The social life of Galway’s landed gentry mainly centered around fox-hunting, horse-racing and steeple-chasing, shooting and fishing, yachting and cricket. Some, but by no means all, were obsessed with their superior lifestyle, and had adopted the accent and distinctive appearance to go with it. And some, who were not as wealthy as their peers, pretended that they were.
Giles Eyre, who succeeded to the Eyrecourt estate, could barely write. ‘ Hunting, fishing, shooting, drinking were his only accomplishments.’ The wealthiest of the gentry, however, were not always the biggest spenders. Many of them were notorious for not paying their bills.
Among the wealthier families, there were frequent marriage connections with English and continental landowners, which necessitated quite a lot of cross channel visiting for various sporting and family occasions. The predominant landowners here were Protestant. They included the Clanricardes, Trenches, Dillons of Clonbrock, Dalys of Dunsadle, Ffrenches of Monivea, Mahons of Castlegar, Kirwans of Castle Hacket, Persses of Roxborough, and Gregorys of Coole. The Catholic elite included the Blakes of Ballyglunin, Redingtons of Kilcornan, and Smyths of Masonbrook. A good education along the British public school and university lines; a successful career in the army, civil service, or the church, ensured a steady income. There were several quality libraries in the county, notably at Coole Park, Dunsadle, the Bellews and at Clonbrock.*
There was a large gulf between the big landowners and the fluctuating numbers of smaller proprietors, many of whom did not survive the Great Famine. Galway landowners often looked with envy on the wealth of the industrial shires of England, and imagined they could live a similar life-style. But there were no coal mines or steel works in county Galway. Yet in those imagined Celtic Tiger times credit was easily found to service inherited debts, heavy gambling, and horse racing. Large sums were borrowed to build mansions way out of line with the economic potential of the estates which were to fund them.
But even if they could not afford it, the Irish then as they do today, loved to party. Using the produce of his land Joseph Henry Blake managed to give a ball for the tenantry and servants to celebrate his return to Ardfry, near Maree, which he had unexpectedly inherited. ‘They had enormous suppers of a whole sheep, and two or three rounds of beef, and all went home mad drunk with drinking Henry’s health in the cratur, as they call whiskey. Some fell into the sea on the way back.’
Throughout the hard times and their decline the great Martins of Ballinahinch kept up the tradition of hospitality. Their relatives from Ross paid many visits there. In spite of curtainless windows, and rattling shutters Maria Edgeworth, the educationalist and novelist, enjoyed a fine dinner at Ballinahinch in 1833. She was impressed by Mrs Martin’s refinement, and by her daughter’s ‘literary and linguistic accomplishments’.
‘The costliness of the wines’
If only other families were as frugal. To celebrate the building of their imposing house at Merlin Park in 1812, the Blakes sent invitations ‘to several hundred persons of rank and consequence in this county to attend one of the greatest fetes ever given in the province. It will continue three days and all the delicacies of the season have for some time been preparing...nearly 100 beds have been fitted in that hospitable mansion for the reception of the guests.’
Another branch of the Blakes celebrated their new mansion at Castlegrove, near Tuam, in 1836. ‘Two hundred guests, comprising of most of the rank and fashion of Galway and Mayo, and several persons from Dublin...’ Apparently ‘the brilliant display of plate, the costliness of the wines, the hospitable urbanity of the hosts’ were commented upon.
Both Castlegrove and Merlin Park were later sold in the Encumbered Estates Court.
‘All idlers together’
A three day riotous house party was held at Carantrila, Dunmore, around 1836 during which the ladies ‘were mostly dancing in a large new ballroom erected for the occasion. The gentlemen were, many of them, more drunk than sober.’ The hostess, the famous Kitty Handcock, attracted the doyen of Galway society himself, the vastly wealthy Lord Clanricarde to the event; and to possible other delights which Kitty offered, which became subject of a famous law case.
Morton Frewen, known as ‘Mortal Ruin’ because of his crackpot business ventures, was the youngest son of a Sussex landed family. He bought an estate in Connemara in the 1870s. He had however, managed to marry Clarita one of the wealthy Jerome sisters of New York; and had rapidly spent all her money. (The eldest Jerome sister, Jenny, married Sir Randolph Churchill. The third sister married Sir Shane Leslie of Monaghan ).
Frewen had a cynical view of the landed gentry, and high society in particular. ‘ Elect were these of the smart clubs; officers in the Household Regiments, all in frantic pursuit of pleasure, and as never before or after, all idlers together...Anyone rich and luxury loving was taken to its bosom, no questions asked.’
John Mahon of Ballydonnellan Castle, near Kilconnell, was with a noisy ‘crowd of Galway friends’, at a performance at London’s famous Covent Garden theatre. A reprimand was sent over from the royal box for them to be quiet. Mahon stood up and shouted back: ‘If you want to know who I am, I am John D Mahon of Ballydonnellan Castle, County Galway, and I will be glad to meet you outside and give you something you will remember!’
The fame of Mahon’s character was such that he was invited to join the royal party.
All this was great fun at the time. But Ballydonnellan castle is a pile of stones today. Galway had 108 proprietors of more than 3,000 acres in the post-Famine period, and many others of lesser standing. Practically all of which were swept away; and their land divided among the peasantry. It did not happen with the suddenness of the French Revolution, but it was a revolution none the less. From the 1870s, and in less than 40 years, the Land War with its bitter murders, Boycott practices, and terrible evictions; and the succession of liberal land acts, saw off the old order of land control and governance. Much of their downfall was of their own making.Their ivy-clad ruins are all that remain today.
The landed class as landlords
NOTES* I am leaning heavily on Patrick Melvin’s exceptional Estates and Landed Society in Galway published recently by De Burca, Dublin; on sale from Kenny’s bookshop, Liosban Estate. It is a book of a lifetime’s research and scholarship, and belongs, I believe, to the classic books on Galway, including A Description of West or h-Ian Connaught by Roderick O’Flaherty, 1684, James Hardiman’s The History of the Town and County of Galway, 1820, The Irish Chieftains - A Struggle for the Crown, by Charles Ffrench Blake -Forster 1872, and Old Galway - The History of a Norman Colony in Ireland, 1942 by MD O’Sullivan.