Ireland in the early 1700s was under rule by the English. Catholics could not have churches or own land. Nor could they go to school. And poets were not permitted to write about Ireland. So it is hard to imagine a landlord for the English who was a hero to the very people from whom he collected rents. Yet he did indeed exist.
"His tenants, numbering about four thousand, assemble at night, smocked, with their faces blackened so as to escape recognition, going where directed by Mahony, and being ready at all times to answer his expectations. In consequence of this, none dare execute any judicial orders against them or Mahony himself. Hearth-money collectors and other civil officers are in danger of their lives (Kerry Arch. Mag., 1917)."
An English historian wrote the following. "The great peninsulas of Dunkerron and Iveragh were held in the earlier part of the eighteenth century, on a lease renewable forever, by Daniel Mahony of Dunloe Castle, the great and terrible Catholic who ruled Kerry with his four thousand followers. The English Viceroy might be supreme in Dublin Castle, but Daniel Mahony was sovereign in Kerry."1
He was even liked by the English in the Killarney area, with some of whom he was connected by marriage. Canon John O'Mahony in his History of the O'Mahony Septs said Daniel's success can only be explained by his, "possessing an exceptional force of character."2 And, we might add, considerable business and political savvy.
The Castle at the Fort of the river Loe was built by the Fitzgeralds in 1215 but came into possession of the O'Sullivans in 1261, probably as a spoil of war. It was almost completely destroyed during the Desmond Rebellion in 1570. Only three walls of the flanking tower were left standing.
The Castle then passed from the O'Sullivans to one John Mahony by virtue of his having married Gillen O'Sullivan, his second wife. When John died in 1706 he left two sons, Daniel and Denis, by his first wife Honora, and three sons by his second wife Gillen. But he bequeathed his wealth only to the sons of his first marriage: Daniel got Dunloe and Denis got Dromore Castle near Kenmare. The sons of the second marriage inherited little even though their mother was the reason their step-father acquired Dunloe.
Daniel may have carefully planned his rise to power. Large grants of confiscated Irish land had been given to Englishmen who cared little about the properties other than the rents they generated. Over time and by slow operations he extended his control by obtaining so-called middle interests from absentee landlords who would pay him a fee out of the rents he collected for them. His business grew to the point where he paid them £1500 a year, equivalent to something like £450,000 in today's money. His commissions must have amounted to quite a bit.
Once established, he applied to the English government occupying Dublin for permission to keep arms by reason of the fact that he had constantly to be traveling about the country for the collection of rents. He was in danger of being robbed by Tories and Rapparees who scoured the country and who knew that he frequently carried large sums of money. He was granted permission. After all, the rental cash must flow.
But then, claiming he had the right to arm his assistants because of his own right to bear arms, he built up an informal army.
As time went on, Daniel continued to disrupt the operations of his competitors. One of them, a Maurice Kennedy, had "...dispossessed an old pub proprietor McSweeney. A request went forth to Dunloe and all the power of its redoubtable chieftain was brought to bear. Kennedy, in anger, drew up a petition to the English government in Dublin signed only, "from an unknown friend". The unsigned appeal read as follows.3
But no action was taken by the English authorities! Kennedy, ever more angered, went round and gathered signatures. The signed appeal had no effect either. But were the English afraid of him? Let us walk Daniel's political tightrope and see if we can put these facts in balance.
1. It was not the purpose of his 'army' to re-establish Irish rule or the Catholic religion.
2. They never seized any land.
3. His interventions were sometimes just roars at competitor rent collectors who were operating too near his territory.
Of course, there was the matter of the Catholics practicing their illegal religion. But to intervene solely because of religion smight cause a disruption in the rental cash flow. Only twenty years earlier in America, the English had tried to outlaw certain religions, and in 1690 their boy Edmond Andros was overthrown by a farmer army in Boston. Status quo ante was probably best, all things considered. By collecting and delivering the rents he was, in effect, administrating the area for the English. It was said of him that he seemed little worried about the English.
In addition he may have prevented much harm to the commoners. Church records go back to 1785 in Killarney, earlier than any other parish in Kerry. His own family benefited greatly from preservation of genealogical records. Daniel's ancestors and descendants can trace their lineage back to 420 A.D.
Daniel of Dunloe died in 1747. Unfortunately for the Killarney commoners around the Castle, his sons were no replacement for him. He may have said as much when he bequeathed his velvet breeches to his daughter Joanna who he said was, "the only person in the Barony worthy to wear them."4
1. Froude James Anthony:
The English in Ireland ; London 1887 (2nd ed.), vol 1, pp. 501, 504, 532.
Since my article in the previous issue,1 material has been found that contributes considerably to the unfolding story of Daniel Mahony of Dunloe Castle, Killarney.2 He was "by all accounts one of the most remarkable personages"3,4 in the history of County Kerry. And beyond.
Two important questions were not answered in the previous article. What was the true purpose of his farmer army who went about by day disguised as women, and at night in large gangs with blacked faces and white shirts? And why did "four thousand people under him" so willingly follow him as leader? He was a representative of their landlords and collected rents from them. Middlemen were generally despised, but apparently Daniel of Dunloe was a major exception to the rule.
In order to answer these questions we need to go back to the 1600's, and in so doing we will learn something about the politics of the times. England's "surrender and regrant" policy4 allowed the Irish chieftains to remain in their castles provided they paid rent and collected same from their countrymen. The chieftains once the equivalent of kings, were reduced to feudal proprietors, mere middlemen for absentee English landlords.
Daniel's father John Mahony of Dunloe Castle was one such middleman. Another was Richard Orpen. Along with collecting the rents, their work involved "defending all manner of lawsuits concerning the title or otherwise." Apparently the various sublettors were in constant dispute over who controlled what. "Otherwise" likely included eviction of unfortunate tenants. But the absentees experienced little bother, and "so long as rents were regularly paid, asked no questions and troubled themselves with no responsibilities."
Wealth often begets worry, however. Even in the early 1700's Killarney was a popular tourist town. Property values were rising, but the landlords could not sell their properties because they were tied up in long-term leases. Their solution was to employ solicitors and accountants to sort through the leases to find ways to void them. While at it, they were also to make sure that all monies due the absentees were indeed being delivered. These types were known as Protestant Discoverers, thus named because there was one particularly vicious way to void the leases. The Penal Laws imposed by England prohibited Catholic acquisition of new property as part of its policy of containment. Catholics were required to subdivide their existing land with each new generation.
As the English containment policy tightened the noose, farmers increasingly cultivated the potato because of its ability to be productive in small areas. A century later, a few million farmers were subsisting on very small plots. Finally, in the summer of 1846, the ever-present phytophtora infestans overcame the over-crowded the weakened potato crops. More than a million died in the Irish Holocaust. The population of Co. Kerry before the Great Famine was twice what it is even now.
Given the ongoing brutality of the politics of Penal Laws and potatoes, how could John Mahony have controlled any land? The answer may be that because of their hands-off policy the absentee landlords depended heavily on their middlemen who had the major advantage of being on the spot; so it should be of no surprise that Orpen and Mahony would eventually obtain their own leases and sublet to other middlemen as a way of becoming powerful themselves. Money and power always need to trickle down a hierarchy.
The new material tells us that leases for a considerable area stretching from Killarney to Kenmare were acquired from Lord Henry Petty in Orpen's name. Orpen and Mahony then proceeded to create other middlemen down a hierarchy "by leases similar in form to those they themselves held, and it is noticeable that in all these leases there was no mention of the superior landlord."2 So much for petty details.
When John Mahony died in 1706 Daniel continued in his father's footsteps, but in such a way that he stood out among middlemen. He managed to legally arm himself and a number of his countrymen claiming he was in constant danger of being robbed of the rents. It was not long before he had formed a band of 80 armed assistants. Eventually, according to a noted English historian, he "made himself great and powerful" and "suppressed all his neighbors, especially those who would not humble themselves before him." What Mahony really did was, in effect, recapture Kerry from the occupier.
We may now return to the questions raised about the purpose and loyalty of the army. Its very existence (A) discouraged action by the English even though they knew that Daniel was not legally leasing the lands. Such action would threaten the rental cash flow inasmuch as the army consisted of the very tenants paying the rents. (B) It dampened the enthusiasm of collectors of quit rents (see below); and (C) it provided the power necessary to thwart enforcement of the Penal Laws. As for men disguised as women, they may have been spies keeping watch on the comings and goings of quit-rent collectors and discovers such as the aforementioned Maurice Kennedy.
This particular gentleman was, "sent down to Killarney to make enquiries. The ill-advised Maurice had made his notes; had discovered, as he conceived, distinct delinquency, and had collected evidence to prove it. Members of the army burst rudely into his lodging, dragged him from his bed, beat him, plundered him of the the papers which were to bring Mahony to justice, and left him to find his way out of the country a sadder and wiser man."6
Our noted historian failed to note Kennedy's true motivation for his voyage of discovery and the reasons for his welcoming reception. Kennedy held the post of Quit Rent Collector in Kerry, meaning that he collected taxes from Catholics but not from Protestants. The quit rents were an injustice that Mahony and his men were particularly devoted to fighting. To make matters worse for himself, Kennedy wanted the discovered lands. He had gone to court, got the existing leases declared void, and then bought the lands at an auction for a nice price. Then he proceeded to evict various tenants from his new six-hundred acres. Especially galling was his eviction of an elderly tenant who had also bid for the property, and at a higher price at that.5 As we saw, Kennedy had twice petitioned the English to send troops to teach Mahony and his men a lesson, but no action was ever forthcoming. Kennedy eventually left the area.
A mystery remains as to why Daniel's men met in large groups at night with blacked faces and white smocks. We might speculate that they were practicing combat strategies and tactics. There was always the possibility of the English coming to Kerry, and there was all along a garrison of British troops in nearby Ross Castle.
As for the army's loyalty, there is nothing in the materials found so far that indicated Mahony or his men acted in any other way than to right wrongs. There is nothing in the reports of deaths or severe bodily harm by their hands. True, he collected rents from his men. They must have decided that, all things considered, Daniel was worthy of their loyalty.
The absentees apparently considered all things too. The Orpen family, themselves Protestants, eventually lost control of their lands. But such was not Daniel of Dunloe's fate. At the very "midnight of the Penal Laws,"3 he a Catholic, was granted renewal of his leases. Wrote the landlord, "Mr. Orpen however conscious of the roguery in which he was a principle instrument, surrendered his lease. Mahony, who had the Iveragh lot, stood out, and came by different accidents to stand under different circumstances. After taking the best advice I could, to avoid litigation and disturbance, I renewed for the Iveragh tenants on account of the difference of circumstance."2 He had done it again!
Daniel of Dunloe seems to have been a remarkable combination of wisdom, wile, and courage. He could have at any time converted to Protestantism as did many of the ex-chieftains. Instead he "applied his resources systematically to thwart execution of the Penal Laws."3 Through "exceptional force of character"—and prompt remittance of rents—the English never confronted him.
1. Mahony, D., "Daniel of
Dunloe". Kerry Magazine, (Kerry Arch. & Hist. Soc.), 6 , 1995, pp.
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