The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
“Those haters of the Celtic race
The above words appear in the poem Mucker written by the poet Patrick Kavanagh and reflects the legacy of William Steuart Trench and his two sons Thomas Weldon, and John Townsend Trench and how they managed landed estates in counties Monaghan, Offaly and Kerry in mid -Victorian Ireland.
As we reach the 150th anniversary of the death of William Steuart Trench, we must ask whether this is a true assessment of the character of the man and of the realities experienced on the estates he managed.
Trench and his two sons came from a professional type of land agent. Their roles included that of magistrate, accountant, architect, agriculturalist, engineer and innovator. Trench was also a landowner himself, as well as an author. His most famous piece of work was Realities of Irish Life which was published in London in 1868. Were his realities the same realities experienced by the people of Geashill, Monaghan and Kenmare?
James Godkin, a contemporary of Trench described Realities of Irish Life as one of the most misleading books on Ireland published for many years, claiming it had made false impressions on the public minds in England. He went on to say “The mischief would not be so great if the author did not take so much pains to represent his stories as realities, essentially characteristic of the country.”
Trench was employed as agent on the Digby estate in Offaly (King’s County) from 1857 to 1871. Prior to and parallel to this appointment, William Steuart Trench had been employed in Co. Monaghan. He was appointed by Lord Shirley in 1843 and by Lord Bath in 1849. He also acted as agent on the Lansdowne Estate in Co. Kerry. There are most definitely common trends in all three counties and similar memories as to how Trench is remembered on the estates he managed.
There is no doubt that he transformed and enhanced the physical landscape in all three counties. Throughout the 1860s Trench, on behalf of Lord Edward St Vincent Digby embarked upon a major project of house improvement and land drainage in the barony of Geashill. While a great number of new houses were constructed between 1857 and 1872, for example, new treble cottages were built in the village of Geashill in 1861, Trench thought it more profitable and less expensive to improve existing dwellings.
In fact, much of the present form of what is now Geashill village and its surrounding areas, owes its origin to the work carried out in the 1860s. A new school was built in 1862. New roads were constructed including one linking Geashill to Tullamore. Improvements were made to the Village Inn and to other buildings in the village and barony.
The school at Geashill, erected about 1862
The success of such schemes of house building and repairs not only enhanced the appearance of the barony and improved the living conditions of the tenants, but it also earned Lord Digby recognition both at home and abroad. His schemes proved so successful that the Digby estate won the gold medal offered by the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland for the best labourers’ cottages in the province of Leinster. The estate also boasted of holding the Duke of Leinster Challenge Cup for the best labourers’ cottages in Ireland for three successive years.
Cottage at Geashill before and after renovation
Lord Digby was thus awarded the gold medal for the province of Leinster for six well-finished cottages which were deemed the more comfortable. He was also successful at an international level when at the Paris Exhibition of 1857 he was awarded a bronze medal for cottages constructed in Geashill.
While working for Lord Bath, Trench also had a number of farmhouses improved and a number of new schools built, all of which had carved over the door the letter “B” and the year of construction. These display similar designs to some found in Geashill.
The town of Kenmare and the Lansdowne Estate were also improved which has been well documented by Gerard Lyne. He noted how Trench even had a clock erected in the main square to ensure the workers always turned up on time.
Present Day Kenmare with town clock, erected by Trench
William Steuart Trench is also credited with land reclamation projects on the estates he managed and could be considered to be a man ahead of his time. In order to restore the land to full productivity, the land at Geashill was levelled and planted with good quality grass seed to allow it to regain it nutrients. Trench had Peruvian Guano applied to improve its fertility. This proved successful, resulting in large scale production of turnips, potatoes, wheat, oats and later, rape seed. In fact, rape seed continues to be produced on this section of land up to the present day. Although costly at the time, it seems that these schemes paid for themselves in the long run. Land which was previously let at a rent of four shillings per acre, now earned between twenty-five and thirty shillings per acre.
Trench was thrifty and perhaps well ahead of his time in maintaining workers to ensure all improvements were carried out. It was suggested at the Paris Exhibition that he construct a moveable ‘Russian Village’ to house his workers. Twelve timber cottages were constructed with timber countersunk at the corners and laid one on top of the other, thus forming walls. In this way, Trench secured a permanent well-trained workforce, who along with their cottages could be transported at a “trifling cost to any district in which they may be required”. The Russian Village, a modern day portacabin, enabled Trench to carry out work all year round with a steady supply of men.
William Steuart Trench and his management of the Digby Estate, King’s County 1857-1871
While Trench and his sons have been credited for such improvements by many authors over the last 150 years, one must wonder to what extent the landlords were involved. In the case of Geashill, the then Lord Digby, Edward St. Vincent Digby, was the grandson of Thomas Coke of Norfolk, who was noted for his contribution to the agricultural revolution in Britain in the eighteenth century. Like his grandfather, he was interested in renovating the appearance and improving the quality of the estate at Geashill.
When examining the demographic patterns in Offaly, Monaghan and Kerry during the Trench era, there was a dramatic decrease in the population of all three counties. Trench and his two sons considered the poorer classes, especially those who lived in mud huts or those tenants in arrears or tenants who demanded a reduction in rents to be a burden to the estates he managed. He also saw them as a barrier to the improvements he wished to carry out.
Trench was noted for the implementation of assisted emigration schemes, regarding such schemes as an economical and efficient way to improve the estate.
According to him, “this clearing process would stabilise rates, consolidate holdings, and improve the life changes of the people themselves”.
Did such a scheme benefit those who were forced to leave Ireland or were they merely to facilitate Trench’s plans at improving the estates he managed? In some cases, people were lucky. Others were less fortunate.
While acting as an agent for Lord Lansdowne in Kenmare, Trench embarked upon a policy of what he called ‘voluntary’ emigration. He cleared Kenmare workhouse by offering the occupants their full passage to America. In fact, by 1869 there was a ward in a New York hospital called the Lansdowne ward because so many impoverished people from Kenmare died in it. According to the Geographer, Dr. Paddy Duffy they had arrived there half-starved, disease-ridden and penniless. Trench introduced similar plans on the Bath and Shirley estates. He admitted in his book Realities that it was cheaper for him to pay for their emigration than to support them at home in Monaghan. Trench maintained that depending on how much the tenant could afford they were given their full passage or a contribution towards their passage and money towards food and clothes. Duffy also points out that many of the tenants who left Monaghan for America or Australia had to go through the port of Liverpool. The agent there commented on the appearance and condition of the tenants who arrived from Monaghan. In fact, it seems they were such an embarrassment to the estate in 1849 that Trench was reprimanded by the Carrickmacross clerk who hoped that such ‘a ragged pack may never appear here again’. Trench, of course, claimed that the tenants’ chief device was to hide their good clothes which had been furnished to them and to appear in their worst rags.
It seems that in Monaghan the tenants were not leaving as quickly as Trench would have wished, so by the late 1840s he began to speed up the process by forced evictions, where mud huts and cabins were knocked and tenants were left without food or shelter. In some cases, people were threatened and bribed to knock down their own dwellings or that of their neighbours.
Did the agency of William Steuart Trench alter the population trends on the Digby Estate? An examination of the census of both 1851 and 1871 suggests that the population totals and distribution altered significantly during the two decades. In fact, the total population declined from 6,221, in 1851 to 3,712 in 1871 resulting in a percentage decline of 40.3 per cent for the period. Many of those who left emigrated to Australia and some to America. They may not have secured their fare from Trench as he claimed. In fact, in the 1864 annual report to Lord Digby, he admitted that sons and daughters of small farmers and labourers had emigrated to America having had their passage paid by friends and relatives who had gone before them. Other emigrants from the barony were aided by a scheme introduced by a Fr. Paddy Dunne, a native of Daingean parish, who liaised with the Queensland Emigration authorities. Dr. Jennifer Harrison in her work titled From King’s County to Queensland, explains how Fr. Dunne became aware that “the able-bodied poor with their families were being evicted from the estate at Geashill and were crowding into the streets of Tullamore for shelter”. They were homeless, penniless and near starvation. The parish and community were powerless to help them in their plight. Fr. Dunne addressed meetings and ascended pulpits whenever he was allowed, as sometimes there was strong opposition from the clergy. He arranged the funding and the safe passage of many tenants from the Geashill area by chartering ships such as Erin go Breagh, which brought many emigrants from Geashill and its surrounding hinterland to the new world.
Dr. Harrison attributes easy access to the Midland and Great Western Railways, as well as access to the Northern Railway as a major factor in facilitating movement to Queenstown (Cobh) from where many emigrant ships set sail. The Midland and Great Western Railway passed through Geashill and a railway station was opened just outside the village in 1854 which operated for passenger travel until 1963.
Population Decrease in Geashill during the Trench Era.
Trench believed that many of the social problems at Geashill could be attributed to the peasants, whom he saw as ‘lazy and thriftless’ and who acted as a barrier to his plans for improvement. As a result, he adopted a hardline authoritarian style of estate management.
Some of the following strategies employed by both William and Thomas Trench seem to back up this theory. Their first task was aimed at eliminating the numerous squatters, who under previous regimes had been allowed to establish themselves on the estate and who had not paid rent for more than twenty years. Their names, in fact, had never appeared on a rent book. These people had usually squatted along the side of the roads and lived in mud hovels with no windows and a hole in the roof, out of which stuck a piece of wickerwork, which made a chimney. These vulnerable people put up little or no resistance and according to Trench were less difficult to remove than he had anticipated. He claimed, he enticed them to leave by offering them money. He suggested that they were quite happy with this arrangement. However, certain sources suggest that the Trenches adopted ruthless tactics to clear the estate of small tenants and beggars, in order to create larger holdings with better drainage and more advanced farming methods.
Thomas Weldon Trench’s treatment of a woman in Geashill village on Christmas Eve, 1861 illustrates this fact. While he was working on his estate in the village and acting in his capacity as local magistrate, he had an elderly woman, Jane Egan, aged seventy- two, arrested for begging for a halfpenny. It seemed that Trench constantly kept watch for vagrants and even carried a Bible in his pocket in order to put under oath anyone whom he might wish to interrogate on suspicion of begging. The case of Alice Dillon (Delin), well documented by Michael Byrne, illustrates just how ruthless Trench was. On the same day as Jane Egan was arrested, he noticed another elderly woman entering a local premises. On questioning the householder, he learned that the woman had asked for a cup of sugar. He immediately had the woman, Alice Dillon, who was seventy-nine years old, arrested and incarcerated in Tullamore gaol, where she died a few days later while serving her sentence. An inquest into her death followed. The inquest was held in Tullamore gaol on 3 January 1862.
It is worth noting that all members of the jury were tenants at will (yearly tenants) on the Digby Estate and perhaps a more objective jury would have found Trench guilty of misdemeanour in this matter. Mary Pilkington quotes how the Dublin Morning News called on parliament to intervene in order to secure Trench’s dismissal as a magistrate. She suggests that his strong links with Dublin Castle ensured that he remained a Justice of the Peace. Interestingly, Trench failed to mention the Dillon case in any correspondence to Lord Digby nor did he refer to it in Realities of Irish Life.
Forced emigration was the main method Trench used on the Bath, Shirley, Lansdowne and Digby Estates for those he deemed a threat to his management. However, in Monaghan he also ordered public hangings. In fact, in his book, he refers to how a man named Traynor on the Bath Estate had narrowly escaped hanging for not paying his rent and refusing to give up his land. It seems the man escaped from the local gaol before Trench had time to execute him.
The other common methodology of Trench’s style of management was his use of spy networking. He specialised in spying on the Ribbonmen in Geashill and the Molly Maguires in Monaghan. He had similar spies operate in Kenmare. It seemed that the actions of the Trenches swiftly led the tenants at Geashill and in Carrickmacross to turn to societies such as the “Ribbonmen”. This was a Catholic association set up in 1808. It was particularly active in the middle of the nineteenth century. The main aims of this society were firstly, to prevent any landlord, under any circumstance whatever, from depriving any tenant of his land and secondly, to deter, “on pain of almost certain death” any tenant from taking land from which any other tenant was evicted. Their actions were carried out with great severity and aimed at wealthy landlords and humble cottiers alike. The local Ribbonmen in Geashill began to devise a method of getting rid of Trench. In his annual reports to Lord Digby, he writes that “Conspiracies for various subscriptions were set on foot to pay for the murder of myself and my son”. William Trench and his son were to be made aware of this fact by informers or as he put it himself “secret friends”.
Godkin attributes many of Trench’s victories over his tenants on the Geashill estate to the spy network he had created. Ribbon activity had increased and seemed rife in the district in 1860.
Trench also feared for his life in Monaghan and as in Geashill became aware through his spy network of a plot to murder him. This became more worrying after an event in Magheracloone.
In 1843, the tenants on the Shirley Estate, of which Magheracloone was a part, refused to pay their rent until their complaints had been addressed by the landlord. Attempts by the bailiffs to seize cattle or goods from the tenants, who would not pay, were stopped by the activities of local Ribbonmen known as ‘The Molly Maguires’.
Trench, along with the bailiff on the Shirley Estate and escorted by local police, marched towards the church in Magheracloone. The intention was to post a notice of eviction to several tenants on the door of the church. They were met by a large crowd who tried to block their path. As the troops tried to advance they were met by a shower of stones. The troops began to shoot at the crowd which resulted in the death of a young servant boy. This episode resulted in a Coroner’s inquiry. Unsurprisingly, the enquiry could not establish who shot the boy nor could it prove that the police were in danger at the time of the shooting.
After this, it seems the “Molly Maguires” upped their activity by staging surprise attacks on the “grippers, keepers and drivers”. The grippers were the people who were directed by Trench to arrest tenants, the keepers were employed to watch the crops for fear the tenants would remove them, and drivers were those who drove the livestock to the pounds until the tenants paid up their rent. As in Geashill, Trench was made aware by informers of a plot to murder him. Large subscriptions were being collected to pay the murderer who would consent to shoot him. Two men were appointed, Hodgens from Castleblaney and an individual called Thornton, who was described as a good for nothing who lived between Carrickmacross and Inniskeen. If fact, the Ribbonmen went as far as putting up a notice in a local church which read “Trench considered a doomed man”. After this episode, Trench never left the house unless accompanied by two men, one of whom was his son. All three were well armed and ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Both Hodgens and Thornton along with a third man called Breen were later arrested for attempting to murder the baliff, Paddy MacArdle. Trench had both Hodgens and Breen executed by public hangings in Carrickmacross, while Thornton who had informed on his friends walked free.
So how do Trench and his sons deserve to be remembered over the last one hundred and fifty years?
The folktales of Co. Monaghan paint a dark picture of Trench. For example, they tell how when Trench died, the rats devoured his corpse before it could be buried.
They are remembered in much the same way by the people of Geashill. A local man, Thomas Davis, remembers a rhyme told by his grandmother.
There’s grace on the pulpit
There’s wit on the bench
But there’s nothing but dirt,
Can be found on Trench.
From such stories, it is fair to say that the Trenches exercised huge control over the lives of their tenants, not only economically but also socially. It is claimed that in both Monaghan and Kerry no tenant could marry without the consent of Trench. This is reflected in a ballad about the Shirley Estate:
Oh Girls of Farney it is true
That each true hearted wench
Before she weds, must get consent
From Pious Father Trench.
Both Trench and his son Thomas Weldon died within a few days of each other in 1872 and were buried in Dunamoyne cemetery in Co. Monaghan.
Their legacy is reflected in the fact that their headstone has been vandalised and defaced.
The Defaced Headstone of William Steuart Trench, Dunamoyne Cemetery, Co. Monaghan
William Steuart Trench’s physical legacy in Offaly, Monaghan and Kerry is that of an agent who created a golden age of prosperity in the barony. Down through the years this physical legacy has been greatly overshadowed by the REALITIES of an agent who systematically broke leases, demolished people’s homes and banished the poor from the countryside. It is clear that his management style was ruthless in the extreme. The legacy of William Steuart Trench, his two sons and many other land agents of the time, including Trench’s nephew George Adair are aptly epitomised by Patrick Kavanagh as
“Those haters of the Celtic race”.
Local Historian & Author of William Steuart Trench and his management of the Digby Estate, King’s County 1857-1871
We have added some Geashill books [ed.]
We have added this blog to our Decade of Centenaries because of the profound influence the legacy of Trench had IRA leader and county councillor Tommy Dunne. See also some further reading. Some copies of Mary Delaney’s book and that of Rachel McKenna are available from Offaly History and Midland Books. The Photographic record is out of print and hard to get.