Irish Improvements (Glenbeigh, Co. Kerry)

[From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 9, August 25, 1832]

The following account of Lord Headly's estate and improvements, is extracted from a pamphlet by his agent, Mr. J. Wiggens, an English gentleman, entitled, "Hints to Irish Landlords," &c. &c. published in 1822. "The estate of Glenbegh, or Glen of the Begh, or Birchen river, is situated at the entrance of the Ivera mountains, an extremely wild district on the shores of the bay of Castlemain, and on the extreme south-western coast of Ireland. It consists of about 15,000 acres, much of which is rocky, boggy, and mountain ground. Steep and rugged mountains surround the estate in the form of an amphitheatre, except towards the sea; along the shore of which a line of hills extends. Thus a sheltered vale is formed, through which the little river Begh takes the whole of its rapid course from its sources in the mountain lakes to the sea.

"This situation is romantic and picturesque, but its general aspect is wild and savage, and certainly, in the year 1807, presented as unpromising a subject for improvement as could well be imagined: and such was the character of the inhabitants for ferocity, that every character dreaded attack, and assumed a posture of defence as he made his way between the river and a frowning cliff, which overhangs it, then the only pass into the extensive districts to the west.

"The Glen was, at that time, supposed to be a safe retreat to every offender who fled from justice-for there all pursuit terminated. The inhabitants allowed no person to be conducted through it as a prisoner, and it was their boast that none were ever punished who had taken refuge in its fastnesses.

"They were looked upon by the rest of the country as savage, and treated as people amongst whom there was no security but in superior force. This feeling was far from being softened on those melancholy occasions when shipwrecks occurred on the coast, during which, nothing but an armed force could prevent every vestige of the property being plundered by those and the neighbouring people. As to taxes, cesses, and other public dues, it may be imagined, that the people lived nearly free from those imposts, for the king's hearth money was abandoned, because of the difficulty attending its collection, although the officers appointed to that duty were supported by troops.

"The habitation of these mountaineers were the lowest order of huts, scarcely affording room to the inmates, and quite inadequate to the purpose of shelter. The people were miserably cloathed and badly fed, the scanty potato-crop was often from necessity shared with the cows, who must have otherwise starved for want of other provisions. Murderous quarrels were not unfrequent, often arising out of partnership of tenancy, and that none of the usual evils might be wanted, letting by the customary mode of canting, had created enormous disproportion between the rents and the value of the lands, some of these rents being absurdly high, and others ridiculously low. To these people the bare idea of labour was offensive, and work was considered as slavery. They were, however, a remarkably robust, active, and enterprising race of men, hospitable and obliging to those who asked their assistance or courtesy. Many of them possessed almost chivalrous ideas of courage, of ancestry, and of adventure, and exhibited symptoms of acuteness and intelligence, and a remarkable fondness for legal subtleties and historical tradition. Such were the people of that country, when Lord Headly, having recently come of age, for the first time visited this portion of the extensive family estate in Ireland. His lordship at once saw the deplorable state of those people, was chiefly owing to a long course of neglect, he resolved, therefore, to cultivate their good qualities without being at first very eager to punish their bad ones; these he wished to subdue by the progress of improvement, so that the culture of the people might keep pace with that of the soil; and he has succeeded in establishing within eighteen years, a degree of improvement and civilization, which, without those efforts must have required a century."