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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

A kind landlord

    " A kind Irish landlord reigned despotic in the ardent affections of the tenantry,
    their pride and pleasure being to obey and support him."

(Sir Jonah Barrington)

Karl Marx said that landlords love to reap where they never sowed and the landlords of nineteenth century Ireland got a bad press.

John Hamilton of Donegal was an exception to the rule. In 1821, at the age of 21, he inherited Brownhall Estate, 20,000 acres in County Donegal. Most of the estate was in the vicinity of Donegal town. He also owned a large area of land in the Finn Valley.

From the time he took over the estate until his death in 1884 his main concern was for his tenants. In 1841 Fr. Eugene McCafferty wrote that he hoped "that the Lord may grant you happy and lengthened days here among a people to whom you are and always have been so useful". And years later Fr. John Doherty, (who was no lover of landlords) wrote of how, "his many social virtues, the kindliness of his disposition, and the natural warmth and goodness of his nature have endeared him to his tenantry". It is said that, during the famine, only one of Hamilton's tenants died of starvation.

He kept a diary during his three-score years as a landlord which was published in book form, with an introduction by Rev. H. C. White, B.A. during the eighteen nineties. Rev. White wrote that when Hamilton took over the estate he found a very backward peasantry and, " . . . ascribed their wretched conditions to the demoralizing effect of penal laws that depressed industry."

He built a cottage on the island of St. Ernan and it is an indication of his popularity that his grateful tenants build a causeway over which, on completion, the landlord's carriage made a historic journey.

A stone plaque proclaims:

    mutual love between John Hamilton and the people of Donegal, both his tenants and others, through a time of bitter famine and pestilence.

One historian summed up the great and generous man, "He devoted sixty years of his life to improving the conditions of his tenants. He moved freely among them, giving advice and listening to their complaints; he visited their homes and knew the particular circumstances of every family on his estate. Hamilton was not typical; indeed men of his stamp are rare in any community. But it is the very fact that he was untypical that makes his experiences instructive."

He started his journal early in life and in it he showed a literary ability and a keen power of observation as well as a deep understanding of mankind:


My dear good grandmother, Lady Longford, took us as her own, and her house was our own and her heart a mother's heart to us till ten years after my mother's death. I kissed my kind grandmother for the last time a few minutes before her death. Not long after my mother's death we had all three a severe illness, measles, I think, and after it we were taken for change of air to the Secretary's Lodge in the Phoenix Park by our kind aunt, Lady Wellesley, Sir Arthur being then Chief Secretary for Ireland. One evening, while there, a curious circumstance occurred, considering who one of the person s concerned came afterwards to be. Sir Arthur and my uncle Henry Pakenham (afterwards Dean of St. Patrick's) took my brother and me out to walk. Evening came on-dinner-time drew near, and the boys were weakly and could not run fast, so Sir Arthur took me on his back, and my uncle Henry took Edward and set off running. Soon it became a race. I was a good deal the heavier and my uncle Henry, then about twenty-two, was very active and left us far behind fort he first couple of hundred yards. But Sir Arthur had bottom and began to regain his lost ground . And at last came up close to his antagonist, shouting, and both put out their utmost speed and both shouted with all their lungs. The gate was to be the winning post and with a wild Hollah! Sir Arthur passed to the front and won by a few yards, but in half a minute was a prisoner in the custody of the guard mounted at the gate, and who in the dusk did not perceive who the disturbers of the peace were.

The diary chronicling events over most of the nineteenth century covers such subjects as relatives deaths, the Duke of Wellington's advice on education, the author's time in Cambridge (he was fluent in six languages) and the state of agriculture. Detailed accounts of Orange demonstrations, 'educating and civilizing backward peasants' and a sermon by Dr. Newman are covered in an erudite and readable fashion. With, in-dept, accounts of the famine and the treatment of prisoners, one revealing entry deals with "Christianity and war." In the Barnasmore Bugle, of Friday 20th December 1884, the editor wrote, after Hamilton's death,

" . . . six years ago when John Devoy called for the 'abolition of landlordism' and a year later when Charles Stewart Parnell said ' You must show the landlords that you intend to keep a firm grip on your homesteads' they could not possibly have been referring to men like John Hamilton. Had Arthur Young lived in the time of Mr. Hamilton he would have been reluctant to use adjectives like, lazy, trifling, inattentive, negligent slobbering and profligate to describe all Irish landlords. We, the people of Donegal, have lost one of our finest."

THE LAST ENTRY in John Hamilton's diary made shortly before his death shows that he was, truly, a man before his time:

The people to be worked upon are very different from the Irish population of 1798, and require different handling. Imperfect as their education has been, they are far in advance of those of former days. They can be got at to be raised in the scale of the peoples, as the insurgents of 1798 could not be got at , -and they cannot be put down and quenched as the men of 1798 were by brute force. It is true that stirred up by agitating orators, they seek and some expect things which in no possible case they can get. Their leaders or mis-leaders generally know this well, but find it suits their purpose to excite - the masses by false hopes of rising suddenly into prosperous possessors of the land by throwing off the Saxon yoke. It is not to be denied that some who formerly led the insurgents in Ireland had some of the qualities of patriotism, but they lacked the judgment which goes essentially to the completion of a true patriot and so became miserable failures,-miserable themselves and involving multitudes in their misery, leaving also a legacy of vain aspirations of national glory as a little independent nation, instead of the truly glorious position of being an essential part of the United Kingdom, and having an equal share in the Government and in the prosperity thereof. Every time such agitators have stirred up the population of Ireland, their followers have shown less and less inclination to follow them to the bitter end,-and this for two reasons. The Irish of to-day are wiser ' both from better education and from bitter experience,' -and the English have become wiser and juster, more ready to admit their brothers of next door into their family. Still it has proved nearly if not quite as hard to root out English prejudice as Irish hostility, and unhappily these keep each other alive and the evil dies but slowly. There is, however, a kind of Home Rule which is looked upon as not only possible but desirable by many English statesmen, such as that a committee of Irish members should sit in Dublin and transact a quantity of Irish Parliamentary business, which can not be as well transacted, if at all, in England; or that Local Councils should be appointed for the four provinces of Ireland. Some such modification of Parliamentary powers might probably be of advantage to both countries. To conclude,--we must have patience. Every time the case of England and Ireland is considered, a brick is taken out of the wall of partition which separates the two countries, and even a few pages such as these, may have some effect in promoting harmony and banishing discord.

The journals of John Hamilton,

" Sixty Years of an Irish Landlord "

are now available on CD-ROM.
Details from:

Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.

Below: Barnasmore Area


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