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In estate of confusion

October 17, 2010

The link to County Leitrim’s local paper – The Leitrim Observer – stated: Abandoned estates haunt the county. It immediately set me thinking of times gone by.

In the Plantation, even the remotest southern Ulster counties – Monaghan and Cavan, as well as the Connacht neighbours of Leitrim, Sligo and Roscommon, ‘benefited’ from the establishment of large estates with big houses and attendant farming and micro industrial concerns. Understandably, the people had, at best, ambivalent relationships with the local ascendancy. Certainly work was provided – on farms, creameries, gardens, and in service at the House itself. Even the maintenance of the buildings and estate grounds gave employment to a number of local workers. On the other hand, as the Land Leaguers proved, there was a general and understandable belief amongst the indigenous population, that this was local land, belonging to local families and there to provide them, rather than blow ins, with a living. Obviously the Famine hardened resistance and indeed Lord Leitrim was one of the most hated figures in the time of An Gorta Mor.

However, neither history, nor people are that simple. The relationship between the Big House and the surrounding countryside tended to vary, from area to area across the whole of the country, from time to time, and in relation to the demeanour of incomers and natives – which, in turn, was affected by the richness of the land and local arrangements for taxation and working agreements.

The developments of the late nineteenth century, the Famine, the Land League and then, later, the Rising and the War of Independence, naturally hardened attitudes considerably. It really was a case of ‘whose side are you on?’
The establishment of the Free State and then the Republic in the 1940s was the death knell for the ascendancy in any real sense. De Valera’s State was not set up in a manner to make minorities feel comfortable. That fact, combined with the organised burning and dynamiting of numerous big houses by the IRA, meant that those from the ascendancy who remained in the fledgling state, from the 1920s onward, had a rapidly diminishing influence, presence and visibility in the south of Ireland, particularly beyond the Pale. They were in some cases still big in the landscape but invisible in the society they had previously inhabited.

Some did stick it out, becoming, as it were, pale and interesting to writers such as William Trevor and John McGahern, and, to be sure, these families, or their remnants, were objects of fascination, relics of a time fast vanishing, lynchpins of a strata of society that had been replaced by the civil servants, teachers, priests and politicians of what many considered to be a gombeen ‘republic’, consumed with their own bourgeois self importance. As time passed and the ascendancy descended, as it were, they gained, for some, a kind of lonely nobility – that had far more stature than the civic nobility originally bestowed upon them from across the water.

McGahern wrote: Light rain fell around the big house and its trees like a veil and captured graphically the sense of invisibiity, of apartness, that surrounded such houses as the Free State stretched its muscles and started its painful growth.

McGahern’s story, ‘The Conversion of William Kirkwood’, which is echoed in his true recollections of his own childhood in ‘Memoir’, paints a haunting picture: The elderly widower and his middle aged son, last relict of a once powerful family, living in ever fewer rooms of their crumbling mansion, poster boys for genteel poverty, each divorced from reality in their solitary and parallel hobbies – the father with his beekeeping, the son with his nocturnal star gazing. In his boyhood reminiscences, McGahern, tells of how his visits to the Big House with messages and bits of work led to him being given the freedom of its decaying library, an encouragement to literature that he would never have received from his bullying, repressive, widower Garda father. It’s a neat reflection of the inescapable fact that, where the relationship between the House and the locality was positive, there was good rather than servitude that came out of it.

So, with this in mind I understood the newspaper headline that these decaying estates did indeed ‘haunt the county’ for all sorts of reasons.

That is until I clicked on the link and read the whole story.

The ‘estates’ to which the headline was referring are in fact the modern day ‘ghost estates’, built in tigerish haste during the boom years and now abandoned, desolate and totally uninhabited. Leitrim has more than its fair share of these, scattered about the county, often inappropriately planted in fields on the edge of small towns with no rationale for their presence there, other than the previous hope of a quick killing. They are built almost randomly, and even when there is a vague pretense of ‘commuter’ status (to Sligo????), they are to be found on badly drained sites, on flood plains, and in areas that, were they to be filled, would cause traffic disruption and strain on services.

My mistake was ironic, rather than amusing, but it makes an interesting parallel, as these estates have about as much to do with the indigenous population as the original ones planted all those years ago. They provided jobs, and now they don’t; they suggested prosperity, but now they decay; those who built them are going or gone; and it’s the local folk who are left with the consequences.

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