The Galway gentry: a caste apart
An Irishman’s Diary: Their history challenges the stereotype of ‘Protestant Ascendancy’
‘The Catholic gentry and their liberal Protestant relatives, who were often reluctant converts, were largely responsible for seeing the church through the Penal days and supported O’Connell fighting for the removal of Catholic disabilities. In company with most of the rest of the resident gentry of Galway they stood by their people during the Famine; some were driven into insolvency by it and their estates sold off.’
It is an index of how much more impressionable we are in childhood that a chance encounter then can spark a lifelong interest. So the young Patrick Melvin, growing up in the vicinity of Kilkerrin in north Galway in the 1950s, saw some of the surviving local gentry at Mass at his parish church. He was curious about their distinctive appearance and the mystique that surrounded them.
This led him to study the history of the county society of Galway to which their forebears belonged. He wrote a doctoral thesis for Trinity and journal articles on the subject. Now, having retired as a librarian in Leinster House, he has produced an encyclopaedic book of formidable scholarship entitled Estates and Landed Society in Galway.
The book seeks to explain how a county with much poor land had more gentry of all levels than any other county and how they survived with considerable continuity up to, and in some cases, into the 20th century. Melvin has scoured published work, family records and newspapers. It bears the unmistakeable imprint of a lifetime’s dedication.
As well as a few great landlords such as the Burkes, Marquises of Clanricarde, Galway had lots of gentry who lived in modest abodes, many depicted in this book, that were no better than those of the rising farming and business class in the locality. Proud, if relatively poor, these petty gentry were fiercely conscious of their status as a caste apart. Children who married unsuitably or went into business were excised ruthlessly from family pedigrees.
Hard-pressed heirs and younger sons found in the expanses of empire and in the army careers that kept them afloat and an ambiance that suited them well. Daughters with meagre dowries were often trapped in spinsterhood; many from the Catholic families became nuns.
A distinctive feature of the Galway gentry was the prevalence of Catholics among them. Their history challenges the popular stereotype, embodied in phrases such as “Protestant Ascendancy” and “Anglo-Irish”, of a pre-independence elite that was not truly Irish, being descended from English Protestant adventurers who grabbed the land of the native Catholic chieftains.
In Galway names as indubitably Irish as Burke, Kelly, Kilkelly, Daly, Joyce and Mahon were commonplace among gentry. Most remained Catholic despite the Penal Laws. A few had been the victims of the Cromwellian confiscations, having been transplanted across the Shannon as Irish papists in the ethnic cleansing immortalised in the phrase “To Hell or to Connaught”; others, such as the Blakes, Lynchs, Martins and Morrises, descended from the medieval merchant families of the town of Galway known as the Tribes.
The uncertainty surrounding the validity of marriages of Catholics and of their titles to land under the Penal laws of the 18th century made the county notorious for litigation. This impoverished many families but enriched their lawyers, some of whom bought their estates and became landed gentlemen.
The Catholic gentry and their liberal Protestant relatives, who were often reluctant converts, were largely responsible for seeing the church through the Penal days and supported O’Connell fighting for the removal of Catholic disabilities. In company with most of the rest of the resident gentry of Galway they stood by their people during the Famine; some were driven into insolvency by it and their estates sold off.
Later in the century, when the nationalist movement coupled itself with the agitation of tenants against landlords, most of the Catholic gentry opposed it. Uncomprehending when their credentials as patriotic Irish were questioned, they dismissed the verbosity about Irish freedom that was the rhetoric of Irish nationalism as a bogus veneer for a class war being launched by tenant farmers and shopkeepers to further their own selfish interests.
So it was that leadership of the Catholic people passed from those who would have regarded themselves as their natural hereditary leaders. In company with the rest of the gentry they lost their local political role when elected local councils replaced the grand juries in 1898. Most of their land was bought out by the Land Commission on behalf of the tenant farmers in the succeeding decades.
The ascendancy of the gentry in the world of the horse, which had been so central to their lives, lasted longer. The Galway Blazers and the Galway races, which still thrive (although now largely under other patronage), remain as living memorials, still the focus of an elite, albeit of a somewhat different kind.