The Shirley estate, with the adjoining Bath estate, were two of the largest in the county. According to The Landowners of Ireland, 1878, the biggest landowner in Co. Monaghan in 1876 was Evelyn Philip Shirley, who owned 26,386 acres, with a valuation of £20,744, all in the barony of Farney. The Shirleys were semi-absentees although E.P. Shirley visited his estates twice a year. The next biggest was the Marquess of Bath Longleat, Wiltshire, with 22,762 acres in Farney, an absentee who seldom if ever visited his estates. The estate’s origin was in the grant in 1575 by Elizabeth I to the common ancestor of the Shirleys and the Baths, Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, in consequence of his commission from her.
The 2nd and 3rd Earls of Essex, 1576-1646
As Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl, was a minor aged ten on his inheritance, his estates were put in the hands of trustees. He grew up to become Elizabeth’s favourite and in 1599 she made him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He failed his sovereign, and his fall from favour and subsequent execution, in 1600, attainted of treason, led to the forfeiture of his estates to the Crown.
We now find the Gaels coming back into their own. In 1594, Ever MacColla MacMahon had illegally broken into and taken over the whole barony of Farney. Following the attainder of Essex, he applied to the Crown to have this act legitimised. King James I, on ascending the throne in 1603, immediately revoked the attainder on the Essex family. MacMahon was allowed to lease the land from its official owner, Essex, until 1620. Moreover, the settlement and regrant of 1606 left the county of Monaghan largely in Gaelic hands. The estate continued in the Essex family until 1646, when the 3rd Earl died intestate and without issue.
At this stage the estate underwent the first of several partitions. It passed in two halves to Essex’s co-heirs, the Marquess of Hertford and Sir Robert Shirley. Sir Robert himself died in 1656, imprisoned in the Tower of London for supporting the Royalist cause in the English civil war. His son and heir was Sir Seymour Shirley, on whose death in 1667 the estate and the rest of the family inheritance passed in turn to his second and only surviving son, Sir Robert Shirley. Sir Robert entered the House of Lords in 1677, as Baron Ferrers of Chartley, and in 1711 was further promoted as Earl Ferrers and Viscount Tamworth. This last title related to the family seat of Ettington in Warwickshire.
The division of 1692 came out of an agreement between the heirs of the two daughters of Robert, 2nd Earl of Essex. Earl Ferrers, the grandson of Lady Dorothy inherited her share, and Thomas Thynne, 1st Viscount Weymouth succeeded to the inheritance of Lady Frances Devereux, the Earl’s elder daughter, later Marchioness of Hertford and Duchess of Somerset. This division was uneven, and in Lord Weymouth’s favour. Lord Weymouth, however, behaved generously in order to rectify this injustice to Ferrers.
The lst Viscount Weymouth died in 1714, without surviving male issue, and bequeathed his estates to Thomas, 2nd Viscount, and ancestor of the Marquesses of Bath. Robert, Earl Ferrers died in 1717, his estate, by agreement, devolving in equal parts to his four sons: Robert, George, Sewallis and John Shirley. Of these, only George survived and, as the others had died without issue, the whole estate passed to him. He was the grandfather of the Shirley brothers Horatio Henry and Evelyn Philip, the 19th-century owners of the western moiety of Farney. The Shirleys were absentees, spending most of their time at Ettington in Warwickshire. In c.1750, they built a house near Carrickmacross for their occasional visits. It was not until 1826 that Robert’s grandson, Evelyn John Shirley, laid the foundations of a mansion worthy of the family and estate near the banks of Lough Fea.
E.P. Shirley, the alarming antiquarian
The most famous of the Shirleys was of course Evelyn Philip, the historian, antiquarian and M.P. It is to E.P. Shirley that we look for much of our information, not only about the Shirley family and estate, but also about the county of Monaghan and particularly its nobility and gentry. The richest part of the Shirley archive is that assembled by E.P. Shirley himself, particularly his ‘Antiquarian Compilations’, ‘Farney Bubble Books’ and genealogical and historical papers. Among the latter is a notebook (D/3531 /G/ 12) containing obituaries of Evelyn Philip, including one which suggests that Disraell, ‘… showed his knowledge of human nature when he portrayed Shirley in Lothair as Mr Ardeene, “a man of ancient pedigree himself, who knew everyone else’s, which was not always pleasant”. …’
A series of high-profile agents
In the history of the Shirley estate, the characters of the successive agents (or most of them) were as strong as those of the Shirleys themselves, and the agents are therefore in effect a component of family history. For instance, the article ‘Estate Agents in Farney: Trench and Mitchell’ by L. Mearáin in Clogher Record, vol x, 1979-1981, provides some colourful anecdotal material about two of the most controversial agents. It contains extensive extracts from a contemporary account of 28 January 1869, written by ‘A Farney Man’ (identified by Mearáin as Father Smollen, parish priest of Donaghmoyne). The following is a synopsis of this.
‘Evelyn John Shirley was regarded as a fair landlord who fully admitted tenant-right. … Unfortunately for his tenantry, they disregarded his admonition to cast their second vote for Colonel Leslie, his running mate in the 1826 Monaghan election. Although Shirley was elected, the tenants also put in his bitter opponent, Westenra. As a result, Shirley never showed the same friendly feelings to his tenantry from that to the day of his death. Shortly after the election, Humphry Evatt, agent of the Shirley estate, died. He was regarded favourably by the tenants and he had good relations with the parish priest of Carrickmacross, Very Rev. President Reilly.
The iniquitous Sandy Mitchell
Sandy Mitchell followed as agent of the Shirley property from 1829 until 1843. Smollen opines: ‘He was probably the most iniquitous and tyrannical estate agent that the people of Farney had known, just as in the previous century Norman Steele had been the most feared and hated, not as an estate agent however, but as the Captain of the Farney Yeomanry’. Smollen is clear that this is a turning point in the history of the Shirley estate.
‘From this period may be dated the wrongs and grievances of Farney. This man seems to have proposed to himself to trample on the rights, liberty, religion and consciences of the Catholics of Farney, and being the agent of an absentee landlord there was no limit to his authority, and many harsh things were done, I am sure without the knowledge of the landlord, but his estrangement of feeling from his tenantry in consequence of the election was manifest at all his interviews.’
Mitchell at once surveyed and valued the whole estate, the bog included, with, as Smollen reports, disastrous consequences for the tenantry.
‘As a result the rents were raised fully one-third and in some instances to more, and the bogs which from time immemorial were free to the tenants were now rented at from £4 to £8 per acre’, and doled out to the tenants in very small lots of from 25 to 40 perches each, with an obligation of taking out at the office each season a ticket for which they paid a certain tariff. If any poor tenant had the misfortune of displeasing Sandy during the year, he was doomed to sit with his family during the long winter nights at a fireless hearth. … He [Mitchell] insisted on the Authorised Version of the Bible, without note or comment, being read by Catholic children in those schools, a system of instruction which neither the [Roman Catholic] bishop nor clergy could tolerate. The consequence was that the bishop insisted on the children being withdrawn from the schools, while the agent used all manner of persecution against the parents for obeying their bishop. …’ Smollen reports that those who tried to get round Mitchell’s prohibitions were summarily evicted.
Mitchell died suddenly of apoplexy in Monaghan town, while attending the Spring Assizes of 1843 as a member of the Grand Jury. According to our informant, when the news of his death reached Farney, ‘bonfires were lit on every hill-top, expressive of the rejoicement of all Farney at having got rid of so unscrupulous a monster’. And for the Shirley tenantry there was now the hope that his successor would secure for them some reduction in the exorbitant rents imposed by Mitchell. Further information on Mitchell’s exactions, injustices and proselytising activities, may be found in the evidence given to the Devon Commissioners in Carrickmacross in April 1844.
Mitchell’s successor, William Steuart Trench, was the agent alternately of the Shirley and Bath estates in the 1840s and 1850s. He was the instigator of the assisted emigration schemes [see D/3531/P]. In 1843, the rent realising commodities of the farmer were sold at very low prices. This made the payment of Shirley’s increased rent, coupled with the exorbitant bog rent, almost impossible. Under the circumstances, the tenants petitioned their landlord for a reduction of rent. Eventually Shirley arranged to meet them on Monday, 3 April, 1843, at the rent-office in Carrickmacross. With great expectations raised, the tenants arrived in their thousands. However, Shirley at the last minute decided to stay out of the way, leaving Trench to face the tenants with the bad news that the landlord was not going to meet them and furthermore that no abatement was on offer.
Trench himself further exacerbated matters by announcing that ‘he would collect the rents at the point of the bayonet if necessary’. At this, the disappointed tenants rushed towards Trench and carried him off to Lough Fea to get them an interview with Shirley. The landlord in fact was concealed in Shirley House opposite the rent office. On the way to Lough Fea, Trench was considerably manhandled and feared for his life. It was at this stage that Father Keelaghan CC arrived, and by his considerable influence and exertions dispersed the crowd and escorted Trench safely to Lough Fea.
This information is published with the kind permission of the Deputy Keeper of the Records at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, The Shirley Papers (D/3531). See proni.nics.gov.uk for more information.