Britain washed its hands of the Irish landlord class

Week II

Luke Gerald Dillon, 4th Baron Clonbrock, with his wife Lady Augusta. Note the camera in her hand.

Luke Gerald Dillon, 4th Baron Clonbrock, with his wife Lady Augusta. Note the camera in her hand.

After World War I the remnants of the Anglo Irish landlord class, found themselves marooned in a new, more democratic social world which some of them resented as plutocratic and vulgar.

Before the 1916 Rising there had been a remarkable revolution in rural Ireland. Taking full advantage of generous borrowing schemes, made available through a series of land reforms, former tenants bought out their tenancies, and most sought more land to buy. This was the first time in centuries that the native Catholic Irish owned 75 per cent of the land, some of which had previously been given to Cromwellian soldiers and others in lieu of payment.

The understandable desire for more land brought pressure to bear on landlords who either refused to sell, or who endeavoured to hold on. After centuries of being landless, land hungry former tenants targeted neighbours and landlords through boycotting and violence, and, in many cases, burnt them out.

Burnings escalated during the War of Independence. Many of the Big House families who were Protestant and unionist, were seen as a threat to the revolution. During the Civil War, when most of the house burnings took place, it included the houses of some Roman Catholic unionists, suspected informers, and supporters of the new Irish Free State.

Of course ultimately it was a land grab. If the landlord family was gone and his house destroyed, his land could be offered for sale. At least 275 big houses were deliberately burnt down or destroyed in this period. Although some have been restored, many remain in ruin reminding us of a bitter time as the new Ireland emerged from a divisive and murderous past.

Good landlords

Many landlords sold up and left the country. Those that remained did so because Ireland was their home, the only home that they knew. Many still professed allegiance to Great Britain, even though that country had washed its hands of the Irish landlord.

The Dillon family of Clonbrock, an estate of some 28,000 acres with a Norman tower and magnificent house, was among the first of the Anglo-Norman families to settle in Connacht in 1185. The family was descended from Sir Henry de Leon, who came to Ireland with the Earl of Moreton, later King of England. They were Roman Catholic, but due to the vicissitudes of history, became and remained members of the Church of Ireland. The family has been described as one of the more considerate landlords during the Great Famine. Their reputation did much to maintain good landlord-tenant relations on the estate right up to the early 20th century.

At this time of great change, Luke Gerald Dillion, 4th Baron Clonbrock, and his wife Lady Augusta (daughter of Lord Crofton, Mote Park, Roscommon ), ruled over a prosperous estate, which had been divided into 100 acre farms. It employed 70 labourers, and Clonbrock supported his tenants by giving them up-to-date farm machinery, bringing in specialists to advise on best agricultural methods, and promoted a linen industry. The family enjoyed photography, and many aspects of life on the estate has been perserved.

Ulster Protestants

During the Land War Clonbrock was largely left in peace. Not so their neighbours. A particularly violent sectarian attack took place against the Persses at Roxborough and Castleboy in south Galway. The Persses (Lady Gregory’s family ) had previously brought down a group of Ulster Protestants, to help them run their large estate. The men and their families were accommodated in nearby Kilchreest. One night they were surrounded by ‘Ribbonmen’, an agrarian secret, anti Protestant, society, who were active in the area. The Ulstermen were made swear on their knees that they would attend Mass, or have their houses burned.

The rector’s house at Ballymacward was attacked and destroyed. All this made the local RIC nervous and jittery. For some reason a constable fired into the Catholic church at Ahascragh killing one person. Clonbrock vehemently complained to Dublin Castle at this outrageous behaviour.

‘Ireland’s downfall’

But during World War I, when so many of the Anglo Irish landlord class joined up to fight for Britain, the Clonbrocks made no secret of where their loyalties lay. Augusta, in her seventies when war broke out, gathered like-minded women around her in Galway, and worked tirelessly on behalf of prisoners of war, raising funds and organising parcels or ‘comforts’ for the men of the Connaught Rangers.

Clearly sensing the changing political mood as Irish nationalists became more vocal and organised, she founded the Women’s Unionist Alliance in the belief that ‘if ever Ireland separated from England, then from that moment, her downfall commenced.’

Lord Clonbrock spoke against the Home Rule Bill in the House of Lords, which he rarely attended. He claimed that it was his birthright ‘to remain under the protection and control of the Imperial Parliament.’

However, his loyalty to the old way of life meant nothing to his tenants when the 1903 Land Act guaranteed that the purchase annuities repayable to the government would be less than annual rents payable to the landlord. Clonbrock’s landlord days were over. He agreed to sell some land but his tenants demanded he sell all 28,000 acres. Clonbrock refused. The estate was subject to extreme agitation backed by the United Irish League. Demands for rent reductions were accompanied by frequent cattle drives as smallholders and the landless demanded the break up of the large grazing farms on the estate, the principal source of Clonbrock’s income. By 1909 Clonbrock had no alternative but to sell.

Accidentally destroyed

Lord Clonbrock actually made a tidy sum on the sale of his land. He received £250,000 which

equals roughly £15 million in today’s money. Life at Clonbrock continued in relative splendour. The money was invested globally in stocks and shares from Argentina to Australia, from Canada to South Africa, and from Britain to Russia. Having shed the myriad of expenses that had been part and parcel of the annual running of the estate, the family was probably better off than they had been for generations.

In 1917 the 4th Baron, Luke Dillon, died and was succeeded by his only son Robert, who died eight years later, unmarried. The title became extinct. All this coincided with the Russian Revolution, and later the Wall Street Crash, which pretty well wiped out the family fortune.

After 1929 the house was emptied of its servants, and was occupied by Ethel Dillon, until it passed to her grand-nephew Sir Luke Dillon Mahon * who sold what remained of the estate in the mid 1970s. Unfortunately the house was accidentally destroyed by fire in 1994.

‘Grossly oppressive’

The poet WB Yeats, a Protestant of Anglo Irish descent, was appointed to Seanad Éireann in 1922. WT Cosgrave agreed to use his appointments to grant extra representation to the state’s Protestant minority. The appointment of Yeats was considered a well earned tribute to his outstanding career as a poet. He was not expected to make a serious contribution. He had rather charmingly written a poem, Among School Children placing himself as the ‘Sixty-year-old smiling public man’.

But in the summer of 1925 the new Constitution was being debated. It was a document that in many places reflected conservative Catholicism.

A debate on divorce arose. Yeats viewed the issue as primarily a confrontation between the Catholic viewpoint which forbade divorce, and the Protestant view where it was allowed. When the Catholic church weighed into the debate with a blanket refusal to consider the Protestant position, the Irish Times countered that a measure to outlaw divorce would alienate Protestants and ‘crystallise’ the partition of Ireland.

Yeats added to that response. He delivered a series of speeches that attacked the "quixotically impressive" ambitions of the government and clergy, likening their campaign tactics to those of “medieval Spain."

"Marriage is not to us (Protestants ) a Sacrament, but, upon the other hand, the love of a man and woman, and the inseparable physical desire, are sacred. This conviction has come to us through ancient philosophy and modern literature, and it seems to us a most sacrilegious thing to persuade two people who hate each other... to live together, and it is to us no remedy to permit them to part if neither can re-marry."

His language became more forceful. The Jesuit Father Peter Finlay, who had proclaimed that suttee - where a Hindu widow throws herself into the funeral pyre of her husband - was a more defensive practice than divorce. Yeats describes Finlay as a man of "monstrous discourtesy", and he lamented that "It is one of the glories of the Church in which I was born that we have put our Bishops in their place in discussions requiring legislation".

Yeats further warned "If you show that this country, southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Roman Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North... You will put a wedge in the midst of this nation".

Speaking on behalf of his fellow Protestants, Yeats thought the divorce issue was a very serious matter. “ I think it is tragic that within three years of this country gaining its independence we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive. I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority. We against whom you have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell.

We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”

There was a general feeling, that although the Constitution retained its Catholic bias, Yeats had won the day.

Next Week: Tyrone House and the St George family.

NOTES: * Luke Dillon Mahon was a much respected and well liked man in Galway. He was the founding director of Galway Samaritans, established at No 2 St Brendan’s Avenue, a refuge and a listening voice to many since May 1976. Luke was an accomplished landscape artist.

Sources this week include Burning the Big House by Terrence Dooley, recently published by Yale University Press, on sale €34.95. Also a paper: Clonbrock - A History of a Big House by Terence Dooley.


PIC I….Luke Gerald Dillon, 4th Baron Clonbrock, with his wife Lady Augusta. Note the camera in her hand.

PIC II …. WB Yeats: ‘I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority’.

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