Friday, January 1, 2010

Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

    " 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:


    My dear good grandmother, Lady Longford, took
    us as her own, and her house was our own and her
    heart a mother's heart to us till ten years after my
    mother's death. I kissed my kind grandmother for
    the last time a few minutes before her death. Not
    long after my mother's death we had all three a
    severe illness, measles, I think, and after it we were
    taken for change of air to the Secretary's Lodge in
    the Phoenix Park by our kind aunt, Lady Wellesley,
    Sir Arthur being then Chief Secretary for Ireland.
    One evening, while there, a curious circumstance
    occurred, considering who one of the person s concerned
    came afterwards to be. Sir Arthur and my
    uncle Henry Pakenham (afterwards Dean of St.
    Patrick's) took my brother and me out to walk. Evening
    came on-dinner-time drew near, and the
    boys were weakly and could not run fast, so Sir
    Arthur took me on his back, and my uncle Henry
    took Edward and set off running. Soon it became a
    race. I was a good deal the heavier and my uncle
    Henry, then about twenty-two, was very active and
    left us far behind fort he first couple of hundred
    yards. But Sir Arthur had bottom and began to
    regain his lost ground . And at last came up close to
    his antagonist, shouting, and both put out their
    utmost speed and both shouted with all their lungs.
    The gate was to be the winning post and with a wild
    Hollah! Sir Arthur passed to the front and won by
    a few yards, but in half a minute was a prisoner in
    the custody of the guard mounted at the gate, and
    who in the dusk did not perceive who the disturbers
    of the peace were.

    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 people to be worked upon
    are very different from the Irish population of 1798,
    and require different handling. Imperfect as their
    education has been, they are far in advance of those
    of former days. They can be got at to be raised in
    the scale of the peoples, as the insurgents of 1798
    could not be got at , -and they cannot be put down
    and quenched as the men of 1798 were by brute
    force. It is true that stirred up by agitating orators,
    they seek and some expect things which in no
    possible case they can get. Their leaders or mis-leaders
    generally know this well, but find it suits
    their purpose to excite - the masses by false hopes
    of rising suddenly into prosperous possessors of the
    land by throwing off the Saxon yoke. It is not to be
    denied that some who formerly led the insurgents in
    Ireland had some of the qualities of patriotism, but
    they lacked the judgment which goes essentially to the
    completion of a true patriot and so became
    miserable failures,-miserable themselves and
    involving multitudes in their misery, leaving also a
    legacy of vain aspirations of national glory as a little
    independent nation, instead of the truly glorious
    position of being an essential part of the United
    Kingdom, and having an equal share in the Government
    and in the prosperity thereof. Every time
    such agitators have stirred up the population of
    Ireland, their followers have shown less and less
    inclination to follow them to the bitter end,-and
    this for two reasons. The Irish of to-day are wiser
    ' both from better education and from bitter experience,'
    -and the English have become wiser and juster,
    more ready to admit their brothers of next door
    into their family. Still it has proved nearly if
    not quite as hard to root out English prejudice as
    Irish hostility, and unhappily these keep each other
    alive and the evil dies but slowly. There is, however,
    a kind of Home Rule which is looked upon as not
    only possible but desirable by many English statesmen,
    such as that a committee of Irish members
    should sit in Dublin and transact a quantity of Irish
    Parliamentary business, which can not be as well
    transacted, if at all, in England; or that Local Councils
    should be appointed for the four provinces of Ireland.
    Some such modification of Parliamentary powers
    might probably be of advantage to both countries.
    To conclude,--we must have patience. Every
    time the case of England and Ireland is considered,
    a brick is taken out of the wall of partition which
    separates the two countries, and even a few pages
    such as these, may have some effect in promoting
    harmony and banishing discord.

    The journals of John Hamilton,

    " Sixty Years of an Irish Landlord "

    are now available on CD-ROM.

    Details from:

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