Turtle Bunbury – Big House Families

Genealogical Resources of Big House Families

by Turtle Bunbury

Turtle presented his paper at the NLI 20×20 talks on Tuesday 14 August.

Big Houses have always interested me, in part because I grew up in one and in part because the lives of the Big House families are invariably hugely colourful.  As a family historian, their archives are also relevant because the vast majority of Irish people today are descendents of people who were once tenant farmers on large estates. My first two books explored some of the aristocratic and landed gentry families in Counties Kildare and Wicklow, and I have written about numerous such families in the meantime. I didn’t know much about the genealogical resources of Big Houses when I wrote those books. And that’s not surprising because this is still very much unchartered territory.

So, what are the Big House resources?

In 2010, I contacted Terence Reeves-Smyth, the Senior Inspector for Historic Buildings with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. As part of his research, he went through every edition of the 6 inch maps of Ireland, plotting in the demesnes and their sizes and so forth. He calculated that in the 19th century there were about 7,000 houses in Ireland (mainly on the first two OS map editions 1830-1900) with ornamental parks of 10 acres or more, totalling around 320,000 ha of land (or about 4 per cent of the landscape).  All of these houses were ‘big houses’, and while they did not all have demesnes as such, they all had associated ornamental grounds. They varied in size from the handsome glebe houses and rectories where the clergymen lived to the grand suburban villas of Dublin and Cork to the large mansions and sprawling castles of the gentry and aristocracy. Some big houses were, of course, bigger than others but every county had at least a half dozen mansions which would rival the Titanic or a small street in Dublin for size.

Although the first Land Acts date to the early 1880s, most of these houses were still there by the end of the century. The losses during the ‘troubles’ was relatively small– 300, perhaps more), although they did include some very fine houses.  Most of the losses of the Irish country house took place in later decades, from the 1920s through to the 1970s – the Land Commission lay behind the loss of many, the Forestry Commission also removed quite a few.

According to Reeves-Smith, there were over 7,000 ‘Big Houses’ in Ireland a hundred years ago. And if you think that figure sounds preposterous, consider the work of Bridget Clesham and Marie Boran of landedestates.ie who, by August 2012, had published their Connaught and Munster Landed Estates Database, recording over 4,500 houses in those two provinces before 1914. There is no database of surviving houses today and its probably pointless trying to guess how many there are as more and more seem to be found every week.

Tellingly they also list 2700 families. I’d suggest we’re talking about 5-6000 families for the whole of Ireland who were all closely integrated and related, and who effectively ruled the island from at least the 1690s through until the first years of the 20th century. And they were a fascinating collection of people, sometimes benign, sometimes brutal, often eccentric. Their influence came to bear not just upon their immediate locality, but also upon the whole of Ireland and, in many instances, upon the wider world of the British Empire.

If you want to know any more about them, then Burke’s Irish Family Records and Debrett’s Peerage are the holy bibles although Oscar Wilde reckoned the Peerage was the greatest work of fiction in the English language.

Each of these houses had land, sometimes maybe 4-500 acres; sometimes a lot more, 30-40,000 acres or more.

And, as such, each estate required a large amount of management and administration and that means paperwork. Genealogists love paperwork, particularly when the records cater to maps and surveys, lists of tenant rentals, account books, lease books, workmen’s accounts, invoices, recipe books, cellar inventories, and such like. And then there are the actual family papers, the correspondence, letters and diaries and such like.

Landed estate papers have the potential to be an enormously helpful resource for genealogy. Maybe don’t get too excited by the rental rolls. Most tenant lists simply record the name of the middlemen who sublet … but there are exceptions.

The workmen’s accounts are interesting. And bear in mind that many of Ireland’s architects, labourers, craftsmen and gardeners subsequently helped to create the great towns and cities of the USA, Canada, Australia, India and the farthest extremities of the British Empire – using the experience and skills they had learned while building big houses for the landed gentry and aristocracy of Ireland. James Hoban, for instance, architect of the White House in Washington, learned his trade while building Desart Court for the Earl of Desart and Westport House for the Marquess of Sligo.

Correspondence can also be rewarding , particularly in terms of documenting the personal lives and careers of the landed families themselves, but also the social, economic and domestic life of the times.

When I’m tackling a family history, I track the Big Houses in the neighbourhood because  that’s likely to be a key source – particularly if the client actually lived in the Big House because then, if there are records, it’s all about the family. But if the family I’m researching were simply associated with the Big House, as tenants or labourers or household staff, this is still good reason to explore the archives for potential clues and some background colour. Thomas Bunbury listed his coachmen and gardeners by name and mentioned when they joined him on occasional journeys.   Staff records became ever more detailed as a growing awareness of human rights evolved.

I remember writing about one of the Vandeleurs of Kilrush who was killed in action in 1914. I was actually writing about one of his tenants but I realised they were both born in the same year and both enlisted together … and then when I worked on the story some more, I found they’d enlisted together but that the tenant later fought for the IRA.

So even if you don’t get any more details of who your people were, you learn a good deal about the backdrop, the landscape, the events around which their lives revolved.

Likewise the papers, letters and diaries reveal details like the building of a road or a new house or an RUC barracks, or perhaps the outbreak of a disease locally.

So this sounds like an incredible resource. But where are they!?

Well, a lot like the Anglo-Irish themselves, they are scattered to the four winds, burnt to the ground, rotted away and missing in action.  They are not all gone, by any stretch, but first a quick word on those that have disappeared.

Approximately 200 big houses were destroyed during the Irish Civil War, as well as 80 or so that went up in flames during the War of Independence. Some were destroyed because of hatred of the family. Some were taken out as possible enemy strongholds – Woodstock, in Co. Kilkenny, was one. Another was Lisheen in Co. Tipperary – I recently heard the tale of one of the Lloyds of Lisheen who had been a young girl when the house was burned and she came back to Ireland as an old woman and was introduced to an elderly man. He was one of the three lads that had set the castle ablaze. He apologized for burning the house and maintained it was not personal against the Lloyd family who were held in high regard by locals. “It was war. We were fighting for our country.” They did not want the British to have access to the castle which gave a commanding view of the area.

Other losses included some high profile houses like the Foxrock home of the agricultural reformer Horace Plunkett, the Earl of Kingstown’s massive castle in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, and the Countess of Desart’s home of Desart Court in Co. Kilkenny. Aside from his voluminous diaries, all of Plunkett’s papers went up in smoke. Some of the Kingston papers survived and are held by PRONI in the King-Harman collection, but untold records must have succumbed to the flames. Maybe there’s more on Cork?

The losses during the ‘Troubles’ of 1919 to 1922 were actually relatively small, although they did include some very fine houses. Most of the losses took place in later decades, from the 1920s through into the 1970s when dynamite sticks and balls on chains felled many, and hundreds more were left as ruins. The Land Commission, entrusted with reassigning the land of Ireland to the people of Ireland, took a particularly dim view of these colonial relics. The Forestry Commission, delegated to expand the Irish landscape with commercial woodland, also knocked down a considerable number of big houses. Hundreds more became religious institutions, boarding schools, reformatory prisons and government offices.

Estate papers tended to be given short shrift by these various bodies – there are accounts, which will give genealogists heart palpitations, of lads with wheelbarrows tipping up huge piles of useless rental rolls, of account books and old letters rotting away alongside broken terracotta pots in crumbling garden sheds.

And then of course there are the papers which are no longer in Ireland. An untold number of landed gentry families fled to England and took their resources with them. So if the family who owned the big house where your land in Ireland was, maybe seek where the family ended up in England and try their local library. It wasn’t just England – a lot of the Gregory papers of Coole fetched up in Emory University, Atlanta.

So what is left behind?

Estate papers make up the bulk of the Department of Manuscripts collections at the National Library. Most are 17th -20th century and it’s all slowly being catalogued. Some of the stuff goes back much earlier – particularly the papers of the Ormond, Lismore, and Inchiquin estates, but they also hold the Clonbrock, Coolattin, Fingal and Monteagle, collections.

PRONI also has a substantial collection of papers. I befriended Dr A.P.W. Malcomson, former Deputy Keeper of the Records,  when he came to Lisnavagh and put manners on our collection also. The payback was that most of the original material of ‘Northern’ relevance was deposited in PRONI. But PRONI’s collection is not just northern. Take the Abercorn family papers where there’s over 30,000 individually numbered documents from 1219 to 1963.  Amongst all the estate rentals and leases, this mine of information also has details on the Creighton and Rogerson families who held land in Dublin.

Local libraries are always worth a look. Limerick Library has records for the Monteagle (Foynes), Coote (Kilmallock), Massy (Lord Clarina), Ryan (Scarteen) estates. Dublin City Archive has some. Carlow Library has estate papers of the Burton family, mostly in and around Carlow town but also Dublin and Tipperary.

The National Archives are also worth checking as they have all the Landed Estate Court Records, from the Encumbered Estates Courts which were set up to administer all the estates bankrupted by the Famine. These have now been digitised and are searchable on the subscription site findmypast.ie

The State of the Country Papers at the National Archives are also a wonderful resource.

The Registry of Deeds is a huge resource also and a chance to step back in time.

And finally there’s a lot of archives in private possession and that’s a grey area. The individual families regard the archives as their own resource, which they might be able to use to boost tourism or jobs in their local area. Hence, Susan Kellett who set up the successful Family History Centres in Co. Mayo is understandably reluctant to the centralization of records, or the notion that the NLI has a divine right to any decent archive in the country. She’s trying to figure out whether there is a way big houses can make a fair quid from their genealogical resources.

At Lisnavagh, we got the Mormons in to digitise deeds, leases, legal case papers, correspondence and such like, and we now have 29,000 scans.

This is unchartered territory in many instances while we work out what’s about.  They’re not catalogues in any detail although Richard Hayes has tackled the topic to an extent in Manuscript Sources for the History of Irish Civilization (now available on the National Library’s own website as the ‘Sources’ database), and John Grenham’s book will tell you where a lot of things are.

There is a big challenge now – maybe for the landedestates.ie, to finish Ulster and Leinster, and then tell us where each family archive ended up!

 Read more about Turtle Bunbury and his work.