Archive for February 16th, 2010

A glimpse of the Wicked Earl

16 February 2010

Contributed by Patrick Maume

When historians discuss whether nineteenth-century Irish landlords were really ‘bad’, William Sydney Clements, third earl of Leitrim (1806-78, succeeded 1854, shot 2 April 1878) is a leading exhibit for the prosecution.   His management of his Leitrim and Donegal estates was authoritarian; he was disliked even by police and Dublin Castle officials, with whom he constantly quarrelled; relatives called him insane.  It is widely believed that he coerced tenants’ daughters sexually by threatening evictions; his killers are Donegal folk-heroes.

Not all aspects of this portrayal are universally accepted, but Virtues Of A Wicked Earl, Dr. Anthony Malcomson’s recent biography, is a daring attempt at rehabilitation.   Malcomson argues that Leitrim was an efficient rationaliser of an indebted and mismanaged estate, and the image of Leitrim as sexual predator was fabricated by tenant and nationalist enemies. Leitrim’s relatives’ accusations of insanity derive from a will dispute; clashes with police derived from old-fashioned belief that local administration should be controlled by landlords rather than state officials.

This interpretation is certain to be contested; the dry wit Malcomson celebrates as one of Leitrim’s attractive characteristics was described by contemporary critics as having a sadistic edge.   This post, however, offers to fill a little gap in Dr. Malcomson’s portrait. Read More