Francis Berry and the Charleville estate (Tullamore) on the eve of the Great Famine. By Ciarán Reilly

Francis Berry was employed as agent of the 23,000 acre Charleville estate at Tullamore for over forty years from c1820-64. As agent, Berry enjoyed a cordial relationship with Lord Charleville, correspondence between the pair frequently referred to enquiries as to the health of their respective families. Berry was an active agent and his correspondence highlights that he was constantly on the move between Tullamore, his residence at 4 Hume Street, Dublin and Charleville’s Limerick properties at Shannogrove. He was meticulous in keeping account of the income and expenditure of the estate, while he also undertook a number of mundane tasks including shopping for the earl.  

            Berry brought to the position knowledge of legal matters and advised against carrying out ejectments on the estate, which he believed was too costly. He was also opinionated and did not shirk from offering his employer advice on tenants who he believed should not be considered for a holding or an abatement of rent. Faced with both the onset of Famine in the 1840s and the decline in fortunes of the Charleville family, Berry managed to steer the estate through these crises

            However, perhaps Berry’s greatest achievement as agent was the overseeing of the great agricultural and ornamental development of Charleville Castle demesne. Although an agriculturalist and a steward were employed at the Charleville, Berry took an active interest in the latest agricultural practices of the day. His correspondence with the second earl includes details of reporting that he had purchased a ‘young Devon bull which would be a better beast than the one from England, as he has more gentle blood’ and that he had planted  ‘Italian rye grass which is looking very well’. He also acquired the services of James Kidd a Scottish agriculturalist to oversee the instruction of new agricultural practices to tenants. Amongst the improvements made by Kidd was the digging of ‘some thousands of perches of French shores’ which increased the value of the land. Cows, calves, horses and ploughs were also purchased and brought from Liverpool to Charleville. However, by 1840 Kidd had become disillusioned with Berry’s management of the estate stating that ‘when I came to Charleville it was to improve the land and to instruct the tenantry and I thought it a bad idea to show any other thing in his lordship’s demesne, but if Lord Charleville or Mr Berry had told me to make the most money out of it I would have farmed it in another way’.

            In addition to the employment of Kidd, Francis Berry also employed Michael Dunn as land steward, who in the late 1830s oversaw a major scheme of tree planting in the demesne. In June 1838 Dunn informed Charleville that ‘I have finished the thinning of the Charleville estate by the garden wall and have cut 264 trees as well as thinning the young oaks by the lake road’. The previous winter Dunn oversaw the planting of some 5,400 trees many of which were later uprooted during the ‘Night of the Big Wind’ in 1839. Charleville demesne was said to have ‘suffered more perhaps, than any other place in Ireland’ during the storm where ‘it is calculated that upwards of ten thousand pounds of timber has been destroyed’.  

Through Dunn’s work we can get a picture of the gardens at Charleville at this time where pears, strawberries and other fruits were grown. Not familiar with some of these fruits  on one occasion Dunn enquired for ‘instructions to ripen grapes’. In another letter he acknowledges the reciept of cucumber seeds. In January 1840 Dunn put three men in full time employment thinning trees and another three erecting railings which would cost £2 8s per week. These trees to be railed off were located on the ‘town hill’. Expenses paid to Dunn for work carried out under his direction at Charleville in 1836-7 included £100 18 s 3d for 6 months labour in the woods; £88 16s 6d for demesne work; £15 1s 4d for work at the Glaskill and £178 8s 6d for work at the garden.

            Part of Kidd’s role as agriculturalist was to educate the tenantry in the lastest agricultural advancements which done through shows, ploughing matches and sports days. In 1838, organised by Kidd and his clerk of works, Mr Tong, a sports day held at Charleville for the labourers of the estate when the harvest was completed. Among the events that the workers engaged in were climbing of a pole forty feet high which proved unsuccessful. Prizes included a leg of mutton, vegetables and a sovereign. A dinner attended by 200 people was held at which Kidd completed a speech by toasting that ‘his Lordship would live to enjoy this splendid income- and dispensing among a grateful and attached tenantry comfort, happiness and employment’.

            However such events proved to be the pinnacle of success for the Charleville estate and it is arguable that it never recovered from the demise it expierenced on the eve of the Famine. By the time the show was held in 1843, the earl had overburdened himself and was heavily in debt. When Charleville left Ireland for Berlin in 1844 he directed that his crops, farming stock and implements be sold and his demesne laid down in grass. ‘A great severity is felt by the working classes as a result’ commented the Leinster Express.

The second earl who died in 1851

            Receivers were appointed to the Charleville estate in March 1847 to whom Francis Berry reported. The payment of rent did not improve during this time and into the early 1850s as many tenants still struggled to meet their arrears. Berry where possible continued to clear tenants in arrears and several new holdings and tenants were created. The employment of four bailiffs to aid him in the recovery of rent confirmed such change. In January 1851 several other bailiffs were acquired to level cabins in Clonminch.

            When the third earl succeeded to the estate in 1851 the fortunes of all at Tullamore slowly began to improve and Charleville Castle was again inhabited. The workmen’s account indicates the type of work being carried out to coincide with the new owner taking up residence there. Wages included the payment to H. Buckerfield of £8 for six months work (not specified); £20 for the bog rangers at Croghan while Peter Grogan, the bailiff at Croghan, was given £60 for various building projects. Other expenses included £3 to John Hussey Walsh for the Philipstown poor; £3 10s 7 ½ d to J. Barclay for surveying lands at Kilcoursey; £3 to William Forbes, a tenant who undertook to go to America and £70 15s was given to various charities. Priority was given to the maintenance of the demesne and gardens which cost £2,264 over an eighteen-month period. However when the amount of rent collected is examined it seems that Berry was indeed very successful with over £8,767 collected between 1851 and 1853.

Text: Thanks to Dr Ciarán Reilly for this and other blogs in this series.

Pics: Offaly History with thanks to Fergal MacCabe for his drawing of Charleville Castle