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.
Malcomson notes that Shane Leslie’s preface to his 1954 play Lord Mulroy’s Ghost claims Leitrim flirted with Isaac Butt’s Home Rule movement but gives no source. John Joseph Dunne (1837-1910), a Clongowes-educated adventurer from a small Offaly Catholic gentry family, was Butt’s secretary for a time. [For a brief life of Dunne, see The Clongownian volume V, no.3 (June 1910) p.341.] In 1896 he published (as ‘H-R-N’) Here And There Memories, a badly-organised and anecdotal book of recollections, with interesting insights. On pp147-148 Dunne writes:
I knew Lord Leitrim well, and do not believe half the infamies attributed to him. He certainly lived a full century too late, but had he been, say, an Irish leader a century ago, that unfortunate country’s story might have to be written in other fashion than it can be written now.
[Dunne endorses Malcomson’s point that Leitrim’s resentment of Dublin Castle and belief that landlords should control local administration resembled the views of eighteenth-century “Patriot” aristocrats.]
He offered me his agency once, which, of course, I would not accept, unless for a very handsome consideration, and not at all unless I had a free hand to change the policy which oppressed his tenantry. My outspoken refusal drew from him some flattering words…
Dunne recalls meeting Leitrim “a summer or two before he was shot” and sharing a Great Western Railway carriage with him to Mullingar:
About a month before I had lent him two books, Dr Sigerson on land tenures and Isaac Butt’s monumental (yet, alas! now unconsidered) text-book on the Irish land question. To Mullingar we talked of nothing else. When we parted there he said, ‘Well, it is but fair to say that fellow Butt has changed my views, but it is too late now for me to change my hand. For that I only wish I were young.’ I never saw him alive after. I told Butt, who was immensely pleased. Lord Leitrim wrote him a note. I never saw it, but it meant ‘opening a way’, and confirmed my first view that ‘that fellow Butt’ was meant not petulantly, but kindly. I do not know if Butt replied, but he soon let me know that the matter was off, owing to some proceedings at petty sessions against a tenant…
Was Dunne Leslie’s source? It was certainly characteristic of the Wicked Earl to assert his will in a petty quarrel, regardless of consequences.
Patrick Maume is a researcher with the Dictionary of Irish Biography.