Landlordism in Erris in Co. Mayo

Ancient Erris was a region divided by tribal groups known as tuatha. In Erris, the two tribes were known as the Damnonii, and the tribe of Belgae, referred to in the ancient histories as Gamanradaii. Written records of this period are few and far between, though it is believed that some Scottish clans were thought to be involved in the tribal rivalry. Early annals state that Fiachrian O'Caithnaidh was the chief of the Belgae in the late 1100's, and that he was the Lord of Erris well into the next century.

The clan of O'Caithnaidh lost power to the O'Dowd clan in the next century, and by the 1380's the Barrett family had seized power over much of the Erris region. Throughout the next two hundred years, the number of native Gaelic leaders fell as the influence of colonisation was felt, especially in the Mullet Peninsula, a desirable farming area.

Little is known of the inter-tribal struggles until the late 1500's, when the Barony of Invermore, by then in the possession of the Barretts and the Bourkes, is mentioned in records. Sir Edmund Barrett was a renowned landlord, especially after he had been knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for services to the crown. The Barrett's power increased further when they received more lands in Erris from King James I, in appreciation for their loyalty to the monarch.

In the latter sixteenth century, a large number of these estates were eventually bought by a lawyer, Dermot Cormack. In 1641, a descendant of his was noted to have possession of a large tract of north eastern Erris. Throughout the mid 1600's, much of this land changed hands, often due to the intervention of the new monarch, Charles II. However, these changes were as nothing in comparison to the transformation to be brought about by the coming of Oliver Cromwell.

As Cromwell and his forces drove people from the land, especially from the north, their destination often proved to be Connacht, and frequently Erris. The wild and infertile land of Erris was unsuitable for supporting an increasing population, and the people consequently suffered as a result. Cromwell planned to allot a limited amount of land to selected Catholics, often in proportion to their involvement in the wars of preceding years. Local landowners met in 1635 to survey the estates of land in each barony. As a result of this, they would have the information they needed regarding family settlements, mortgages, sales, and purchases.

This survey inadvertently provided a series of maps and a comprehensive record, which was unheard of before this time. They had intended to assign certain baronies to transplanters from outside Connacht, or even from outside the country. The final records in Cromwells' time of influence indicate the primary owner of Erris to be the royalist, the Earl of Ormond, although the land had officially been appropriated from him at an earlier time.

The restoration of the monarchy with Charles II ensured the future uncertainty of all previous land arrangements. He restored to Catholics, much of the land which had been seized by the Cromwellians. The parish of Kilmore–Erris was given to Sir Robert Viner, a goldsmith from London to whom Charles owed money. Viner quickly sold the land on to Sir James Shaen, Surveyor General of Ireland, and whose family had links with Erris dating back to Queen Elizabeth I. Sir James paid little attention to his new property, and when he died in 1695, he left it to his son, Sir Arthur Shaen.

Arthur was to show greater interest in his new aquisition, and seemed determined to turn Erris into an English colony. He brought over a vicar for the parish, and then gave most of the good land to more Englishmen at a nominal rent. With very few exceptions, he appeared to lease the majority of the properties to non-locals, and in fact, many native inhabitants were evicted to make way for the incomers. Many of the local inhabitants were provoked into rebellion, although this died out after several years.

Sir Arthur eventually became High Sheriff of Mayo, and was to live in Shanaghy on the Mullet Peninsula until his death in 1725. He had no son as an heir, and therefore left his estate to his two daughters, Frances and Susannach. In 1738, Frances married John Bingham from Newport, while Susannach wed Henry Boyle Carter from County Kildare in 1750. The Bingham family moved to the Mullet in the late 1790's, and were to build a castle in the early part of the nineteenth century.

The names of Bingam and Carter were to dominate land ownership in the Erris region, and indeed much of Mayo, over the following two hundred years. The land was to slowly return to the native population and in 1955 the people of Belmullet finally bought the town back from a Mr. Carter, a resident of London. The ownership of some land in the Erris region is still disputed to this day.

Sources:

  • Report of the Erris Survey – A Community Response Project 1994

  • When the Sun Sets – Fr. Sean Noone