History of Gweedore

2002 Tim O'Sullivan

Chapter One 

            Gweedore is a small area in the Northwest Corner of Donegal. It is bounded in the north by the promontory known as Bloody Foreland and in the south by the valley of the Gweedore River. The coastal area is a lowlying plain, mainly below 200ft in altitude. The inland boundary of the Gweedore area are high mountains. The area is covered with thousands of lakes and peat bogs and is generally treeless.[1] It is the peat bogs, however, that made intensive settlement possible as they provide the only source of fuel. Although there are signs of human habitation in the Gweedore area, including the remains of a medieval church at Magheragallan, indicating that  the area has long been inhabited,  the population of this "remote and inhospitable area" probably only began expanding "during the seventeenth century as a result of population displacements associated with the Ulster Plantation."[2] 

            Needless to say the early nineteenth century inhabitants of Gweedore were not disposed to much outside interference in their way of life and the lack of roads made it difficult for the landlords, agents and the constabulary. In Lord George Hill's view the area at this time "was ruled by a few bullies, [and] lawless distillers, who acknowledged neither landlord or agent; and the absence of anything like roads effectively kept civilization from the district, and prevented people bringing more land into cultivation."[3]  About 1834 "two revenue police parties" were "beaten and disarmed" and "fifty constabulary were repulsed and forced to give up collecting tithe."[4]

            Without interference from Landlords, the people were able to graze the whole area, and land was divided up by a system known as "rundale." This was an ancient form of land division that, despite its faults, allowed everyone access to the best land, water and common grazing. It also allowed subdivision of lots to accomodate the need for sons to have their own farms. Naturally, Lord George Hill emphasised the bad aspects of the Rundale system, saying that it resulted in "fights, trespasses, confusion, disputes and assaults....these evil, in their various forms were endless."[5]  These problems are present in any society, to some degree; there is no need to assume that Lord George Hill was entirely correct. The rundale system provided the basis for strong community feeling based on kinship, shared hardships and a common religion, and these things made life in such clachan communities possible.

            One disadvantage of the Rundale system was that holdings were often scattered small plots, spread over a wide area and, because of this, holdings were not fenced, creating additional problems with wandering stock. Houses were clustered into "clachans," a group of houses of the families who tenanted the surrounding Rundale. Apart from the grazing of sheep and cows the land was cultivated for potatoes (to eat) and oats (to pay the rent). The fields were improved by the addition of sand and seaweed, to fertilize and break up the peaty soil.  Houses in the clachans were often just one room, with the family living at one end and the animals living at the other. Grazing of animals was also done on a rotational basis and families often moved with their animals between mountain pasture, lowland and the islands.

            Farming was the main activity of the people and, despite the proximity of the ocean, they did very little fishing. The Government (1837) noted that:

"On the mainland in Guidore (sic) District there are not now any fishermen. The Islanders on the Coast contrive to exist, and to increase and multiply beyond measure, on the produce of the soil (potatoes), and to pay their rent and taxes; but in seasons of dearth, which occur on and average of every fourth year, they are as destitute as the poor on the mainland. Famines have occured on the islands only when experienced on the coast."[6]

            Lord George Hill ascribed the lack of fishing to competition from boats from other areas and the price of salt, needed for the preservation of fish, was also prohibitive, as it had to be brought long distances to Gweedore.[7]             Transport between the islands off the Gweedore coast was effected by "curraghs", an unsteady craft made of skins stretched over a  frame. These curraghs were often big enough to transport animals although the potential for disaster in these cases was quite high.[8]

            Lord George Hill described the condition of the peasantry, previous to his arrival in Gweedore, as "more deplorable than can well be conceived; famine was periodical, and fever its attendant; wretchedness pervaded the district."[9] Certainly there was hardship in Gweedore, but whether it was as bad as Lord George Hill describes is hard to tell. It was Lord George Hill's purpose, in his book Facts from Gweedore, to show what an improvement in farming methods and the lives of the tenantry he had effected through his "benevolent stewardship." Facts from Gweedore, has to be read keeping the authors intention of describing his own "successes" in mind, however it is still an interesting account of life in the area. 

           Fr. McFadden, longtime Parish Priest of gweedore, was more acerbic in his estimation of the value of Facts from Gweedore, and quoted approvingly: 

 "This is a summary of the alleged  facts from Gweedore, which might, perhaps, with more regard to truth and accuracy be called "Fictions from Gweedore", conceived, arranged, and printed by the Lord of the Soil himself, to dispose public opinion, to receive with equanimity the shock and outrage imparted to it by the cruel, not to say, unjust action of doubling the rents, appropriating immemorial rights, and otherwise oppressing an already rackrented and harrassed tenantry."[10] 

            Another testimony to the hardship of life in the Gweedore area came from Patrick McKye, a National Schoolmaster, who, in 1837, made a petition to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, saying that the people of Gweedore were the "most needy, hungry and naked condition of any people" in his experience.[11] Fr McFadden, of course, discounted the testimony of McKye, quoting the Estate bailiff to the effect that the people of Gweedore were "more comfortable and better off before the time of Lord George Hill than they are today."[12]  Like Lord George Hill, Fr Mc Fadden also had an axe to grind and his purpose was to show how detrimental to the tenantry was the advent of Lord George Hill, who was guilty of "tyranny and oppression against his tenants".. and "spoliation and appropriation" of their lands.[13] Fr. McFadden's view of life before 1838 in Gweedore was rosy: 

            "Before the advent of Lord George Hill, Gweedore had no history, -at least no history recorded in the suffering and sorrows of an oppressed and landlord ridden people. In this regard there was a profound peace. There was amongst its inhabitants comfort, if not actual comfort, at least equal comfort with their neighbours and the rest of Ireland, and comnfort much above their present condition, as testified by the bailiff, who is not accused of leanings to the popular side. Before the advent of Lord George Hill there were no appeals year after year. There were no wails of distress and starvation ascending from the valleys of Gweedore season after season. But after his arrival there has been going on a bitter war from that day to this."[14] 

            In 1838 Lord George Augustus Hill[15] purchased land in Gweedore and over the next few years expanded his holdings to 23,000 acres, including a number of offshore islands, the largest of which was Gola island.[16] He estimated that his lands had about 3,000 inhabitants, of which 700 were rent payers.[17] Unlike previous landlords who often left their holdings and people alone, Lord George Hill came to stay, and set about to improve the roads and bridges. He had an advantage in that he knew the Irish language, the main language of the people of the area.[18]

             The first road into Gweedore was constructed in 1834 when the Board of Works constructed a road from Dunlewey to the Gweedore River and Lord George Hill further improved the roads on his estate. At Bunbeg Lord George Hill constructed a harbour and corn store and a general merchandise store. By purchasing grain at the prices prevailing in Letterkenny, Lord George Hill hoped to curb the practice of illicit distillation, which he perceived was one of the prime causes of distress in the area. The suppression of illicit distillation was one thing in which Lord George Hill had to admit he wasn't as successful as he would have liked.[19] Quite conveniently, although not mentioned by Lord George Hill or his admirers,[20] the purchasing of grain from the tenants would have given them money with which to pay their rent. Potatoes were grown for their own needs.

            About 4 miles from Bunbeg, up the Clady River, Lord George Hill constructed a hotel, which he surrounded by a model farm. Early editions of Hill's book were subtitled With hints for Donegal Tourists, and this was, apart from demonstrating his agricultural improvements, the other purpose for writing Facts from Gweedore; he wanted people to come and stay in his hotel.[21]

            Hill also set up a shop in Bunbeg selling just about anything,[22] and imported a scot named Mason to open a bakery. Lord George Hill was not for the "free market,"  and made sure that no one else opened up in opposition to him.[23] Margaret Sweeney was evicted for trying to set up a bakery without permission.[24]

            Another of Hills' initiatives was to contract the London firm of Mssrs Allen and Solly, who set up an agency in Bunbeg, to supply wool and purchase knitted products. It was estimated that the income derived from the sale of knitted products contributed 500 per year to the local economy.[25] (The Gweedore people had always made their own homespun clothing and knit their own socks and stockings, for which they kept sheep.)

            Almost immediately on taking up his land in Gweedore, Lord George Hill set about to improve the agricultural practices of his estate. His tenants naturally were not so inclined to share the landlord's view of what was good agriculture and this became a bone of contention for many years even though Lord George Hill was pretty much succesful in abolishing the rundale system. Even he admitted that the reoganization of the farms was "a difficult task, and much thwarted by the people, as they naturally did not like that their old ways should be disturbed or interferred with...the opposition on the part of the people to the new system was vexatious and harrassing."[26]

            Hill had the area surveyed during 1841-1843, and then began to allot new holdings to each tenant. The new holdings were a compromise between landlord and tenant. Hill's original plan was to "square" the farms but this aroused so much oppostion that each tenant's holdings were aggregated into strips rather than squares. The strips were arranged so that they included infield and outfield and access to water, the advantages conferred by the old rundale system. This necessited the abolition of the clachan arrangement of houses and new houses had to be built on each holding (at the expense of the tenants). The landlord outlawed the building of any further new houses, any further subdivision of land, or the sale of land. Not that the tenants actually owned the land anyway, but they brought and sold what was known as "tenant right." The inability to subdivide was a bone of contention and after it was prohibited the first time, the tenants were again given notice not to subdivide in 1844.[27] Under these circumstances, providing land for sons was impossible and the only option for them was emigration.

            Despite being prohibited the practice of subdivision went on. In 1888 there were 800 official tenancies on the Hill estate which increased the next year to 920, due to sub-tenants being recognized as official tenants, after a settlement negotiated between the Landlord and the Parish Priest.[28] This gives some indication of the need of the people.

            In a further attempt to improve his land, Hill began offering prizes for the best kept cottage, the best vegetables, the healthiest livestock, the best butter. This was not, in the first year, taken up by the tenants but it seems that they did improve their efforts to win "premiums" and Lord George Hill considered this to be a successful innovation. He was quick to disqualify anyone who had been involved in illicit distillation, anyone with a conviction for breaching the peace and anyone guilty of not paying rent without the encouragement of "compulsory measures."[29]

            Despite the efforts of the Landlord the basic economy of the Gweedore area was still one of subsistence, and an almost complete dependence on the potato for food. This subsistence farming made the occurence of crop failure a time of hardship and hunger. There were partial crop failures in 1831, 1837, 1854 and 1856, and a complete crop failure in the years of "the famine" (1846-48). There were probably other years of hardship as well. McKye's petition, of 1837, mentions the "general prospect of starvation, at the present prevailing among them [the people of Gweedore], and that originating from various causes, but the principal cause is the rot or failure of seed in last years crop, together with a scarcity of winter forage, in consequence of a long continuation of storm since October last, in this part of the country."[30] In 1845, the potato blight struck the whole of Ireland, affecting the west particularly hard.

            Gweedore was no exception. The following year was even worse. One observer wrote from Gweedore in 1847: 

"I have just returned after a day of painful exertion...in one house I found a family of fourteen - the eldest fourteen years of age, the youngest nine weeks - the mother unable to leave her bed since its birth. They had not a morsel of food in the house... I went to another house to inquire about a young woman who had been employed on the public works and had gone away ill during the severe snow storm. On reaching home she complained of great coldness; her mother and father made her go to bed (the only one in the house); she fell into a sleep from which she never woke. This day her poor mother died also, and there are two of the children who, I am sure, will not be alive by tomorrow, to such a state are they reduced from bad and insufficient food.

Lord George Hill is doing all that a man can do...He is occupied from morning till night...sparing himself neither trouble nor personal fatigue.[31]           

            Lord George Hill's efforts included appealing to the Society of Friends (the Quakers), the Irish Peasantry Improvement Society of London and the Baptist Society for funds. Contrary to Government  policy of the time, which was to maintain the price of grain at market prices, Lord George Hill sold grain below cost and sooner than directed, and thereby avoided the delays which proved disastrous in other areas.[32] The newly constructed corn mill at Bunbeg was pressed into service and ground 688 tons of indian corn to help alleviate the effects of the failure of the potato harvest.[33] Lest it be believed that Lord George Hill was all unalloyed generosity, Fr McFadden pointed out that: 

"He [Hill] got over  700 from Government for grinding Indian Corn in 1847!!  The meagre outdoor relief he gave to some tenants of a stone of meal in the week or fortnight, was to keep them out of the workhouse."[34]           

            Probably due to the efforts of the Landlord, and the availability of edible seaweed, there was not a great loss of population in the Gweedore area compared with other parts of Ireland.  In fact the census figures of 1851, compared to 1841, show a modest increase in the population of the Gweedore area. Some undoubtedly did die because the lack of the nutrition provided by the potato was not replaced by Indian Corn or seaweed. In the parish of Tullaghobegley (of which Gweedore is the western section) there was a decrease in population of less than 1% from 1841 to 1851. On eighteen of the most populous of Lord George Hill's townlands there was an 8% increase in population over the same period which is testimony to his successful efforts to ameliorate the famine in Gweedore.[35] Other parts of Tullaghobegley parish fared less well.

            Lord George Hill described the effects of the famine saying:

            "The Irish people have profited much by the Famine, the lesson was severe; but so were they rooted in old prejudices and old ways, that no teacher could have induced them to make the changes which this Visitation of Divine Providence has brought about, both in their habits of life and in their mode of agriculture."[36] 

            Such an opinion demonstrates a breathtaking arrogance that is hard to beat. It stands as support to Fr McFadden's opinions of Lord George Hill.

            The famine was a turning point in Irish history and led to perhaps a million people dying of starvation and to mass emigration. Both these effects seem not to have affected Gweedore as much as the rest of Ireland, however life did not improve for the inhabitants of Gweedore and they continued to live an economy of subsistence, which led to continued hardship. Emigration from Gweedore seems not to have been in large numbers until  later on. The famine also contributed to the increase of influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and in this Gweedore was no exception. The Catholic Priests of the area took on a leading role in advocating on behalf of the people and here they were partially succesful,  their efforts resulted in the House of Commons appointing a select committee to look into the claims of destitution in Gweedore.

[1] This general geographical description is taken from F.H.A. Aalen and Hugh Brody, Gola: The life and last days of an island community , Mercier Press, Cork, 1969.

[2] ibid, p.30. Also E. Estyn Evans, The Personality of Ireland, Habitat, Heritage & History, Cambridge University Press, 1973, p. 89.

[3] Hill, Lord George A, Facts from Gweedore, Compiled from notes made at various times, 5th Edition, Hatchards, London, 1887, reprinted by Queen's University Press, Belfast, 1971, p.27 (Herinafter cited as Hill, Facts...).

[4] Hill,Facts..., p. 29

[5] Hill, Facts ...,  p.22. In some of the more remote corners of Donegal, the Rundale system survived into the early 20th century, see Evans, E. E. "Donegal Survivals"  Antiquity, 13 (1939), pp.207-222 and by the same author "Some survivals of the Irish openfield system," Geography, 24(1), 1939, p. 24-36.

[6]First Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the state of the Irish Fisheries, House of commons Sessional Papers, Vol XXII, 1837, p 61.

[7] Hill, Facts... p. 32.

[8] Hill, Facts... p. 31. Hill relates the story of the transportation of a bull, all trussed up, in a sea going corragh by Paddy Mc Bride and his sons. The bull managed to get a leg loose and the three men only saved themselves by strangling the bull with their bare hands.

[9] Hill, Facts... p. 15.

[10] McFadden, Rev James, P.P., The Present and the Past of the Agrarian Struggle in Gweedore with letters on the Railway extension in Donegal, Derry Journal, Londonderry, 1889.

[11] McKye, Patrick, "Petition to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland," quoted in full in Facts from Gweedore, p.16, and in the Select Committee report, both times, of course, used by Lord George Hill in support of his own argument.

[12] McFadden J.J., The Present and the Past...p.87.

[13] McFadden J.J., The Present and the Past...p. 5. In contrast to Fr McFadden's book, Hill's book, Facts from Gweedore,  is often quoted by historians, who tend, generally to accept Lord George Hills' own view of himself. See for example Kinealy, C., This Great Calamity, p.87, wherein Lord George Hill is described as having earned "a reputation as an energetic and improving landlord, [who] spoke from a priviledged postition as one of the few well-regarded Irish Landlords." This is then footnoted to Facts from Gweedore  by Hill himself and to Mrs Nicholson, one of Hill's admirers. Hill gets the same treatment from Jonathan Bardon, (A History of Ulster, Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1992, p.280.) who quoted Thomas Carlyle, the historian, "who met him at Kilmacrennan in 1849" and described Hill as "a man you love at first sight, handsome, gravely smiling; thick grizzled hair, military composure." Bardon's book does not even mention Fr McFadden. Facts from Gweedore , reprinted five times in the nineteenth century, was also reprinted this century, in  1971. On the other hand, Fr. McFadden's book has not, to my knowledge, been reprinted, and is not often referred to by contemporary historians. E. E. Evans is one who refers to The Present and the Past, albeit indirectly, as one of"the copious outpourings of nineteenth century nationalist writers," and hence, I suppose, not to be taken seriously (see The Personality of Ireland, p. 92).

[14] McFadden J.J., The Present and the Past...p 45.

[15] George Augustus Hill (1801-1879), fifth son of the second Maquis of Downshire and a decendant of Moyses Hill who settled in County Down in 1573.

[16] In contrast, the Marquess of Conyngham, Hill's neighbour, held 122,300 acres! (Bardon, J., A history of Donegal, p. 321. Bardon goes on to say "These men [the landlords] were as rich as many German princes and even the typical Irish landlord was more prosperous than leading Prussian junkers. As a class, Irish proprietors had a collective income more than the public revenue of Ireland and more than the cost of maintaining the Royal Navy" (p.321).

[17] Facts..., p. 15.

[18] Gweedore is still a gaelic speaking area (gaeltacht).

[19] Facts..., p. 6.

[20] One such admirer was an American woman named Mrs. Asenath Nicholson who visited Gweedore during the famine and wrote of her experiences in a book called Annals of the Famine in Ireland,, E. French, New York, 1851 (repr. Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1998.) She met "noble hearted" Lord George Hill and took most of her information straight out of Facts from Gweedore, and even copied out the testimony of Patrick McKye to further her point. Her book therefore adds nothing to the history of Gweedore. Another admirer (much later) was Sir Robert Peel (and others) who made speeches in the House of Commons praising the work of Lord George Hill. These also were based on Facts From Gweedore, see The Present and the Past... (p. 35).

[21] The last remains of the Hotel were, I believe, cleared away in 2000.

[22] A list of the merchandise available was included in Facts from Gweedore.

[23] Report  from.the Select Committee on Destitution in Gweedore and Cloughaneely, British House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1857-58, vol XIII, question 704 (hereinafter cited as Report...).

[24] Report...q. 711.

[25] Report of the  Royal Commission  on the land law (Ireland) Act of 1851 and the purchase of land (Ireland ) Act, 1885,, Minutes of Evidence and Appendices,   British House of Commons Sessional papers, 1887, vol XXVI, (hereinafter cited as Cowper Commission), q.8145 (Somerset Ward).

[26] Hill,Facts...., p 40-41.

[27] The notices prohibiting subdivision were included in Facts..., p55.

[28] McFadden J.J., The Present and the Past...p. 12.

[29] Hill, Facts..., p. 52.

[30] McKye, op. cit.

[31] Barry D Hewitson, writing, from Gweedore, to the Belfast Ladies Association for the Relief of Destitution, quoted in Kinealy, C. and Parkhill T., The Famine in Ulster: The Regional Impact,  Ulster Historical Foundation, Belfast, 1997, p. 84.

[32] ibid, p.80.

[33] Hill, Facts...., p.63.

[34] McFadden J.J., The Present and the Past...p. 38.

[35] The census figures for these two years are in the British House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1852-53, vol XCII, p. 132. Tullaghobegley Parish was an area of 68,316 acres, 0 roods, 10 perches. The 18 townlands of Lord George Hill cover an area of 12,123 acres on his estate of approximately 23,000 acres.  They were the Townlands of Carrick, Ardnagappary (also known as Middletown), Magheraclogher, Dore, Magheragallon, Stranacorcragh, Meenaduff, Meenanillar, Sheskinbeg, Lunniagh, Stramackkilmartin, Meenderrygampf, Innishirrer, Innismane, Gola Island, Derrybeg, Meenacung, and Glenthornan. There were other townlands on his estate but these were the most populous.

[36] Introductory chapter to the third edition of Hill, Facts from Gweedore (1853), p.9, quoted in Kinealy, Christine, This Great Calamity, the Irish Famine 1845-52, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1994, p. 353.

Chapter Two