Clifden’s Parisian boulevards
Colonel Dick Martin: determined to show some ‘sport’.
The man who opened Connemara to the traveller, and built an infrastructure to encourage trade and commerce in what was a wilderness of bog, mountain, and a rocky sea coast, was the Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo. He was originally commissioned to investigate the possibility of draining the bogs, and replace them with a landscape of arable land suitable for farming. But Nimmo was the original man who thought outside the box. In his report of 1812 he outlined the total neglect of the region which had about 30,000 inhabitants, mostly living along her coast, eking out a bare subsistence livelihood. But he saw huge potential in the natural wealth of Connemara for tourism, and limited industry. He reported that there were large quantities of fish in its lakes and sea, and abundant seaweed for manure and for the manufacture of kelp. Its agriculture was undeveloped, its bogs badly harvested. All this neglect could be remedied
This positive report was generously acted upon by the British government. Between the years 1822 and 1831 Nimmo was given the go ahead to spend a large sum of money to put his ideas into affect. He employed a small army of workers, and members of his own family; and immediately set about providing a vast road building programme which would ultimately see the construction of 243 miles of road in the Western District. He build piers all around the coast to encourage fishing and safe shelter for boats; he designed and built the village of Roundstone; and although he was eventually dismissed from his post (after some alleged mismanagement with the money the government gave him), he left Connemara greatly enriched by his energy and vision.
Trade with Liverpool
Nimmo probably got on well with John D’Arcy, who was building the town of Clifden when they first met. But he was unimpressed with the progress so far. In its first 10 years there was only a ‘ few thatched cottages, and one or two slated two-storey houses’. Undoubtedly Nimmo and his skilled staff of engineers, architects, and craftsmen, greatly encouraged D’Arcy to think big. A much broader plan for the town emerged, encompassing a sweeping circular movement of wide streets.Their width have a feel of Parisian boulevards today! And properties were quickly snapped up. A combination of work opportunities with Nimmo, and very attractive leasehold arrangements, now made Clifden a popular destination. Shops opened to supply services.
The town grew rapidly in Nimmo’s time, culminating in its triumphant harbour opening in the early summer of 1824. Apart from a thriving fish-curing industry, the first cargo of marble was exported to Liverpool. One store keeper returned with ‘county goods’ to be sold in Clifden. The idea of independent trade with a large city like Liverpool was dazzling. Every house in the town was illuminated for the occasion.
‘A mountain chief’
By 1825, as D’Arcy approached his 40th birthday, he must have been well pleased with his life and the success of his town*. He was enjoying a good income from his tenants. As a member of the county grand jury, a magistrate and proprietor of a sizeable estate, he held a position of influence. He had also remarried. His first wife, Frances, had died, and he married Louisa Bagot Sneyd, the daughter of an English cavalry officer. In addition to his previous six children, D’Arcy had a further eight with Louisa. By now he had abandoned his Athenry home at Killtulagh, and had built a splendid castle two miles west of the town with spectacular views. An Englishman, Richard Bently, recorded D’Arcy’s hospitality as being of an ‘ ancient character of a mountain chief.’ After dinner, and when the ladies withdrew, Bentley wrote that ‘ there was a rush for the whisky punch...Good old spirit, distilled from the pure malt, is not only most agreeable to the palate, but seems to glide down to the very heart, filling it with good humour and good fellowship, and putting you on the best of terms with yourself, and everybody else in the wide world...’
Watching all this from nearby were the Martins of Ballynahinch. Until D’Arcy’s arrival in Connemara, the building of Clifden, and his castle; the Martins were the undisputed ‘chieftains’ of the region. Ballynahinch was the grandest house west of Galway. Initially the Martins approved of the Clifden project. As their large estate practically surrounded D’Arcy’s the Martins had agreed to build a road through their land to connect with Clifden. But the Martins were gradually being eclipsed by the younger D’Arcy, and his ambitious schemes. Work on the Martin road proceeded slowly.
The one thing that D’Arcy lacked was political power, and now, as his life seemed such a success, he coveted it.
Between 1812 and 1835 D’Arcy contested the Galway seat on five occasions. On three occasions he withdrew before the final count; he saw the other two to the end, but was resoundly beaten.
Old ‘ Dead-eyed Dick’ Col Richard Martin was one of two MPs for Galway, on and off for 50 years. By the 1820s it was regarded as his by right. He had no intention of allowing anyone to usurp his position. And he had extra reasons for holding on to his seat at any cost. His badly run estate had accrued enormous debts. But as a siting member of Parliament he could not be prosecuted. If, however, he failed to be re elected, he could be thrown to the mercy of his creditors.
The most dramatic of these battles was in 1826 , the most violent Galway election to date. Elections at the time were open to all kinds of abuse. Those eligible to vote were required to make the long journey to Galway town and to publicly call out their preference to the High Sheriff. There was no secret ballot. Naturally tenants would go along with their landlord’s choice. It would be a brave man who went against his wishes.
Initially D’Arcy had pledged his support for Martin in the 1826 election, but changed his mind. Instead he declared his support for the more moderate James Lambert, who had the backing of the Marquess of Clanricarde. Perhaps D’Arcy reckoned that at 72 years of age, Martin was coming to the end of his influence. In any event D’Arcy announced that he had 500 registered freeholders on his estate and that they would vote for Lambert.
Martin was furious. All his venom against D’Arcy burst out. The press of the day became excited: ‘ We image the gallant Colonel will show some sport - for whether he shall be returned or not, we hear that he intends arraigning gentlemen before the public for the ill treatment of him.’
The report added ominously that ‘The Colonel is an excellent shot!’
NEXT WEEK: Murder and mayhem in Galway
NOTES: * I am taking this from A Colony of Strangers -The founding and early history of Clifden, by Kathleen Villiers -Tuthill, now on sale at €30. Also available on line www.connemaragirl publications.com