For the very early history of South Leitrim, including Lough Rynn and Mohill, see the section 1200-1621AD
. This includes a description of the original Reynolds / MacRaghnaill clan and how they were ulimately replaced by English and Scottish Planters in the 1621 Plantations.
For how the estate developed between the Plantations and the arrival of the 3rd Earl, Lord Leitrim, see the section on 17th & 18th Centuries
More history of Mohill and South Leitrim is given on the excellent www.mohill.com
In 1833, when Robert Clements built a comparatively modest house overlooking Lough Rynn, some 17,000 people lived in and around Mohill. A major proportion of that population were families of poor labourers who relied on casual labour from small farms and who lived a wretched existence.
Life for most people in the area revolved around subsistence farming with few extra comforts. Sam Lewis, in his 1837 Topography of Ireland, describes Mohill as a `neatly built' town of 305 houses with the market on Thursday being `well supplied with grain and provisions of every kind'. For more information, click here >>>
When Robert Clements decided to built the 'Castle', he soon discovered that his naive enthusiasm to improve the people and the land would be met with disinterest and derision. Read more >>>
The Lough Rynn estate
Sydney was obsessed with making Lough Rynn into a model estate. Apart from major building work, Sydney undertook major land reclamation and outlawed the burning of land and the rundale system of farming. Under the rundale system, families pooled resources to rent land, and were each allocated a piece, proportional to their contribution to the pool. Over the years, the pieces of land became smaller and smaller as each family continued to sub-divide their plot. Sydney rightly predicted that this would lead to major problems: the devastation of the famine was exacerbated by tenants left operating farms too small to sustain even one family.
Given his interest in agricultural advances, it is not surprising that Sydney followed a national fashion and founded, in January 1844, the South Leitrim Agricultural Society.
Life for the tenants and labourers
Work at Lough Rynn Castle began every morning at 7:30 when the yardman rang the yard bell. He rang it again at midday for lunch and at 5:30 to mark the end of the workday. The workers were kept busy on jobs like planting or working in the stables or steaming potatoes for the pigs. Operators were also needed for farm machinery like the thresher and the steam engine used to power the sawmill. Each week, the workers took their place on the `pay seat' under a porch opposite the offices to wait for their wages. They then stood in turn on a block of cut stone to receive their pay through a tiny window near the door of the coach house. They were paid on a Wednesday to enable them to go to the market or fair day in Mohill on Thursday. A man earned 6d (2½p) for threshing and cleaning a barrel of oats (which later sold for up to 14 shillings (70p) at market); attending cattle or planting laurels would pay 10d (8½p) a day, while pulling turnips would get you only 6d. To put this in context, the entire wages for Lough Rynn estate amounted to about £240 a year; the local schoolmaster earned £30 a year (though the school mistress only got £20); the master of Mohill workhouse was paid £50 plus rations and the nurse's salary was £8. In the shops in Mohill the locals paid 2d for a 1oz bottle of castor oil, a ½d to 3d for a lead pencil, 2sh/8d for a pound of tea, 1d for an egg (3½d for turkey eggs) and 8d for a four pound loaf of bread.
The rent window and bell tower at Lough Rynn
Much of the labourers' work was very seasonal, and some work was not paid at all but went towards the annual rent. From the work that did pay, a labourer would often not make enough to feed his family or pay the rent on his farm: his small, two- to five-acre holding would carry an annual rent of about £1 an acre. There were few ways to rise above this hand-to-mouth existence, except perhaps by doing well at migrant work in Northern Ireland or Scotland. And there was little solace at home: housing was poor, either small thatched cottages or one-roomed, window-less huts, barely twelve feet square, made of stone and turf and mud and roofed with branches and peat. The only furnishings inside were straw bedding and a pot over a fire for cooking potatoes, with a hole in the roof to let the smoke out. Treats were rare. At Christmas (in the early years at least), Sydney distributed meat amongst the families of the workers and held parties at the coach house for the children.
Diet and house-keeping
While the labourer and small tenant families lived on a monotonous diet of potatoes and milk, relieved occasionally by a herring or bacon, life at the big house was different. The recipe books from the house show an interest in plain but varied food, with a decided preference for desserts and sweets. Oranges were particularly favoured, and were used in everything from marmalade to various types of pudding. Most of the recipes would not be unusual today. They include Turnip and Carrot Soup, Fricassee of Chicken, Lobster Sauce, Mead, Almond Cheese Cakes, Apple Fritters, Waffles and Walnut `Catchup'. The directions on `How to Dress a Boar's Head' may, however, have less appeal. The housekeeper's book of cures, tinctures and remedies includes treatments for a wide range of ailments including asthma (hyssop and honey), coughs, headaches, heartburn, worms, wind, and indigestion (rhubarb and ginger with a glass of wine after dinner). Insects may have been a problem: there are detailed instructions on how to destroy all sorts of bugs. And the housekeeper (or Lord Leitrim) was obviously meticulous about the linen: there are careful notes on how to clean white cloth.
Tenants and labourers across Leitrim experienced hard times in the early 1840s. Year after year, the potato crop yielded just enough to stave off starvation. In 1845/46, there was optimism about the year's harvest. In August of 1845, Sydney spoke confidently about the great progress that had been made in agriculture in Leitrim and expectations of an abundant potato crop were high. The few people who sounded warnings of a `general failure of the staple food' were largely ignored. The pessimists were right. The 1846 potato crop fell to a crippling blight and heralded the Great Hunger when the population was decimated through a combination of disease, starvation and emigration.
Mohill 1856: a thriving town
Mohill, however, was not all crime and lawlessness. Slater's Directory in 1856 gives an account of the town which offers another perspective. In it, Mohill was described as a prosperous, thriving market town whose principal trade was in `corn, provisions and yarn'.
A cottage outside Mohill, 1889
Taken by Leland Duncan Lewis, this run-down cottage was a fairly typical Class 3 house
Leitrim would have been no different from other places except that, as time went on, the general discontent among tenants was exacerbated by resentment against Lord Leitrim's increasingly high-handed, and eventually tyrannical, approach to managing his estates.
The Earl continued his father's tradition of sponsoring education. But again, he did it his way. In the 1840s, he had offered children on the Estate clothing - flannel dresses for girls and tweed suits for boys - in return for attending school. By the 1860s, he was still pro-education, but forbade the children to have books at home. His reasons were threefold: the children could not afford books; they had no time at home to study; and if the children studied at home, they would make teachers redundant.
His ideas for improvements were often not accepted by the tenants. This was undoubtedly due in part to an inherent resistance by the tenants, but must also have been caused by the way he went about implementing improvements. New ways - such as the introduction of new breeds of cattle and sheep - were forced on tenants rather than through any sort of discussion or diplomacy. And enforcement was thorough: one tenant found all his cattle replaced one morning without any consultation or communication from Lord Leitrim.
The Earl had no tolerance for disobedience and dealt quickly with any recalcitrance from his estate staff: he sacked his best blacksmith simply because the man, in contravention of Lord Leitrim's dictate, allowed tenants to warm themselves by his fire while they waited to pay their rent. The Earl also had ways of dealing with troublesome or disagreeable tenants: if they were lucky, he would pay them to emigrate, else he increased their rents or ordered their eviction.
The evictions started mostly as Lord Leitrim's way of imposing his own rights and privileges on his estates: the idea that tenants might have the right to improve their holdings at their own will was anathema to him. From the 1860s, he had ceased to support the Liberals and voted with the Conservatives. Unlike some of his peers, Lord Leitrim showed no nepotism to Protestant farmers, and was as likely to order their eviction as he was their Catholic neighbours. He is said to have issued `lavish and pitiless notices to quit', going so far as to print them on the backs of rent receipts.
First assassination attempts
Resentment continued to grow. In the 1860s there were several assassination attempts.
After another attempted shooting, the magistrates in Mohill dismissed the case and ordered the arms to be returned to the two accused. Lord Leitrim saw this as further proof of a political conspiracy against him.