" A kind Irish landlord reigned despotic in the ardent affections of the tenantry,
their pride and pleasure being to obey and support him."
(Sir Jonah Barrington)
Karl Marx said that landlords love to reap where they never sowed and the landlords of nineteenth century Ireland got a bad press.
John Hamilton of Donegal was an exception to the rule. In 1821, at the age of 21, he inherited Brownhall Estate, 20,000 acres in County Donegal. Most of the estate was in the vicinity of Donegal town. He also owned a large area of land in the Finn Valley.
From the time he took over the estate until his death in 1884 his main concern was for his tenants. In 1841 Fr. Eugene McCafferty wrote that he hoped "that the Lord may grant you happy and lengthened days here among a people to whom you are and always have been so useful". And years later Fr. John Doherty, (who was no lover of landlords) wrote of how, "his many social virtues, the kindliness of his disposition, and the natural warmth and goodness of his nature have endeared him to his tenantry". It is said that, during the famine, only one of Hamilton's tenants died of starvation.
He kept a diary during his three-score years as a landlord which was published in book form, with an introduction by Rev. H. C. White, B.A. during the eighteen nineties. Rev. White wrote that when Hamilton took over the estate he found a very backward peasantry and, " . . . ascribed their wretched conditions to the demoralizing effect of penal laws that depressed industry."
He built a cottage on the island of St. Ernan and it is an indication of his popularity that his grateful tenants build a causeway over which, on completion, the landlord's carriage made a historic journey.
A stone plaque proclaims:
mutual love between John Hamilton and the people of Donegal, both his tenants and others, through a time of bitter famine and pestilence.
One historian summed up the great and generous man, "He devoted sixty years of his life to improving the conditions of his tenants. He moved freely among them, giving advice and listening to their complaints; he visited their homes and knew the particular circumstances of every family on his estate. Hamilton was not typical; indeed men of his stamp are rare in any community. But it is the very fact that he was untypical that makes his experiences instructive."
He started his journal early in life and in it he showed a literary ability and a keen power of observation as well as a deep understanding of mankind:
SEVEN TO TEN YEARS OF AGE:
The diary chronicling events over most of the nineteenth century covers such subjects as relatives deaths, the Duke of Wellington's advice on education, the author's time in Cambridge (he was fluent in six languages) and the state of agriculture. Detailed accounts of Orange demonstrations, 'educating and civilizing backward peasants' and a sermon by Dr. Newman are covered in an erudite and readable fashion. With, in-dept, accounts of the famine and the treatment of prisoners, one revealing entry deals with "Christianity and war." In the Barnasmore Bugle, of Friday 20th December 1884, the editor wrote, after Hamilton's death,
" . . . six years ago when John Devoy called for the 'abolition of landlordism' and a year later when Charles Stewart Parnell said ' You must show the landlords that you intend to keep a firm grip on your homesteads' they could not possibly have been referring to men like John Hamilton. Had Arthur Young lived in the time of Mr. Hamilton he would have been reluctant to use adjectives like, lazy, trifling, inattentive, negligent slobbering and profligate to describe all Irish landlords. We, the people of Donegal, have lost one of our finest."
THE LAST ENTRY in John Hamilton's diary made shortly before his death shows that he was, truly, a man before his time:
The journals of John Hamilton,
are now available on CD-ROM.
Details from: firstname.lastname@example.org