Earlier this year Galway Diary discussed the evictions implemented by Marcella Netterville and John Gerrard on their 7,000 acre estate at Ballinlass, near Mount Bellew Co Galway. In 1846 more that 400 families were heartlessly thrown out on the road, without any compensation. The land was being cleared to fatten cattle, which would have been far more profitable than tenants; many of whom, as the Great Famine tightened its terrible grip, were unable to pay their way. The Times of London famously commented that the Ballinlass evictions showed ‘the sublime indifference to social considerations of which no one but an Irish landowner is capable.’
A more imaginative scheme to make tenanted land profitable, was introduced not too far away on the eastern edge of County Galway at Clontuskert seven years later.
The Great Famine hastened the demise of many landlord estates throughout Ireland. Through mismanagement, and spendthrift ways, many estates were already mortgaged to the hilt. Tenants were unable to pay their rents, and landlords were unable to sell their land because prices were so depressed. To ease the situation somewhat, the British parliament introduced the Encumbered Estates Act 1849 to facilitate the sale of land. Immediately large tracts of land were put on the market as landlords thankfully sold up hoping to recoup some of their losses.
Just as today, property prices do not reflect the prices paid in Celtic Tiger times, there were many bargains to be had in the Ireland of the 1850s. A wealthy Scottish landowner, Alan Pollok, bought up 25,460 acres in East Galway, and at the Creggs in Co Roscommon, unseen.
After initial difficulties the Pollok estate became an agricultural enterprise on a vast industrial scale. It became an international showcase as to what could be achieved. Eleven thousand acres supported 3,000 cattle, 4,000 sheep and 500 horses, on eight farms which were laid out on picture perfect pasture and tillage land, often in fields of 100 acres. This level of agriculture was serviced by extensive steam and water-powered machinery, forges, pumps, state-of-the -art drainage, and miles of gas (methane ) and water piping (the pipe tiles were made on the estate ). For a time it was the most productive farm in the British islands. It brought prosperity to some of the former tenants, many of whom were employed by Pollok. His principle farm was at Lismanny where he built a large manor, and lived a busy life as an MP, an admired entrepreneur, and wealthy country squire.
I am taking this story from The Parish of Clontuskert - Glimpses into its Past* edited by Joe Molloy, a former teacher at Garbally College. Initially local people regarded Pollok as just another landlord. He had at his disposal the crude methods of eviction without compensation. But Mr Molloy believes that Pollok was well intentioned. To make his estate viable he wanted to reduce the number of tenants, and was prepared to offer money for people to go. Newspapers were suspicious of his motives; and some houses owned by Pollok on the estate were burned, and his agents threatened. Some tenants had legal rights to stay, and would not be moved.
But in the end, by September 30 1853, Pollok managed to evict 597 people from his property, but employed 310 of them to work on his grand scheme. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but matters settled down sufficiently to allow Pollok achieve his dream.
Later the agricultural correspondent of The Times recorded his visit remarking on the excellent crops ‘bounded by well-built stone walls, with substantial first-class modern buildings on each farm.....most of the labourers lived in new cut-stone cottages erected on the various farms, for example the Newtown houses at Clontuskert. These are allowed rent-free but without gardens, wages were six shillings to 10 shillings a week, all year round. Shepherds were allowed in addition a cow, potatoes as well as turf and timber for their fires.’
Such was the fame of the Pollok estate that many distinguished visitors from all over Ireland, and abroad, came to see this unique operation for themselves. In early October 1858 the Lord Lieutenant accompanied by the Earl of Clancarty, rode from Garbally to Lismanny to view the operation for themselves. They expressed their admiration at all that they saw.
But its crowning success must have been the visit of His Imperial Highness, Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. The prince was not a success with French foreign policy, and was in fact the last French monarch; but he was passionate about domestic prosperity and industrialisation. He earned lasting gratitude from the French people for instigating a major reconstruction of Paris, conducted by Baron Haussmann. They created wide boulevards, and avenues, magnificent new aqueducts and parks, including the Bois de Boulogne. He also promoted French farm produce, its food and wine. He came to see the Pollok estate, hoping to learn how to maximise productivity of the land. He arrived at Ballinasloe station, and was accompanied by the great and the good of the time. I don’t know what he thought, and I am assuming that he was interested in all that he saw.
But the dream was not to last. As the century moved along the resentment towards landlords, no matter how enlightened they appeared to be, grew ever more threatening. By the 1880s the Land League presented a serious challenge to the old way of life. Eventually a series of Land Acts succeeded in buying out the landlords, and redistributing their land among former tenants.
There was impatience with the slowness of the various Ccommissions set up to redistribute land, and ‘land-grabbing’ was wide-spread. Many old estate homes were burnt, and the families driven out to hurry things along.
Lismanny survived until May 1924 when the last of the family, Allan Bingham Pollok, sold its contents, and left. Joe Molloy tells us that his grandfather used to remark that you could always tell a family who worked for the Polloks, “They were better fed than the rest of us.”
There is nothing left of the house now except its impressive front gates and gate-lodge.’ The land in Clontuskert still bears the marks of an improving landlord, who had access to almost unlimited financial resources, who had the vision and ingenuity to develop the lands at Lismanny, and who had the energy and determination to overcome all opposition. The older reader, native to the area, will remember parents and grandparents placing events in a time-frame with the words, “ That was in Pollok’s time,” or “ That was after Pollok’s time.”’
NOTES: * Compiled by the Clontuskert Heritage Group this excellent book has been re-issued, and can be bought from Eileen Curley, Chapel Park, Clontuskert, €30. Or www.clontuskert.com