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

Spiralling downfall of the area and the roots of unrest within the early nineteenth century

Rapid decline and instability was the main stay for Sixmilebridge in the early nineteenth century as the building of Rossmanagher and Bunratty Bridges spelt the end of nautical trading and also passing trade through the once vibrant and flourishing centre of the eighteenth century which can be seen in Figure 1. Accounts of the village from the now scarce visitors start to really give the view that town is in a dramatic decline in comparison to its not too distant past. During Llyod’s tour of Clare in 1780, Sixmilebridge is described as being commodious and pretty town with a handsome market house the location of the town is seen as being very naturally ideal and even the mills are mentioned by Llyod and seen to be an ingenious mechanical construction.[40] When compared with the report from the Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland 1845, which describes the village as formerly a place of note with a skeleton of a beautiful market house which is in rapid decline for over half a century, it shows just how the fortunes of the Sixmilebridge changed so much in a relatively short time.[41] By the middle of the nineteenth century the main landlord families still remained in power in Sixmilebridge as Robert D’Esterre in Rossmanagher and a Mr Ievers was present at Mount-Ievers in 1845 despite the decline of the town and the markets.[42] During the period prior to 1845 the decline in Sixmilebridge and the growth of poverty in the area was similarly seen throughout the county with many areas in the county in even worse circumstances. The conditions of the poor in Clare prior to the Famine has been described by contemporary observers as a ‘miracle’ in reference to how the people could survive in such terrible conditions compared to the conditions people enjoyed in England.[43] The effects of these bad conditions greatly effected Sixmilebridge and this was mirrored in the change in population of the town as it began to fall away drastically.

The 1842 Ordnance Survey 6-Inch Map of Sixmilebridge and the surrounding areas
Figure 4 The 1842 Ordnance Survey 6-Inch Map of Sixmilebridge and the surrounding areas. This map shows the positioning of Studdert’s Bridge in Bunratty built in 1804, which is highlighted with a red circle, which is clearly now a much quicker route from Limerick in the east to anywhere in the west rather than using D’Esterre Bridge, in blue, or even further in to Sixmilebridge, highlighted in yellow. Along with taking passing traffic from Sixmilebridge it also very much brought an end to any other boats still using the river after the construction of D’Esterre Bridge in 1784.

During the middle of the seventeenth century when the Census of Ireland 1659 was taken Sixmilebridge was very much so in rivalry with Ennis to be the largest town in Clare as there was 259 registered taxpayers in Sixmilebridge and just eight more in Ennis, 267, which shows just how strong and prominent of a town Sixmilebridge once was.[44] From these poll tax returns it can be multiplied by a factor of three to get an estimated population of the towns which would have been 777 and 801 respectively for Sixmilebridge and Ennis.[45] However the growth difference between both towns was drastically different over the coming years up until the early twentieth century when the gap between both towns had become unimaginably big. The population of Sixmilebridge peaked in 1831 with a population of 1491 which was nearly double of that in 1659 but in contrast the population of Ennis was 7711 which shows an obvious change in fortunes between both towns with the colossal difference in population growth.[46] Like most of rural Ireland the population of Sixmilebridge and Ennis both fell massively during the nineteenth century due to the Famine and mass migration but Sixmilebridge suffered a lot more than Ennis and by 1911 only 325 people remained in Sixmilebridge a mere twenty-five per cent of the population in 1831 and half it in 1659 while Ennis dropped to 5472 which was only a drop of thirty per cent and still a lot more than the population in 1659.[47] The population decline in Sixmilebridge was much greater than the county average also which gives another view to the decline away from the contrast it had with the decline in Ennis during the same period.[48] The decline can easily be put into perspective with this table below which shows how every village and town in Clare’s population changed.
Ranking of Clare towns and villages by population, 1821-1911[49]

Population 1821 1831 1841 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901 1911  
Ennis 6701 7711 9319 8623 7175 6503 6301 5460 5093 5472 1st
Kilrush 3465 3996 5071 9267 4902 4424 3805 4095 4179 3666 2nd
Ennistymon 1369 1430 2089 1741 1454 1411 1331 1200 1223 1204 4th
Sixmilebridge 1092 1491 1107 762 639 517 446 454 374 325 13th
Killaloe 1002 1422 2009 1830 1395 1207 1112 1079 885 821 6th
Newmarket 999 1118 1771 1216 1137 750 618 456 504 521 8th
Corofin 771 900 909 994 741 639 579 495 393 381 11th
Miltown 600 726 1295 1452 1330 1362 1400 1267 1013 995 5th
Tulla 581 874 1217 1226 1198 861 758 644 592 478 9th
Kilfenora 552 558 621 387 343 294 307 236 219 199 15th
Clarecastle 505 1021 879 892 495 876 790 624 591 538 7th
Kilkee 409 1051 1481 1869 1856 1605 1652 1839 1762 1688 3rd
Liscannor 315 506 562 429 394 415 331 286 251 242 14th
Killadysert 293 337 604 440 534 573 560 346 354 340 12th
Scarriff 221 761 656 954 694 734 785 599 593 478 10th
Figure 5 In this table Sixmilebridge was the fourth biggest town in the county in 1821 and grows to the third largest in 1831 but from there the population went into free fall and by 1911 only two villages were smaller than Sixmilebridge, Liscannor and Kilfenora.

An important note on this population decline is the substantial fall in percentage of the population who were protestant in the area which fell equally as dramatic as the population. During the religious census of 1764 the ratio of Catholics to Protestants was 5:1 although this figure is more likely to have been exaggerated by the clergy and by the time of the government census of 1831 the ratio had grown out to 44:1.[50] The decline in the Protestant population is linked closely with the with the decline in the fortunes of Sixmilebridge which shows that after the village ceased to be an important town that a lot of the wealthier Protestant population left after the town was by-passed in 1804. The period during the early nineteenth century is a somewhat quite period for the town in comparison with the booming previous two hundred years and with the decrease in passing traffic due to Bunratty Bridge accounts from travellers visiting the village become scarce also. In the early parts of the nineteenth century a new Catholic church was built on the western side of the river near to the Protestant church in 1812 under the guidance of Father Clune. However the structure of the church reflected the poverty stricken congregation as it was constructed with a thatched structure, with a mud floor and small windows surrounded with brick.[51] The poor structure of the church in Sixmilebridge was not mirrored in other parts of the Diocese of Killaloe such as Clonlara whose chapel was built around the same time in 1815 but was described as a ‘large well-built structure’ in 1837 by Samuel Lewis.[52]

While the spending of the eighteenth century was long gone one hundred years later and the power showed by the Ievers and the O’Brien families had dried up in Sixmilebridge and the D’Esterre family was now becoming a very important family. Shortly after the controversial erection of Rossmanagher Bridge the D’Esterre family also erected toll gates on the bridge to recover some of the great costs incurred by the family from building the bridge. Similar to the erection of the bridge the erection of the toll gates was a very unpopular move by the family and this toll bridge became steeped in local folklore following an incident in 1815 involving Daniel O’Connell. The D’Esterre’s in Sixmilebridge were direct relations of Captain John D’Esterre who died after fighting a duel with Daniel O’Connell in 1815.[53] According to local folklore the duel between O’Connell and D’Esterre came from an argument that arose after O’Connell refused to pay the toll at Rossmanagher Bridge and word of this travelled to Dublin to Captain John D’Esterre who was head of the family and from this the duel came about according to folklore. Even after this incident though the D’Esterre family kept the toll rates on the bridge even as late as during the Famine and this was not popular with locals and an air of resentment existed against the family.[54] Even with this publicity for Sixmilebridge at the time the town still continued to spiral downwards, as can be seen from the population fall and when Samuel Lewis came to the town in 1837 his descriptions tell the whole story of the once booming town. The first line in Lewis’ description of the town really sets the tone for his analysis of the place with the words ‘formerly of some note’ this instantly places a picture of a run-down town with the remains of a wealthy past.[55]

It was not just the ordinary people who felt the pinch of the downward spiral of Sixmilebridge but so did the Ievers family who were once the driving force of the growth in the town in the early eighteenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century the Ievers family were starting to feel the pinch so much that the great Mount Ievers House was left partly unfinished inside and became known as a ‘tall house with tall notions’.[56] However the down fall of the Ievers did not stop here and went onto affect their major statement on the town, the market house overlooking the town. As early as 1807 the markets in Sixmilebridge had been abandoned and soon after the market house had been unroofed and the Mount Ievers House was also falling into ruin as Mr Ievers was now near permanent absence.[57] However while Sixmilebridge was in a downward spiral with a now absent landlord nearby Newmarket on Fergus was quite the opposite and was now beginning to boom partly out of the misfortune of Sixmilebridge as Newmarket benefitted from the new route to Ennis from Limerick after the construction of the bridge in Bunratty. Services like the Mail Coach Service between Limerick-Ennis, and later to Galway, went via Bunratty and Newmarket instead of the longer route via Cratloe and Sixmilebridge like it first did in 1809 but it is unclear when the route was changed.[58] Newmarket also benefitted from a resident and attentive landlord who over saw fast advancement in buildings and many different kinds of improvement in the village during the early nineteenth century which was a contrast to that in Sixmilebridge from the absence of Mr Ievers at the Mount Ievers Estate.[59]

The best way to see the change in fortunes of both towns is to look at Figure 2 which shows how in a matter of twenty years the population of Newmarket had gone from one hundred less than Sixmilebridge, in 1821, to six hundred more by 1841 prior to the famine and remained larger until 1911.Despite the towns fall and the obvious growth of nearby towns, such as Newmarket, Sixmilebridge still remained an important town in the eyes of the established government because under a new government initiative in the early nineteenth century of setting up bridewells Sixmilebridge was one of only five towns in Clare to have one along with Tulla in east Clare, Ennis and then Kilrush and Ennistymon in the west of the county.[60] Similar to many more buildings in the town in the early nineteenth century the Protestant Church had fallen into disrepair and the tower was pulled down as it was deemed to be unsafe. However since it was the established Church it was granted £542 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to erect a new one which in turn with the building of the bridewell and courthouse a few years earlier shows that the only money being spent in the town was from the government for the use of the elite Protestant population of the town which was dwindling at the time.[61] This shows how the town which might have had absentee landlords but they still held enough power to gain the needed grant for the Protestant Church.

The last remaining industry in the town, the bleaching of linen, only lasted a short time into the nineteenth century and in March 1817 the bleaching business of the Gurnell family was totally destroyed by a fire which was maliciously started however the bleaching business left its mark as the area is still known as Bleach Green today.[62] Although the village had become a backwater for the most part of the nineteenth century which was highlighted by John Manners assessment of the village while he attended the Sixmilebridge Petty Sessions in 1846, in which he describes it as ‘a wild part of county Clare with every other house in which is a ruin’.[63] In the face of this obvious decline which was seen throughout all sections of the village since the beginning of the nineteenth century education in the village was at a strong level by the publication of the report of the Irish Education Inquiry of 1824. According to this inquiry there were six schools in Sixmilebridge at the time with over 360 students attending them across both religions as shown in Figure 3.

Teacher Religion Income Building Value Pupils M F Protestant
Dennis Woulfe Catholic 12 chapel 0 110 80 30 0
Patrick Hamilton Catholic 10 Ballyliddane chapel 0 90 60 30 1
Ann Armstrong Catholic 08 Thatched house 07 54 0 54 0
James Healy Protestant 26 Thatched house 30 53 32 21 29
Patrick Slattery Catholic 15 Thatched house 14 45 35 10 2
Bridget Carmody Catholic 02 Thatched cabin 09 12 5 7 0
      Totals   364 212 152 32
          100% 58% 42% 9%
Figure 6 Sixmilebridge schools, 1824.[64]

The information shown Figure 6 gives a good insight into the different wages earned by the different teachers and these wages were based on the number and quality of students they could attract to their schools so it is not surprising to see that the Protestant teacher, James Healy, received the highest income.

The percentage of Protestant children in school of Sixmilebridge echoes the large decline in Protestant population witnessed in the area over the previous one hundred years. However the Protestant run school in Sixmilebridge was only one of five within the Diocese of Killaloe which was run by the proselytising society, the Association for Discountenancing Vice and the annual rent was paid by Sir Edward O’Brien.[65] Also from Figure 3 it is very clear that a larger proportion of males attended schools than females and this is common for Ireland during the nineteenth century. The largest school which was held at the Catholic Church was under the patronage of Father Cornelius Clune who had built a very spacious School-House which had an upper and lower sides allotted for the boys and girls of the parish.[66] The school was under the guidance of Dennis Woulfe between 1817 and 1826 however he is more famously known for translating into English Brian Merriman’s Cúirt an Mheon-Óiche, Woulfe also wrote many works himself in both Irish and English but his pen fell silent in 1826 and where he went is somewhat of a mystery but it is believed he went to Canada as in one of his last poems he writes about his desire to emigrate to Canada, ‘Rachadsa ar Luas, Go Canada suas’.[67] With a writer of such a calibre in Irish and English Literature teaching in a school within in the village it would have been very beneficial for the students at the time. However it was Patrick Slattery, another teacher in Sixmilebridge at the time, who was later praised by one of his former students, Patrick McMahon upon his return from Australia where he was a colonial magistrate, who looked back on his education under Mr Slattery with reverence and profound gratitude.[68] All was not doom and gloom in Sixmilebridge as it clearly had a very good education system with the standard of these two teachers in the early nineteenth century which was an important base for the children and clearly helped Patrick McMahon in his later life.

Politics was never a major topic in Sixmilebridge during the eighteenth century or the early years of the nineteenth century until 1824 with the setting up of the Catholic Association which helped to familiarise people with the methods of parliamentary politics. Father Cornelius Clune the Parish Priest had a very keen interest in politics and the cause of Daniel O’Connell and it was not long before he began to show his beliefs which finally came in 1826. In October 1826 the first ever meeting in Clare to send forward a petition supporting Daniel O’Connell and Catholic Emancipation to parliament was held in Sixmilebridge with Father Cornelius Clune in chair, a similar meeting was soon to follow in Ennis.[69] With this meeting being the first of its kind in the county it can be seen as one of main starting moments of what would end with Daniel O’Connell being elected as a member of parliament for Clare in 1829. The participation and interest in politics of the area were to only keep growing in the coming years following O’Connell’s election as the people continued to support O’Connell and the repeal movement and this enthusiasm was peaking around the time of a meeting in Ardsollas near Quin a few miles from Sixmilebridge. This meeting took place on 11 June 1841 and Father Clune, the oldest priest in the Diocese of Killaloe at the time, led a group reported to be around 10000 from Sixmilebridge and the surrounding parishes while being preceded by the Sixmilebridge Temperance Band.[70] Father Cornelius Clune was proving to be a major catalyst in driving political awareness within his congregation which lasted for over forty years until he eventually passed away in 1849 having served the parish since 1808, and he replace Father Patrick Davin, and who was in turn replaced by Father Michael Clune.[71]

Following on after the death of Father Cornelius Clune politics was to remain strong amongst the people of Sixmilebridge as it was across the country becoming more and more important. Sixmilebridge during the first half of the nineteenth century and the lead up to the famine was in serious decline but witnessed a steady education system and later a growth in political interest but always remained a quite area without much tension. This was to change as the century went on and outbreaks of violence against Landlords started popping up as the Land League grew in importance while the major outbreak of violence in the village was based around politics and landlord power.

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An election massacre