Agriculture in Offaly on the eve of the Great Famine. By Ciarán Reilly

On the eve of the Great Famine in 1845 the backwardness of Irish agriculture was seen by many as the reason for much of the country’s economic woes. About Irish farmers, it was stated that they knew nothing of the ‘English’ method of farming or indeed welcomed its arrival. However, there was amongst many Irish landlords, and their agents, a growing understanding of the benefits of the ‘science’ of agriculture and many had willingly adopted such methods in the management of their estates. In particular, many land agents were the leading pioneers of better agricultural practice. The employment of agriculturalists; the establishment of agricultural societies and the trips undertaken to observe foreign models of agriculture all highlight the progression of Irish agriculture by the early 1840s.

         In 1723 Robert Molesworth wrote that the ‘whole economy of agriculture is generally mistaken in this kingdom’. Little it seemed had changed one hundred years later when Henry Brereton, an Offaly bailiff observed on a visit to England that ‘these Englishmen are dammed queer fellows, they do not farm the way you do in the bogs, they sow nothing but clover, wheat and turnips’. However, there was a growing appreciation amongst many Offaly landlords that agricultural improvement would increase the prosperity of tenants and likewise in turn, the rental of an estate. Many pamphlets, books and lectures were written on Irish agriculture and improvement in the early nineteenth century. The popular belief that Irish landlords spent little on improvement is contrasted by the constant search for improvement in agricultural practices. Many were members of the Royal Agricultural Improvement Society who sent instructors in the late 1830s and early 1840s to show the tenantry on various estates the new and most advanced agricultural practices. The ‘golden rule’ of the instructors was that crop rotation was the way forward.

Some sixty Scottish agriculturalists were employed at Irish landed estates throughout the 1830s and many Irish men spent time in Scotland studying their husbandry. One such scholar was Charles Ryan who wrote about draining, sub soiling, ploughing, enclosing land, the use of manure and the growing of a variety of green crops. Other efforts to improve Irish farmers were championed by the Irish Waste Land Improvement Society which was established in the 1830s. While the initial approval was needed from the landlord for capital to be expended on such projects; inevitably the major share of the work fell to the agent who oversaw the improvements from the beginning. At Tyrrellspass, county Westmeath the tenants of Rev William Eames paid for the instruction from the agriculturalist themselves.

Rahan Lodge, owned by Shelburne until about 1802 and home of John O’ Brien from the 1820s

Advances in agriculture had come earlier, it seems, in Offaly. In the 1770s Lord Shelbourne’s estate at Rahan benefited from the appointment of a bailiff and agriculturalist, a Mr Vancover who was brought from Norfolk. Vancover was well schooled in the science of agricultural improvement and brought with him a ploughman and new ploughs, harrow and tackle to implement his Norfolk husbandry’. He was described as being a ‘sensible, intelligent, active man who went through all the manual part of farming in seven years apprenticeship to a great farmer in Norfolk’. Amongst the land on the estate which Vancover had singled out for improvement was some 4,000 acres of bog. According to Arthur Young who visited the Shelbourne estate, the farm manager had commenced to grow turnips, a favourable decision he believed as this was always the most viable option for poor soil.

Young’s Tour of 1780.The Rahan account is in vol 1, as is Charleville.

Others adopted similar models. Samuel Robinson, an Offaly landlord and miller, supported the Belgian model of agriculture which involved keeping no horses, feeding their cattle in houses, the use of dry mould and in particular, manure. Indeed, in February 1836 a case was brought before the Kinnitty petty sessions involving two men who were in dispute over the scrapping of manure off the public road such was its value to farmers.  Advice in these new methods of farming were being shared amongst landowners in the county in the early nineteenth century, evident in Rev Delaney of Kinnitty’s advice to Maurice O’Connor Morris of Mount Pleasant advice in 1813. Jonathan Darby of Leap Castle also took his lead from a French publication on agriculture and had in his possession an excellent threshing machine and other farming implements.

According to Bell and Watson the relationship between road building, drainage and land reclamation was widely recognised.  The draining and reclamation of land was seen as a positive advance towards what was labeled in some quarters ‘high farming’. The land agents of the Charleville, Mornington and Rosse estates were active in the promotion of drainage of rivers such as the River Brosna, which was of benefit to the tenants who farmed the land adjacent and adjoining. Indeed, as many as thirty agents and stewards were involved in coordinating the drainage of the River Brosna in the later 1840s which affected over 16,000 acres of land. This drainage scheme provided much needed employment in the county too during a time of crisis.

The memorial to the third Lord Downshire – a great improver

The library of a landlords or agents house was well stocked with the latest suggestions on estate management and agricultural practice. At Blundell House, the residence of Lord Downshire’s agent Thomas Murray the library included books on Dutch farming. Murray frequently gave these books on loan to farmers and advised that they should be translated into a ‘language that the Irish farmer would understand. Murray was also sent to Belgium and Holland in 1838 to acquire knowledge of the European methods of farming and beleived that he had ‘got some useful lessons in the management of lands and other things that may be useful over here’. The Kildare distiller and landowner, Robert Cassidy who immersed himself in the management of his estate at Killyon, near Rath included in his library several books on agricultural improvement which in turn were passed amongst his tenants.

Francis Berry, the great Charleville agent, died 1864

The thirst for knowledge did not stop there. Francis Berry, Lord Charelvilles agent at Tullamore brought several tenant farmers to view the ‘model’ Gosford estate in Armagh. Berry implemented these new methods at Tullamore which included the growing of Italian rye grass and new breeds of cattle. On one occasion he noted to Charleville that the young Devon bull would be a better beast than the one from England as he has more gentle blood’.  Berry also acquired the services of an agriculturalist, James Kidd from Scotland who instructed the tenants in drainage and brought expensive horses to work the land at the demsense.

Agricultural premiums to tenants who had taken part in agricultural shows and adopted new practices on their holdings were also presented by the agent of the estate. These premiums consisted of agricultural implements such as ploughs, wheelbarrows and harrows. The tenants of the Toler estate were frequently entertained at the agent George Garvey’s residence at Thornvale, near Birr. At one such gathering the tenants were told that the new landlord was concerned about making his tenantry happy and prosperous and that he would always endeavour to promote the good feeling between landlord and tenant. Many of the tenants expressed their delight with having grown turnips for the first time and the assistance received by Mr Jackson the agriculturalist and from Garvey who had supplied them with manure and seed.

In 1839 the editor of The Leinster Express recommended to landlords and farmers that agricultural schools should be set up ‘for the purpose of grounding the rising generation in a sound practical knowledge of husbandry’. However, societies in Offaly predated this by over twenty-five years. An agricultural society was formed at Kinnitty in May 1813 under the direction of Col Thomas Bernard and his agent Daniel Manifold. A society at Leap preceded this where Jonathon Darby sought to fill the void for local men left after the volunteer militias had ceased in the wake of the 1798 rebellion. In September 1830 Hugh Scully, a prosperous farmer at Philipstown (Daingean) wrote to Robert Cassidy informing him of the plans to start an agricultural society in that part of Offaly, and asked for assistance in doing so.

These groups soon recommended the hosting of agricultural shows as a means of disseminating knowledge and rewarding farmers who had sought to improve themselves. At Tullamore in October 1840, under the auspices of the Tullamore Agricultural Society, a show was held to reward tenants on the Charleville estate. Addressing a dinner in the Tullamore courthouse on the afternoon of the show, Lord Charleville paid tribute to the Moate and other farming societies of Ireland and in particular to Dr Thomas Bewley. Also present at the dinner was Pat Egan of Deerpark, Croghan who along with other Charleville tenants had visited the Gosford estate in county Armagh. Francis Berry stated that he had never seen thirteen acres of land better managed and in addition to that Egan kept his own bacon. Three years later at the Tullamore Show prizes were awarded for the best cow, heifer, bull, pig, etc., while prizes for green crops included turnips, mangolds, clover and rye grass, transplanted rape, drainage and the best kept labourer’s cottage.

The Show tradition of the 1840s was carried on into the 1900s and since the 1990s

In other parts of Offaly there were notable advances in agriculture. Travelling through Ireland in the 1830s, the Scottish Whig Robert Graham described the farming practices of the Rait brothers of Rathmoyle, Rhode as ‘the best in Ireland’. According to Graham the farm was laid out in fields of generally twenty acres, totalling seven hundred acres. For the management of his estate Rait had three sets of offices located in different parts of his ground. Six of his staff were brought from Scotland to instruct the locals in the best agricultural practice and Scottish horses were chiefly used and were bred at the farm. Long strong carts and a threshing mill for six horses were also utilised by Rait. The practice of crop rotation was also in place where oats, barley, turnips, wheat, hay and grass operated on an eight years cycle. Rait a native of Dundee, Scotland, clearly modelled his farming on English and Scottish farmers and was not an admirer of the tartarian, a variety of oats more suited to the Irish climate than the Scottish. The Chevalier barley which originated in Suffolk was also used while an Italian clover had failed. A quarry on the farm supplied ready lime to be used as manure, while also providing excellent building and paving stones. Maunsell Longworth Dames of nearby Greenhills believed that there was a general improvement in agriculture in the area since the arrival of the Rait brothers. They had introduced the crop rotation on their 1,200 acre farm and many of the neighbouring farmers had followed these methods which brought the ‘most beneficial effect’ to the area.

Rathmoyle, home of the Raits until the end in the 1920s

Not everyone agreed with agricultural improvement. Despite the improvements and the provision of agriculturalists and drainage experts many tenants were reluctant to attach themselves to such programmes. Denis Egan a farmer and middleman at Cloneganna in the barony of Clonlisk reiterated the view of Rev William Minchin of Moneygall that many landlords had not the financial capabilities to make improvements and suggested that the government should be responsible for providing loans for landlords to carry out improvements. Thomas Parker O’Flanagan, a farmer near Tullamore with 300 acres believed that agriculture was merely improving amongst those who had more than 100 acres.  Opposition was evident in other ways. The breaking of a ‘Scotch plough’ at Cappogolan, near Mount Bolus in 1836 was proof that some tenants were also reluctant to change. A mower belonging to John O’Brien of Rahan was broken and the man who operated it was threatened to be shot.  In April 1838 a plough was broken in Walsh Island in an attempt to promote employment amongst local labourers. Labourers were also scared of change and saw the increased use of the plough as detrimental to their livelihoods.

So what conclusions can be drawn from this? Firstly, there was a genuine interest amongst Offaly land agents and landlords to promote agriculture. Many were well educated in the ‘science’ of agriculture and were willing to undertake foreign trips; read the latest pamphlets about agriculture and employ agriculturalists and drainage experts to instruct tenants. Such expenditure and time contradicts the generalisation that landlords spent little on improvement prior to the onset of the Great Famine.

Dr Ciarán Reilly is an historian of 19th & 20th century Irish history based at Maynooth University.

Picture and captions: Offaly History