Monday 6 August 2007

Inequality in Ireland (circa 1740)


Last weekend I paid a visit to the magnificent Russborough House, just outside Blessington. We hear so much talk about inequality these days that during my visit to the Great House, I couldn’t help imagining the great divide between rich and poor in the 18th century.

But first the house. It stands on a hill overlooking the Poll a’ Phúca reservoir on the border between Wicklow and Kildare, and is surrounded by grounds of some 200 acres, much of it covered by mature broadleaf woodland.

The house was built in 1741 for Joseph Leeson, the first Earl of Miltown. Or rather, it was begun in 1741, for it took a full 10 years to build. It is built from Wicklow granite and is in the Palladian style – a rather austere central block joined by colonnades to wings on either side.

It is well worth a visit for the grounds and exterior alone, but it is the interior which really makes it worthwhile. The interior is perfectly preserved as is much of the enormous collection of contents which various owners acquired down the years.

The tour, therefore, is well worth the 6 euros. Our guide gave us a summary of the ownership of the house down the years and provided an authorative, but not long winded, description of the lavish furnishings and objets d’art that adorn the interior.

I will list a few items here will give some idea of how sumptuous this residence was: the five doors which lead from the main hallway to the reception rooms are finished with exquisitely carved architraves of West Indian mahogany; the salon has a sprung mahogany floor and a curved rococo ceiling that has been attributed to the Francini brothers of Italy; the salon also has a pair of Japanese lacquer cabinets and a chimney piece in English Marble; the staircase hall is adorned with marble walls which continue up to the landing. And so on.

Russborough is rich and a tad grandiose, descriptions which could equally apply to our friend, the Earl of Milltown. We can imagine the circles where the good Earl spent his time: the great and good of Ascendency politics (he had a peerage and later became Viscount Russborough); the tiny elite who monopolized Irish law (some things never change!), the movers and shakers of Dublin’s merchant class (his father was a brewer), and what he himself would have called “society”.

Outside his gates lay a different world. One of dispossession and humiliation. Roman Catholics, still by far in a majority, had seen their ownership of land decline from say 40% the previous century to near the single digits now. Most would live and die knowing no greater luxury than a mud hut. Their lives were hungry, miserable, and short.

Not all had been dispossessed – and much recent work has shown that 17th century Ireland was a far more complex place than we might imagine. One example will suffice here to show that it wasn’t always a one way street. In 1708 Catholic Merchants in Cork succeeded in forcing the council to rescind laws that targeted their business (*).

But a few swallows in Cork does not a summer make, and the overwhelming picture is one of Catholic supression and decline. As the (probably RC) labours hoisted the granite stones into place for our friend the Earl, a piece of legislation entitled “An Act for better regulating Elections of Members to serve in Parliament” was passed by the Irish Parliament. Part of it ran thus:

I do solemnly and truly affirm, that I am a freeholder... of the clear yearly value of 10 pounds, or of 40 shillings ... and that I am not a papist, or married to a papist, and that I do not educate or suffer to be educated, any of my children under the age of 14 years in the popish religion. So help me God“.

The Gaelic bards, it is true, served those who cared as little about the peasant in the mud hut as did the conquerer. Nevertheless, by now the utter annihilation of the old order, and the upheavel which attended it, must have brought unspeakable suffering to the middle and lower ranks as well. To turn today’s familiar byword on its head, an ebbing Roman Catholic tide must have stranded the small vessels with the large. And if the Gaelic poets who were contemporaries of the Earl didn’t speak for the poor, at least they articulated the decline and tumult that has roaring away outside the gates of Russborough. For that, it is hard to improve upon the words of Aogán Ó Rathaille (1675-1729):

“Do shearg mo chroí im chlíteach, do bhuair mo leann,

Na seabhaic nár fríth cinnte, agár dhual an eang,

Ó Chaiseal go Toinn Chlíona ‘s go Tuamhain Thall,

A mbailte ‘s a dtír díthchreachta ag sluaghaibh Gall”

“My heart has dried in my ribs, my humours soured,

That those never-niggardly lords, whose holdings ranged,

From Caiseal to Clíona’s wave and out to Thomond,

Are savaged by alien hordes, in land and townland.”(**)

* "Modern Ireland 1600-1972" by RF Foster
** "An Duanaire: 1600-1900 - Poems of the Dispossessed" Ed Ó'Tuama and Kinsella

4 comments:

vince said...

Remember, that there is a difference between the Catholic Irish and Catholics in Ireland. A little can of worms that Steve Ellis opened with glee.

'What will we do without timber', was not all that worried about the blokes that sculpted Ahenny.

vince said...

Kilcash, the first few words.

Tomaltach said...

Catholics - Irish and 'Old' English. The role and ultimate fate of the Old English is fascinating. I haven't studied the subject in depth but Foster gives a reasonably comprehensive picture of how the post-Kinsale dispensation affected them. In some ways the Old English were the perfect example of the difficulties experienced by a hybrid ethnicity/group - they weren't Irish, yet they hadn't much in common with the New Protestant English either. Their form of Catholicisim was very different from that practiced by the Gael. The Old English adapted a more continental variation - taking on board measures introduced in the counter reformation, such as the Tridentine Mass. The Gael on the other hand clung to a more medieval version of the faith - and one which still allowed for a degree of pre-Christian belief.

It seems the Old English often swung from alliance with Gaelic chieftans (those that retained a semblance of power after Kinsale) to a more conformist position with the New English regime in Dublin (and which had arrived in huge numbers as planters). They had to play it by ear depending on whether the new colonizing class was focusing on imposing its religious based program for acquiring land for themselves or pursuing their vision of how society should be structured and ruled. I suppose for the New English, the Old could be seen as potential allies in the war to completely subdue Gaeldom, and at those times when this seemed complete the Old English could become the targets also owing to their religion.

I think there is a new book out now on the old English around the middle of the 17th Century. I can remember neither the title nor the author but I must look out for it.

I hadn't seen Kilcash before but I found it on the web. Very good. The page I found had a version in Irish. I presume it was originall written in Irish.

vince said...

BTW, it is a very good post, I missed mentioning that earlier.

And, Yes, Kilcash was written in Irish.


But the old/Norman English did not see themselves as Irish, but the English did not view them as anything other than Irish. In much the same way when we think Americans, rarely if ever we think Sioux, Mohawk or Huron. The view from London for the most part did not see the Gaelic. Until it became a issue. The highlands of Scotland were viewed in much the same way, where the clearances had a very real political as well as an economic reason d'etre.