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Post Anglo-Irish Landlords and Language
Created by John Eipper on 08/29/20 5:15 AM

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Anglo-Irish Landlords and Language (Patrick Mears, -Germany, 08/29/20 5:15 am)

In his comments to my post of August 28th, John E asked to what extent Irish tenants of Anglo-Irish Ascendancy landlords were able to communicate in English with those landlords concerning leasing arrangements, payment of rent and the growing and harvesting of crops raised on the leased parcels.

From what I have read over the years, many of these landlords, especially those that were "super rich" for their times, were not overly engaged with the operation and economy of their Irish estates. Many of them had residences in England and spent a great deal of their time away from "John Bull's Other Island." Nevertheless, these landlords, when they visited their holdings, lived in great comfort in their "Big Houses"--the large manor houses on their estates. Some of these houses are still owned and occupied by members of this Aristocracy, and probably the most notable of these owners are the Dukes of Devonshire, who have owned Lismore Castle in northern County Waterford since 1753, and which anchors holdings of approximately 8,000 acres nearby. Birr Castle in the small town of Birr in County Offaly continues to be owned and occupied by the Parsons family, one of whose members built at the time of the Great Famine the world's largest telescope, that still graces the grounds of the castle. However, many more of these Big Houses are now in the hands of later owners, e.g. Lissadell House in County Sligo, which was formerly owned by the Anglo-Irish Gore-Booth Family. One famous resident of this house was Constance Gore-Booth (1868-1927), better known to the world as Constance Markievicz. The current owners of Lissadell are two married lawyers from Dublin. Other Big Houses have been converted to commercial use, e.g. Bantry House in the town of Bantry, West Cork, A portion of this beautiful manor house on Bantry Bay is dedicated to B&B use and the remaining areas are occupied by the descendants of Richard White, the Earl of Bantry.

For a useful mental picture of the life and times of these noble owners, one should read the significant number of novels and short story collections have been written over the years concerning these landed estates in Ireland during English rule and their occupants. Some suggested readings are (i) Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812), both of which were penned by Maria Edgeworth; (ii) The Irish R.M. (1899/1908), a collection of related short stories co-authored by Edith Somerville and her second cousin, Violet Martin (a/k/a "Martin Ross"); and The Last September (1929), by Elizabeth Bowen.

Practically speaking, although some agricultural tenants of the Big Houses of Ireland, particularly those who leased large portions of these estates and then relet certain areas to subtenants, likely had a good command of English and could interact with estate owners on a somewhat-equal basis, most tenants possessed little accumulated wealth and, especially in areas beyond the "Pale of Settlement," these tenants were not likely to have possessed a working knowledge of the English language. However, those tenants who could only communicate in Irish were likely to have been able to understand their duties and to discharge them through interactions with bilingual land agents retained by the Big House owners. Undoubtedly, owners with many tenants speaking only Irish likely hired only those agents who were fluent in at least spoken Irish, so as to enable this important communication. Again I have not seen any statistics that would give us a sharper picture of how many of these bilingual land agents there were in the days prior to 1885, which was the date on which the first Irish Land Purchase Act was passed by the English Parliament. That year marked the beginning of the demise of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy in Ireland, triggered by the constant sale of portions of their estates to tenants. Pursuant to this statute and similar legislation that followed, the British government advanced loans and other financial incentives to these tenants, which enabled them to purchase their plots on these estates and also provided certain financial incentives to the Ascendancy landlords to sell large portions of their estates to their tenants. Other than the precious few members of the Ascendancy that still own and occupy significant estates and Big Houses in Ireland, such as the Earls of Devonshire of the Cavendish family, most of these large estates have disappeared.

Finally, for a good overview of the Landed Estates system of land ownership in Ireland, see the following article: http://www.askaboutireland.ie/reading-room/history-heritage/big-houses-of-ireland/welcome-to-the-cork-archi/background-to-landed-esta/

JE comments:  Pat, I'll always inundate you with questions on this topic, as your posts show me how little I know of Irish history.  Please tell us about the Irish Land Purchase Act of 1885.  What was the inspiration for loosening the grip of the Anglo-Irish (Protestant) landlords?  Was the Act a cause, or more of a symptom, of the rising nationalism among the Irish Catholics?  I'm also curious if any of the purchases were made with "remittances" sent home by members of the Irish diaspora.

Finally, it's interesting that the books you cite all have female authors.  Was the domesticity of estate life considered the "pale" of women only?


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  • Decline of the Anglo-Irish Aristocracy (Harry Papasotiriou, Greece 08/29/20 8:00 AM)

    A very comprehensive and dispassionate book on the fall of the
    aristocracy across the United Kingdom is David Cannadine's The Decline
    and Fall of the British Aristocracy
    (Anchor Books, 1990).


    It has much
    to say about the decline of the aristocracy in Ireland.  A key measure
    was the Irish Local Government Act of 1898, passed by the conservative
    Salisbury government to ameliorate the worst aspects of absentee
    landlordism and stem the Irish drive for Home Rule. It contributed to
    the selling by aristocrats of their estates in Ireland but did not end
    the Irish nationalist drive for independence.


    JE comments:  Interesting:  London believed that reining in the absentee landlords would pacify the restive Irish.  The opposite seems to have occurred.  Empires rarely found the Goldilocks Mean of providing "just enough" autonomy.  Too little and you have rebellion.  Too much and you get pretty much the same thing.  The moral:  avoid empires.

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