Landlords and Gentry around Athenry


The traditional schoolbook view of rural Ireland was that of a settled picture of tenants and landlords based in their mansions for several centuries. This was true in some cases but there was also a considerable amount of change in the land-owning class. The main reason for this is that Galway had a very large number of gentry and landlords. Norman families like the Burkes and the de Birminghams had largely declined by the 17th. century and new landlords had come in like the Lamberts, Lopdells and Persses. Some Irish landlords had survived the 17th. century confiscation by adapting themselves to the new regime. Examples are the Mahons and Dalys of Dunsandle. But the principal explanation of the high number of gentry in the county was the emergence of the Galway Tribes as landlords from the late 16th century forward. They used their merchant wealth to invest in land and their aggressive expansionism brought them not only into Galway county and adjoining counties but to the Continent and the West Indies. Blakes and Lynches were as numerous in Montserrat as in Galway. The acquisitive nature of the Blakes is illustrated by the fact that they had up to thirty mansions and estates in the county Galway. 

The frequent changes in the gentry and land-owning class, already referred to, resulted from the fact that Tribal families like the Lynches, Blakes and Ffrenches took over estates of earlier owners who had become indebted to them. The Tribal families in their turn frequently became indebted to other gentry who were expanding. Good marriage connections were one of the main secrets of the survival and success strategy of the Tribal families. On the other hand factors which could bring failure to a family included: the lack of a male heir, bad estate management and financial problems which could result from excessive borrowing, gambling, electioneering and extravagant house building.  

The land buying activity of families like the Blakes meant that they often owned estates in different locations. Also connected to this was the fact that some houses had a succession of different landlord owners. This makes it very difficult to establish when certain houses were built and who the first occupants were. For example Rockfield was owned through the 18th. and 19th. centuries by a succession of Burkes, Brownes, Blakes and Concanons. The various factors and trends already discussed can be clearly understood by the example of the Lambert family. Their original seat in the county was Cregclare near Ardrahan. Further branches of the family became established at Castle Ellen and Castle Lambert on property acquired from the Blakes and the Brownes. The earlier name of Castle Lambert was Aghrim and it was part of the estate of the Blakes of Corbally, which was the original name of Castle Daly.  
These Blakes are an example of a Tribal family who declined as landlords, were replaced by others and took up careers in the Constabulary. The best known member of the family was Sir Henry Blake who was Governor of Ceylon and a member of the Irish Convention in 1917. Corbally Castle passed to a Catholic branch of the Dalys in the early 19th century and they enlarged the mansion and renamed it Castle Daly. The Blakes of Corbally had become indebted to the Lamberts of Cregclare in the early 18th century and in 1756 sold to them what later became known as the Castle Lambert estate. The deed described the property as "the Castle Park of Aghrim and Moor Aghrim".

The Lamberts also got a financial grip on the large estates of the Brownes of Coolarn. These Brownes like many Galway landowners had their property confiscated during the Cromwellian regime. Part of the lands however was later restored to Oliver Browne of Coolarne, who has a commemorative stone, dated 1686, in the Dominican Priory. The Brownes were known as the Brownes of Coolarne and later as the Brownes of Kilskeagh which were two of their townlands. The Brownes estate was badly affected in the 18th. century by family disputes and heavy debts. In 1785 a portion of the property was sold to the Lamberts of Cregclare. This was described as the lands of Cahermacrinode, otherwise Castle Browne. This appears to have been the origin of the estate of the Lamberts of Castle Ellen. 

Other parts of the Browne estate including Coolarne townland passed to the Brownes of Castle Macgarrett. They were the senior branch of the Tribal Brownes and were intermarried with the Coolarne Brownes. They had extensive estates around Athenry which they sold after the Famine and which by this time included the old Browne of Gloves estate. Coolarne among other townlands was bought by the Meldon family. The Meldons built a shooting lodge at Coolarne in 1865, which is the present day residence. The residence of the Brownes of Coolarne was at Kilskeagh. Dominic Browne of Kilskeagh is listed in Leet’s Directory of Ireland which was published in 1814. The Brownes although forced to sell off parts of their ancestral estate retained enough land to continue to live as gentry. Dominic Browne was High Sheriff of Galway in 1802 and married into the Brownes of Westport. Some time later the family removed to Dublin and resided in a house called Coolarn, in Glenageary. The best known member of the family, Robert Browne, was Ranger of the Curragh for much of the 19th century. 

The foundation of the Castle Lambert and Castle Ellen estates therefore was carved from the lands of the declining and indebted Blakes of Corbally and Brownes of Coolarne or Kilskeagh by the expanding Lamberts. Peter and Thomas Lambert, younger sons of Walter Lambert of Cregclare, were the ancestors of the Lamberts of Castle Ellen and Castle Lambert. Peter Lambert had been a merchant in Dublin and his commercial fortune was undoubtedly used to purchase the lands of the Brownes of Coolarne, which became the basis of the Castle Ellen estate. A daughter of this Peter Lambert in 1775 married Thomas Mahon who was the ancestor of the Mahons of Belleville. Mahon, like the Lamberts, bought other land from the Brownes which formed the basis of the estate of the Mahons of Belleville. 

The history of the Mahons of Belleville provides an interesting example of how a family without an original fixed estate succeeded in amassing wealth. The principal Mahon family in Galway was the Mahons of Castlegar near Ahascragh. Both families had a common origin and ancestry in Co. Clare and both illustrate the same interesting   historical features. The Mahons were originally O'Briens and were driven into Galway from Clare during the late 16th century. 
The ancestors of the Castlegar branch became based in Loughrea and rose to fortune through the patronage of the Earls of Clanricarde. 

The ancestors of the Belleville branch resided in Gort and enjoyed the patronage and protection of the O'Shaughnessy chiefs of Gort and of their successors the Prendergasts of Lough Cutra. The Mahons leased land from the Prendergasts as well as the mansion of Rindifin where they resided at that time. They were prosperous by the time Thomas Mahon married Peter Lambert's daughter. Bryan Mahon, Thomas's father, is described in deeds as "possessed of a large fortune, stock, wool, leases, etc, to the value of over £40,000". Thomas Mahon bought the lands of Belleville from the Brownes of Kilskeagh in 1780. He was, presumably, the builder of Belleville mansion although he occupied a house in Cossaun for some time. The Mahons had something of a military tradition. Seven brothers are said to have fought at the Battle of Waterloo, and the last of the family, General Sir Bryan Mahon, was a distinguished soldier and later a member of the Irish Senate. 

The Halls of Knockbrack also had a military tradition. They were a Co. Down family who bought part of the old Burke of Tiaquin estate in the Encumbered Estates Court after the famine. These Burkes had become bankrupt and were forced to sell their 6000-acre estate in 1851. The decline of an estate normally took place over a period of time, and several years earlier in 1837 the Tuam Herald reported an auction in Burkes of Tiaquin. The auction was to include stock and fashionable household furniture, including a piano, organ and a harp. Also included was a large supply of groceries, wines, port, sherry and claret, which was to be set up in small lots to suit purchasers. 

The house, demesne and part of Tiaquin estate were bought by Thomas Richardson. The Richardsons were a Co. Down family like the Halls who bought other parts of the Tiaquin estate. Richardson's drainage and general improvements in Tiaquin were praised by the Western Star, which was a Ballinasloe based paper devoted to agricultural progress. Richardson, the paper wrote, had all the humane characteristics, prudence and energy of an Ulster landlord. The paper also attacked what it considered to be the backward and old fashioned ways of landlords like the Burkes in contrast to the   progressive farming of Richardson. "Green crops are now growing in healthy luxuriance" the Western Star claimed, "and cereal fields teem with an abundant harvest, where once the ancient proprietors whiled away the hours with dog and gun in search of the partridge or snipe". 

The Halls of Knockbrack also became the owners of Bingarra, which for a few generations had been Bodkin property. The Bodkins, although one of the Tribes of Galway according to their published pedigree, took an active part in the affairs of Athenry in medieval times. Originally the Bodkins like most of the Galway tribes had several other branches. But they suffered a severe loss of prestige in the 18th. century when a family feud led to the Bodkin murders of 1741. This massacre earned them the nickname of the "Bloody Bodkins" and was only equaled in notoriety by the Maamtrasna Massacre of 1882 when several members of a Joyce family occupying boycotted land were murdered.  

The lands of Bingarra and Graige were originally part of the estate granted to the Bodkins of Kilcloony in the late 17th. century. In the late 18th. century these lands passed to another Bodkin family who were adding large additions to their ancestral property near Moylough. The lands became divided between two brothers, Dominic Bodkin who had the Graige division and John Bodkin who had Bingarra. The Connaught Journal in May 1831 reported the death of John Bodkin at his residence Bingarra. His son John Dominick Bodkin mortgaged the estate to borrow £3,000 and the lands had to be sold in the Encumbered Estate Court in 1855. 

Bingarra later passed to the Halls of Knockbrack. The brothers Dominick and John Bodkin had previously been severely in debt to their brother-in-law Anthony Clarke who was a Dublin attorney. Dominick Bodkin owner of the Graige estate owed Clarke £10,000 and sold the estate to him for £5,000 in 1820. This was the origin of the Clarkes of Graig Abbey. 

The houses and estates described so far had at least one change of  ownership. Rockfield had a more complicated history. The house is shown in Taylor and Skinner’s road maps of 1778 as a Burke residence. In 1779 John Burke of Rockfield sold the house and lands to Michael Browne of Castlebrown who probably belonged to the Browne of Kilskeagh family. The last Browne of Rockfield, Mark Browne, died in Dublin in 1841. His eldest daughter and heiress had married William Kelly of Ashbrook House, New Inn, thereby joining the estates of Ashbrook and Rockfield. 

Rockfield, however, had long been in the court of Chancery for debts and William Kelly put both estates up for sale in the Encumbered Estates Court in 1851. "The house of Rockfield" described in the courts records" is an excellent one, contains a large basement story, consisting of a commodious kitchen, servants hall, wine cellar, servants rooms, etc. There also two halls, front and rear. Off the front hall there is a large dining room and drawing room, a grand staircase off the back hall and five large bedrooms". 

Rockfield was later occupied by one of the Blakes of Creg Castle and later still James Blake Concanon a multi-millionaire director of several tramway companies. Concanon represented one of the oldest families in Galway whose original seat was Kiltullagh Castle near Glenamaddy. Rockfield, at this time, had a staff of 25 and the Concannon crest, which was an elephant, was depicted on the footmen’s buttons. Concannon had his own golf course at Rockfield where he entertained his English theatrical friends. 

Rockmore House, like Rockfield, also had an involved history. The original name of Rockmore was Blakeland Lodge and it was probably part of the property of the Blakes of Oranmore, one of whom was the wife of Mark Browne of Rockfield. Rockfield, as already stated, passed to William Kelly of Ashbrook through marriage and when the Kellys sold Rockfield they resided at Rockmore. 

The particular historical interest of these Kellys is that they illustrate the fragmentation of a gentry family in economic decline. Their original estate at Ashbrook, near New Inn, was a mere 500 acres when sold in Encumbered Estates Court. Rockfield had 250 acres and Rockmore 364 acres. The best known of the Kellys of Ashbrook was the lady known as Pretty Kitty Kelly. Kitty or Catherine Kelly married William Handcock of Carrantrila Park, Dunmore in 1824, which was an example of the frequent occurrence of mixed marriages among the gentry. 

Catherine Kelly is particularly remembered because of her relationship with the first Marquis of Clanrickarde. She became involved in a notorious law case when a child of hers was alleged to have been fathered by Clanricarde. Clanricarde admitted that he had known Miss Kelly two years before her marriage, and stated that she was connected with respectable families in Galway, but resided mainly in Dublin where she mixed in good society. Clanricarde obviously maintained his friendship with Catherine Kelly of Ashbrook after she became Mrs. Handcock of Carrantrila. Sir William Gregory of Coole Park in his Autobiography vividly described a three-day riotous party at Carrantrila in the 1830s which was presided over by Clanrickarde. Gregory was a guest at the party and described it as "the dying out flicker of old Irish revelry". 

A late member of the Kelly family was also described as a great favourite in society and a familiar figure in Dublin drawing rooms. This was Walter Blake Kelly of Rockmore, who was a distinguished sportsman. When he died prematurely in 1892 Walter Blake Kelly's obituary in the Galway Vindicater described him as "the most celebrated Irish oarsman of the present generation". Rockmore was also for some time occupied by a branch of the Martins of Ross.

Patrick Melvin, currently Librarian in Leinster House.
   

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