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

The emergence of the Church as the ruling class and its impact on Sixmilebridge

Col. George Wyndham in 1842 had a population of over 1010 tenants on his lands in Sixmilebridge and by 1871 this had fallen to around 330 people which was a very large drop in population but was still around the norm for the area during this period.[105] Although Col. Wyndham was very much criticised for the mass evictions on his Clare estates during the years of the Famine and was contacted by the Relief Commission at Dublin Castle that the people he evicted were a financial burden on neighbouring landlords, however he argued that he offered every person evicted assisted emigration at his own expense but many would not take it.[106] Between the years of 1839-1847 over 1500 people were sent from Ireland to Canada by Wyndham and over eighty per cent of these were from County Clare which is a huge number, considering between the same period, only 1377 people emigrated from Clare.[107] Seeing the large numbers that took the assisted emigration offered by Wyndham the package he offered must have been a fairly considerable offer in comparison to staying in Clare. But once again Wyndham received more criticism from the Canadian authorities for once the people landed they were only given £1 and no help was given to find secure employment and Wyndham replied by stating he would not keep sending people to Canada if it entailed ‘an obligation to provide for future wants’.[108] This seems to show that Wyndham was in a somewhat of a no win situation no matter what he did during this period and because of what he did during this period seems to have moulded peoples view of him despite the work he did in later years. So it was these negative opinions of Col. Wyndham that could have helped both Rev. Clune and Rev. Bourke to get people to protest against Wyndham from forcing tenants to vote in Sixmilebridge in 1852.

The progressive work done on the Leconfield’s Estate, the new name was given to Wyndham’s Estate after he became 1st Baron Leconfield in 1859, which included the building of schools and slate-roofed houses within his estate along with major land improvement. Many of these houses are still in very good condition and are scattered around the county and Sixmilebridge and are easily recognised with the L on a plaque with the year of construction on each house. However the schools he built were to be as he promised non-proselytising but ended up being a major controversy during the 1850s, which is very detailed and hard topic to look into as there is so much written about it, but it did highlight without any doubt is the emergence of the ‘Catholic Church which was soon to supplant the power and function of the landlord as a patron of primary education’.[109] Fr. Clune was one of these priests who really took up this kind of power as seen in the Election Massacre of 1852 but a couple of years later he was once again involved in a controversy in the lead up to the 1857 elections. Lord Francis of Conyngham was involved in the election, while also in a dispute over refusing a site for a Catholic Church in Kilbaha and his agent, Marcus Keane, was approached by Fr. Clune in Ennis one day who had intense words for Marcus Keane. Fr. Clune claimed that they would never win the election until he got the soup scald off his face and gave Fr. Meehan a site for a church and duly enough within 3 months of the election taking place the foundation stone of the new church was laid in Kilbaha.[110] This clearly shows the power Fr. Clune held when he was able to influence a landlord in the far West of the County into making a U-turn on a decision since he realised the political power held by Fr. Clune over his congregation in Sixmilebridge and the whole county.

Despite this immense power being shown by Fr. Clune he was however challenged by a new priest who came to Sixmilebridge, Fr. Patrick Frawley, on the basis of their powers and it is a story very much remembered in Sixmilebridge today. The challenged took place in 1869 when Fr. Frawley arrived in the village and Fr. Frawley won by being able to light the alter candle through prayer from thirty feet while his elder, Fr. Clune, could only make them smoulder.[111] However mythical this story is it does shows that despite holding power over his congregation Fr. Clune was still challenged from within the Church as seen here but Fr. Frawley remained somewhat silent during his twenty-five years as a priest in Sixmilebridge, however the same cannot be said about Fr. Clune’s replacement as PP Fr. Robert Little who was very much an activist in the face of landlords like his predecessors, Fr. Cornelius Clune and Fr. Michael Clune. It was after the death of Fr. Michael Clune in 1874 that Fr. Little took up the position of PP with Fr. Frawley having turned down the position.[112] The first incident of Fr. Little’s involvement with local matters is an event which was never directly involved him as the family who were involved in a land grabbing incident, wished to avoid Fr. Little in order to avoid a conflict. The incident of land grabbing took place in Sixmilebridge when a family took over another tenants land in 1882 and had held their ground in the face of harassment for over three years until it finally reached extreme lengths in 1885.[113] The events took place in Kilkishen Chapel which was a neighbouring parish to Sixmilebridge and the family could have started going to the neighbouring Kilkishen Chapel through a fear of Fr. Little and the fact that neither the parish priest nor curate in Kilkishen was a member of the Irish National League, which was unlike neighbouring parishes.[114]

However the local people in Kilkishen were infuriated to have these land grabbers in their Church, so the local people warned and objected to the land grabbers presence in the Church and made this clear to Fr. Denis Cleary, PP.[115] The people of Kilkishen were true to their word and boycotted mass one Sunday morning when the whole congregation walked out once the family entered the Church and all that remained were four or five old women who were deeply religious and one man who was a friend of the supposed land grabbers and so in response to this it was decided that a section of the chapel would be portioned off for the boycotted family to keep them separate from the congregation.[116] This event is an extreme example of how people were treated if they were suspected to be land grabbers and this was in the neighbouring parish to Sixmilebridge as it was seen as having a less extreme priests and congregation but we have seen what happened there so one can only assume what the reaction would have been in a place like Sixmilebridge with an active branch of the Irish National League, where the family was from. The strength of the National League in Sixmilebridge became very clear during a dispute over the eviction of the Frost family from their holdings at Rossmanagher by Henry D’Esterre in 1887.[117] Fr. Robert Little plays a very prominent role in this incident and is the main person to lead the protests once he hears of the eviction that is going to take place and so he summons a crowd of over two thousand people to the house of the Frost family, he was able to get such a large crowd as he alerted the people by ringing the church bells of Sixmilebridge, Cratloe and Kilmurry.[118] (An interesting local story on Solomon Frost who was to be evicted is that on the eve of his birth Daniel O’Connell happened to be in the area and he held the child and said he would live to see Ireland free and Solomon died in 1922.)[119]

Fr. Little’s role did not stop once he had summoned the crowd but he led the protests by chaining himself to the gates of the house along with fifty other men and refused to be moved until negotiations took place with Henry D’Esterre himself which eventually did while Fr. Little was still chained to the gate.[120] This bravery shown by Fr. Little seems to be something that has been passed down by past priests in Sixmilebridge as of the day of the Elections Massacre when Rev. Burke and Fr. Michael Clune both showed extreme bravery in confronting the Army escort which showed that all of these priests very much acted what they preached and showed great bravery in leading their congregation in protests against what they believed to be wrong. Stories of the events that took place on D’Esterre’s land that day quickly spread and John Finucane, Limerick East MP, talked of his pride to hear of how people were standing up to prevent land grabbing.[121] However there were some repercussions for Fr. Little’s actions during the attempted eviction and subsequent protest in January 1887 and Fr. Little was summoned to Sixmilebridge Petty Sessions in December 1888. Fr. Little was charged with using threatening language towards an emergency man who was carrying out the eviction but after some brief evidence given to the magistrates it was ruled that he had no case to answer to and this verdict was greeted with a loud applause from the courthouse.[122] With Fr. Little not being convicted of doing any wrong during the protest of the eviction shows how priests were nearly above the law like in the aftermath of the Election Massacre when both Fr. Clune and Rev. Burke were both charged for their part but wee but subsequently found not guilty. The reasons for why in both cases the clergymen got away without any prosecution are debatable and but two reasons seem to be the most likely.

First would be that the magistrates knew the power and support that the clergy held in Sixmilebridge during both periods and feared a major local uprising by sentencing either or the other reason could be that the clergymen were seen to be above the law and were respected by the magistrates too much but for whichever reason the clergymen were not charged and the local police were clearly infuriated in Fr. Little’s case. The police showed this in their constant harassment of Fr. Little through 1888 and into 1889 when the police had him under constant watch in belief that no meeting would take place without Fr. Little at the helm.[123] This shows how the police knew that Fr. Little was an integral part of the local National League even though the magistrates never charged him in the court a few months prior. While knowing he was under constant watch from the police Fr. Clune went on a walk on the day a meeting was to be held over his harassment by the police so he walked in the opposite direction to Ardkyle, where the meeting was being held, while being followed by six constables.[124] While seeing how Fr. Little was in court but let go without charge in Sixmilebridge this was in fact not the norm within the county because only a few weeks after in Killaloe when William Marrinan, CC, Castleconnell was convicted and jailed for six weeks for an involvement in an illegal meeting under the coercion legislation.[125] Reading of this conviction of a priest in nearby Killaloe shows again how different Sixmilebridge was to other places and that the clergy there really did have a strong presence with not alone their congregation but with the law also.

It was not long before Fr. Little was to be involved in an incident again which he made his beliefs to be known loud and clearly to everyone and this was to take place at the at the Federation Riot of 1891 where there was a spilt between the supporters of Parnell and those who opposed him. Upon arriving in Clare Parnell was said to have been moved by the support he had received from the Fenians and the GAA however it was not a unanimous support as would be seen in the Federation Convention riot.[126] For at this convention the Parnellities hurled a volley of stones at the Federation gathering and it was Fr. Little, leader of the Sixmilebridge delegation, who called out hurlers to the front to fight back and in the ensuing fracas many people were injured.[127] The stance held by Fr. Little as the representative for Sixmilebridge shows how once again Sixmilebridge was different to the majority of the county in its beliefs and this time it was in the case of being anti-Parnell despite the majority of the county supporting him. However Fr. Little was not always after controversy and was heavily involved in the Gaelic League in Sixmilebridge even though during this period the Irish language was regarded as a symbol of poverty and illiteracy in Ireland.[128] Another aspect that makes Fr. Little’s involvement with the growth of the Irish language within Sixmilebridge interesting is that only a mere fifty years ago all Bishops in Ireland, but Archbishop MacHale of Tuam, followed the example of their middleclass hero Daniel O’Connell and regarded Irish with distaste.[129] But even working to promote Irish was not the best surprise to come from Fr. Little’s work but his willingness to work with whoever was willing to encourage the growth even if it was a local landlord considering his past relations with local landlords.

Fr. Little’s work begun when he obtained a supply of ‘Simple Lessons’ books and started to encourage people with an interest in Irish to stay with him after mass in the school however Fr. Little expected low numbers but to his amazement numerous were in attendance.[130] Within a few weeks there were a couple of schools within the parish which Fr. Little took personal charge of and school children were also encouraged to sing in Irish. The greatest steps made towards encouraging Irish in Sixmilebridge was the holding of the first annual Feis Ceoil in County Clare held in Sixmilebridge in 1899 and again in 1900 but surprisingly in both years it was held in Mount Ievers house which was for so long seen as the main icon of Protestant and English power in the village.[131] This was an example of the change in times in that the remaining gentry of the area were now willing to assimilate with the locals of the area after so many years of tension but it came from both sides as Fr. Little must have been very open to co-operate also. It is said, by Fr. Little, that the lady of the house Miss Ievers was a successful student of the language long before it was popular to do so and that much if not all of the Irish renaissance in Sixmilebridge was due to her inspiration.[132] This really shows how the Ievers family was more than willing to integrate with the local people of Sixmilebridge after years of being seen above the common person but also tried to help the locals find their own traditions again in the Irish language. While also trying to learn the native Irish tongue and as a standing testimony to this work completed by the Ievers family, the family still exists today in Sixmilebridge with the next generations having married local people within the village.

While the Ievers family worked always to encourage growth in Sixmilebridge from their first arrival in Sixmilebridge and from this work have remained in the area to this day the same can never be said about the D’Esterre family who have left the area for over a hundred years now. As seen throughout this study the D’Esterre family was never far from controversy within Sixmilebridge and never settled in the area and this has mostly been down to their actions which ended up isolating them from the area. As late in the nineteenth century as 1878 the D’Esterre family, now headed by Henry Vassall D’Esterre, owned two thousand eight hundred and thirty-three acres worth around £1,625 but by 1914 his son Henry William D’Esterre, a captain in the Munster Fusiliers, had sold up the land to the Land Commission.[133] The D’Esterre family can be seen as a contrasting example of a landlord to the Ievers family while the Ievers family was willing to put money into the village in order to help the growth of the area and to make money that way and then when that failed tried to become part of the village society in contrast the D’Esterre did the opposite. From when the family first arrived and built Rossmanagher Bridge and basically cut all nautical traffic to Sixmilebridge and killed trading just so the family could benefit themselves with extra traffic through their lands despite the consequences for the village. The D’Esterre family further blackened their name in Sixmilebridge when making headlines over the eviction of the Frost family in 1887 which was heard across the county for all the wrong reasons and to this day when the D’Esterre name is mentioned it is still remembered for all the wrong reasons without many positives if any at all.

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