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The changing ruling class in Sixmilebridge and the impact they left on the community, 1650-1900 by Jayme Keogh

From boom to bust: The growth of a market town and sudden change of fortune

Situated on the banks of the O’Garney River and is centralised on the river crossing at the heart of the village, this river crossing was of key importance as it was the main mail route from Limerick to Ennis. With Sixmilebridge being the only river crossing for access to Bunratty, strategically control of the village would have been of great importance and as early as 1682 William Molyneux describes the village as being a considerable market town within the County of Clare.[5] Sixmilebridge has roots as a market town which go back to the reign of Donough 0’Brien, fourth Earl of Thomond, because at this time during the late-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century there was large-scale depositions of Protestant settlers.[6] The settlers that were to arrive in Sixmilebridge during this period were to leave a profound and lasting effect on the village of Sixmilebridge. Most of the settlers that arrived were from England although some families came from France and others were of Dutch origin and all of which equally left their own impact on the area. Families were encouraged to come by being granted land from the Earl of Thomond in a bid by him to establish Sixmilebridge as a town for settlers and colonists to set up in which was similarly done in the towns of Ennis and Kilrush.[7] However the impact of some of these new settled families was seen much quicker than the others. The earliest of these settlers to arrive was Henry Ievers who came to Ireland as a mere barrister’s clerk before 1641 but before his death had become one of the wealthiest landowners in County Clare.[8] While the strongest of the French families to come during this period were the D’Esterre family, who were a Huguenot family who arrived through Holland onto land granted to them by the Earl of Thomond.[9] Both of these families, Ievers’ and D’Esterre’s, were granted land which was that of dispossessed Gaelic landlords and both received lands and tower houses belonging to the once highly powerful McNamara family. This new Anglican influence on Sixmilebridge was typified when Sixmilebridge was named so in the early seventeenth century because it became the first settlement in the county whose name was completely in English.[10]

This name given to the town was described by Thomas Dineley when he visited the village in 1681 and tells how the name arose from the town being six old Irish miles by the upper way over Gallows Hill or the lower way by the oil mills to Limerick.[11] This name seems to have been in the village for some time as seen in the will of Donough O’Brien when he commands his son Henry to ‘finish the stone bridge by me built and made over the water of Six Myle Bridge’ this shows that the name already existed and also a bridge must have since the village had this name.[12] O’Brien also encouraged highly skilled settlers in commerce and manufacturing as these skills were in short supply among the natives which he hoped would in turn modernize agriculture and hasten the urbanisation of the town. The decision by the Earl of Thomond to construct a stone bridge over the river O’Garney was crucial to the growth of the village because this new bridge ensured that all traffic coming from Limerick into the county would have to pass through the village.[13] And by 1682 Sixmilebridge had become a flourishing market town with the oil mills also being noted and this was mainly due to the Earl of Thomond getting a patent for a market in the village in 1618 and Henry Ievers followed suit, in his newly named Ieverstown on the eastern side of the river in Sixmilebridge, in 1678.[14] The Protestant Church on the western side overlooking O’Brien’s market place, constructed in 1641, was the first real show of wealth by the O’Brien family in Sixmilebridge and was soon followed by the erection of a court house and police barracks.[15] By 1703 the O’Brien family had over two thousand acres of land within the Parish of Kilfinaghta which was the civil parish in Sixmilebridge according to Thomas Moland’s Survey of 1703.[16] Within the parish of Kilfinaghta the urban area of Sixmilebridge was the same size as the urban area of Ennis, the largest in the county at the time, by 1660 with over 250 adult inhabitants.[17] While during the seventeenth century it is clear to see that the O’Brien family was showing their significant wealth within Sixmilebridge the Ievers family was also starting to grow in stature and began to come to the fore in Sixmilebridge.

William Petty’s map 1685
Figure 1: William Petty’s map 1685, showing most of the area of East Clare and Sixmilebridge is highlighted with the grey circle. Note how only the figure of a church is recorded on the west of the river with not much else showing how small the village is at this point. This map also shows the relative short distance the village is from the Shannon Flu which made navigation up the river relatively easy.
(Map: courtesy of Petty’s Maps of County Clare (1658-59 & 1685), Clare County Library)

The estate owned by the Ievers’ family was quickly growing in stature during the seventeenth century and this was noted by Thomas Dineley who describes the position held by Henry Ievers is ‘one of his Majesty’s justices of the peace not worth less than sixteen hundred pounds a year’ and his castle was well situated.[18] By the latter half of the century the Ievers Family began to show the wealth that they had accumulated and the first signs of which were seen with the setting up of a market in 1678, on the eastern side of the river, in competition to the O’Brien market in the western side of the village. This action by Henry Ievers was the beginning of a major period of growth for the village of Sixmilebridge which would go on over the next fifty years as both the O’Brien family and the Ievers family would both try to show off each other’s wealth by building elaborate buildings on either side of the O’Garney River. But as seen earlier the O’Brien family had already firmly made their mark on the village with many different constructions which are only in part shown in figure 1 by the symbol of the church which the O’Brien family had on the western banks of the river while on the eastern side of the O’ Garney River was seen to have no buildings of merit from the map. The decision by the Ievers family to start to establish themselves against the great O’Brien family at this time is a major statement by Henry Ievers as Sir Donough O’Brien was considered to be the ‘richest commoner’ in Clare by the late seventeenth century.[19] However when looking at Henry Ievers and his income by the late seventeenth century his own wealth starts to develop because by 1680 he had a yearly income of £2,600.[20] It was not until after his Henry’s death that the Ievers family designed their eastern side of the river during the 1730s with the newly named Ieverstown. The eastern side of the village was to be centred on two landmarks. These landmarks were the market house in the newly named Hannover Square and Mount Ievers House both of which were designed by John Rothery as the plans remain for Mount Ievers house and a stone plaque remains outside the market house with his name on it.[21]

While making these building Ievers made sure that only the best materials were used and the brick used in both was brought by boat from the Netherlands to the oil mills in Ballintlea which were just one mile from the house and where the centre of trade for Sixmilebridge during this period was situated.[22] This was a major statement by the Henry Ievers as it helped establish the family as major force in Sixmilebridge and the county, the market which was set up by the Ievers was so impressive that it was in fact double the size of the O’Brien’s market on the western side.[23] These buildings erected by both families put Sixmilebridge to the fore as a market down during the eighteenth century and the original layouts at both sides of the river remain the layout of the present day town. The house built by the Ievers family, Mount Ievers House, has been described as one of the first and most perfect of all tall Irish Houses by many observers.[24] In the making of the eastern side of the river the Ievers family utilised the quays at Ballintlea which were a crucial factor in the growth of Sixmilebridge. These oil mills in Ballintlea were the heartbeat of the village and have a long association with the growth of Sixmilebridge as it created trade links with continental Europe through Amsterdam. Evidence of these mills being established dates back to 1664 when Thomas Greene and John Cooper set up the mills in Ballintlea.[25] Further work was done to expand the milling capability of the village in late seventeenth century by Dutch artisans who settled in the village. The Dutch were brought in by George Pease and upon arrival, set up new mills within the village and the most noted of these Dutch millers was Giles Vandeleur who ran the mills in the village from 1675.[26] It was these Dutch settlers who set up trading links with Amsterdam and by the turn of the century the area of Sixmilebridge had become renowned for milling. The mills were still very prominent during the eighteenth century as records show that the mills were leased to Dean Bindon by Henry the Earl of Thomond in 1730.[27]

Part of Taylor and Skinner’s Map from Limerick to Galway in 1783
Figure 2: Part of Taylor and Skinner’s Map from Limerick to Galway in 1783. This map shows the importance of Sixmilebridge at the time as all traffic travelling to Ennis or Galway from Limerick had to come through the village. The map also shows the seat of Ievers Esq. at Mt Ievers on the eastern bank of the river and also the seat of H. D’Esterre Esq. on the fringes of the town close to the river on the western side in Rossmanagher.
(Map: courtesy of Taylor and Skinner’s Maps of the Roads of Clare 1783, Clare County Library)

During the late eighteenth century Sixmilebridge was described as a’ pretty town with good buildings’ and a ‘handsome market-house’ and the oil mills in Ballintlea were also mentioned as ‘a grand ingenious and mechanical construction’ in Lloyd’s tour of Clare in 1780.[28] Accounts from travellers who passed through Sixmilebridge during the seventeenth and eighteenth century are plentiful as seen from Lloyd and even earlier from Richard Pococke in 1752 who talks of the new church and the pleasant new house built by Mr Ievers to name only a few accounts.[29] However like many parts of Ireland and especially the west coast of the country fortunes for Sixmilebridge suddenly and abruptly towards the end of the eighteenth century. The causes for these circumstances can be traced back to several incidents some of which are directly linked to landlords and their actions in the area while others were out of the people’s hands as the economic circumstances of the country was very bad at the time. During the period of the late eighteenth century Ireland was very much in disarray as much of the land was under sub-landlords who were only interested in short term gains and then the main landlord was too remote to be induced to lay out his own capital on the land.[30] However this might not have been a direct cause in Sixmilebridge, as will be discovered from the actions of the D’Esterre family. As mentioned earlier the D’Esterre family arrived in Sixmilebridge around the same time as the Ievers family but up until the late eighteenth century remained somewhat quite in comparison to the O’Brien’s and the Ievers’ who were very much central to Sixmilebridge’s growth during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This could in part be down to the point that the D’Esterre family’s land was outside of the town itself in an area called Rossmanagher which was further down the river O’Garney and close to Bunratty and the seat of the Earl of Thomond. It was not long though before the D’Esterre family firmly made a statement to Sixmilebridge with the construction of Rossmanagher Bridge, in 1784, over the O’Garney River a few miles downriver from the town of Sixmilebridge.[31]

Henry D’Esterre claimed that the river was a great hindrance to him as the nearest bridge was in Sixmilebridge and this added needless extra miles to any goods being brought to his lands. Knowing that this move was not going to be a popular one and despite many objections that the structure would interfere with navigation on the river it was built. However D’Esterre only obtained permission by overlooking the local Sheriff and applied to the Sheriff in O’Brien’s Bridge where permission was granted without local knowledge of the application.[32] It did have a devastating effect on trade as the vessels from Amsterdam and elsewhere which were once regular visitors could no longer reach Ballintlea.[33] When looking at the circumstances surrounding the period before the building of Rossmanagher Bridge a clear picture emerges about D’Esterre’s motive for building the bridge and this is clearly seen in 1784 as Henry D’Esterre was granted a patent for a market on his farm in Rossmanagher.[34] This is a clear indicator that D’Esterre had the bridge built to get more people traveling to his market which would now be closer for people coming from Limerick than to those markets of the O’Brien’s and Ievers in the centre of Sixmilebridge. Local people were so infuriated by the building of the bridge that a number of local business men organised a march, in January 1785, with over three hundred people, with the aim to pull down the newly erected bridge, but following a confrontation with shots being fired the crowd retreated back to Sixmilebridge. D’Esterre afterwards offered a reward of £50 each for the apprehension of the principal organisers of the mob from that day.[35] The impact of Rossmanagher Bridge cannot be overlooked in the scale of its impact on trade and traffic in Sixmilebridge as the bridge greatly reduced travelling time by not going through the village before even considering the impact it had on trade to the oil mills as seen in figure 3. Not long after the bridge was built D’Esterre built a tollhouse which was still charging people during the Great Famine despite the severe poverty within the region.[36]

Grand Jury Map of 1787
Figure 3: Grand Jury Map of 1787 shows the positioning of the newly built Rossmanagher Bridge, which is circled in red and then circled in blue is the Oil Mills in Ballintlea, and it can be seen clearly how nautical traffic would be greatly hindered by this new bridge. Shown also in this map are the extensive buildings which went up within the prior one hundred years by the O’Brien and Ievers families.
(Map: courtesy of Grand Jury Maps 1787, Clare County Library)

However this monopoly on passing traffic over the newly built Rossmanagher Bridge did not last for long because after twenty short years another bridge was built over the O’Garney River in Bunratty. This bridge was built by Thomas Studdert at his own expense in 1804 and he also installed a turnpike and levied people crossing the bridge.[37] This bridge had an even greater impact on Sixmilebridge as it was the most southerly crossing point on the river and it greatly cut the travelling time between Limerick and Ennis. It was not long before traffic abandoned the Cratloe-Sixmilebridge route for the shorter Bunratty-Newmarket route which is still the main way used today.[38] The way for this bridge in Bunratty was very much paved for by the D’Esterre’s in Rossmanagher as Studdert would have known that there would be little protest anymore as traffic up the river was all but finished by this stage. This was very much the beginning of a major decline in fortunes for Sixmilebridge as the town soon fell from its glorious industrial past because as early as 1807 the town was noted as being in rapid decline. Upon visiting Sixmilebridge Hely Dutton described it as ‘formerly of some note, but is now in a rapid decline; it has the skeleton of a beautiful market-house, the ruins of an oil mill and an extensive flour-mill almost in ruins and quite idle’ all of which were flourishing a mere fifty years previously.[39]

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Spiralling downfall