Trinity College Dublin was one of the largest landholders in Kerry from 1597 until the late 1890s and early twentieth century. Robert McCarthy in his book The Trinity College Estates 1800-1923 states that 75,326 acres was granted by royal grant to the College from the lands forfeited by the attainted Earl of Desmond including some smaller parcels forfeited by others sympathetic to the Desmonds.
In almost all cases of Trinity’s ownership, a complex web of agents and middlemen stood between the actual ‘tillers of the soil’ and the College authorities. The College dealt with the head tenants and had no dealings with the lower ranks of middlemen or indeed the tenants themselves. This system of ownership was a feature from the seventeenth century onward of a similar system in the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. The middleman system of Trinity College estates survived in Kerry until 1903 Land Act in the northern part of the county and until 1865 in the Barony of Iveragh.
‘The [middleman] practice relieved a college of a number of responsibilities. The lessee bore all the risks inseparable from land ownership: of failing to find a tenant in times of rural distress, or of loss by bankrupt or absconding tenants; and he performed the necessary detailed supervision for which the college would otherwise have had to employ an administrative staff’. [The Trinity College Estates, 188—1923: Corporate Management in an age of Reform, (Dundalk:Dundealgan Press), 19920, p. 5]
‘It was an obvious policy of the College to favour friendly middle men accustomed to country life, and ready to undertake the trouble of managing a large native tenantry’.
These middlemen fitted into different categories:
- The Protestant chief tenant: as the Penal Laws prohibited Catholics owning land the chief tenant was almost invariably a Protestant. He was probably a settler brought in from England and granted the land in return for military service or in settlement of a debt. This type of chief tenant was more likely to be interested in improving the land with a view to raising its value. Usually he owned land himself (in fee) as well as acting as middleman.
- In a very few Kerry areas, there were old Catholic families who continued as leaseholders and possibly owned some small parcels of land themselves. The O’Connells of Derrynane, would be an example here. They became middlemen for Trinity College in the Iveragh area towards the end of the 1790s.
- Descendants of any of the first two categories who may have inherited the leases held by their ancestral middlemen – now impoverished elderly ladies, clergymen etc.
The majority of the Trinity middlemen had one thing in common, initially they were resident in some part of the county which continued up to c. 1850. After this time, the head tenants betook themselves to their town houses in London and visited their tenantry at most on a yearly visit. Among the most prominent were the Stoughtons, Wilson Gun, St. John Blacker, William Sandes in the northern part of the county and O’Connells, Derrynane in the southern section.
However as time went on, particularly in the latter half of the 1800s, when the tenants became emboldened and started to agitate for their rights, there was less local residency of either head tenants, middlemen or landlords in general.
The main criticisms levelled at the middleman system was the disincentive for the tenant to improve his land, his fixity of tenure and unfavourable terms were so transient that he didn’t judge it worthwhile. The middleman also exercised little control on further sub-letting among his tenants.
It was these head tenants and middlemen who were in the main, the perpetrators of the eviction of tenants from the Trinity estates in Kerry. See here
The principal Trinity lands in the Baronies of Iraghticonnor were in the civil parishes of Aghavallen, Kilnaughtin and Murhur, including the villages of Ballylongford and Tarbert, and in the barony of Clanmaurice, parishes of Rattoo and Killury.
The Iveragh estate of 8,808 acres was situated in the northern half of the Iveragh peninsula. It included the town of Cahirciveen and its hinterland, a stretch around the coast near Portmagee and a wide strip across the centre of Valentia Island. Initially the Stoughton and Guns were head tenants holding a joint tenancy on these lands. Robert McCarthy says that ‘they were among the leading protestant families in north Kerry from 1669’. To explain why they held this land in south Kerry, so inaccessible from where they resided, McCarthy suggests that it was probably because there were no resident protestants of any substance in Iveragh, during the operation of the penal laws, who would have been the only persons authorised to take a sub-lease from the College. They may have been ‘drafted by rising Roman catholic families such as the O’Connells, to take the college lease and then sub-let, reserving of course a profit rent to themselves’. [The Trinity College Estates, 188—1923: Corporate Management in an age of Reform, 1992. P.181]
‘In 1809 Thomas Stoughton assigned his interest to Sir Rowland Blennerhassett and Daniel O’Connell, to hold in equal shares, and in the following year this consortium also acquired the Gun interest’. P.183 The Knight of Kerry joined this consortium later with just an 11% interest confined to the Trinity lands adjoining his property on Valentia. In 1865 this lease ran out and Trinity took over the management of the Iveragh lands themselves. The Blennerhassett share in this consortium ran into financial trouble and the O’Connells found themselves paying for both shares of fines payable to Trinity for renewals. Despite appeals by the O’Connells the Knight of Kerry to pay the college separately, this was not agreed and the lease ran out in Nov 1865, ‘Blennerhassett having in the meantime in 1858 assigned his interest to a Cahirciveen butter merchant named Pierce Buter’. [McCarthy,p.183]
The O’Connells, as middleman did not run their estates well. They allowed sub-division to go on without restrain. The town of Cahirciveen, the centre of their estates was in very poor shape, the country around the town was only partially reclaimed and visitors remarked on ‘the wretched cabins’ and great signs of destitution were visible in the area. However the O’Connells were ‘easy’ landlords to their tenants, more careless and negligent than evil. William Bennett a traveller to the area in 1847 said ‘bad as they are, his tenantry would be much worse off without them’. [William Bennett: Narrative of a recent journey of six weeks in Ireland (London 1846) p. 116].
‘The island of Valencia was in the earlier part of the century something of an exception to the conditions in Cahirciveen. Described as ‘the granary of Kerry’ the successive knights of Kerry could be described as improving landlords. In 1814, Thomas Radcliff reported that the knight of Kerry had built many comfortable farmhouses both two storied and slated. [Thomas Radcliff: A Report on the Agriculture and Live stock of the County of Kerry (Dublin 1814), p.58.]
During the famine year of 1822, relief oatmeals was in store at the knights and applicants were required to swear affidavits before a J.P. and the rector as to the amount of potatoes they had dug. In 1834, Inglis noted that though the houses were of a superior description, the land was let high; that the knight was much respected and had set a good example in improvements. By this time he was working the slate quarries on his own account, some of which were on the college property. In 1846 they were said to have given ample employment to every able-bodied man on the island and hence Valencia must have avoided the worst rigours of the famine years.’ [McCarthy p. 187]
When the College took over the direct management of the estate in 1865, it set itself to be an ‘improving landlord’ in Iveragh and ‘most of its improvements were lavished on the town of Cahirciveen’ [McCarthy,p.192]
It is impossible to give a full and comprehensive history of these important Kerry lands in a short blog. For any reader who may be interested in an individual property, particularly the Iveragh history, I would heartily recommend Robert McCarthy’s book The Trinity College Estates, 188—1923: Corporate Management in an age of Reform, (Dundalk:Dundealgan Press), 1992.