Landlord during the Workhouse Years



Marquis of Clanricarde

Marquis of Clanricarde

As a politician and landowner Ulick John de Burgh (1802-74), moved in two distinct and separate worlds, straddling two different countries and cultures. This synopsis of his life and in particular of his role as politician and major Galway landowner during the workhouse years, is taken from a book by John Joseph Conwell, entitled A Galway Landlord during the Great Famine.” Copies of this book can be got at the Irish Workhouse Centre.

“Ulick John was the only son of the protestant John Thomas de Burgh, 13th Earl of Clanricarde, and Elizabeth Burke, a Catholic from the neighbouring Marble Hill estate, was born at Belmont in Hampshire, in 1802. Raised as a protestant son of this mixed marriage, he inherited the Clanricarde title as a minor on the death of his father in 1808. He spent much of his early life at the family seat at Portumna where governesses educated him, before he progressed to a more formal education at Eton (1814-18). He matriculated into Oxford on 16 October, 1820, but there is no record of his graduating from there. The young Clanricarde was described as “good-looking, clever and very gentlemanlike as well as being immensely rich.” He developed a lover of hunting and horseracing during his years at Eton and Oxford, and William Gregory described him as the best man to hounds he had ever seen. His status in life was further enhanced by his marriage in April 1825, to Harriet, daughter of George Canning, foreign secretary and later, in 1827, prime minister. During the middle decades of the 19th century, Clanricarde, his son, Lord Dunkellin, and Gregory were among the best-known horsing racing enthusiasts in the British Isles.

During the years 1846-52, Clanricarde reached the principle of his political career as a minister in Lord John Russell’s administration. From an early stage in his political life, he displayed a good working knowledge of, and interest in, Irish affairs. His loyal service to the Liberal party led to his appointment as ambassador to Russia in 1838 and he was held in sufficiently high esteem to be appointed to Russell’s cabinet ahead of many of his colleagues as one of three landlords with major Irish estates. This gave Clanricarde the opportunity to represent his landed class and help shape Irish policy from within the government. He contributed fully to many House of Lords debates and took principled positions on the great policy issues of the day. In his personal life, Clanricarde was not a loyal husband and many considered him a man of reckless and spendthrift habits. Although popular with his peers in parliament, these aspects of his character were unacceptable to them and eventually led to his political demise. To assess Clanricarde’s performance as cabinet minister, and major landowner, his political philosophy and handling of a number of issues of local and national importance must be evaluated.

Most of Clanricarde’s actions can be attributed to his rational and rather benign pursuit of his objective of maintaining the political supremacy and dominant position of his aristocratic class through the controlling influence of the Irish landed gentry over its tenants. He was keen to pass on to his heirs a 52,000-acre estate which had been bequeathed to him by his father and to continue the proud family tradition in Co. Galway. In electoral politics, Clanricarde supported the party that would best protect his interests.

In the religious domain, Clanricarde did not permit ancient animosities to compromise the pursuit of his goal. Although raised in the protestant faith, he was a committed emancipationist and did not support the proselytizing activities of successive earls of Clancarty on the nearby Garbally estate in Ballinasloe. He was benevolent to Catholic causes locally and contributed liberally towards the construction of Catholic churches for the tenants on his estate. Clanricarde was also committed to the establishment of an educated Irish peasantry. He was a strong advocate of the national school system which he supported by providing school sites and financial resources towards teachers salaries. His reputation for tolerance and the occasional well-reported local donation promoted tenant loyalty and discouraged fundamentalist enthusiasms that could threaten the religious equilibrium in Co. Galway. Like Russell, he realised that equal rights and privileges must be granted to a largely Catholic Irish population in order to guarantee its loyalty to the crown.

Clanricarde was one of the most outspoken critics in parliament of a poor law system for Ireland in the years following its introduction in 1838. He realised, but failed to convince his cabinet colleagues, that such a system would not work in Ireland. His opposition to that law, enacted by his own party, was based on his strongly held belief that such a system was not appropriate for Ireland due to the poverty of the country, its social structure and the huge expense involved in delivering relief by that means. He favoured the introduction of many of the recommendations of the earlier poor inquiry (1833-6) which he argued would have been far more effective in addressing Ireland’s problems of overpopulation, underdevelopment and a subsistence economy.

Once in government, however, Clanricarde accepted the poor law system as a vehicle to relieve destitution in Ireland. After initial objections by himself and his moderate Liberal colleagues, he reluctantly endorsed the 1847 Poor Law Amendment Act which made Irish property pay for Irish poverty. He realised that he had no chance of resisting its implementation against the more powerful ‘moralist’ wing of the cabinet, despite the ‘moderates’ objection to any further burden of rates on property. Indeed, he even called for legislation to compel Irish landowners to pay their fare share towards the support of the poor.

Clanricarde continually highlighted the desperate plight of the Irish starving masses in his correspondence with Russell and others associated with the Irish administration. He lobbied strongly for state assistance to relieve distress through a range of measures such as public works and land drainage. He sought to have corn depots set up in each of his towns of Loughrea and Portumna in order to have control over the distribution of food locally. He donated generously to many local relief committees and invested considerable money in the assisted emigration of his tenants in the years before the Famine. He strongly urged the prime minister to provide for state assisted emigration but Clanricarde and its other proponents were unable to break down Trevelyan’s opposition to such intervention. While this policy would not have removed the necessity for other kinds of public relief during the Famine, Clanricarde believed that, if properly and humanely managed, it would prove a viable form of relief and save countless lives in the west of Ireland. Such a scheme would also have been beneficial to himself by removing poorer tenants from his estate and allowing for the restructuring and consolidation of its holdings. However, Clanricarde did not authorise or initiate any private schemes of work locally to alleviate the destitution of his tenants. In that regard, he did not match the efforts of some of his neighbouring Galway landlords.

The 1847 Act provided for the appointment of relieving officers, but Clanricarde, although in agreement with the principle of the measure, vehemently resisted their appointment in his own union, notwithstanding the fact that paupers had died there from starvation. His objection to the appointment of these paid officials was designed to minimize the poor rate burden in his union even if this resulted in the loss of life. The refusal of the Loughrea board of guardians to appoint relieving officers led to its dissolution and the institution of a sworn inquiry. The evidence to that inquiry, provided by the newly appointed vice guardians and others associated with Loughrea workhouse clearly indicated the gross neglect of the union’s affairs and the appalling state of its workhouse and inmates. Despite this, Clanricarde continued to object to the appointment of vice-guardians thereby further adding to the misery of the destitute peasantry.

Although he was lord lieutenant of the country, and therefore, its legal authority, Clanricarde stopped short of condemning the large-scale evictions by his fellow Galway landowners, Gerrard, St George and Blake. Clanricarde’s enthusiastic support for the ‘Gregory Clause’ illustrated his desire to rid his estate of defaulting tenants and in cabinet he even defended the rights of landlords to carry out evections. However, unlike Palmerston and Lansdowne, he did not carry out such massive clearances on his own estate. Instead he resorted to small-scale displacement over a long period of time and local newspapers reported that ejectments were taking place from his Galway property under the watchful eye of his agent. This contributed to the percentage decrease in population on his estate being higher than those for Co. Galway or the country.

As a major landowner, Clanricarde did little to progress the improvement of agriculture on his estate. His cavalier approach to the management of his estate left a legacy of discontent amongst his tenantry. He ignored the several complaints of his agent’s misconduct in granting leases to the tenants. He did not carry out any major improvements on his estate and many of the goals he had set for land restructuring were not realised. His appalling neglect of Loughrea underlined his lack of interest in the improvement of that town and its inhabitants.

During the Famine period, Clanricarde was committed to reforming the relationship between landlord and tenant. He was prepared to concede certain legal rights to tenants, such as compensation for improvements, and he proposed a system of redress for tenants against oppressive landlords. He believed that cottiers should not be given leases but instead be given employment on estates. However, as a major landlord with an obvious bias towards his own class, he was adamant that ‘fixity of tenure’ should not be enshrined in any government legislation. His political philosophy was guided by the underlying principle that the rights and privileges of landed proprietors should be upheld at all times.

These positions may help to explain why Clanricarde, the spokesman for policies to promote responsible landlordship and agricultural development, so neglected to improve his market towns, particularly Loughrea, and largely failed to improve the farming potential of his own estate. His apparent inconsistency in not investing in the town of Loughrea probably related to his desire to promote the emigration of marginal tenants from his lands. He may have concluded that to improve conditions at Loughrea would undermine this objective by providing a more palatable destination for tenants who would otherwise move far enough away to be unlikely to return. Similarly, he may also have worried that a high profile expansion in productive acreage on his land would provide false hope for those who would otherwise emigrate. Furthermore, he might well have calculated that, until government adopted policies that would provide a higher return to agricultural investment, it simply was not a financially wise use of available family resources.

Although Clanricarde may not have been a great philanthropic landlord, dedicated to redistributing his wealth among the needy on his estate, neither was he a malevolent incompetent. His position on the poor law, uniform taxation and government-assisted emigration were, from among the options discussed at the time of the Famine, the most economically beneficial for landowners in the west and south of Ireland. He constantly emphasised to government the need to promote efficiency in agriculture and capital markets. It is unlikely that the Famine substantially changed Clanricarde’s views on appropriate government policies and his overriding objective likely remained intact. What he saw during the Famine probably reinforced his beliefs on property rights, contract law and the need for economic incentives. Therefore, Clanricarde’s failings in relation to Ireland during the Famine were those of omission rather than commission.

Clanricarde’s rational pursuit of his understandable objective of maintaining the dominant position of his class, largely within the law and social mores of the day, was not unique among the leading figures in Ireland and Britain in the decades prior to the Great Famine.”

The Irish Workhouse Centre, Portumna, Co. Galway, Ireland.

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