Ballykilcavan House, seat of the Johnson-Walsh family
By Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence
The Fate of the Landlords
In 1876 there were twenty-two landed estates in Laois reaching a value of £2,000 or over. Together they contained almost 200,000 acres, roughly half of the county. The final stage in the undoing of this particular concentration of economic and political power took place in the 1910s and 1920s. This article looks at that in two halves —firstly, the 1923 Land Act and how we understand what was happening in Ireland in those years; and, secondly, some of the preliminary results of research into the major local landed estates —an overview of some of what happened with eleven of the twenty-two during the revolutionary years.
The 1923 Land Act
In the first three-quarters of the nineteenth-century of the thirteen Members of Parliament for the Queen’s County Westminster constituency eight were from among the families that owned those twenty-two estates, one was from a similar background but whose properties in the county had been sold by the 1870s, with the remaining four from relatively less exalted social strata (but only relatively). Moreover, those eight M.P.s tended to be recruited from the upper ranks of the landed elite —Coote, De Vesci, Castletown. Local government —the Grand Jury —comprised of a broader segment of the landlord class —but still contained plenty of names from the higher tiers with properties worth over £2,000 — like Stubber, Fitzgerald, Cooper, Johnson-Walsh, Kemmis, Coote, Fitzpatrick, Grattan and Vesey.
The concluding episode in the history of the landlord class happened as an outcome of the Irish Revolution, most particularly in the form of the 1923 Land Act — which was the origin of what we now think of as the Land Commission (strictly speaking the Land Commission is older, but at this point its roles and capacities were expanded greatly). At the level of high-politics the origins of this Act had local links. The two politicians most associated with it were Minister for Justice, Kevin O’Higgins, of Stradbally, and Galway-born Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan, while Mountrath man Harry Franks represented the landlord side in the Land Purchase and Arrears conference in April 1923 (a preliminary of the Act). Franks was agent for a lot of Laois landlords, and had been kidnapped in 1922, while his father’s house on the outskirts of Castletown was burned in 1923.
For what happened in Ireland between 1911 and 1923 to be considered a revolutionary situation it had to be characterised by rival authorities and mass mobilisation, not simply political violence as that would include non-revolutionary situations such as coup d’etats or civil wars fought by conventional armies. For it all to be considered a series of events with a revolutionary outcome there had to be significant social change —not simply the status quo formally separated from the United Kingdom. To consider the latter to have taken place, a revolution in the full-blooded sense of the term, means to put radical land reform at the centre of the frame. That disrupts how the age has been remembered quite a bit. It means less attention to flying columns and ambushes. It means less of a clear-cut distinction between the era of Sinn Féin and the era of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the United Irish League.
So the current vogue for ‘revolution’ as the term placed on the period has underexplored implications. Most especially, as the social dimensions of the revolutionary years have been persistently downplayed, particularly at the time of the 50th anniversaries in the 1960s. Worth unpicking as an example is some of the writing of Florence O’Donoghue, I.R.A. intelligence officer, and later historian, writing in the Capuchin Annual in the late 1960s about 1918:
In a period of rapidly growing organisations and a widespread urge to service in one or other of the national bodies, the danger of uncontrolled activities by individuals or small groups was a very real one. For a brief period a tendency towards unauthorised actions emerged, particularly in relation to cattle driving and the ploughing of land where the owners refused to let it for cultivation. There was a threat of food shortages at the time. On 2 March, general headquarters intervened and prohibited the driving of cattle and the raiding of private houses for arms. Immediate obedience to these orders was evidence of a growing discipline and solidarity in what was now a movement of the people.
Rather than “unauthorised actions” and “uncontrolled activities” Volunteers were actually under orders early in 1918 to lead cattle drives and other forms of agrarian agitation. The separatist movement stepped back from this, perhaps due to clerical intervention, perhaps because the threat of conscription gave them another issue to mobilise around. Rather than a case of “growing discipline” the upsurge of agrarian protest was to reoccur in 1920 and in subsequent years.
Unpurchased Tenants, Untenanted Lands and Uneconomic Holdings
Similarly, but in a more academic register, in 1966 U.C.D. economist Patrick Lynch wrote of ‘The Social Revolution That Never Was’, claiming that “[t]he tenant had become a proprietor, the owner of his land; and little land remained, to which the system of voluntary purchase could be applied”. But this just wasn’t the case. First of all, there were still ‘unpurchased tenants’, that is to say tenants who were still tenants, who had not purchased their lands under the Land Acts. This was actually particularly the case in the Midlands and North Leinster, in Laois 53% of total acreage had been purchased before 1923 — which leaves 47% unpurchased — and figures are similar for the counties to the north and east, e.g. in Offaly only 52% of total acreage had been purchased. A meeting of unpurchased tenants at the courthouse in Portlaoise in April 1922 included representatives of tenants from the following estates: Portarlington, Congleton, Hamilton-Stubber, Deverill, Fishertown, Ffolliott, Despard, Pritchard, Crosby-Harvey, Finlay, Byrne, Shortt, Chamberlain, Penrose, Mills, Kennedy, Palmer, Rowe, Kemmis, Coote, Close, Cosby, Toler, De Vesci, Fitzgerald, Carlington, Corbally, Maloney, Scott, O’Brien, Lyster, Hopkins, Castletown, Mackessay, Brennan, Perry-Owens, Burton, Tilly and Johnson.
Secondly, there was the issue of so-called ‘untenanted lands’ — lands held by landlords and let out on an 11-month basis. These were important because of the predominance of ‘uneconomic holdings’ —that is to say farms which were too small and too environmentally disadvantaged to afford a much of a living. Which brings us to the stratification of land holdings — some farms were big, and some were not. Hence the demand for land re-distribution — and not simply just the transfer of formal ownership from landlords to tenants. Thus, even without the considerable conflict in the revolution over employment conditions on farms, there was great potential for agrarian social conflict and that potential was, to a significant degree, realised. Add into the mix the “threat of food shortages” O’Donoghue alluded to and things were ready to kick off. Not to mention people evicted from their holdings years —or even generations previous — who had been patiently waiting the opportunity to come back to their places. Hogan and O’Higgins did not introduce the 1923 Land Act because they wanted to — but because it was the only way to consolidate the new state.
Flower in Durrow
In February 1924 the Viscount and Viscountess Ashbrook celebrated their silver wedding anniversary at their Irish seat, Durrow Castle. All was well, it would seem, at the castle. However, this was not the case, the estate office was set on fire on July 11th 1921, the day of the Truce, as was Durrow courthouse which was also Ashbrook property. Around the same time there was a clearance sale at Durrow saw mills, later purchased by Maher brothers of Freshford, as well as of the estate farm at Bishop’s Wood, and then of house contents. Perhaps these sales were precautionary moves to prevent loss to arson. The Viscount Ashbrook was later a leader of the Southern Loyalist committee seeking more compensation from the British government for material damage suffered during the revolution. In 1876 the Flower estate, Flower was the family name, had 4,515 acres in the Queen’s County and 7,190 in County Kilkenny, with a valuation well over £2,000 in both counties.
Emo Park and the Earl of Portarlington
In 1928 the Land Commission acquired over 3,000 acres of untenanted lands and demesne lands at Emo Park, the remainder of the estate of the Earl of Portarlington. 500 acres were retained by the Land Commission for re-distribution and the rest was transferred to the Forestry Commission — both existing woodlands and sites for new afforestation. What was happening in Emo Park offers an example of a recurring problem with the division of estates — not the fate of the landlords but the fate of estate employees. There was a delegation, including Labour T.D. William Davin, seeking forestry employment for these now redundant workers. The fact that they were after new jobs, rather than small farms cut out of the estate’s arable lands, speaks to something of the nature of land division as well. While dressed in populist and equalitarian language in fact this was a stratified process —merely access to land would not create a farm, grantees would have to their own funds to equip and stock a farm. In part for this reason land re-distribution tended to benefit small farmers rather than the actually landless. Another issue that came up was the policy of giving preference to National Army veterans in the provision of forestry employment.
Warburton in Garryhinch
The Warburton estate, centred on Garryhinch, near Portarlington, comprised of nearly 12,000 acres on both sides of the border between the Queen’s County and the King’s County. A lot of this was bought by the tenants around about 1911. In 1931 the remaining 860 acres were purchased by the Land Commission and allotted to land division and the Forestry Commission. The big house had already suffered a conflagration back in 1914. By later years Richard Warburton, the then owner, was displaying signs of senility and was conversing with shrubs, and was taken in by neighbours. He died on the 27th of May 1921, over 50 years after there had been an attempt on his life back in 1869 —an event testament to the continuing presence of agrarian violence in the years after the Famine and before the Land War.
Weldon and Grattan
The Weldons of Kilmoroney, on the banks of the Barrow in the south-east of the county, had a particularly interesting revolutionary decade. Colonel Sir Anthony Weldon was in command of the 4th Battalion Leinster Regiment and took the surrender of the Volunteers at Limerick after the Easter Rising. The following year he was posted to France, wounded, suffered a stroke and died. His widow, the Lady Weldon, played a significant public role in attempts to organise support for British Army veterans.
The Grattan estate, centred on Vicarstown, also underwent tenant purchase circa 1911. That estate was owned by Sir Henry Grattan Bellew, who was actually Galway-based – the Galway and Vicarstown properties having been united by a marriage between heirs. Grattan Bellew played a less predictable role in the Irish Revolution – he resigned from his positions in the British state in 1920 and even before that he was on the board of the Dáil-linked National Land Bank which funded co-operative farms.
Stradbally’s Cosbys and Johnson-Walshs
Both the Cosbys and Johnson-Walshs made the transition from landlords to large farmers —or more properly from landlords and large farmers to large farmers alone and both families are still in situ in Stradbally. Sir Hunt A. J. Walsh was actually President of the Queen’s County branch of the Irish Farmers’ Union in the early 1920s. This was not that unusual. For instance, in Waterford Sir John Keane of Cappoquin was in a similar role, and likewise Colonel George O’Callaghan-Westropp in Clare. The Irish Farmers’ Union was the main representative organisation of Irish farmers in this period.
The Cosby demesne enters the newspapers in the early 1920s as the venue for Feis Sráid Baille, in a little prefiguring of one of the place’s current roles. However, in neither case did the environs of Stradbally prove to be a strife-free bubble. On the Cosby estate there were cattle drives and Pole’s Bridge house was burned during the Tan War to prevent its use as a crown forces garrison, while local people helped themselves to timber off the demesne plantations. Sir Hunt Walsh claimed his haggard was set on fire on the 28th of January 1923 as a consequence of the Queen’s County Farmers’ Union supplying farmers’ sons to replace farm workers in a dispute on farms in the Athy district. He was awarded £769 compensation for the destruction of produce, a hay shed and a limestone rickstand.
De Vesci, Coote and Castletown
The largest estate in the Queen’s County in 1876, by far, was the Coote one at 47,451 acres. The third largest De Vesci at 15,069 acres. Both of these underwent tenant purchase under the 1923 Act. Tenants of the second largest estate, Castletown, were also listed as represented at the unpurchased tenants meeting in Portlaoise in April 1922. The Coote property at Deerpark, Ballyfin, like the above, had a haggard burning and farm machinery destroyed with £400 compensation paid (and £550 paid by the insurance company). In 1922 and 1923 there were demands for rent reduction on the De Vesci estate.
As Laois was part of the first plantation there was not a surfeit of Gaelic surnames among the twenty-two families with the highest value estates, likewise Old English ones and all of the latter originated in protrusions from other counties (Petty-Fitzmaurice, Johnson-Walsh, Fitzgerald). We will end with some of the words of one of the few major landlords of Gaelic patrilineal descent —Lord Castletown (Mac Giolla Phádraig, anglicised to Fitzpatrick).
Lord Castletown was writing his autobiography in 1922 and committed to print what was going on as he saw it:
Chaos and disorders broke out everywhere ; we had attempts at cattle driving, non-payment of rents, etc., and many farmers, Protestant and Catholic, suffered. We had to insure our car against theft, as one attempt was made to take it away.
During the year the civil war continued, and we had trouble with tenants and graziers, which I trust may now be at an end, though in Ireland these days one never knows what may happen.
 Patrick F. Meehan, The Members of Parliament for Laois and Offaly (Queen’s and King’s Counties) 1801-1918 (Portlaoise, Leinster Express, 1983)
 Canon O’Hanlon, History of the Queen’s County, p. 793 (online here https://laoislocalstudies.ie/history-of-the-queens-county/ ).
 Skibbereen Eagle, 13 May 1922; Irish Examiner, 9 May 1922; Nationalist and Leinster Times, 7 April 1923; Nationalist and Leinster Times, 26 September 1942; Terence Dooley, Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a Time of War and Revolution (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2022) p. 246; Westmeath Independent, 7 April 1923; Irish Independent, 5 April 1923.
 Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (New York, Random House, 1978) pp. 189 ‒200.
 Florence O’Donoghue, ‘Volunteer “Actions” in 1918’, Capuchin Annual 1968, p. 341 340 – 344
 Thomas Shallo, Vice O/C 5th Battalion Mid-Clare, Bureau of Military History Witness Statement 1,075; Peter O’Loughlin, I.O. 1st Battalion Mid-Clare, Bureau of Military History Witness Statement 985.
 Patrick Lynch, ‘The Social Revolution That Never Was’ in Desmond Williams (ed) The Irish Struggle 1916‒1926 (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966) p. 41.
 E. Rumpf and A.C. Hepburn, Nationalism and Socialism in Twentieth-Century Ireland (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1977) p.54.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 22 April 1922.
 Irish Independent, 16 February 1924.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 30 July 1921.
 Kilkenny Moderator, 10 December 1921.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 15 September 1923.
 Irish Independent, 24 April 1925.
 The Leinster Reporter, 1 December 1928.
 Weekly Freeman, 29 April 1911.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 21 June 1930.
 Mártin D’alton, ‘The Warburtons of Garryhinch’, manuscript in Laois Local Studies.
 Dublin Evening Mail, 23 July 1869.
 Thomas Toomey, The War of Independence in Limerick 1912‒1921 (Ballyhoura, 2010) p. 156.
 Frank Taafe’s Eye on the Past, Lt. Col. Anthony Weldon http://athyeyeonthepast.blogspot.com/2017/06/lt-col-anthony-weldon.html
 Leinster Leader, 16 August 1919.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 11 November 1911.
 The Tuam Herald, 21 August 1920 (online at http://places.galwaylibrary.ie/history/chapter351.html); Edward N. Moran, ‘The Dáil Farm, Kilcumney A Social Experiment 1919‒1923’ in Carloviana 2022, p. 161.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 24 February 1920.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 23 June 1923; Nationalist and Leinster Times, 30 July 1921.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 22 April 1922; Nationalist and Leinster Times, 15 August 1925; Michael Rafter, The Quiet County: Towards a History of the Laois Brigade IRA and Revolutionary Activity in the County 1913–1923 (Naas, 2016) p. 38.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 15 August 1925.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 22 April 1922.
 Leinster Express, 5 May 1923.
 Lord Castletown, Ego: Random Records of Sport, Service and Travel in Many Lands (London, John Murray, 1923) p. 233 233