The landlords

“Hand me down me blunderbuss, I’m away to pay the rent” – a saying around Slieve Gullion following the shooting of landlord Meredith Chambre, 1852

One hundred and fifty years ago, virtually none of the land in South Armagh was owned by the people who farmed it. In the post-Famine era probably a majority of the landlords in Ireland were Irish and many of the big estates had been broken up among smaller landlords with a few thousand acres apiece. However, many of the largest estates were still owned by the descendants of those who had seized them in the Norman invasion or more likely in the constant wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Until our own era, all wars were directly or indirectly about land grabs and extracting rents by  force from the producers.

According to the excellent website, “By the mid-nineteenth century, most of Ireland was in the hands of about 8,000 to 10,000 landowners, mainly of a Protestant religious denomination and perhaps less than 1000 of these owned in total more than 50% of the land.”

This chart from “An Atlas of Irish History” (Ruth Dudley Edwards, 2nd edition 1981) graphically illustrates the rate of brutal confiscation over two centuries. In 1603 less than 10% of the land of Ireland was held by Protestants, overwhelmingly land confiscated from religious bodies in Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries beginning in the 1540s. In the early 1600s the ‘escheated’ (ie.confiscated) estates of O’Neill, O’Donnell and other Irish leaders were handed to English and Scottish Planters: it is rarely mentioned in the history books that the Plantation of Ulster was preceded by the Great Uprooting of Ulster. A generation later Oliver Cromwell increased the pace of change with his famous option for Irish landowners – Hell or Connacht. The pace of confiscation slowed after the Williamites grabbed their share simply because there was so little land left to grab, but the slow grind of the Penal Laws completed the process:

  • Popery Act – Catholic inheritances of land were to be equally subdivided between all an owner’s sons with the exception that if the eldest son and heir converted to Protestantism that he would become the one and only tenant of estate
  • Ban on converting from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism on pain of forfeiting all property to the monarch of the time and remaining in prison at the monarch’s pleasure.
  • Ban on Catholics buying land under a lease of more than 31 years.
  • Ban on Catholics inheriting Protestant land (Source: Wikipedia)

By 1778 when repeal of the worst Penal Laws began, native Irish (Catholic) ownership of land had been reduced to about 3%



In 1876 the government compiled a register of owners of one acre or more in Ireland. Below are selected entries for Armagh and adjoining counties.

Name                             Location/home              Acreage

County Armagh

Henry Alexander                                              Forkhill                                 8324 acres

Thomas P. Ball                                                   Crossmaglen                      5085

The Ball estate was made up of lands seized from the O’Neills of the Fews (Glasdrumman Castle) who availed of the Connaught option in Cromwell’s famous offer of land settlement

Henry B. Armstrong                                        KIllylea                                  2279

Sir JM Stronge                                                   Tynan Abbey                     4404

JW McGough Bond                                          The Argory                          5694

Robert J McGeough                                        Silverbridge                        7218

Meredith Chambre                                         Dromintee                          1281

The Chambres, the Seavers of Heath Hall (Cloghogue) and the Foxalls of Killeavy Castle were descendants of Sir Marmaduke Whitechurch, a soldier who fought against Hugh O’Neill. He managed to seize all the lands of Killeavy Convent for himself in the Plantation of Ulster. In January 1852 Meredith Chambre was shot and wounded, losing an eye, in an assassination attempt at Dromintee. Frank Berry of Adavoyle was hanged for the attack

Earl of Caledon                                                Caledon                               2877

Estate seized by Cromwellians who executed its owner Phelim O’Neill. Awarded to the Hamilton family, acquired through marriage by Earl of Cork). Sold to the Alexander family in 1776. Henry Alexander of Forkill seems to have been a relative.





Earl of Charlemont                          The Moy                              20,695

The Caulfields of Charlemont are descended from Toby Caulfield who fought against Hugh O’Neill at the nearby Yellow Ford in the 1590s. In 1615 he was appointed to distribute ‘escheated’ (seized/stolen) O’Neill land in the Plantation of Ulster. He distributed quite a lot of it to himself.





Maxwell C. Close                                                                       Drumbanagher                                9087

Earl of Gosford                                                                     Markethill                                             12,117

Archibald Acheson from Gosford in Scotland acquired about 8000 acres of O’Hanlon land in the Plantation of Ulster.

Thomas Hamilton-Jones                                           Toome (Jonesborough)                                 9887 acres in Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone

Descendant of Roth Jones, barrister from Dublin who bought the lands set aside for the upkeep of Moyra Castle in 1705. Thomas had another 2200 acres in Antrim where he lived and 3690 around Belcoo, Fermanagh

James Johnston                                                          Carrickbroad,  Dromintee                             1639

Earl of Kilmorey                                                    Woburn Park England                                     52.410

Elizabethan adventurer Nicholas Bagenal came to Newry, possibly on the run for murder, in the 1540s and was in the right place when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. He managed to grab all the lands of the Cistercian Abbey. His grand-daughter Eleanor married Thomas Needham and in time the Needhams of Mourne Hall were made Earls of Kilmorey.

Lord Lurgan                                                       Brownlow                           15,166

In 1610 John Brownlow was granted 1500 acres of escheated land on the southern shores of Lough Neagh. His son William got another 1000 acres.

Duke of Manchester                                       Tandragee                          12,298 in Armagh plus another 15,000 in England

Oliver St John, Lord Deputy of Ireland, managed to grab O’Hanlon land around Tandragee in 1615 as part of the Plantation. A descendant, Millicent Sparrow, married the Duke of Manchester and handed him a nice little dowry.


County Down

Name                                    Location/home              Acreage

Earl of Annesley                                             Castlewellan                                      23,567 acres

Sir Francis Annesley became Secretary of State in Ireland in 1616 and like others who held that post, he more or less instantly became a major landowner under the Plantation of Ulster. The Annesley family held another 26,000 acres in Co. Cavan

Robert N Batt                                                     Purdysburn, Belfast                                        12,010

The land. rough mountain grazing, was valued at less than 10 shillings an acre. Even poor agricultural land was valued above £1

ASG Canning                                                      Rostrevor                                               4928

John Cleland                                                       Stormont Castle                                    4385

Marquess of Downshire                               Hillsborough Castle                                      64,356

Downshire trustees                                                                                                            37,454

Sir Moyses Hill, who came to Ireland with the ill-fated Earl of Essex in 1599, acquired his land more by dodgy dealings than confiscation. By the 1870s the family held more than 120,000 acres across the UK

Earl of Dufferin                                                 Bangor                                                       18,238

Major William Hall                                           Narrowwater                                               3648

Arthur C James                                                  Drumantine                                               2822

Lord Hill-Trevor                                               Denbighshire                                                  10,940

Marriage between the Hills of Hillsborough and the Trevors of Rostrevor produced this lineage

Marquess of Londonderry                            Mountstewart                                                  10,688

Earl of Kilmorey                                                Mourne Hall                                                 3448

Captain W Thompson                                     Rostrevor                                                       2259


County Louth

Name                             Location/home              Acreage

Thomas Fortescue, Lord Clermont                  Ravensdale                         20,369

The Fortescues came to the Flurry Valley in the 1730s as tenants and later owners of an estate granted to the Moore family of Mellifont in the early 17th century. They had other holdings around Dromiskin and Ardee

Col JCW Fortescue                                           Dundalk                               5262

Frederick J Foster                                             Ballymascanlon                    3005

Lord Louth                                                          Louth Hall, Ardee             3578

Samuel Hall                                                         Narrowwater                     6804 acres in Down, Armagh and Louth

The Halls had been land agents for the 4th Marquess of Anglesea, a descendant of Nicholas Bagenal, whose estate was sold off under the Encumbered Estates Act following his death in 1854. The Halls bought the townland of Cornamucklagh: they still own the Ferry Wood and Anglesea Mountain.

Earl of Roden                                                     Tollymore Park                  4151

Edward Tipping                                                 Bellurgan                             1245


County Monaghan

Name                             Location/home              Acreage

William Ancketell                                             Emyvale                                      7504

Earl of Bath                                                        Berkeley Square                       22,762

Evelyn Philip Shirley        Carrickmacross                  26,386

The Bath and Shirley estates derive from a grant of Elizabeth I to Sir Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex in 1575. She did not consult the McMahon clan which actually owned the land: neither Essex nor his son were able to occupy it. They took ownership in the Cromwellian settlement and the estate was divided between the Bath and Shirley lines.

Earl of Dartrey                                                   Rockcorry                                 17,345

A Cromwellian cavalry officer named Richard Dawson acquired 31 townlands in Monaghan. Descendent Thomas Dawson, an MP in the Dublin Parliament, was created Baron Dartrey in 1770.

Anne Adile Hope                                              Castleblaney                             11,700

The Hope Estate derived from Edward Blayney, a captain in Lord Mountjoy’s army who fought O’Neill at the Moyra Pass. In 1853 the 12th Baron Blayney sold the entire estate to Henry Thomas Hope, a wealthy banker.

John Leslie                                                          Glaslough                            13,621

Lands at Glaslough seized from the McMahon clan were granted to Sir Thomas Ridgeway in 1609. He sold them to John Leslie, Protestant Bishop of Clogher, in 1665

Lord Rossmore                                                  Monaghan                              13,839

Part of the original Blayney estate sold off in the 17th century.


Charles Boycott

The largest landowner in Ireland was Richard Berridge of Clifden Castle in Connemara who had 170,000 acres in Galway and Mayo. However, they were only valued at around £9000 a year which is only about a shilling an acre.  By comparison, the 26,000 acres held by the Earl of Charlemont in Armagh and Tyrone were valued at almost exactly one pound per acre and in southern England typical values for arable land ran up to two pounds. The Marquis of Lansdowne had 142,917 acres, mostly in Ireland; valuations on his English holdings averaged above a pound while the Irish average was under ten shillings.The Earl of Kenmare had 119,000 acres in Cork, Kerry and Limerick. The Earl of Erne – James Crichton based in Newtownbutler – had 38,000 acres in Fermanagh, Donegal and Sligo. He also had a couple of thousand in Mayo which were about to cause him some trouble. He had recently appointed a new land agent there, one Charles Boycott who had also taken a lease on a 600-acre farm at Lough Mask House. In 1879 the newly formed Land League chose his farm as a test case for a campaign to oppose evictions. Legend has it that the local curate, Fr O’Malley, told local people to say they were ‘boycotting’ other landlords because they found it hard to pronounce ‘ostracising’. Sir Henry William Gore-Booth of Lissadell House, Sligo held just under 32,000 acres: he could hardly have expected that his young daughter Constance would one day become the first female cabinet minister in Europe. In Fermanagh Sir Victor Alexander Brookie, soon to be father of Basil, was sitting on 28,000 acres. It was all thanks to an earlier Basil Brookie, an Elizabethan soldier who managed to grab great swathes of Maguire land in the Plantation. Up at Shane’s Castle in Antrim, the Rev Lord O’Neill enjoyed the rents of 65,000 acres of fine land along Lough Neagh. However, the name, like the castle and all the land, had been stolen – the Rev Lord was a descendant of Arthur Chichester, the genocidal maniac who slaughtered countless women and children in Tyrone in the Nine Years War and was rewarded with the title of Marquess of Donegall.

Next to killing people, marriage was the best way to acquire land. Anna Kingston, Countess of Mitchelllstown, had 24,671 acres to call her own. Her second husband, Wiliam Downes Webber, had 28,480 to throw on the table.

“The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland” published by John Bateman 1876-83, is full of delightful detail. Lord Clanmorris of Ardrahan with 18,000 acres “serves in the Rifle Brigade, late of 28th Foot”. He was educated at Eton and his clubs were the Carlton and Army & Navy and Falconry in London and Kildare St in Dublin. His neighbour the Marquis of Clanricarde over at Portumna Castle with 57,000 acres had been educated at Harrow and his clubs were Travellers, Reform and St James’s. The Earl of Clanwilliam was struggling along on 3,600 acres, but he was a vice-admiral, Lord of the Admiralty and Naval ADC to the Queen who had taken part in the capture of Canton. He was an Eton chap who preferred Carlton and Travellers clubs. The Earl of Lucan, born in 1800, had almost all of his 62,891 acres in Co Mayo: he had fought with the Russians agains the Turks in 1829 and by this time was a retired army general, but you may remember him best as one of three men responsible for the disaster that became known as the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Land ownership is not the simple concept it might seem. The mountain overlooking my house, Anglesea or Cornamucklagh Mountain, is owned by the previous landlords, the Hall Estate in Narrowwater Castle. When I moved into the townland I spoke to the late Roger Hall about it. “Yes”, he said, “I own the mountain. But I have no grazing rights on it, while you have. I can’t cut turf on it, but you can. The government owns all the mineral rights. So what is it that I own?”

He was pointing out the difference between owning land and having the right to use land, a distinction that has bedevilled Anglo-Irish relations since the Norman invasion. Brehon law had a weak ownership concept but a highly prescriptive approach to land use. This partly reflects the difference between arable farming typical of England and much of western Europe since the Middle Ages, and the beef/dairy approach – pastoral farming – which has predominated in Ireland for 6000 years. Arable farmers need to stay put, to plant the crop and be there to harvest it. Pastoral farmers need to protect the herd and if necessary they can move to do that. They both need access to land, but in different ways.

The land-grabbers sometimes misunderstood and often deliberately misrepresented the Irish land use system. The Plantation of Ulster sounds quite benign, a positive thing. Not so good if you called it the Uprooting of Ulster, removal of the people already using the land by war, local genocide (specifically by Arthur Chichester along the Lough Shore in Tyrone) and ethnic cleansing. Plantation only sounds good if you can convince everyone nothing was growing there before. The Israelis used propaganda about ‘making the desert bloom’ but neglected to mention they did it by diverting Palestian water; British courts declared Australia ‘terra nulla’ (nothing land) to sidestep the reality that native peoples had been there using the land for 40,000 years.  Unionist historians have tried to push the ridiculous idea that Ulster was empty before the Planters came, possibly with a few nomadic or pastoral tribes chasing cows here and there.  This was a deliberate misrepresentation of booleying (see other articles on this site) and totally ignored the substantial arable farming which accompanied the major enterprise of cattle farming.


Irish land was taken by the sword but had to be bought back with gold. The land was transferred into peasant ownership through a series of five land acts passed by the British parliament between 1870 and 1909. According to Wikipedia, “in 1870, only 3% of Irish farmers owned their own land while 97% were tenants. By 1929, this ratio had been reversed with 97.4% of farmers holding their farms in freehold.” The most important was the Wyndham Act of 1903 which provided for the transfer of almost half the land.

“Under the 1903 land act, tenants received from the government an advance to purchase the land, which was to be repaid through annuities (yearly installments) over a period of 68.5 years. The rate of interest was 3.75 percent. The landlords were compensated in cash that was raised by government issue of guaranteed land stock yielding a dividend of 2.75 percent. The purchase price of the land was calculated in terms of rent years (the previous rent multiplied by a specified number of years).” ( Prices ran in the range 18-30 years of rent, to be agreed between landlord and tenant or if it could not, adjudicated by a special commission. None of these schemes covered urban ground rent payable to original landlords by holders of long leases. A full century on from the foundation of the Irish state, it is still paying ground rent to the Earl of Pembroke for government buildings on Merrion Square and to the Duke of Leinster on the National Library building.

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