role as landlord. On his father's death, Sydney gained control over lands in Leitrim, Donegal, Kildare and Galway, covering a total of 94,535 acres (147.7 square miles) and valued at £19,692 - making it one of the largest land-holdings in Ireland. It's effect seems to have been to increase his sense of omnipotence. After gaining the Earldom, Sydney's earlier, benevolent paternalism completely disappeared and was replaced with a controlling, despotic approach to dealing with his tenants - and others.
As late as 1954, Shane Leslie felt able and justified in writing a negative and downright vitriolic account of Lord Leitrim in an introduction to his play Lord Mulroy's Ghost. The play, he claims, dramatises the life and well-deserved death of Lord Leitrim, a man who `lived on in the midst of his great properties, a terror to man and an offence to God from the year 1854'. He repeats and embellishes many of the negative stories and legends surrounding the Earl - including ritual and regular despoiling of virgins on the estates. There is no doubt that Lord Leitrim committed misdemeanours against his tenants, but whether it would be `charitable to think he was not human at all' as Leslie asserts, is questionable. Quotes from personal diaries of friends of the Earl show he was held in some esteem by at least a few people.
John Ynr Burges was the widower of Caroline, Lord Leitrim's sister and one of the few to hold the Earl in some regard. On the day of Lord Leitrim's assassination, he wrote `He, poor, dear fellow, was always a kind and affectionate friend to my daughter Mary. This dreadful end after a long life of trouble and effort to preserve his property is most mysterious. He devoted himself to its improvement and welfare and did all in his human power to benefit as well as to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. The improvements during his time are quite wonderful. The gardens at Lough Rynn showed his taste, and the whole place, from a wilderness, he has left a fine possession.'
The truth, as ever, lies somewhere between both viewpoints.
Provoking the Board of Guardians
The records of the weekly meetings of the Board of Guardians of Mohill Workhouse illustrate Lord Leitrim's irascibility. He seems to have enjoyed provoking the board, calling them up on the slightest issue and causing long debates over points of order. He hated late starts to meetings: when the chairman was two minutes late for successive meetings, he insisted on others taking the chair and starting the meeting without the latecomers. During meetings, he had no time for long discussions about points that were perfectly clear to him. He halted one debate over whether the floor in the workhouse needed urgent work, as had been indicated in a Commissioners' report. As the Board argued one point after another, Lord Leitrim left the meeting and returned moments later declaring that he had just been to the infirmary and that it was `impossible to have a better floor in it, that it was a capital floor'. Having made his point, he walked out. In another meeting, he argued against an increase in salary for the clerk of the workhouse, interrupting other speakers with frequent points of order. In this case, William Lawder in frustration told him `you are out of order yourself, and you are always so; I will not submit to be interrupted by Lord Leitrim'. The Chair, no doubt in fear of retribution from Lord Leitrim, ruled Lawder to be out of order. He was a stickler for rules. In one instance the board wanted the master of the workhouse to join a meeting for a specific discussion. Lord Leitrim argued vociferously against it: in his view only members should attend meetings, no matter how good a contribution an outsider might make. Unusually, he lost this argument.
Outside his activities at the workhouse, the Earl continued his father's tradition of sponsoring education. But again, he did it his way. In the 1840s, he had offered children on the Estate clothing - flannel dresses for girls and tweed suits for boys - in return for attending school. By the 1860s, he was still pro-education, but forbade the children to have books at home. His reasons were threefold: the children could not afford books; they had no time at home to study; and if the children studied at home, they would make teachers redundant.
Poor tenant relations
His ideas for improvements were often not accepted by the tenants. This was undoubtedly due in part to an inherent resistance by the tenants, but must also have been caused by the way he went about implementing improvements. New ways - such as the introduction of new breeds of cattle and sheep - were forced on tenants rather than through any sort of discussion or diplomacy. And enforcement was thorough: one tenant found all his cattle replaced one morning without any consultation or communication from Lord Leitrim. Neither did the Earl like things being done without his consent. When one tenant planted potatoes in land without previously seeking permission, he ordered them to be dug up immediately. When he found that another tenant had built a new house without seeking his permission, he ordered the roof to be taken off and the chimneys knocked in, though this particular order may have derived more from Sydney's views on population control. He believed that if he prevented rooms being added to houses, it would have the effect of reducing family size and thereby controlling population growth. He also had a habit of supervising work closely. One story tells of a hapless labourer who, as he quietly cut turf, was happened upon by Lord Leitrim who proceeded to instruct him in a more correct and efficient way to handle his implement and then waited and watched while the man continued his work.
The Earl had no tolerance for disobedience and dealt quickly with any recalcitrance from his estate staff: he sacked his best blacksmith simply because the man, in contravention of Lord Leitrim's dictate, allowed tenants to warm themselves by his fire while they waited to pay their rent. The Earl also had ways of dealing with troublesome or disagreeable tenants: if they were lucky, he would pay them to emigrate, else he increased their rents or ordered their eviction.
Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote authoritatively on land ownership and landlords in Ireland in The Reason Why, published in 1953 by McGraw-Hill Book Co. Lord Leitrim is mentioned.
Evictions by Lord Leitrim stemmed from two different reasons during different periods. During the Famine, some tenants were evicted for non-payment of rent. After the Famine, the compulsion seemed to be much more about clearing the land to increase its productivity and viability.
The evictions started mostly as Lord Leitrim's way of imposing his own rights and privileges on his estates: the idea that tenants might have the right to improve their holdings at their own will was anathema to him. From the 1860s, he had ceased to support the Liberals and voted with the Conservatives. In 1870, he spoke vociferously against Gladstone's Land Act in the House of Lords, believing it to be a gross encroachment on his rights as a landlord; he was one of only eight peers who voted against it. By the late 1850s, his evictions had won notoriety for their indiscriminate nature. Unlike some of his peers, Lord Leitrim showed no nepotism to Protestant farmers, and was as likely to order their eviction as he was their Catholic neighbours. He is said to have issued `lavish and pitiless notices to quit', going so far as to print them on the backs of rent receipts. Evictions were ordered to accomplish land improvements such as creating new plantations of trees or `for the purpose of revising the townland'. In November 1850, twelve houses were demolished on one day by the sub-sheriff and a posse. The tenants had held the land for only two years and had inherited arrears of cess and poor rates. They offered to pay a year's rent there and then, but the bailiff refused it and called for the evictions to go ahead. Nine families were made homeless at one of the worst times of the year. It was alleged that the bailiff acted without the sanction of Sydney, to whom the land belonged. Even if that was true, given Sydney's reputation and record there was reason for the bailiff to believe that he would have Sydney's full support.
Most of his land was held on an `At Will' basis, rather than the 21 year leases which had been common earlier. As if the uncertainty of the lease was not enough, the increases in rent proved impossible for many tenants. Even with a good market for produce, a rent-rise from £12 to £18 for a ten-acre farm was often just too much to cope with.
In 1858, Lord Leitrim ordered an eviction which The Nation, the widely read newspaper of the nationalist Young Irelanders, believed could have had dire consequences. Sydney ordered that Gortletteragh Church be repossessed for non-payment of rent. In doing so, he over-turned his father's decision not to take rent for the site. When the parish priest refused to vacate the church, he was served with a notice to quit. On the appointed day, the church was repossessed with a force of a thousand men, comprising police and military with fixed bayonets and the crowbar brigade. Six thousand men turned out to resist the possession, coming from Longford, Roscommon and Westmeath as well as from all over Leitrim. The event, however, passed peacefully - due apparently to diplomatic and negotiation skills of the parish priest. In the end, Lord Leitrim capitulated somewhat, ordering rent to be paid for the land around the church, but not for the church itself.
Apparently this story caused little surprise in the country. The tone of The Nation's report on the story reflected a resigned acceptance of the events. It reported that Lord Leitrim was `already famous for such proceedings towards his tenantry as not many even of his own order dare imitate'.
The first assassination attempts
Resentment continued to grow. In the 1860s there were several assassination attempts. In September 1860, Lord Leitrim was fired at in Mohill Main Street after a meeting in the workhouse. As he turned the corner, a loud explosion was heard and witnesses could see dense smoke coming from James Murphy's shop. The Leitrim Gazette reported that Lord Leitrim continued walking down the street `unawed', as if nothing untoward had happened. Two policemen ran immediately into the shop and found James Murphy with a blunderbuss, a loaded pistol, two daggers and an amount of ammunition. Two days earlier, Murphy had sent a note to Lord Leitrim challenging him to a duel at Cullinan's crossroads to `take satisfaction for your ruffianly conduct towards my wife'. Lord Leitrim evidently ignored the note and experienced the consequences. Murphy was arrested and sentenced to transportation. He was later reprieved by Lord Lieutenant Carlisle on grounds of insanity and ordered to be detained in an asylum. It transpired that the man had a habit of challenging anybody who spoke with his wife, believing them to have some nefarious interest. Lord Leitrim was disgusted with the reduced sentence and became even more disenchanted with the Government. He was infuriated with Carlisle and never again accorded the man respect or friendship. It says something about Lord Leitrim's character that three years later, he could not face the idea of Carlisle staying on his land in Galway, and filled the Maam Hotel with tenants rather than leave a room free. In London, the satirical magazine Punch reported the story, treating it as the petty farce it was. Carlisle retaliated by stripping Lord Leitrim of his posts as Justice of the Peace for Leitrim, Donegal and Galway.
The Noble Earl of Leitrim, being an Irish Landlord, has of course been shot at: but although a man of some mark he had the fortune to be missed. It is the opinion of his Lordship that the Irish Government omitted duly to punish the author of the outrage which he experienced. To this impression on the mind of Lord Leitrim is ascribed the subjoined letter, which that nobleman wrote to one of his vassals, keeper of the Maam Hotel, in the Western Highlands of Ireland, through which Her Majesty's Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle happened to be journeying at the time on a tour of inspection: -
King. I will be obliged to you to fill the hotel with my tenants forthwith. Let every room be occupied immediately, and continue to be occupied; and when so occupied, you will refuse admittance to Lord Carlisle and his party. If there should be the slightest difficulty as to filling the hotel, or the occupation of the rooms, my desire is that you will fill each room with the workmen; but you must not admit Lord Carlisle, and consequently the rooms should be occupied previous to his coming there, any orders you may have received notwithstanding. I rely on your observing my wishes to the letter. Yours faithfully, Leitrim.
P.S. I will pay for the tenants using the rooms.
From Punch, October 24, 1863
After another attempted shooting, the magistrates in Mohill dismissed the case and ordered the arms to be returned to the two accused. Lord Leitrim saw this as further proof of a political conspiracy against him.
The Earl became increasingly isolated. In the House of Lords, his few friends finally deserted him after he presented false statistics relating to crime in Leitrim in a petition against agrarian outrage. The figures were proven untrue by the local magistrates.