Pobble O'Keefe

[From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 21, November 17, 1832]

That Ireland has been much neglected is, alas! an indisputable fact. She has been too truly characterized as a country for which God has done much, but man little. The causes from which such melancholy results flow are neither few nor simple; different men, and honest men too, will trace their origin to very different sources. It would be a very difficult, nay, we should almost say a dangerous undertaking, to attempt an impartial investigation of the subject. Ours shall be a more pleasing and easy task - to point the attention of our readers to the benevolent operations of our Government, which have been for some time in progress, for the amelioration of the condition of the peasantry in a wild and comparatively unknown district, situated on the confines of the counties of Cork, Limerick, and Kerry.*

In the prosecution of these operations, men have been employed whose minds appear to have been guided by the best feelings, and who seem to have been well aware that the true interests of a well-ordered government are insured by the gratitude and affection of the governed.

The history of the district to which we have alluded has been summarily given by a gentleman, who has well described it as the theatre of a desolating warfare in the reigns of Elizabeth and James the First - as the refuge of outlaws in the reigns of William the Third and Anne, and the very focus of the more recent insurrectionary movements of the last ten or fifteen years.

An extensive tract of country, comprehending upwards of 900 square miles, in many places very populous, yet containing but two small villages, and possessing but two resident landed proprietors, namely, the Knight of Glynn, and Mr. Leader, of Dromagh, was distinguished, as might have been expected under such circumstances, by a more than ordinary degree of indolence, discontentedness, and turbulence, in its inhabitants; and their abodes being almost inaccessible for want of roads, crime frequently escaped unpunished. During the disturbances of the winter of 1821 and the spring of 1822, this district was the asylum for Whiteboys, smugglers, and midnight marauders. Stolen cattle were constantly driven into it, from the surrounding flat and fertile country, as to a safe and impenetrable retreat.

The only passes ever made through this part of the country previously to 1829, were effected at the instance and expense of the English Government immediately subsequent to the rebellion of the Earl of Desmond, of whose extensive territory the district of which we have been speaking formed a part. These passes or roads were laid out in straight lines without any reference to the nature of the country, and ran directly over hill and valley from one military point to another.

A vast change has been effected in the state of the district and its inhabitants since the month of September, 1822, when new lines of road were laid out, under the direction of a man of distinguished talent and information, Mr. Griffith, the civil engineer, sent down for that purpose, and for the direction of other public works, undertaken for the employment of the poor, in consequence of the scarcity which prevailed in the summer of that year.

The progress of this important change he has thus described: - "At the commencement of the works the people flocked to them from all quarters, seeking employment at any rate which might be offered. Their general appearance bespoke extreme poverty; their looks were haggard, and their clothing wretched; they rarely possessed any instruments of husbandry beyond a very small ill-made spade, and as a consequence it followed that nearly the whole face of the country was unimproved and in a state of nature. But since the completion of the roads in 1829, rapid strides have been made towards cultivation and improvement; upwards of sixty new lime kilns were built for the purpose of burning lime for agriculture within the two preceding years; carts, ploughs, and harrows, of superior construction, became common; new houses of a better class were built in great numbers in the vicinity of the new roads, and also in the adjacent villages of Newmarket, Castle-island, and Abbeyfeale; new enclosures of mountain farms have been made in every direction; and this country, which, at no distant period, was the scene of lawless outrage, and one of the strongholds of what might be termed the rebel army, quickly became perfectly tranquil, and exhibited a scene of industry and exertion at once pleasing and remarkable. To the credit of the people be it told, that a large portion of the money received by them for labour on the roads was husbanded with care, and subsequently laid out in building substantial houses, and in the purchase of cattle and implements of husbandry, and numerous examples might be adduced of poor labourers, possessing neither money, houses, nor lands, when first employed on the public roads, who, within a short period, were able to take farms, build houses, and stock their lands with cows and young cattle."

These representations of the important benefits resulting to the agriculture of the country, from merely opening new lines of easy and direct communication with it from the markets in its vicinity, and of their ameliorating influence over the habits and condition of the peasantry inhabiting it, are abundantly corroborated by the evidence of other persons, to be found in the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the State of the Poor in Ireland.

The improvements above described, which are attributable to the new roads, do not extend to the whole of the mountain district, situated between the river Shannon and the river Blackwater. There remains a considerable portion extending northward from the Blackwater to a line drawn between the towns of Castle-island and Newmarket, comprehending an area of about 200 square miles, or 128,000 acres, in which there is no road passable even for horsemen during the winter months.

In the very centre of this unopened district, at about ten miles distance from Castle-island, on the west, and from Newmarket and Kanturk, on the east, are situated the Crown-lands, called the lands of Pobble O'Keefe (the land of O'Keefe's people). They extend in length from north to south, parallel with the Blackwater (by which they are in great part bounded on the west), about seven miles; and in breadth from west to east, on which side they are bounded by the Awnaglyn, or Auntharaglyn, a mountain-stream flowing into the Blackwater, near Ahane, about two miles and a quarter; comprising altogether more than 9,000 statute acres of undulating hilly country, at an average elevation of about 500 feet above the level of the sea. The soil varies from a strong clay to a loamy gravel on the higher grounds, with tracts of alluvium, and some peat-bog in the vallies and along the bottoms.

The Crown lease being expired, a principal officer in the Department of Woods and Forests - Mr. James Weale, from whose Report, printed by the House of Commons, the greater part of the preceeding matter and of what follows has been taken - personally inspected the estate in the autumn of 1828, preliminary to the then intended renewal of the lease or sale of it. Upon that occasion, it appeared to him that if an accurate description of all the circumstances of the property in question were conveyed to the minds of the commissioners, they would feel that considerations of a higher nature than those which usually govern them in the management of the revenues placed under their charge ought to influence their decision in an ultimate disposition of this property. He felt the impolicy of consigning its population to the sordid dealings of a middle man or land-jobber; and, independently of all considerations merely economical or fiscal, he conceived it to be essential to the tranquillity and security of the kingdom, that this district, which presents an impregnable military position, commanding all the great roads communicating with the south-western section of Ireland, from Limerick, Waterford, and Cork, and in the heart of a populous and rapidly improving country, should be speedily rendered accessible, and the cultivation of its natural resources for the amelioration of its inhabitants, promoted as much as possible.

It appears that Mr. Weale found the crown was in the actual possession of only 5,000 acres; the remainder, contained in a longitudinal section of the estate, next to the Awnaglyn, being withheld by the adjacent proprietors, who claim to be entitled to the inheritance. The lands which have been surrendered to the crown are occupied by upwards of seventy native families, residing in mud cabins, the only buildings on the property, and who subsist almost entirely on the deteriorated produce of a few acres of potatoe tillage; all their other earnings, from the produce of a few cows and the grazing of cattle in the summer months, together with any money they can obtain for harvest work in the adjacent districts, being barely sufficient to discharge the rents at which they held the property, amounting to about £580; but, however small that sum may appear to be with reference to the extent of the property, and natural capabilities of the soil, it is certain that it is exclusively derived from the mere labour of the population seated on it, in persevering endeavours to improve the natural herbage of such small parcels of the lands as are susceptible of cultivation without artificial drainage and the aid of manures and implements of husbandry.

Yet this is the peasantry that are daily, nay, hourly stigmatized as lazy, indolent, and worthless - all whose poverty and moral degradation are to be ascribed to their utter want of industry! And by whom are these calumnies propagated? Can it be possible that it is by their own countrymen? Alas! for poor human nature, it is even so. But let an unprejudiced and enlightened Englishman travel through this unfortunate country, and see things with his own eyes, and what is the result of his candid and unprejudiced observation? Read it in the able report of Mr. Weale to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. And where were his observations made? In a district known as the very centre of insurrection and rebellion. If these things be so, do they not convey an important lesson? But to return to our subject:

Mr. Weale, in his report, after relating some striking traits of character, indicating the strongest disposition for industrious habits in the tenantry of these lands, proceeds to show, that the local situation of the estate precludes all hope of effecting any permanent or profitable improvement of it as long as the extensive district, of which it forms the nucleus, is closed against an easy communication with the surrounding country, and that any expenditure of public money on it would afford but transitory relief to the wretched population inhabiting it.

Assuming that Government would provide for an early execution of the requisite new public roads, on which alone the practicability of effecting the proposed improvement of the Crown estate depends, Mr. Weale submits various suggestions as to the mode of proceeding which appears to him best calculated to effect the foregoing objects. In the first instance, he is of opinion, that plans should be laid down for the draining and subdividing of the lands; and that, when these plans are settled, the tenantry should be forthwith employed in sinking the drains, and in forming the roads and the internal fences of the allotments or subdivisions. He then proposes the establishment of a village, at a spot which he designates, and which he shows would probably soon become a resting place for carriers and farmers passing to and from Dingle. Tralee, Mallow, Macroom, and Cork, and gradually a depot for a variety of merchandize required for the supply of the circumjacent country. He then proceeds to suggest, in general terms the erection of several of the principal houses of the proposed village and other buildings, and, among the rest, of one good model farm-house and offices - all of these to be constructed on the most simple plans. In this model farm-house he would place a person qualified to instruct the tenantry in the course to be pursued in reclaiming the lands, and in the best modes of husbandry for which they are adapted, which instruction is obviously best promoted by example.

For the labourers' works to be executed on the estate, he recommends that the resident population alone should be employed, and that they should be paid such rates of wages in money as may somewhat exceed the ordinary rates paid around the nearest towns.

He then proceeds to other details, both as to the most judicious methods to be adopted with the people, not only for the improvement of the agricultural condition of the estate, but for the growth of the moral habits of the tenantry; and also a calculation of the probable expense of carrying forward these objects, which, though not reduced to a thoroughly digested system, yet exhibit a masterly design, and may justly be called a finished sketch, founded on, not only a general knowledge of human nature, but a thorough and intimate acquaintance with the Irish national character and modes of thinking, which, surprising as it might be even in one of ourselves, is still more extraordinary in an Englishman, who, however, has shown himself utterly untrammelled by what we are used to call the prejudices of his countrymen. Some of his concluding observations are so just and candid, that we cannot avoid quoting his own words. "Looking at the present condition and past habits of the people, it would be vain to expect that they could be quickly concerted into a skilful tenantry, or that they could duly appreciate the comforts and conveniences which it is desired that they should enjoy, if these advantages be prematurely conferred on them; time must be allowed for the growth of improved habits; and these will be most effectually
excited by the steady encouragement which constant and productive employment affords, and will be best preserved by assuring to them a certain, but limited tenure of their farms, at such reasonable rents as will admit of a gradual accumulation of capital in their hands, if their means be duly husbanded."

On the recommendation of Mr. Spring Rice, as Chairman of the Committee on Irish Poor, the Government resolved to retain the possession of the estate, and generally adopted Mr. Weale's suggestions. The House of Commons, last session, on the motion of Lord Duncannon, authorized the Commissioners of Woods, &c. to supply £17,000 out of the produce of sales of quit-rents, &c. towards the costs of making the new public roads, upon condition that the counties of Cork and Kerry provided £70,000, the remainder of the sum required for that purpose. We have the satisfaction of adding that those counties have promptly availed themselves of the proposal, and at the assizes just concluded, passed presentments for the stipulated amount: and that the works are already in progress of erection, under the direction of Mr. Griffith.
We have now done. We can but hope that the same beneficent and wise spirit which has already influenced the operations of Government in the foretaste it has given to this most interesting district of its parental desire for its welfare, and which it must gratify every sincere lover of his country to see has been followed hitherto by such cheering and encouraging results, may stimulate it to carry into full effect the enlightened and clear-sighted views of the excellent individual it has had the discrimination to select for the important task of which he has so ably acquitted himself.


* The district in which Pobble O'Keefe is situated haa been described in our fifteenth number, in an extract from Mr. Bryan's Practical View of Ireland.