From Sligo to Wales—the flight of Sir Charles Phibbs

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), News, News, Personal History, Volume 12

Following the withdrawal of the British from the 26 counties in 1922 and the creation of the Irish Free State, many of those families who had relied on their presence as a guarantee of their safety found themselves in a vulnerable position. One such family were the Phibbses of Doobeg, Bunnanadden, Co. Sligo.

 
The surname Phibbs, originally a Lincolnshire family, first appears in Ireland towards the end of the sixteenth century when two brothers, both soldiers, each receive a grant of land from the Crown—William near Cork and Richard in Kilmainham, outside Dublin. Not much more is heard of the family until 1659, when a Richard Phibbs took possession of land in the baronies of Corran and Tiretagh in County Sligo. Although seen as an Ascendancy family and always under threat of attack, real or perceived, the Phibbses seem to have done well for themselves, and by the middle of the nineteenth century they had accumulated a vast amount of land in counties Sligo and Galway. From the evidence available they were always on the lookout for more land, and in 1877 Charles Phibbs purchased the townland of Doobeg, some 30 miles to the south of Sligo town.

 
Over the next few years Phibbs spent a large amount of money improving the estate, which according to his testimony was in a run-down condition. He also built himself a new house called ‘Doobeg’ on a small hill with a commanding view of the district. Though not large, it had, as one contemporary describes, ‘an awe-inspiring effect, something in the nature of a courthouse, something dreary and dangerous’. At first it seems that there were cordial relations between Phibbs and his tenants, though this was due more to the popularity of his wife—he himself was regarded as arrogant. But this cordiality soon evaporated when he tried to introduce a series of changes on the estate. Rents were raised, and this at a time when there was a severe economic depression in agriculture. Further resentment was caused when he took over the turf bog for his own use, driving the tenants to dig for peat in a wet and useless bog farther away. In retaliation he was boycotted and forced to get police protection for cutting the turf. Relations got so bad that the police presence at Doobeg became permanent.
In 1900 Phibbs once more incurred the wrath of the tenancy when he leased a boycotted farm from Lord Harlech. On 1 July 1901 the Sligo Champion reported that William O’Brien’s United Irish League had passed the following resolution against Phibbs:

That we regard the action of Phibbs in grabbing the Leitrim ranch as deserving of condemnation and we call on all League branches to take united action . . . and make it clear that he will not be allowed with impunity to ignore the League.

Once more Phibbs was boycotted; even the police were not to be trusted. In a letter to Chief Secretary George Wyndham he complained about the lack of action by the government against the League:

The smith who promised to shoe for me refused to do so, the miller sent me a note that he will charge me more than others for meal, and this day an assistant [at a draper’s shop] told one of my daughters that Mr Kane had given them orders not to supply my family with any goods at present.

This state of affairs lasted until Phibbs finally relinquished the land.
In 1916 Charles Phibbs died and was buried in the private family plot not far from the house. (As a final indignity, the stone-slabbed, brick-lined grave was used by the local IRA to store arms during the War of Independence!) He was succeeded by his son Charles, who, though regarded as a good and innovative farmer, inherited the arrogant ways of his father. During the War of Independence he was viewed as the chief British sympathiser in the area, a situation that he seems at first to have relished. He refused to retire as a Grand Juror on the quarter sessions even though the local IRA kidnapped him for a short period and threatened to shoot him. A hay shed was burnt down and his workers threatened, but the British military presence seems to have guaranteed his survival.

 
The truce and subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty further compounded his difficulties. With the protection of the British army removed, Phibbs was all on his own and in a vulnerable position. The IRA had not forgotten his stand during the Troubles and were determined to get rid of him. Throughout May 1922 there were repeated attacks on the house. A generator building was blown up whilst shots were fired at the hall. On the night of 21 May a grave was dug in front of the house with an epitaph to Phibbs on it:

Here lies the remains of Charles Phibbs
who died with a ball of lead in his ribs.
His tenants are all aggrieved at as quick he went,
for he went of a sudden without lifting the rent.
Slogans were also painted on the walls and the house and buildings were ransacked. The writing was literally on the wall for Charles Phibbs—the threats and the attacks were taking their toll and he decided to leave Ireland. His destination was Dyffryn Ardudwy in North Wales, where in July 1922 he bought a small 100-acre estate called Plas Gwynfryn.

 
What compelled him to come to Wales and especially Plas Gwynfryn? Some say it was the influence of Lord Harlech, who not only had an estate nearby but was also a distant relative of Phibbs. Others say that he saw an advert for the sale of the estate and visited the place on chance and his wife, who accompanied him, fell in love with the gardens there. Back in Ireland the IRA took over Doobeg House and used it as a local headquarters during the Civil War. As to the estate workers who remained loyal to Phibbs, their future was spelled out in no uncertain terms when a threatening letter was sent in autumn 1922 to Pat Hunt, a foreman on the estate. They were ordered to stop working for Phibbs by 6 October 1922—‘Should ye fail to obey drastic measures shall be taken by night or by day’. It was signed with a melodramatic flourish by ‘the man behind the gun’. Not all were glad to see Phibbs leave. The Easter Vestry of the Church of Ireland unanimously passed a resolution sympathising with the family ‘for having to leave their home in Doobeg and the loss they have sustained in doing so’.

 
Despite the threat to his life Charles Phibbs did return to Doobeg in spring 1923. According to tradition he managed to salvage some furniture as well as some silverware that had been hidden by one of the servants. One other thing he brought back with him to Wales was the bell used to call the servants to lunch, which he eventually gave to the church at Llandanwg, not far from his new home. He was never to visit Doobeg again but the fear of reprisal remained. Apart from his family, one other person left Ireland with him—Sergeant John Browne, an ex-RIC officer who acted as Phibbs’s bodyguard in case the IRA decided to follow.

 
In Wales Phibbs became a successful, though never popular, landowner, building up an estate of over 700 acres. He dabbled in politics and stood three times as the Conservative candidate for Merioneth though with little success. In 1936 he was knighted for his service to local government. He died in 1964 and his ashes were scattered on the hills of his adopted country.

 
Doobeg House was purchased in 1932 by a Mr O’Dowd, who later sold it to the present owners. The site of the grave is still to be seen, as are bullet holes in the shutters. At the back of the house still stands the ruined generator house blown up by the IRA. As in Wales, the local people, especially the older generation, still remember Charles Phibbs and his sudden departure from Ireland.

Einion Thomas is an archivist at the University of Wales, Bangor.

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