Sunday, 24 February 2013

Family Histories 1: The Cowboy

It was a fine Sunday morning in early summer 1865. James Hunt opened the door of his new home and looked south over the road and the downward sloping land towards the lake. He gave a sigh of contentment and muttered a brief prayer of thanks in Irish to the mother of God.

It had been a long, hard journey to this point of his life, but he could now allow himself a feeling of achievement that he had finally managed to be standing here this morning, on his own land in the townland of Smutternagh, on the shores of Lough Key, in the county Roscommon. Though the term “his own land” was a relative one; the land belonged to the King-Harmon family as did all the land in Smutternagh and thousands of acres more all around Boyle. Indeed, as far as his own family memories extended back, through the hard years scratching a living from a barely usable Curlew mountain allotment, back to the fabled days of comfort on good land in the townland of Eastersnow on the Plains of Boyle up to their catastrophic eviction in the 1830s, the landlords had always been the King family – whose place in the Anglo-Irish stratosphere had been achieved with the noble title of Lorton.

As his gaze moved across the green wooded islands on the lake, over to Rockingham House, the residence of the King-Harmons, he reflected that beyond lay the Plains of Boyle – and Eastersnow. He had been born there, but was only a little boy when Lord Lorton had decided that the holdings there were too small for modern progressive farming. He had evicted the smallholders, including James’ father and his family, to restructure his lands there into bigger tenancies, suitable for large-scale cattle farming. The growing cities of industrial England had an insatiable appetite for beef, and prosperous cattle-tending tenants could pay better and more certain rents.

His father, Thomas, had never really got over it. On his deathbed, he urged his sons to do everything possible to regain the family holding there. It was their birthright, he always claimed, taken from them by the heartlessness of English landlords. The tribulations of the Hunt family mirrored the tribulations of all the Gael, dispossessed and persecuted in their own country by a foreign invader.

Lord Lorton doubtlessly would have seen it differently. Had he not accepted responsibility for the evicted tenants and given them an alternative, land reclaimed from the mountain in the townland of Cornameelta? Thomas Hunt could only laugh bitterly – an exchange of land valued at 18 shillings an acre for land valued at 3 shillings an acre! Land where you could barely grow a few potatoes, good for nothing else except a few scrawny sheep and cattle, who could hardly find enough grazing there to put meat on their bones.

A blessing in disguise perhaps; scratching a living from the side of the mountain in Cornameelta, relying on scrawny sheep and cattle, may have helped the Hunts avoid the fate of millions of Irish who had been living on tiny tenancies and relying completely on potatoes for their sustenance. When the blight came, three years running in the 1840s, the whole family survived where a million others died.

James looked over the fields which were now his and considered the strange connection his family had with them. For, though his tenancy was new, he had memories of this farm from his childhood; after they had been evicted from their holding in Eastersnow, the family had spent a brief period here, sharing the land with a family called Brady. But the Bradys had sucked up to the land agent and had been awarded tenure while the Hunts had to move on.

You couldn’t trust the Bradys, his father had always said. During the Famine years, a Brady had led a group of desperate hungry thieves from Smutternagh to steal a bullock from the Hunts, drive it back here and slaughter it for food. It couldn’t be proved, of course, but the Bradys knew that the Hunts had a way with cattle and that it would be relatively easy to rob a Hunt animal from the sprawling common mountainside at Cornameelta.

Well, the Bradys were gone now, along with the Monaghans who had lived in the other half of the house at the door of which he was standing. One of the Monaghans, who had given up their tenancy earlier in favour of shopkeeping in Sligo, had told him that Brady had lost his taste for farming and wanted to emigrate. James had visited him, here in this house, and had agreed to pay the passage for the Brady family from Sligo to Scotland thus vacating the farm.

Just one expense among many involved in securing this new future for himself and the family he would found. Between the passage for the Bradys, the backhander paid to Lord Lorton’s land agent, the first year’s rent, the cost of the stock which would be the basic business of the farm, and even furniture (for the Bradys had left nothing in the house but one fire-iron), he reckoned the whole venture would finish up costing him ₤100, everything he had managed to scratch together over the previous fifteen years.

For, as a young man, in the years immediately after the Great Hunger, James had decided to try to earn his living by putting the one skill he had to practical use, his knowledge of cattle. Not that he had much choice. His brother Thomas would take over the paltry tenancy on the Cornameelta mountain; James was left with the option of either emigrating or trying to survive somehow in the collective trauma which was post-famine Ireland. He’d started to trade in cattle, travelling all over the north Connacht counties, Roscommon and Sligo, Leitrim and Mayo, buying store cattle from individual farmers or at small fairs and driving them to the port of Sligo, or Derry, or even occasionally all the way to Dublin, to sell them at a profit for export to the industrial cities of Britain.

Drovers they were called in Ireland, those men who earned a living buying and selling cattle. They were the original cowboys, though the Irish version didn’t ride horses. They walked, painstakingly gathering their herds and driving them along the narrow winding roads towards the larger fairs, sleeping in barns, or under hedges, walking behind the cattle, whacking them occasionally on the withers with sally rods to keep them under control and moving in the right direction.

In following this profession, James was living and acting in a way which went back thousands of years in Irish history. At the end of the 12th Century, Giraldus Cambrensis distainfully described the native Gaels’ reliance on cattle in his Topographica Hibernica, and the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the great Irish epic, comparable with the Ramayana or the Illiad, is, in essence, the story of a cattle raid. The story of the attack by the men of Connacht on Ulster to steal Cooley’s bull, the single-handed defence of Ulster by the young hero, Cuchullain, and all the other tales and destinies decribed in the saga, begins with Queen Maeve’s jealousy of the fine bull owned by her husband and her determination to obtain a finer one for herself. The Táin is traditionally dated as taking place in the first century A.D. Maeve’s capital was at Cruachan (today’s Rathcroghan) and is less than 20 km as the crow flies from Eastersnow. If there is an historical core event at the basis of the Táin, then it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a distant ancestor of James Hunt was a member of the raiding party which set out at the behest of their warrior queen to salvage her pride and honour by stealing a bull owned by a prosperous farmer in Ulster. Eighteen hundred years later, my great-grandfather spent around fifteen years of his life doing much the same thing, though unlike his ancestor (and the Bradys), he paid for the cattle which came into his possession.

His father’s dream had been a return to Eastersnow. Given the fact that the small tenancies there had been consolidated into much larger farms, James realised that he could not achieve this; but Smutternagh was an acceptable compromise and he was content.

As he stood there, surveying his new domain, a man came up the road and greeted him. In the way of the customary easy hospitality then common, James invited him into his new home to share his breakfast of boiled potatoes and a salted herring. The stranger accepted and the two ate together. When the meal was over the visitor remarked, “I must be a very humble man to sit down to breakfast with a new tenant and I married to Lord Lorton’s daughter.”

While most tenants had little or no contact with the Anglo-Irish ascendancy living in the big houses, there was of course one major exception; those who took positions in service. Lord Lorton had something of a reputation for an appetite for pretty young servant girls, so the visitor’s comment may well have been more than just an empty boast. If I had not decided to limit this account, as far as possible, to facts which were diligently researched by James’ grandson, my late Uncle Séamus, I might be moved to speculate as to the identity of the visitor, since he was certainly one of the neighbours. I might begin to wonder about the fact that the son of Odie McLoughlin (whose farm was a couple of hundred yards up the road from the Hunt place), Pat, who was born around 1860, was shown special favour by the landlord and was assisted by him to build the first two-story house in the townland. But as Pat McLoughlin was my other paternal great-grandfather, I am not going to continue my thoughts in this direction, which is, after all, nothing more than pure speculation …

Returning to verifiable facts, James Hunt ultimately had ten children, of whom six were girls. The five oldest girls all emigrated to the USA while in their late teens. None of them ever took a position in service to the King-Harmon family at Rockingham House on the other side of the lake.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years later, James’ small tenancy of twenty one statute acres now forms the nucleus of a much larger unit, farmed by my cousin, who has built himself a fine new house beside the one James Hunt moved into. That small Irish cottage still stands, though it is no longer inhabited. And while the population of Smutternagh has been decreasing for nearly a hundred years now, there are still descendants of James Hunt there. And will be, hopefully, for a long time to come.

Pictures retrieved from:


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