TV Eye

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

The Lansdowne estate today.

The Lansdowne estate today.

Land is gold: Kenmare and the Lansdowne estate
RTÉ ONE, Tuesday 8 November, 10.15pm
Hidden Histories
Directed by Seán Ó Mordha
by Eamon O’Flaherty

Rapid urbanisation and massive economic change in recent years have tended to obscure the central importance of the land question in shaping modern Ireland. The majority of the population of Ireland can still trace their origins to rural Ireland under the landlord system. In most cases only two generations separates the bulk of the newly urbanised and prosperous Irish people from their roots in a rural economy shaped by the estate system and by the social and political revolution that displaced it. In a physical sense, the Irish rural landscape is itself to quite a considerable degree still a product of the landlord system. The history of the land system is also the history of the creation of the rural landscape. Now that this landscape is itself undergoing another era of profound change, it is useful to be reminded of the forces that shaped it in recent centuries.
Land is gold was a case-study of one of the larger Irish landed estates, the Lansdowne estate in Kerry, which at its height extended over 96,000 acres, mainly concentrated in the south of the county around the estate town of Kenmare. The Lansdowne estate is one of the best documented of the great Irish estates, with voluminous and detailed records preserved in Ireland and in Bowood House in Wiltshire. Gerard Lyne’s extensive and detailed study of the estate in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries forms the background to Seán Ó Mordha’s film, and Lyne’s contribution to the film was both scholarly and personal. The film looked at the estate over a period of 350 years, beginning with the founder of the dynasty, William Petty, the outstanding surveyor and economist of the Cromwellian period, and continuing to the present day.

Kenmare town—a minor gem of landlord town-planning. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Kenmare town—a minor gem of landlord town-planning. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Along with professional historians such as Lyne, Joe Lee and Breandan Ó Ciobháin of the Placenames Commission, there were also valuable contributions from local farmers Con and Seán O’Sullivan and Fr Tom Looney, parish priest of Tuosist in south Kerry.
William Petty was the foremost member of a movement of conquest and reconstruction of seventeenth-century Ireland that sought the transformation of the landscape, economy and society mainly by the creation of the estate system. The wealth generated by these estates formed the basis of the self-confident Anglo-Irish civilisation of the eighteenth century, which has recently been explored in extraordinary detail in the works of Toby Barnard and David Dickson. As Lee pointed out, Ireland was an important frontier in a crucial period of English imperial expansion, offering wealth, power and an opportunity to remodel Ireland along lines envisaged by Petty and his contemporaries. The other side of this coin was the position of the natives, who formed the bulk of the tenantry on such estates. The reorganisation of economy and society involved a clash of cultures and mentalities that was to prove enduring. The ‘fractured Gaelic mindset’ evoked by Lee had great difficulty in adjusting to the new order. Indeed, Lyne pointed out the degree to which resentment at the new proprietors did not fade with time but became transformed into a personal identification between the tenant class and old Gaelic proprietors—a powerful illusion, but one sustained by an unprecedented degree of separation between the culture of the landlords and their tenants. Economic and social distinctions were made more stark by the ethnic, linguistic, religious and ultimately political gulf between landlord and tenant, which contributed to the complete breakdown in landlord–tenant relations in the nineteenth century.
The film’s major focus was on the management of the Lansdowne estate by William Stuart Trench between 1849 and 1872. Trench and his son Charles Townsend Trench represented the determination of the estate system to survive and to impose its will on the indigenous population between the Famine and the Land War.

As Joe Lee pointed out, Ireland was an important frontier in a crucial period of English imperial expansion, offering wealth, power and an opportunity to remodel Ireland along lines envisaged by Petty and his contemporaries.

As Joe Lee pointed out, Ireland was an important frontier in a crucial period of English imperial expansion, offering wealth, power and an opportunity to remodel Ireland along lines envisaged by Petty and his contemporaries.

Trench’s estate management was nothing if not thorough. The meticulous and detailed surveys of every aspect of estate life would probably have impressed Petty himself. Like many agents and landlords, Trench fought for decades against the subdivision of tenancies and the proliferation of an impoverished rural peasantry. He used assisted emigration and eviction to force the rural population into an acceptable pattern of behaviour. His all-seeing eye extended even to forbidding marriages of which he disapproved. Con O’Sullivan summed up the folk memory of this system as feudal and callously indifferent to the feelings of a people for whom land was life. And yet the legacy of this harsh and often brutal system was not entirely negative.

One of Kenmare’s several Lansdowne estate plaques. (RTÉ Stills Library)

One of Kenmare’s several Lansdowne estate plaques. (RTÉ Stills Library)

The beauty of south Kerry at present is not just a function of its spectacular landscape but also of the huge number of improvements made by the estate, including afforestation, road-building and the planning of the estate town of Kenmare—still a minor gem of landlord town-planning. Many of the things that heritage and conservation groups are currently trying to defend are legacies of the estate system.
The progressive loss of control by the landlords after the 1881 Land Act brought an end to the system that made the Lansdowne estate, but Ó Mordha’s film did a good job of following the aftermath of the demise of the landlord system. The bitterness of the Civil War in south Kerry was intimately connected to a sense that the agrarian revolution had not gone far enough. Con O’Sullivan spoke quite movingly about the landmarks of social change in the twentieth century—rural electrification, school buses, piped water—that were milestones in the transformation of everyday life. But the reverse side of this coin is the flight from the land, the decline of the smallholdings that were the object of the Land War, and the transformation of the economy by tourism and leisure. As an echo of the old conflicts, the issue of control of shooting and fishing rights by the estate remains contentious.
Perhaps room might have been made in an otherwise admirable film to give the perspective of the descendants of Petty who still bear the Lansdowne title.

Gerald Lyne’s (right) contribution was both scholarly and personal. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Gerald Lyne’s (right) contribution was both scholarly and personal. (RTÉ Stills Library)

In focusing mainly on the Trench regime and also in pursuing the history of the estate down to the present, Land is gold reminded us that the politics of the Irish landscape and of land use are always changing, and that ownership of the land and regulation will never be simple questions in Ireland.

Eamon O’Flaherty lectures in history at University College Dublin.

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