New release of Digby Irish Estates papers online 1873-1916

Following the online launch in August 2016 of the annual reports of W. S and T. W. Trench, land agents to the 9th Lord Digby, Offaly History Archives in conjunction with Offaly County Council’s Heritage Office and with support from the Heritage Council, have now released the next two series of records from the Digby Irish Estates Papers. These comprise the annual reports from the successor to W. S. Trench, Reginald Digby, firstly to the 9th Lord Digby between the years 1873 and 1889, and secondly, his reports to the 10th Lord Digby from 1890 to 1916.

Reginald Digby (1847-1927) was the nephew of Lord Edward St Vincent, 9th Baron Digby of Geashill (1808-1889). He replaced Thomas Weldon Trench as resident agent on the Geashill estate in 1871 following the latter’s resignation. On the death of W. S. Trench in 1872, Reginald Digby became the sole agent on the estate, and remained so for the next 50 years. During the years of his agency, he continued with the project of improvements as commenced by the Trenches. Drainage works, plantations of woods and further construction works were all expanded and improved during this time. During the 1870s through to the turn of the century, rental agitation from the tenants encouraged by local branches of the Land League, increased on the estate. This caused the improvements project to come to an abrupt halt by the 1890s. There were no further large drainage or construction works undertaken from this time, with expenditure being limited to minor but necessary repairs to housing. One exception was the woodlands and plantations project which was maintained due to the profitable timber and sawmill industry that had been established on the estate, particularly at Clonad.

Reginald Digby (right) in the grounds of Geashill Castle, 1901. Copyright Offaly History Archives

Ballydownan and the Land War

Reginald Digby’s reports are incredibly valuable for the information they contain relating to the agrarian unrest of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, or the Land War as it was known. For instance if rentals on the townland of Ballydownan are followed from 1858 to 1914, it is possible to trace the various stages of this national movement in a localised setting. In 1858 the main tenants on this piece of land, near to Geashill village were the Finlay family, Samuel Ridgeway and James Chissell. By 1879, the Finlays and the Ridgeways were still present on the land, but in 1880, on the death of Thomas Ridgeway, a certain William Adams takes up a large tenancy on the lands at Ballydownan. This isn’t recorded in the rentals until the following year’s report in 1881. William Adams was an established grocer and publican in Tullamore and was wealthy. In the 1870s and 1880s he served as town commissioner and a member of the board of guardians. Adams was sympathetic to the problems of small tenants and at guardian meetings he denounced the practice of rack renting. By 1880 he was an activist in the Land League.  He had already acquired lands on the Digby Estate in the late 1870s when he set himself up as a grazier with undertenants at lands at Clonmore, Cappancur and the Meelaghans. The land at Ballydownan was the largest holding however, but he was only to hold it for less than a year.

As a Land League activist, Adams was present at the first meeting of the League in King’s County, in Tullamore in 1879, and all others that followed, including smaller meetings within Geashill . He was the main agitator in an 1880 rent protest, advising all tenants to only pay the Griffiths valuation rate and no more, and to withhold rent if this was not agreed to. Reginald Digby responded by issuing Adams with bankruptcy proceedings unless he paid his rent. In the annual report for 1881, Digby describes Mr Adams as assuming ‘a most defiant tone, and by public speeches and placards denounced your Lordship on no measured terms. So this went on until within two days of the date when Mr Adams would in due course of law be declared a bankrupt, and all his property pass into the hands of the court. Then at last realising his position he quietly paid up his rent in full. This sudden termination of a case which had acquired something more than the local importance came like a thunderclap on the other tenants and with the surrender of their champion the opposition practically ceased and within three weeks most of the rents were collected.’

After the surrender by Adams of the lands at Ballydownan, they remained ‘on hand’ in the rental accounts, that is, in the occupation of Lord Digby and not generating any income at all. The lost income was recorded as abandoned arrears. This was the case from 1881 until 1912 when following the settlement of the Land Purchase Act negotiations and tenants had bought out their holdings, Lord Digby re-let the large grazing lands at Ballydownan to three ‘solvent and respectable’ tenants, Frederick Abraham, Stephen Kavanagh and Reginald Digby himself. This infuriated nationalists as they claimed that these large grasslands should have been part of the settlements under the Land Act. Nationally large grassland holdings were very controversial and there was a call for them to be taken up by the Land Commission and redistributed to smaller tenants. This call went unheeded in Geashill and the practice of cattle-driving began to manifest itself on the lands at Ballydownan, where the cattle of graziers were herded off the lands by large crowds of people.

Reginald Digby’s account of the Geashill Cattle Drive of November 1914. Copyright Offaly County Council Heritage Office

A cattle drive occurred in 1913 to no great reception, but a large and well-documented cattle drive occurred in November 1914  known as the Geashill Cattle Drive. Reginald Digby published a pamphlet describing the event entitled ‘How we Spend Sundays in Ireland’. The Geashill Cattle drive with its bands and banners and near to 500 in attendance was a major disturbance on the estate. Several police men were injured, a firearm was discharged by Peadar Bracken who would feature in the 1916 disturbances in Tullamore a couple of years later. Forty six were arrested and jailed and it was led by none other than Patrick F. Adams, son of William Adams, the Land League activist who had surrendered his tenancy in Ballydownan over 30 years earlier. Following in his father’s footsteps, P. F. Adams was a county councillor and contested the 1914 by-election for the late Haviland Burke’s seat but lost out to his rival E. J. Graham in December of that year.

Further reading

Byrne, M., Tullamore in 1916: the making of the Tullamore Incident, Esker Press, 2016

Digby, R. How we spend Sundays in Ireland, Dublin, 1914

McEvoy, J. N.,  A Study of The United Irish League in The King’s County, 1899-1918,  Masters thesis, National University of Ireland Maynooth (e-print), 1992

Pilkington, M., ‘The campaign for rent reductions on the Digby estate, King’s County, 1879-1882’, in Offaly Heritage Vol 5, 2008