A German Planter in the Midlands

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 2000), News, Volume 8

Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1577, Mathew de Renzi claimed descent from Albania’s national hero, George Castriott, also known as Scanderberg (d.1468), who defended his homeland against the Turks. De Renzi was a cloth merchant and operated from Antwerp, one of many foreigners who controlled trade in that city. But Antwerp’s trade declined as a result of the long drawn out conflict between the ruling Spanish Hapsburgs and the Dutch United Provinces to the north, and sometime before 1604 de Renzi moved to London. By January 1606 he found himself in financial difficulties, unable to recoup money owed from other merchants: he was declared bankrupt, his creditors were after him, and in August he beat a hasty retreat to Scotland en route to Ireland.
He arrived in Ireland penniless, but soon became friendly with Sir Arthur Chichester, then Lord Deputy. Chichester saw in him an enterprising man of trade, and thus an asset for the ‘benefit of the kingdom’. During his first year in Ireland he curried favour with important establishment figures in Dublin, also visiting the port towns of Waterford, Limerick and Galway. He stayed in Thomond for some time where he became friendly with the old Irish family of Mac Bruaideadh, who were the hereditary historians of the O’Briens, Earls of Thomond. Here he learned spoken or colloquial Irish. His teachers were Conchubhar and Tadhg Mac Daire MacBruaideadh, who were both associated with the cycle of poems known as Iomarbhaidh na bhFilé [The Contention of the Bards]. From Tadhg Ó hUiginn of Sligo he learned classical Irish so that he could read Irish manuscripts and write the language. Although de Renzi was a linguist of note (speaking Latin, Italian, English, German, French and Spanish), his object in learning Irish had nothing to do with missionary zeal or even linguistic curiosity: it was motivated by a practical need to establish himself as a landowner in a Gaelic lordship.
Sometime in 1612 de Renzi arrived in West Offaly, the territory known as Delvin Eathra or Delvin MacCoghlan (the MacCoghlans were the hereditary chieftains of the area), nowadays the barony of Garrycastle, encompassing the towns of Ferbane, Banagher, Cloghan and Shannonbridge. It was bounded on the west by the river Shannon, and bogs made it almost inaccessible on the other three sides. He acquired a hundred acres in the Clononey area, including Clononey Castle, property which had been forfeited by Cuchogrie MacCoghlan, killed in 1601 during the Nine Years War. De Renzi bought it from a middle-ranking administrator, Roger Downton, probably using the dowry from his first wife, whom he had married in 1608.
When he first arrived Delvin Eathra was a vast countryside of woods and bogs, almost totally inhabited by native Irish, who spoke only Irish, and whom de Renzi described as idle, backward in speech, manners, dress and customs. Many of them bore the name MacCoghlan. He moved into the castle which had very small windows and as a result was in a state of almost perpetual darkness. He had no way of knowing for sure the extent of his lands or its boundaries. The MacCoghlans ignored his presence and ploughed his land, a customary method of indicating a land dispute. He hired local labour but there were constant outbreaks of violence between both parties.
The MacCoghlans were under instructions from the head of the clan, Sir John Óg MacCoghlan, to shun this interloper, neither to sell to him nor to buy from him, except at excessive rates. De Renzi wrote many letters to the lords deputy in Dublin and to King James I in England, seeking help and proposing schemes of plantation. His many letters give useful insights into the difficulties experienced by a settler landowner.
In January he wrote from Killenboy, County Roscommon, to Sir Oliver St John. Killenboy, situated between Knockcroghery and Lanesboro, was the home place of Richard Maypowder who had received a grant of land in 1616. De Renzi’s second wife, Anne, was a daughter of Maypowder. The Maypowder family lived in Kilteevan House, in the adjoining townland of Cloontogher, until the early years of this century and the name still persists. De Renzi was afraid to spend the winter in Clononey for fear of the MacCoghlans. His possession of the land was being hotly contested: ‘I have thought good to spend the dark winter nights here in Connacht.’
He argued that plantation would civilise Delvin Eathra. He listed the barbarous customs of the natives, such as attaching ploughs to horses’ tails, the burning of straw, the Brehon Laws, and the custom of migrating each summer with their cattle to the uplands, known as ‘booleying’. Most, he claimed, built their house without chimneys:

They live upon oaten bread and spreckled butter all the year, lie in straw, wear a shirt for four months or till it be rotten afore it be washed, keep beastly houses, endure rain, cold, and snow all day and then roast themselves at night like hogs; go naked and cazer from one smokie cabin to another; eat their meat at unseasonable time, fast sometimes two or three days together, and then eat so much again when they come at it as will keep them three of four days fasting after, like unto hungry wolves.

Next, he wrote of the idleness of the people and the lack of tradesmen. However, most of his venom was reserved for Sir John Óg MacCoghlan (Seán Óg), head of the sept. Even though Sir John had remained loyal to the Crown during the Elizabethan wars, he was portrayed by de Renzi as a traitor and a threat. He saw MacCoghlan as the main force behind the attempts to thwart him in his acquisitions and his letters demonised him. Seán Óg could not be trusted because he was ‘but a bastard, born in double bastardy’, and ruled as a tyrant, suppressing his own people. He related tales of terror perpetrated by MacCoghlan on English settlers and on his own people. Finally, he saw Delvin Eathra as having a strategic location. It was an important access route to Connacht and contained two major crossings of the Shannon, at Banagher and Shannonbridge.
It is difficult to assess the sincerity of these arguments or if they were a cover for his own greed. His grant of a hundred acres soon grew to 1,016 and he acquired properties in Counties Westmeath, Wexford and Dublin. Delvin Eathra was eventually planted in 1619/20, as were parts of Westmeath, Longford and Leitrim. About that time he sold his interest in Clononey; like others before him, he had used it as a stepping stone to greater things. He moved to Dublin and became a government administrator, always with a view to his own aggrandisement. He was knighted in 1627.
His interest in the Irish language was complex. He had mastered both the written and spoken language and was able, through conversing with the natives, to trace the genealogy of the MacCoghlans back four generations. He used this knowledge of the local béaloideas to strengthen his claim to the disputed land at Clononey. Such was his deep knowledge of both colloquial and classical Irish that he was nominated by the poets of the South (Leath Mhogha) as their independent judge against the poets of the North (Leath Chuinn), in what became known as the Contention of the Bards (1616-24).
By June 1608 he had composed an Irish grammar. He also claimed to have composed an Irish dictionary, as well as ‘chronicles in the Irish tongue’. Yet he advocated the destruction of Gaelic culture and manuscripts, seeing in them a form of propaganda which glorified dynasticism and incited the Irish against the English conquest.
He died on 29 August 1634 at the age of fifty-seven. His son, also Mathew, commissioned a memorial in his honour. It was erected in St Mary’s Church, Athlone, in 1635. When the present St Mary’s Church was built in 1820 the memorial was inserted in the rear wall, where it may still be seen. However, there is no evidence that Sir Mathew died in Athlone. The inscription reads:

This monument was erected for the rightful worshipfull Sir Mathew de Renzi Knight: Who departed this life on 29th August 1634: Beinge of the age of 57 years. Born at Cullen [sic] in Germany: and descended from that famous and renowned warrior Cieorge Castriott Als Scanderbege (who in the Christian Warre fought 52 battailes with great conquest and honour against the great Turke). He was a great traveller and general linguist: and kept correspondency with most nations in many weighty affairs: and in three years gave great pfection to his nation by composinge a grammar dictionary and chronicle in the Irish tongue and in accompts most expert and exceedinge all others to his great applause. This work was accomplished by his sonn Mathew de Renzi Esqr. August 29 1635.

Brendan Ryan is a retired school teacher.

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