Irish landlords, that small band of men who once owned the greater part of the country, do not enjoy a good reputation here. Judged to have been rapacious and, still worse in the popular imagination, foreign, it cannot be denied that many of their number often put personal interest ahead of concern for the condition of tenants, with disastrous results following the onset of the potato blight in the mid-1840s. However, it would be wrong to tar all landlords with the same blackening brush, since there were a few of them who sought to improve circumstances on their property. Among this unusual group, none was more out of the ordinary than Joseph Henry Blake, third Lord Wallscourt, of Ardfry, County Galway.
The Blakes were one of the Tribes of Galway, fourteen merchant families who dominated life in the western city from the 13th century onwards. They liked to claim descent from Ap-Lake, one of the knight’s of King Arthur’s round table, but in fact they were originally called Caddell, the first of them coming to Ireland in the 12th century with Strongbow: in the early 14th century Richard Caddell, Sheriff of Connacht in 1303, was known as Niger or Black, from which the name Blake evolved.
Like others among the Galway Tribes, the Blakes soon began to acquire land in the surrounding area, a process that accelerated from the late 1500s onwards. Thus in May 1612 Robert Blake of Galway received a grant by letters patent from James I of Ballinacourt (later Wallscourt) and Ardfry, both in County Galway, as well as additional property in County Mayo. His eldest son Richard Blake, a lawyer by training, was knighted in 1624, served as Mayor of Galway 1627-28, and M.P. for the County of Galway in 1639 before becoming Speaker or Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Irish Confederation which sat at Kilkenny from 1647 to 1649. Although the Blakes subsequently lost their lands during the Cromwellian confiscations, they received them back after the Restoration and remained in possession thereafter, basing themselves at Ardfry which lies on the southern shores of Galway Bay.
Sir Richard Blake’s direct descendants died out in 1744 but a kinsman, Joseph Blake bought the estates from trustees and moved to Ardfry where around 1770 he built a house on the site of an old castle. The new property was long and low, at least nine bays wide and of two storeys over basement, with pyramidal pavilions at either end. Here in 1787 came the Hon Martha Herbert, wife of the rector of Cashel-on-Suir, County Tipperary, together with her daughter Dorothea (author of the celebrated Retrospections published a century after her death). On arrival they found ‘a large party of grandees’ whom Dorothea judged to be a ‘formidable set’ and were informed by their hostess that at Ardfry ‘they seldom or ever sat down to a meal with less than a hundred in family’, the latter term being used more loosely then than would now be the case.
Hitherto the Blakes had remained Roman Catholic but Joseph’s son, Joseph Henry Blake conformed to established church and was thus able to stand for election to the Irish parliament, to which he was elected in 1790. He retained his seat until the Act of Union a decade later and having voted in favour of this legislation was rewarded with a peerage, becoming Baron Wallscourt of Ardfry. However, his marriage to an heiress, Lady Louisa Bermingham, daughter of the first Earl of Louth, did not produce a son and so it was arranged that the title would devolve by special remainder to one of his nephews. Thus following his death in 1803 at the age of 37, Joseph Blake, son of the first Baron’s younger brother, became second Lord Wallscourt. The latter in turn dying in 1816 aged 19, his cousin Joseph Henry Blake (son of another of the first Baron’s brothers) became third Lord Wallscourt.
Although he had grown up at Ardfry where his father served as land agent, the new Lord Wallscourt had not expected to inherit the estate. At the time of his cousin’s death he was just eighteen and serving as a lieutenant in the army which he had joined after leaving Eton three years earlier. It is often stated that on coming into the title he immediately indulged in reckless spending but one must wonder how much there was to squander: Dorothea Herbert’s observations indicate that the late 18th century Blakes were already living beyond their means, and around 1795 more than 1,500 acres of the original estate (including the townland of Wallscourt) was offered for sale, while another parcel of land was also put on the market. What remained was some 2,834 statute acres (the greater part of it at Ardfry) yielding a notional annual rental of £3,200, although this always depended on the ability and preparedness of tenants to pay what was expected. Lord Wallscourt had financial obligations to meet regardless of actual revenue: various family members and retainers were entitled to an income for the duration of their respective lifetimes to an annual total of £800, and there was a further £7,000 owing, mostly to relatives. Thus the young peer would have found he had little enough to fritter away, especially after 1820 when creditors had the estate placed in trust so as to maximise income and pay off all debts. Under the new arrangement Lord Wallscourt was permitted a yearly allowance of £500.
Thankfully a couple of years later he married a 17-year old English heiress, Elizabeth Lock who was beautiful as well as rich and who would be painted by a family friend, Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1825: this portrait hung in Ardfry until the last century. That same year she and her husband, who had now regained control of his estate, came to look at Ardfry which had been sadly neglected and required extensive renovation. ‘The woods and the walks are certainly very pretty,’ Lady Wallscourt wrote to her mother, ‘and some of the trees very old and remind me of those poor dear old woods at Norbury, but the house is even in a worse state than I had expected, and you know I was not prepared to find grand chose. The building at a distance looks very well and is very handsome, but it seems to me impossible anything can be done to it. There is so much to do, repairing and building, to make it all inhabitable, that I am sure Wallscourt will not attempt it.’ Contrary to expectations, her husband did undertake the necessary work and by the end of the following year, after the building had been given some of the gothic flourishes it retains to this day, the couple moved in with their young children, the occasion marked by a ball given for the servants and tenants. At this event, after some initial hesitancy on the part of the guests, ‘the great decorum and silence gave place to the most violent noise and rioting as they grew merrier, and they danced incessantly to a piper till five. They had enormous suppers of a whole sheep and two or three rounds of beef, and all went home mad drunk with drinking Henry’s health in “the cratur”, as they call whisky.’ Lady Wallscourt soon retired upstairs and allowed the nurse in charge of the children to join the throng where she became ‘quite the life of the party…springing and capering about in a most ludicrous way.’
And now let us touch briefly on efforts by Lord Wallscourt to improve the circumstances of his tenants. When travelling about Europe as a young man and through meeting sundry liberal thinkers of the period, he had become impressed by ‘some of the theories, then much debated, for lifting the labourer into the position of a partner with the capitalist.’ Following his return to Ireland, in 1831 he was interested to hear how the County Clare landlord and founder of the Hibernian Philanthropic Society John Scott Vandeleur had invited Manchester-born journalist and proto-socialist Edward Thomas Craig to establish a co-operative community on his own estate at Ralahine. This was duly visited by Lord Wallscourt who found much to engage him and having sent his overseer to study the system in more detail he set aside 100 acres at Ardfry for his own socialist experiment. Even if begun on a smaller scale, the scheme fared better and lasted longer than that at Ralahine (which Vandeleur, who was addicted to gambling, managed to lose in a bet in 1833, after which he fled to America leaving his poor former tenants to fend for themselves against unmerciless creditors).
Lord Wallscourt also embarked on other philanthropic enterprises seeking to establish both a national school and an agricultural school as well as sponsoring the education of a number of boys in England and even as far away as Switzerland. He sought to improve the living conditions of tenants, building a two-storey slate-roofed house built as a model to replace the existing thatched cabins of the area. However it proved impossible to find anyone prepared to move into the new property, tenants apparently explaining ‘it would be mighty cold, and my Lord would be expecting me to keep it too clean.’ Eventually after standing empty for five years, a newly-wed couple took the place, on the grounds that it was ‘better than nothing at all.’
During the terrible years of the famine, Lord Wallscourt worked to ensure the well-being of his own tenants, and those on other estates in the area. He sat on a number of relief committees and on the Galway Board of Guardians, where he was critical of the operation of the poor law system and of his fellow guardians, who, he said, seemed ‘little disposed to transact the business for the discharge of which they were elected’. In 1847 he actively associated himself for the first time with the campaign for tenant rights and employed the distinguished agriculturalist Thomas Skilling (later first Professor of Agriculture at Queen’s University, Galway) to create a new tillage project employing labourers and tenants at Ardfry. He even started to establish an agricultural college on the estate.
One suspects that Lord Wallscourt, however well-intentioned, did not tolerate opposition from his tenants or indeed from anyone else. Evidence for this was provided by his wife when she sought a divorce in 1846 ‘by reason of his cruelty and adultery,’ citing several instances when her husband had assaulted her. He was known to be a man of considerable strength and when young had been a keen boxer (more peculiarly he liked to walk about his house wearing no clothes: eventually Lady Wallscourt persuaded him carry a cowbell in his hand when nude so maidservants had notice of his imminent arrival). The couple suffered the loss of their two elder sons, and it was only during a brief rapprochement in late 1840 that an eventual heir was conceived. It may be that Lady Wallscourt did not care for her husband’s humanitarian enterprises. What, one wonders, must she have made for the welcome he gave to the 1848 Paris insurrection that led to the final overthrow of the French monarchy: he even presided at a celebratory public rally in Dublin. The following year he visited Paris with his young son and while there died after contracting cholera.
His estranged wife now regained control, since the boy Erroll Augustus Blake was then aged only seven. The co-operative projects at Ardfry were abandoned and more familiar methods of estate management re-instated. On the other hand, upon reaching maturity the fourth Lord Wallscourt followed the parental example and undertook diverse improvements, most notably the establishment of an oyster fishery in Galway Bay which provided local employment. In other respects however, he could not be compared with his father, being so small in stature that he was known in the vicinity as ‘the lordeen’: Nationalist politician T.P. O’Connor later remembered meeting ‘a tiny little man, sad, deprecatory, almost timid in manner.’ This may have been because he was oppressed by money worries, especially after his second marriage. His new wife turned out to be a hopeless gambler: in the early years of the last century the lead was stripped from Ardfry’s roof to pay her debts and the contents – including that lovely portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence – sold. Nor did the Wallscourt peerage survive much longer: the fourth lord was succeeded in 1918 by his only son who died without children just two years later.
And so we see Ardfry as it stands today, a shell of a monument to an abandoned social and agricultural experiment. Who knows what might yet have happened here had the third Lord Wallscourt not died in Paris in 1849, and what example it might have given to other landlords in Ireland. The shame is that his efforts to improve the lives of the country’s tenants are today so little known, and the estate on which he carried out his endeavours has been allowed to fall into such disrepair, the trees and hedges cut down, the walls tumbled, the outbuildings and estate cottages gone or, the the main house, little more than four walls. Dorothea Herbert called Ardfry ‘a beautiful place’ and Griffith’s Valuation of 1857 refers to a ‘beautiful and picturesque demesne, well planted with forest and ornamental timber.’ There’s little enough beauty here now.
For more information on the third Lord Wallscourt, I recommend John Cunningham’s truly excellent essay (to which I am much indebted) ‘Lord Wallscourt of Ardfry (1797-1849)’ in Vol. LVII (2005) of the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society.