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Rough Justice

Cormac Ó Gráda

Virtues of a Wicked Earl: the Life and Legend of William Sydney Clements, 3rd Earl of Leitrim (1806-78), APW Malcolmson, Four Courts Press, 406 pp, €65, ISBN: 978-1846821219



Anthony Malcolmson produces erudite books almost as fast as Joseph Haydn produced symphonies or Donizetti bel canto operas. Recent notable accomplishments include his massive calendar of the Rosse papers in Birr Castle for the Irish Manuscripts Commission (2008), highly rated biographical studies of Nathaniel Clements (2005) and Archbishop Charles Agar (2002), and the second edition of his amazing The Pursuit of the Heiress (2006). Malcolmson is famous for being the historian of the Anglo-Irish pre-Union hoi oligoi, their achievements, their culture, their habitations, their dynastic and political rivalries, and [not least] their eccentricities. This is his first venture deep into the nineteenth century, but his quarry is still an inhabitant of the Big House.

It is sometimes said that the only true heroes are flawed heroes. Does the same apply to villains? Until Malcolmson’s book, few would have denied that William Sydney Clements, the Third Earl of Leitrim, was a villain. And Malcolmson would not deny that in his own day the Third Earl of Leitrim was widely reviled. His father, the Second Earl, had been a negligent absentee. He was caricatured as such by Trollope in The McDermotts of Ballycloran (1847) in his own day, and is so commemorated in north Donegal ballads of a much later era. The Third Earl would prove to be highhanded and meddlesome by comparison, so much so that for a long time before his brutal murder there was a sense of foreboding wherever his writ ran, but especially in north Donegal. According to one not unfriendly witness, "when he came to his cottage in Fanad a thrill of terror ran through his tenants … as evictions always followed his visits".(1) The unease and unpopularity that Leitrim provoked among the common people—never mind many of his own class—was at its height just before he was shot and bludgeoned to death on a north Donegal roadside on the morning of April 2nd, 1878.

Nor, by and large, has history hitherto been very kind to the Third Earl. Even historians not noted for their anti-landlord stance single him out for rebuke. To Bill Vaughan he was "quarrelsome, obsessive", and "a truculent meddler", to Peter Somerville-Large he was "an embarrassment to his peers". David Dickson and Breandán Mac Suibhne, editors of a masterly Donegal memoir in which the Third Earl is a central part of the story, are equally forthright, but attribute some of his bizarre and inflammatory actions over more than two decades to mental instability.(2)

Folklore - voluminous and by no means all unreliable - and literature have also been unkind. When James Joyce published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man nearly four decades after Leitrim’s death he assumed that readers would still understand his derogatory reference to Cardinal Logue as "Lord Leitrim’s coachman"; the cardinal’s father having been present, albeit probably not with intent, at the killing. And Lord Mulroy, based on the Third Earl, was the villain of Shane Leslie’s obscure play Lord Mulroy’s Ghost (1954), about which Malcolmson has interesting things to say.(3) Brian Friel’s latest work, The Home Place (2005), begins with one landlord, Lord Gore, returning home from the funeral of another, the tyrannical Lord Lifford - our Lord Leitrim - who had been killed by his own tenants. Note how all of these works concentrate on Leitrim’s death rather than his life.

Anthony Malcolmson does not beat about the bush: he is unabashedly partisan; he dares to speak up for Lord Leitrim, and he dismisses or thrashes his enemies, high and low, with gusto. Given the Wicked Earl’s previous reputation, some readers will view this "warts and all" portrait as amounting to canonisation. The very title hints at Leitrim’s many faults, and yet his portrait on the dust-jacket is framed by a garland or wreath. Indeed Malcolmson is such a persuasive defender of his hero that it seems necessary to spend a little time defending an old orthodoxy about him before a new orthodoxy sweeps all before it.

The big question is what drove a group of his tenants to kill an elderly, white-haired, and lame man? One of the great virtues of Malcolmson’s account is that it provides the raw material and leaves room for different interpretations. His own view is that Leitrim did nothing to deserve his fate. Others would counter—and there is evidence in this book to support their case – that he ignored the unwritten but widely observed rule(4) that landlords should evict only for the non-payment of rent; Malcolmson concedes that Leitrim evicted, though he suggests not as much as alleged. At the time of his death, there were "not more than 10 or 12 notices to quit out" on Leitrim’s Donegal estate, but they had been served on tenants who refused to pay for seaweed. Leitrim moreover increased rents much more than neighbouring landlords or landlords in general, and his tenants were well aware of that. Part of the reason his rents rose so much in Donegal is that the Earl - unusually for landlords in that part of Ireland - refused to recognise tenant right - which, of course, his tenants, especially in Donegal, resented. In time, one would have expected rents on Leitrim’s land to be on a par with those charged on land of similar quality on neighbouring estates; but one way of dealing with such a disequilibrium more quickly was through violence.

Leitrim’s tenants also resented his bullying manner, and the threat of eviction that hung over anyone who disagreed with him. He loved to lord it over his estate, as the following account by a young schoolteacher in Fanad makes plain.

I was in good time but had to wait at the outer gate which was in charge of a number of bailiffs. Several others who were summoned were waiting there too. When a person was wanted, he was taken away by two bailiffs who in a similar manner brought him back. At length my turn came, and I was marched off like a prisoner. I had to pass through several gates, all occupied by bailiffs and other officials, until at length I was ushered into a room where His Lordship was sitting at a table.(5)

These bailiffs, who doubled up as his spies and heavies, left his tenants in a state of constant fear, the effect of which was "to check all enterprise and improvement of any kind"(6).

Moreover, for those who were not afraid of him Leitrim often cut a somewhat anachronistic(7) and ridiculous figure. In the House of Lords in 1870 Lord Lichfield provoked him with the quip that "the noble Earl was in the habit of printing notices to quit on the back of his rent receipts". Leitrim’s sporadic performances in the House of Lords - on which Malcolmson has interesting things to say – were often poorly judged and usually either self-serving or connected with one or other of his obscure ongoing feuds.

Malcolmson also gives an account of the losing battle Leitrim fought against tenant right and relates how some of his more resourceful tenants ran rings around him after the passing of the 1870 Land Act. After one evicted tenant, a neighbour of his eventual killers, won a generous award from the courts, others began to "put themselves in the way of being evicted" and winning huge awards on the basis of "only a rood of land, or for that matter a hut cut out of a cleft of the rock".

Leitrim was fond of money: in his office at Lough Rynn he was Midas in his counting house. Malcolmson’s book reveals how wealthy he had become by the time of his death. He took over an encumbered estate and debts of about £55,000. At his death his gross rental income was about £30,000, fifty per cent higher than when he took over, and he had accumulated capital of £180,000 in bonds and cash. In today’s terms that is roughly €20 to €25 million. Most of this fortune he had extracted from an impoverished tenantry.

Leitrim is most famous for his violent death on the eve of the Land War. It was not the first time someone tried to kill him; the police worried about his safety, and in 1863 Punch commented that "The noble Earl of Leitrim, being an Irish landlord, has of course been shot at." Interestingly, Bill Vaughan, in his classic study of post-famine landlordism, notes that between the early 1850s and the Land War only one landlord of the first rank was assassinated in Ireland. And that "one landlord" is of course the Earl.

The uniqueness of Leitrim’s killing is striking. One still senses, even after reading Malcolmson’s brilliant, enthralling and important case for the defence, that it took an exceptionally unpleasant landlord to meet his end in this way. One is reminded of the killing of Denis Mahon three decades earlier at the height of the Famine. It was precisely because other landlords did not behave like Leitrim that the post-Famine decades were relatively tranquil in rural Ireland.

Comments about the Third Earl nearly always begin and end with his death, but Anthony Malcolmson offers the first comprehensive, rounded biography of this awkward customer. Malcolmson’s bottom line, based on his exhaustive reading of the sources, is that Leitrim was difficult rather than wicked. He argues that, for all his "violent fits of passion", "his blinkered obsessiveness" and "his persevering sense of purpose", he was a "truthful man" who was capable of "characteristic but unpredictable acts of generosity". He was fair in his own perverse way rather than vindictive; he was physically very brave, as his last moments show; he was not religious, and he was not a bigot, although some of his strongest supporters were. He couldn’t spell very well, but he was a decent cartoonist. He was hot-tempered. He was a loner; he had friends, but few true friends. The very small turn-out of mourners at his funeral in Dublin, outnumbered by a hostile city mob, is surely telling in this respect. So too is the contrast between his funeral and that of Michael Heraghty, one of those involved in his killing. Heraghty died of jail fever in Lifford some months later, and his funeral cortège was met by a crowd of 3,000 when it entered his home place of Fanad.(8)

Malcolmson raises a few pertinent "what ifs" about the Third Earl. What if he had been luckier in love; what if he had got along better with his father; and what if he had not been thrown off his horse in 1830, leaving him in pain and lame for the rest of his life? Perhaps he would have been a different man. In imagining such counterfactuals, the book succeeds in making the Earl a more interesting and complex man. Certainly the image one gets of him for the first half or so of his life is of a much more sympathetic character than the ogre we know or think we know.

Virtues contains much that is completely new about Lord Leitrim, about his army career, his friends, his extended family, his travels and travails, his politics, his state of mind (was he mad, or just an obsessive compulsive —or did he suffer from some other personality disorder?). There are lots of surprises and revelations in the book. However, there is no evidence for claims such as that from Fanad that "bhí cliabhán is fiche sa teach aige agus gasúr in ‘ach uile cliabhán… [he had 21 cots in the house and an infant in every one]" or for what was said of some young girls in north Donegal, "That’s a daughter of Lord Leitrim, wouldn’t you know the nose?"(9) Malcolmson argues, quite conclusively, that Leitrim did not force himself on his tenants’ daughters.

But of course such "rural legends" are the stuff of folklore. The reverse side of the Leitrim stories are those about Dan O’Connell—a notorious philanderer, if folklore from all over Catholic Ireland be believed. But the stories about the Great Dan are benign. Typical is the one about O’Connell giving a few coins to a Dublin street urchin, with the promise of more the next time they meet. Whereupon the boy takes a short-cut and soon runs into the counselor again. "Begor, you’re a son of O’Connell’s and no mistake," sighed Dan, as he made a more generous donation the second time.(10)

Leitrim’s sexual adventures - and there were some - were of an entirely different kind. Malcolmson’s clever detective work uncovers several liaisons, and one or two offspring. One, William Kincaid, witnessed the killing of his father - but did he know, then or later, that Leitrim was his father? Malcolmson reveals that Kincaid was almost certainly the son of Ann Fleming, Leitrim’s long-standing mistress and house-servant, to whom he left £1,000 in his will. A second was born to a mysterious "J" in Montpelier Square in London in December 1864. The references in the diaries are furtive, but in the wake of the birth Leitrim seems to have being paying out and worrying about the health of mother and infant. A third birth seems to have resulted from in a brief affair in Rome in 1836 with a Marchesa de Frankevilla.

But this is not a book about sex. It may be read instead for its clever and passionate defence of the Wicked Earl, and for its insights into elite county politics, into how the other half lived, and into landlordism in its final decades. As one would expect from the author of Primate Robinson or Pursuit of the Heiresss, the text is laced with wisdom and wit and attitude.

And what of the two men from Fanad, Michael McElwee and Neil Sheils, who killed him? They were part of a wider conspiracy, but not a nationwide one. They did not shoot the Wicked Earl in order to end landlordism. He was their target, not landlords in general. McElwee and Sheils had little interest in what was happening outside their own corner of Donegal. Leitrim was their target because he was oppressive. In the words of one of the many ballads composed in the wake of his killing, "had he been like his noble father, he might be living still"(11). And so Brian Friel was off the mark in his play The Home Place: Lord Gore’s fear that he was on a killers’ list permeates the play, but in truth live-and-let-live landlords like Lord Gore need not have, and probably did not, worry.

Leitrim’s killers get short shrift from Malcolmson, but I would still see them as brave and angry men, who gained nothing personally for their action except the quiet respect of their neighbours in Íochtar Fhanaide. One, Neil Shiels of Doaghmore, lived on until 1921 in the family home. Perhaps not wanting to incriminate himself, he never broadcast his role, but he made sure his sons knew. The 1901 and 1911 censuses reveal that both he and his wife were illiterate - as were some of their children. Irish was the language of their home; Neil’s wife, Mary, cannot have known much English, because although she was returned as bilingual in 1901, she spoke "Irish only" ten years later. Neil aged from fifty-seven in 1901 to seventy-three in 1911. "Nigellus filius Hugonis Sheals et Elisabetha Sweeney" had been born in November 1853, so he was telling the truth in 1901.(12) But such ageing was a common enough miracle in rural Ireland at the time.(13) It simply meant that the Neil Shiels who dispatched Lord Leitrim when he was in his mid-twenties got the old age pension a few years early. But that is about all we know about this obscure and taciturn redresser.

Thanks to this book, we now know much more about William Sydney Clements, flawed villain and not-so-gentle Earl. We are all greatly in Anthony Malcolmson’s debt.



1. Edward McCarron, Life in Donegal: Reminiscences of a Lighthouse Keeper (Dublin, 1981), p 49.

2. WE Vaughan, Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland (Oxford, 1994), pp 103-5; Peter Somerville-Large, The Irish Country House: a Social History (London 1995), pp 313-14; David Dickson and Breandán Mac Suibhne (eds), The Outer Edge of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-century Donegal (Dublin, 2000), pp 23-24. For more sympathetic accounts of Lord Leitrim see Séamus Brady, "Secret diaries of Lord Leitrim", Irish Press, October 2nd - 7th, 1967; Fiona Slevin, By Hereditary Virtues: a History of Lough Rynn (Dublin, 2006). a

3. Although written for the Abbey, the play was never performed there.

4. BL Solow, The Land Question and the Irish Economy 1870-1903 (Cambridge, Mass, 1971); WE Vaughan, "Landlord and tenant relations in Ireland between the Famine and the Land War", in LM Cullen and TC Smout (eds), Comparative Aspects of Scottish and Irish Economic and Social History 1600-1900 (Edinburgh, 1977) pp 216-26.

5. McCarron, Life in Donegal, p 51.

6. National Archives of Ireland, CSORP 1869/5078.

7. Liam Dolan (The Third Earl of Leitrim, Letterkenny, 1978, p 47) acutely observes that "it would be fair to say that Lord Leitrim appears to have been a man who was born out of his time. His outlook belonged to an earlier age ..."

8. Londonderry Standard, April 6th, 1878, cited in Dickson and Mac Suibhne, The Outer Edge of Ulster, p 25.

9. On the folklore about Leitrim see Séamus Mac Philib, "Profile of a landlord in folk tradition and in contemporary accounts: the 3rd Earl of Leitrim", Ulster Folklife, vol 34 (1988); id., "Ius primae noctis and the sexual image of Irish landlords in folk tradition and in contemporary accounts", Béaloideas, vol 56 (1988).

10. Ríonach Uí Ógáin, An Rí gan Choróin: Dónal O Conaill san Bhéaloideas (Dublin, 1984), pp 141-42.

11. DK Wilgus and Eleanor Long-Wilgus, On the Banks of Mulroy Bay: Stories and Songs about William Sydney Clements, the Third Earl of Leitrim (Chapel Hill, 2005) p 262.

12. Details extracted from the census household forms (National Archives) and the parish register for Clondavaddog (National Library of Ireland).

13. C Ó Gráda, "The Greatest Blessing of All: the old age pension in Ireland", Past & Present, No 175 (2002), 124-61.


Cormac Ó Gráda is Professor of Economics at University College Dublin. His latest book is Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce (Princeton 2007).

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