Shirley Estate's lasting legacy

The Shirley estate just outside Carrickmacross was the largest estate in the county covering some 26,386 acres. We take a look at the origins of the estate and the Shirley's influence on the locality.

Carrickmacross came into existence as a plantation town in what was known as the Barony of Farney. Queen Elizabeth I gave the Barony of Farney to the First Earl of Essex, Walter Devereaux in 1576.

He planned to 'plant' the area with settlers and build a walled town in Donaghmoyne, but he died the following year, before his plans came to fruition. His successor, Robert Devereaux, the second Earl of Essex, was a minor aged 10 on his inheritance and the estate was put into the hands of trustees.
In 1599, Robert was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He set about putting down a rebellion in Ulster but achieved little. His failure saw him fall from grace with the English monarch and resulted in his execution in 1600 for treason. Upon his execution, the estate was forfeited to the Crown.

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died and was replaced on the throne by James I. He returned the estate to the third Earl of Essex (also Robert) in 1606. Much of Farney had been invaded by the Gaelic chief MacColla McMahon going back to 1594. On the reinstatement of the third Earl of Essex, McMahon was allowed to lease the land from its official owner. This arrangement lasted until 1620. The estate remained in the Essex family until 1646 when the third Earl died intestate.

From 1646 until 1692 the estate underwent several partitions. Firstly it was divided in half between the third Earl's co-heirs, the Marquis of Hertford and Sir Robert Shirley.

Sir Robert Shirley died in 1656, while imprisoned in the Tower of London for supporting the Royalist cause in the English civil war. His first son and heir, Sir Seymour Shirley inherited the estate and on his death in 1667, the estate passed to his brother Sir Robert Shirley

In 1677 Sir Robert entered the House of Lords, as Baron Ferrers of Chartley and was later promoted to Earl Ferrers and Viscount Tamworth in 1711. In 1692 the estate underwent another division which came out of an agreement between the heirs of the two daughters of the second Earl of Essex.

Earl Ferrers, the grandson of Lady Dorothy inherited her share and Thomas Thynne, first Viscount Weymouth inherited the share of Lady Frances. The division was uneven and favoured Weymouth but he behaved generously in order to rectify the injustice to Ferrers.

Earl Ferrers died in 1711 and his estate was divided in equal parts between his four sons, Robert, George, Sewallis and John Shirley. Of the four brothers only George survived, and the whole estate passed to him. He was the grandfather of Horatio, Henry and Evelyn John Shirley, the 19th century owners of the estate.

The Shirleys were absentee landlords and spent most of their time in Ettington in Warwickshire. In 1750, they built a house near Carrickmacross for their occasional visits, but it wasn't until 1826 that Evelyn John Shirley laid the foundations of a mansion on the banks of Lough Fea.

This house remains today. It was built entirely of free stone found on the estate and was constructed in the manner of a college. The ground floor holds a great hall, chapel and the principal living rooms.
At the end of the 19th century the estate had approximately 25,000 acres but much of this land had to be sold off due to the Land Acts before the First World War. The estate now has less than 1,000 acres comprising grass and woodlands.

In 1904 when the present Major Shirley's grandfather died, his father moved from the family home at Ettington Park to Carrickmacross. Between 1904 and 1977 Major Shirley's father and his family lived there permanently.

In 1977 the family moved to the Isle of Man and thus reverted to its 19th century role of absenteeism. However, since Major Shirley and his sons were brought up on the estate, they have a great affinity with the area and visit regularly.

The most famous of the Shirleys was Evelyn Philip, the historian, antiquarian and Member of Parliament. He documented much of the information about the Shirley family and the estate. He also documented a rich vein of information about the county of Monaghan, with particular emphasis on its nobility and gentry.

His 'Antiquarian Compilations', Farney Bubble Books and genealogical and historical papers offer an important social commentary of the time.

As predominantly absentee landlords, the Shirleys hired a succession of agents to oversee the estate of their behalf. In many cases these agents carved out their own little bit of local history.

Sandy Mitchell was the agent between 1829 and 1843 and has been described as the most tyrannical estate agent that the people of Farney had ever known. One taking up the appointment, he surveyed the estate and increased rents by as much as 30 per cent. He even imposed a rent of between £4 and £8 per acre for bog land that had been free since time immemorial.

Mitchell died of apoplexy while attending the Spring Assizes in Monaghan in 1843. When the news of his 'sad parting' spread, bonfires were lit on every hilltop to celebrate the death of the "unscrupulous monster".

Mitchell's successor, William Steuart Trench alternated between the Bath and Shirley estates in County Monaghan in the 1840s and 1850s. He was the instigator of the assisted emigration schemes, where the rent realising commodities of the farmer were sold at very low prices. This made it almost impossible to pay the increased rent.

In 1843, the tenants petitioned the landlord for a reduction in rent. Shirley agreed to meet them in the rent office in Carrickmacross on Monday, April 3, but changed his mind at the last moment.
He left Trench to face the tenants with the bad news that there would be no reduction in rent. Trench made the matter worse by announcing that he would collect the rents at bayonet point if necessary.
On hearing the news the tenants rushed towards Trench and carried him off to Lough Fea to seek out Shirley. The landlord wasn't at Lough Fea, rather watching proceedings from Shirley House opposite the rent office.

A local Priest, Father Keelaghan came to Trench's rescue and it took all of his powers of persuasion to disperse the crowd.

Not all of the memories attached to the Shirley estate are negative. In 1846 the Bath and Shirley Lace Schools were established in Carrickmacross. Tristan Kennedy, who managed the Bath estate, obtained a Privy Council grant of £100 to assist in building seven lace-making schools on the estate.
Captain Morant the agent of the Shirley estate gave the use of a vacant house in the town as central school from which designs, instructions and orders for work were sent out to the other seven schools.
Significantly this initiative was undertaken during the Great Famine and proved to be an important source of income for the workers, at a time when the potato crop failed all over Ireland.

For more than 450 years the Shirley name has been synonymous with County Monaghan, most especially in the hinterland of Carrickmacross. Throughout the period, the Shirley family has played a significant role in the political, social and cultural landscape of the region and will be forever engrained in the history of the county.

Taken from Monaghan's Match
December 2002