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As Gaeilge
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Travels in County Clare 1534 - 1911
(extracts from The Strangers Gaze, edited by Brían Ó Dálaigh)

Henry Coulter, An Account of Post-Famine Clare, 1861

Henry Coulter, versatile journalist and author, died 10 August 1911. A native of Newry, County Down, he worked for many years on the Dublin newspapers the Freeman’s Journal and, later, on Saunder’s Newsletter. For the Freeman’s Journal he reported on many of the speeches of Daniel O’Connell and the debates of the Young Irelanders in 1847. He gave evidence for the defence at the trial of William Smith O’Brien at Clonmel in 1848. Working for Saunder’s Newsletter, he was made a special correspondent for the west of Ireland. Over a four month period at the end of 1861 and the beginning of 1862, Coulter visited seven of the most distressed western counties. His purpose was to gather accurate information concerning the harvest and the general condition of the people. He wrote a series of detailed letters to the newspaper describing the distressed state of the country as he observed it. It is these collected letters that were published in book form under the title The West of Ireland in 1862. Coulter devotes over sixty pages to County Clare. He observed that while conditions since the Famine had improved there was still much suffering and deprivation. The book resulted in a lawsuit by an angry reader, but Coulter’s remarks were vindicated in court. Saunder’s Newsletter, one of Dublin’s oldest newspapers, closed in 1879, but by then Coulter had moved to London where he was employed as a journalist on the Morning Post for many years. He died at the age of eighty two. The West of Ireland was his only book; it is a work of considerable interest, not least for its many coloured illustrations of urban and rural scenes, which provide a valuable insight into Irish life in the nineteenth century.

The union of Scariff, which includes parts of the baronies of Upper and Lower Tulla in the county of Clare, and the barony of Leitrim in the county of Galway, was one of those that obtained an unenviable notoriety in the famine years. . .

Scariff Bay
Scariff Bay

The unparalleled nature of that calamity had the effect of diminishing the population by death and emigration, and, taking the whole of the union, it is not too much to say that the number of its inhabitants has decreased one-third since the year 1845. . .

During the previous four or five years [tenants] were able to pay their rents punctually, and could have saved a little, had they acted with proper economy and prudence; but, relying on a continuance of favourable harvests, very many spent all, and even ran in debt to the shopkeepers, whose claims are now pressing heavily upon them. A shrewd and intelligent old man, who cultivates about ten acres, when speaking to me relative to the condition of his own class, observed: ‘They riz above themselves entirely, and that’s why they are so pinched now.’ I did not at first catch his meaning, and when I asked him to explain what he meant, he replied: ‘Nothing would do them but they should buy fine clothes for their wives and daughters, and now they find it hard to pay for them.’ I believe this to be literally true, and that it applies to a large class both in Clare and Galway, for I have it on reliable authority that there are instances of young girls, the daughters of small farmers, who some years ago made their appearance at fairs and markets in bare feet and clothed in tattered garments, now flaunting about in handsome gowns, with hoops of the most fashionable amplitude, and turban hats and feathers of the newest style. Ridiculous as such illustrations of female vanity in persons of a rank so humble undoubtedly are, they afford no slight proof of the prosperous condition of the farming classes during the last few years, and are gratifying as indications of an improved taste and better notions on the subject of personal neatness and cleanness than formerly prevailed, for it is better that the women should be overdressed, than slovenly and unclean.

I am glad to be able to state that I have seen very few beggars since I have to come to the West, and that the labouring people are, generally speaking, respectably and comfortably clad. The battered hat and coat of shreds and patches, which used formerly to characterise the poor Irishman, seem to have disappeared. However, as I have said, many of the small farmers have become indebted to the shopkeepers for articles of dress and other things, and now find much difficulty in meeting liabilities, which is proved by the great increase in the number of processes entered and the decrees issued at the quarter sessions throughout the country.

The extortions of the usurers, who are to be found in almost every country town, also press very severely on the unfortunate people whose necessities force them to have recourse to those harpies, for the mass of the people are absolutely ignorant of the commercial value of money, and though they feel the burden, and sometimes sink under it, they do not really know how atrociously they have been ‘fleeced’. Fifty, sixth, seventy, eighty, and one hundred per cent, are frequently charged by these money-lenders. Here are two illustrations of the system - a farmer applies for the loan of £5; he receives only £4 15s., and has to repay the sum nominally borrowed at the rate of £1 1s. per month for five months. In other cases a shilling in the pound is deducted in the first instance on lending the money, and interest is charged afterwards at the rate of six pence per pound per month until the loan is repaid. . . .

The little town from which I write, affords a striking illustration of the prosperous state of the country for some years past. The population of Scariff has suffered a great diminution since the famine year; but the town, which in 1846 had only one little shop of the meanest description, now contains several thriving and wealthy shopkeepers, who have set up establishments and made their fortunes within a period of ten or twelve years. One of these enterprising traders possesses a very large concern, a sort of general miscellaneous ‘store’, containing all kinds and descriptions of goods, not omitting crinoline, hoops, and other articles of fashionable female attire for the farmers’ wives and daughters. The proprietor of this shop is worth several thousand pounds, all realised within a few years in a poor-looking little town - a conclusive proof that the farmers of the surrounding districts had plenty of money to spend. Scariff, too, has its local ‘banker’, who drives a flourishing business, but whose operations would be very much circumscribed if the usury laws were still in existence.

At the same time I should remark that Scariff contains a great many poor persons of the labouring class, who, if they do not obtain employment, will find it hard to live in their cold and miserable habitations during the winter. I have never seen more wretched-looking hovels than those which are clustered together at the outskirts of the town. The rotting thatch, the fermenting manure-heap before the door, the holes in the mud-walls intended for windows without glass, but stuffed with rags or straw, excluding both light and air - these, and other features of a repulsive character, constitute a picture of wretchedness and poverty which it is not pleasant to contemplate. Occasionally a couple of families live in one of these huts, where they fully realise the condition of the Irish labourer as described in the Devon Commission Report, being ‘badly fed, badly clothed, and badly housed’. In 1846 a row of such like squalid abodes extended for more than half a mile on either side of the road from Scariff to Mount Shannon; but death, emigration, and the workhouse have taken away their inhabitants, and they have almost entirely disappeared. . . .

I have traversed the parishes of Feakle, Kilnoe, Tomgraney, and others in the barony of Upper Tulla, forming portions of the Scariff union. The same observations are applicable to all these districts, the potatoes and the corn crops having suffered everywhere in nearly equal proportions. The parish of Feakle is probably the poorest in the union. It is an extensive mountainous district, with, for the most part, a cold unproductive soil.

The following may be taken as a tolerably close estimate of the results of the harvest in this locality. The potato crop is almost a total failure; of those raised some are rotting in the pits, whilst the remainder does not form a wholesome and nutritious food. The return was, however, a bad one, one-third being the average loss, and in some places much more. The quality of the grain is most inferior. There was not much wheat grown, and the yield is at most only one-half of a good average crop. The extent of land under barley this year was very limited, and the produce greatly deficient.

As a general rule, the farmers have but few cattle, and those are of an inferior description, and in poor condition. The loss of pigs in the spring and summer by distemper was a serious addition to the other misfortunes of this season, which has been almost unprecedentedly severe. The rents vary from 15s. to 30s. per acre, according to the quality of the soil, and so far as I can judge, the land is not generally let at too low a figure.

A clergyman, who resides in this parish and is intimately acquainted with the condition of the people, gave me the following description of the present state of Feakle. I give his statement as nearly as possible in his own words, because I think it candid and truthful, and applicable to many other parts of the country -

‘There are comparatively but few persons of the labouring class in this parish - that is, of people living, so to speak, from hand to mouth, and depending upon their daily hire for their daily food. These persons do not hold any land except a rood or two in which they grow potatoes, and they will be badly off during the coming winter, because there is no employment going on at present, and no one to give employment. There are several comfortable farmers holding from twenty to thirty acres and upwards; they are independent, and will not find their resources seriously impaired by the failure of the crops. The remainder of the population consists of small farmers, holding five or six acres, many of whom have saved a little capital, and will be able to get through the winter and pay the May rent, which becomes payable this November; but it will distress them sorely to pay the November gale next April, and some will not be able to meet it. The want of fuel will be their greatest privation. Speaking generally, they have scarcely any turf saved; but they will gather underwood, bramble, furze, and heath, to supply its place for the winter consumption. Somehow they will contrive to struggle through; and living constantly, as so many of them do, on the verge of poverty, hardships and sufferings which would appal others have but little terrors for them. There are some aged, infirm, and diseased persons, whose relatives cannot support them during the winter, and who must therefore seek relief in the workhouse, and from this cause there will be an increase, but not a large one, of paupers. There are no resident gentry in this parish. The small farmers till their lands themselves, and employ as few labourers as possible, and do not exert themselves much to improve their holdings. They are generally tenants at will, and are afraid to improve because of the insecurity of their tenure. There will be no starvation in this neighbourhood, and if the people could get employment, there would be no severe suffering for want of food’.

[Ennis] is the capital of the County Clare, and is a thriving, active, busy town, containing at present, according to the last census returns, 7,127 inhabitants. . . A handsome courthouse and Roman Catholic church, and a monument to the memory of the late Daniel O’Connell, erected on the site of the old courthouse, and now fast approaching completion, constitute the most remarkable architectural features of Ennis. Two fine edifices are in progress of erection by the National and Provincial Banking Companies of Ireland, and, when finished, will add much to the adornment of the town.

The observation respecting the prosperity of the traders refers to a recent period, and is not properly applicable to the present, for, in truth, business is now remarkably dull here as in other towns in the West of Ireland. The shopkeepers of Ennis must therefore look forward, for some time to come, to greatly diminished receipts, and they will require the liberal aid of the banks to enable them to maintain their position satisfactorily.

There is a large and poor labouring population in the town, amongst whom severe distress prevails during the winter and spring of almost every year; but in the present year their sufferings will commence earlier, and be of greater intensity, than any of which they have had previous experience. These people depend almost entirely on the potato, which they cultivate in small patches of a quarter of an acre; but, as the failure of the crops has been universal in the uplands, and as there is not much bog land in the immediate neighbourhood of Ennis, on which the potato is grown, they find themselves deprived of the means of subsistence, with no prospect before them but the workhouse. If they could obtain employment all would go well; for the low prices of Indian corn and oatmeal would enable a working man who earned a shilling a day to feed his family even better than he could possibly do with an average crop of potatoes. But beyond the small amount of labour required to carry on the buildings to which I have spoken, there is no employment here for the labouring class, who must remain in idleness, seeing their scanty stock of provisions disappear daily until actual starvation compels them to throw themselves and their families on the union for support, from which wretched fate very few of the miserably poor population of Ennis can hope to escape. . . .

An act of parliament has been obtained, authorising the construction of a railway from Ennis to Athenry, but as yet no steps appear to have been taken to carry out the project, though, if the line is to be made at all, it would be desirable, for the sake of the poor labouring population of Ennis, that the works should be commenced as speedily as possible. Although there must be many persons in this town and its locality who are even now short of food, the anticipated distress will not begin to manifest itself until the beginning of the new year. The potatoes that the labouring class have saved, will hardly suffice until Christmas, but many will contrive to make out a precarious and scanty subsistence for a few weeks longer, after which I fear the workhouse roll will tell a sad tale of want and suffering. . . .

I wish to refer briefly to the position of a class of farmers, some of whom are to be found near this town, whilst others are settled in various parts of the county. I speak of a peculiar class, very rare, I think I may say unique, in Ireland, viz., farmers of humble rank, who have attained to the dignity of being owners in fee. It will be remembered, that a few years ago the great Thomond Estates, including land in every part of the county, but chiefly situate in the baronies of Islands, Inchiquin, and Burren, were sold in the Landed Estates Court. The property was disposed of in small lots, by which a larger sum was realised than would otherwise have been obtained, and nearly the whole of which were purchased by farmers, some buying their own holdings, and others the farms of their neighbours. In several instances the purchaser had accumulated sufficient means at once to pay off the purchase money; but in the majority of cases they were able to make up a portion only of the required sum, and were obliged to borrow the remainder on mortgage. They have since been making strenuous efforts to pay off the loans, but the deficient harvests of the last two years have crippled them considerably, and they now occupy a very critical position. Another season like the last would reduce many to the verge of insolvency, and a fourth bad year would ruin them completely, and throw the Thomond property, or a great part of it, again into the market. It is to be hoped, for many reasons, that these people will be able to struggle through, and to hold permanently the lands which they have thus acquired; since the establishment of a class of independent yeoman farmers amongst us would be an important circumstance, calculated to have no small influence on the social condition of the country. It is wonderful how conservative in their ideas some of these farmers have become under the magic influence of a real estate in the land, and how absolute are their notions of a landlord’s rights to do what he likes with his own; for in several instances the new proprietor did not scruple to turn out the occupier of the holding he had purchased, in a summary fashion, and under circumstances which would have formed the theme for much indignant denunciation, had the act been committed by one of the old landlords of the country. . . .

Loop Head
Loop Head

The district of which I now speak includes two parishes - Moyarta and Kilbarryowen [Kilballyowen]; the latter of which is about six miles long, extending from Loophead to within a mile of the village of Carrigaholt; and it is here especially that the greatest apprehension of scarcity and want prevails, for it consists chiefly of arable land, and includes within its boundaries very little fresh bog, which is tantamount to saying that the people have no potatoes. Moreover, the oats are said to have been a total failure, as the continuous rain and the unusual coldness of the season did not allow the grain to ripen, and in some instances the cattle were turned into the fields to eat the unripe corn, or else it was cut merely for the sake of the straw.

Notwithstanding the decrease of population throughout the county, the two parishes are thickly inhabited, chiefly by small farmers, labourers, and fishermen. The sea abounds with fish: mackerel and herrings are often taken in large quantities near the shore, and cod, haddock, soles, and ling are caught at the greater distance. The people, however, do not possess the means of carrying on the fishery in a proper manner. They fish from ‘corraghs’ or canoes, consisting of a light framework of wood covered with tarred canvas, and which, from their extreme buoyancy, dance lightly over the waves, and are quite safe, even in rough weather, when dexterously managed by an experienced boatman; but it is obvious that these frail structures are not suitable for deep sea fishing, and that to a great extent the teeming waters must remain unproductive so far as these humble fishermen are concerned. Bream and other coarse fish are obtained along the rocky shore, which, together with the shell-fish gathered by the women and children, contribute greatly to the support of many poor families.

Those who have no land, rent a small patch for the cultivation of potatoes. This is generally called ‘mock’ by the people of the West, and in other parts of Ireland it is termed ‘conacre’. In the district of which I am now speaking the average rent charged for ‘conacre’ is £4 an acre, but in other places along the coast it rises so high as £6, £8, and even £10 an acre for bog land which the tenant has to manure at great labour and expense. Persons living near the sea can easily obtain seaweed, sand, and shells for manure, and this fact will account for the comparative density of the population along the coast. Farms which border on the sea are much coveted, because of the privilege given to the tenant of collecting seaweed to manure his own land, he gathers as much more as he can, and carries it to Ennis or some other inland place, where he finds a ready sale for all he brings to market, and thus obtains a few pounds, which enable him to pay his rent or to procure food for his family. . . .

It would also be most injurious to the country at large if the drain of emigration, which has partially ceased, should be again renewed, for it is always the flower of our population, the young, the healthy, and the strong, who quit this country to seek their fortunes in other lands, leaving behind them the aged and infirm. Emigration has already caused a great scarcity of good labour in may parts of Ireland, and I fear the bad results of the last two seasons will turn the attention of many to Australia or the British colonies, if landlords do not act with judicious forbearance, and if some assistance be not given to enable the people to struggle through their present difficulties.

This reference to emigration leads me to mention a resource possessed by the poor of this country, which ought not to be overlooked in considering their present position. There is scarcely a family in Clare which has not some member or members in America or Australia, and remittances are constantly being sent by these exiles to their relatives at home. Sometimes the old couple receive five or six pounds from their son, whose horny hand need never lie idle in his bosom in the new world. Sometimes, as in a case which was lately mentioned to me, a young girl earning good wages in America, sends several pounds to her brother, who is willing to work, but can find no employment in his own country. The large sums thus sent home by Irish emigrants have often excited surprise and elicited the warmest admiration, as proofs of the deep-seated feelings of family affection which characterise our people. Latterly the remittances from America have decreased, in consequence of the fratricidal war now raging in that country; but money is still coming from Australia, and were it not for this timely help many families would have no prospect before them save the workhouse. . . .

[Kilrush] is a remarkable instance of the improvement which has taken place in so many country towns throughout Ireland since 1846. During the interval that has elapsed, the shops in Kilrush have doubled in number, and greatly increased in size. For example, in 1846 there was scarcely a shop in the town more than 24 feet in length, and there was not one having a plate-glass window; whereas now there are twelve shops with plateglass windows, some of 30 feet in front, and over 80 feet from front to rear. These shops are well-stocked with goods, varying in value from £1,000 to £7,000, but they are now almost deserted in consequence of the distressed state of the country; and traders whose daily receipts in prosperous years used to average £30, are now not receiving more than £6 or £7 a day. I was assured by a respectable shopkeeper that in the year 1860 he received for debts due to him for goods sold on credit £1,700. This year he has not received half that amount, and the falling off both in purchases and the payment of bills dates from the 1st of September. Up to that time bills were punctually paid by the farmers, but now it is almost impossible to obtain money from them except by legal process, and in numerous instances the traders who endorsed their bills to the banks, have been obliged to meet them, to their serious embarrassment.

There are branches of the National and Provincial Banks here, but there are complaints that they are restricting the accommodation which they were in the habit of giving, and have refused to renew many of the bills of the small farmers, even though a reduction on them was proposed to be made. . .

It would be a serious omission to finish my description of Kilrush without some reference to the largest proprietor and the best landlord in the district: I allude to Colonel Vandeleur, one of the members for Clare, who is one of the most popular men in the county, and will continue to represent it in parliament as long as he desires to enjoy that honour. In every part of the county which I have visited, but especially in the western portions, where his extensive estates are situated, I have heard Colonel Vandeleur praised as one of the kindest and most considerate of landlords. With the exception of a few town fields, which are set at reasonable rents, all his lands are let at Griffith’s valuation. As a natural consequence, his tenantry are comfortably off, and can bear up successfully against a bad season; whilst the rackrented tenants of other proprietors - and there are many such in Clare - must sink under the losses they have sustained. Colonel Vandeleur recognises a quasi tenant right on his property, and an instance was mentioned to me in which one of his tenants, holding 44 acres without a lease, sold his good will, or ‘tenant-right’, for £500.

Gap of Baltard, Kilkee
Gap of Baltard, Kilkee

The cottier population is very small throughout the country extending from Kilrush to Ballyvaghan, except in the little villages along the coast. The decrease in the population of the county since 1851 is something over 46,000, the diminution being confined to the small farmers and the labouring class. The parish of Killard, which is now in a very poor condition, suffered most severely during the famine years. The poor rates in the years 1848-9 exceeded the valuation of the land; and the destruction of human life by famine and pestilence was enormous. As an illustration of the terrible condition of this country during that period, I may state the fact, communicated to me by the clergyman of this parish, that within the short space of six weeks the clerk of his church assisted in removing out of two houses no less than twenty-six bodies, the victims of cholera and starvation. Killard, too, was the scene of evictions on a scale of magnitude and under circumstances of cruelty, which called for the interference of parliament, with a view to prevent the recurrence of such misery as followed that extreme exercise of the power of eviction. On Christmas Eve in the year 1847 no less than 86 families, numbering about 430 individuals - aged, infirm, young, and helpless - were turned out of their cabins, without a roof to shelter them until those who survived the inclemency of the weather obtained admission into the overcrowded workhouse of Kilrush. These wholesale evictions took place on the property of a gentleman who was then a minor, and the circumstance attracted so much attention at the time, that the late Sir Robert Peel introduced and carried the Evicted Tenant’s Bill, by which the landlord is obliged, under a heavy penalty, to serve notice on the relieving officer of the electoral division in which his property is situate, before he can evict any of his tenants-at-will.

The union of Ennistymon, which includes parts of the baronies of Burren, Corcomroe, Ibrackan, and Inchiquin, embraces an area of 99,281 statute acres, and contains 31,612 inhabitants. The poor law valuation is £36,594. The greater portion of the land has been converted into grazing farms, and butter is now the staple produce of the district. People here rarely speak of a man having so many acres of land: they indicate his position in life by saying that he ‘has grass for so many cows’. The natural result of the substitution of grazing for tillage has been to restrict the amount of employment, the want of which is most severely felt by the labouring class. The population in the interior is rather sparse, but all along the shore there are numerous little villages inhabited by great numbers of small farmers and cottiers, who are attracted to the seaside by the facility with which the abundance of seaweed enables them to manure their land. The small farmer pays his rent by the sale of his pig, eggs, fowl, and butter, and grows as much potatoes as will supply his family, provided the crop yields a good average return. The cottier generally cultivates half or quarter of an acre of ‘conacre’ or ‘mock ground’, as they term it in Clare, for which he pays the middleman a very high rent, ranging from £4 an acre at Kilkee, to £6 and £8 at Miltown Malbay and other places along the coast. . . .

It is at the village of Ballyvaghan, which is situate in the barony of Burren, at the north-western extremity of the county, and along the adjacent coast, that the famous Burren oysters, so highly prized by the lovers of that delicate bivalve, are obtained. Almost the whole barony consists of a mass of limestone rock, interspersed here and there with small patches of arable land, but affording, even in those spots that are apparently most barren, pasturage of the best description, which renders the fat sheep and cattle of Burren proverbial amongst Irish agriculturists. . . .

I find that the potatoes in Burren have been better than in any other part of the county, the light, friable limestone soil being peculiarly favourable to their growth and development. The produce, however, is by no means a large one, and the proportion of black potatoes is considerable. The great and pressing want of the people in this district is fuel, as there are no bogs in the immediate neighbourhood of Ballyvaghan; and Connemara, from which in former years the people derived their supply, is now suffering from the universal scarcity of turf. The price at Ballyvaghan of this most necessary article, is treble the ordinary rate, and those who can afford to buy it cannot get enough for their purposes. In fact, a ‘fuel famine’ has already commenced. The people are literally cooking their food with dried fern, heath, brambles, and branches of hazel, of which there is a scanty growth here and there amongst the stone walls which divide field from field. . .

The population of Ballyvaghan may be roughly estimated at 550 persons, of whom about 100 belong to the labouring class, the majority of them being young, strong, and able men. There is a fishing village in the parish of Gleninagh, near Blackhead; and if the weather does not prove unusually stormy, the inhabitants will not be badly off for food; but, like all others in this locality, they are now enduring much privation from the want of fuel. Whatever may be said of the neglect of the people in other places in not saving their turf earlier, no blame can be imputed to the inhabitants of Burren, for they have no bogs to which they can resort and they have always been obliged to depend on Connemara for their supply. . . .

In closing my observations respecting the county of Clare, I am glad to say, that, although the state of things I have been obliged to depict is for the most part dark and gloomy, there is a bright side to the picture. I have already spoken of the signs of progress which are everywhere visible, and no rational man can doubt but that, when the present temporary pressure has passed away, the country will resume that march of improvement in which it has made such rapid strides during the last eight or ten years. Much, very much, will depend in the exertions of the resident gentry, who, by precept and example, can instruct and encourage their tenantry; and this is a matter of duty and of self-interest, to which the great majority of the landed proprietors of Ireland are becoming more keenly alive than were their pleasure-loving, generous, and hospitable, but thoughtless, predecessors. The better cultivation of the land, the improved habits of the people, both in respect to their dress and their dwellings, are cheering facts which cannot escape the observation of any one who compares the Ireland of to-day with the Ireland of thirty or even twenty years ago. To take a single instance. A quarter of a century back, almost every farmer’s house in the county of Clare was built of mud, and presented a most squalid appearance. Now, snug farm-houses and neat stone-wall cottages are to be seen in every direction, and other indications are not wanting of the general prosperity and improved social condition of the farming classes in Ireland.

Extracts taken from Henry Coulter, The West of Ireland: its existing condition and prospects (Dublin 1862), pp 21-79.

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