Monday 1 May 2023

Land and Gentry: the Shannon Estuary Group


Dromore Castle (1867)


 ‘The most perfect specimen of civilised nature’: the Shannon Estuary Group

Elite Theory and Practice. 

Matthew Potter.

 The purpose of the present chapter is to examine a small but influential group within the Irish landlord caste with reference to elite theory. During Hobsbawm’s ‘long nineteenth century’ (1789-1914), Limerick and Clare produced a remarkable and closely knit coterie of enlightened gentlemen who practiced noblesse oblige on a large scale, over several generations in a wide geographic area. In 1988, David Fitzpatrick first drew attention to them and they formed the subject matter of a dissertation by Jennifer Ridden in 1998.[i] As they were without a useful collective term, and as they generally had their principal residences at the mouth of the River Shannon, they have been recently dubbed the ‘Shannon Estuary Group’.[ii]  The principal families of the Group were the Perys of Dromore; Wyndham-Quins of Adare; Spring-Rices of Mount Trenchard; Monsells of Tervoe; de Veres of Curragh Chase; O’Briens of Dromoland and O’Briens of Cratloe Woods House. This circle may have represented the Irish landlord class at its best, at least according to some observers.  In 1840, the English author, educationalist and cleric, William Sewell, who had become a close friend of leading members of the Group, wrote that ‘an Irish gentleman, well born, well educated, and with his natural tendencies modified by English associations is perhaps one of the most perfect specimen of civilised nature’.[iii] 


The origins of the Shannon Estuary Group (SEG) as a progressive and reforming circle can be traced to the careers of Edmond Sexton Pery (1719-1806), MP for Limerick city (1760-85) and John Jebb (1775-1833), Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick (1822-33). Georgian Limerick was ruled by successive Ascendancy families that dominated the corporation by excluding most Protestants as well as all Catholics from the city’s political life of the city. However, the eighteenth-century economic boom created a prosperous Catholic and Nonconformist mercantile elite which battled the Smyth and Vereker family (the most powerful and durable of the ruling cliques) for many decades. Pery, a patriot who supported legislative independence for Ireland and Catholic relief, allied himself with the local ‘popular’ elements as much to disoblige the Smyth and Vereker clique as for ideological reasons.  After 1800, these disputes were framed by the emergence of a new two-party system in Britain and Ireland with Limerick Corporation led by Lord Gort, adhering to the Tories while the Pery family, Thomas Spring Rice and the merchant elite supported the Whigs. The question of Catholic Emancipation also divided the parties, with the Smyths and Verekers against and their opponents largely in favour. [iv] 


If Sexton Pery was the political founder of the SEG, Bishop John Jebb may be described as its religious exemplar. Within the Group was a sub-division sometimes known as the Tervoe Convert Set, consisting of William Monsell, the third Earl of Dunraven and the three de Vere brothers. All of them had been followers of the Oxford Movement, whose members wished to restore and revive the Church of England by emphasising the elements in it which would justify its claim to be the ancient, apostolic and Catholic Church. They emphasised the importance of Apostolic Succession, the sacraments, and the central position of communion in the Church service. [v]  These tenets were the elements in Anglicanism which most resembled the Roman Catholic position, but after working so diligently to revive Anglicanism, many of its leaders, including the most prominent, John Henry Newman, eventually became Roman Catholics.[vi]  The Oxford movement in Ireland was very weak, because the Church of Ireland, surrounded by a sea of Catholicism, was predominantly Low Church and more inclined to stress its Protestantism than the relatively more confident and secure Church of England. [vii] However, there was also an old High Church tradition within the Church of Ireland which had revived in the early nineteenth century. Its best known exponent was Bishop Jebb under whose rule, ‘the Diocese of Limerick became a High Church centre for both clergy and laity.’[viii] Though opposed to Catholic Emancipation, Jebb was a political and religious moderate who enjoyed good relations with his Catholic colleagues and opposed the Second Reformation and it is due to this heritage that County Limerick saw such a positive response to the Oxford movement.[ix]


The exercise of a local hegemony by the SEG was not an exceptional experience or so elite theory would have it. Geraint Parry writes that ‘the core of the elitist doctrine is that there exists in any society a minority of the population which takes the major decisions in the society.’[x] The Italian or classical school of elitists founded by Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Paredo did not merely assert that every society is divided between a small dominant minority and a large dominated majority but that this was an inevitable and unalterable situation, what Robert Michels called the ‘iron law of oligarchy.’[xi]  Different assets were held to explain the ascendancy of elites: organisational abilities (Mosca and Michels); a particular psychological profile leading to high achievement (Pareto); control of economic resources (James Burnham); and control over important institutions such as government, big business and the armed forces (C. Wright Mills). Classical elite theory postulated that an elite must be united and self-aware, possessing what James Meisel described as the ‘three Cs’: consciousness of being part of a group; coherence; and conspiracy, defined in this instance as a ‘common will to action.’[xii] Democratic or pluralist elite theory modified classical elitism by positing the existence of several groups, competing in a democratic system and thus dependant on the masses for support. This pluralist elite need not be homogenous; it can accommodate conflicting views in many areas (while adhering to certain basic beliefs); and must be able to renew itself by recruiting new members or even entire sub-groups, often on merit from a wide socio-economic base. However, failure to do so could result in the gradual or even violent displacement of the old elite by a new one. All elites survived due to the apathy and deference of the majority as well as the latter’s acceptance of (or at least acquiescence in) elite ideology, while few could prevail against a loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the majority.[xiii]


Before 1800, the Perys had been the most politically powerful family of the SEG and possessing the most senior peerage (their principal title, Earl of Limerick dated to 1803), but became largely peripheral figures in the nineteenth century. In the 1870s, their estates consisted of 4,083 acres in County Limerick, 1,550 acres in County Clare and 76 acres in County Cork. In addition, the Perys owned the largest estate within the borough boundary of Limerick, later known as Newtown Pery, which yielded a large income and made them one of the most influential families in the city. The head of the family in the mid-eighteenth century was Edmond Sexton Pery who has been described as ‘the most notable Limerickmen of all time, and also its greatest benefactor’.[xiv]  This accolade is due to his influence on the history of the city, arguably greater than that of any other single individual, as he was largely responsible for the creation of the present Georgian core of Limerick, named Newtown Pery in his honour. In addition to his local primacy, Pery’s period as Speaker of the House of Commons (1771-85) made him one of Ireland’s most powerful men.[xv]  His nephew Edmond Henry (1758-1844) also sat for Limerick City (1785-94) and in 1803 was created the first Earl of Limerick.  After the Act of Union, the Perys ceased to be resident in Ireland, and became unpopular absentees for over sixty years, though the first Earl sat as an Irish representative peer (1800-44).  Even after they made Ireland their principal residence again in the 1860s with the construction of Dromore Castle near Pallaskenry, County Limerick, they continued to be relatively inactive politically until the 1890s, when the third Earl (1840-96) served as a Conservative whip and member of the British Privy Council. [xvi]


The Wyndham-Quins held the title Earl of Dunraven for nearly two centuries (1822-2011) and were the wealthiest family in the Group.  In the 1870s, the fourth Earl was reputed to be one of the richest Earls in the United Kingdom, with estates totaling 39,755 acres, of which 23,751 were in Glamorganshire, and 14,298 were in County Limerick. Their principal Irish seat was Adare Manor, set in the picturesque village of Adare, about ten miles from Tervoe. Besides their immense estates in Limerick and Glamorganshire, they owned land in Kerry, Clare and Gloucestershire.  Their other principal residences were Dunraven Castle, near Bridgend in Glamorganshire (from which they took their principal title), and Clearwell Court, Gloucestershire. The most significant members of the family were the third Earl, Edwin Richard Windham Wyndham-Quin (1812-71) and his son the fourth Earl, Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin (1841-1926).[xvii]


The Spring-Rice family resided at Mount Trenchard, just outside Foynes, County Limerick and since 1839 have held the title of Baron Monteagle of Brandon. In the 1870s, the family estates consisted of 6,445 acres in County Limerick and 2,310 acres in County Kerry. The most prominent member of the family was Thomas Spring Rice (1790-1866) who was indeed one of the most significant Irish political figures of the nineteenth century. Married to a daughter of the first Lord Limerick, he sat successively as MP for Limerick City (1820-32) and Cambridge (1832-39) and was later created the first Baron Monteagle. He was one of the leading members of the Whig Party for over a decade, and held a number of senior government posts, (Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury 1830-34, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies 1834) before his career culminated in a term as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1835-39).[xviii] 


The Monsells  resided at Tervoe House, about five miles from Limerick city, and in 1876 their estates in Counties Limerick and Clare comprised 2,710. The family held the title Baron Emly of Tervoe from 1874 to 1932. The most prominent member of the family was William Monsell, (1812-94), who in the 1840s moved from being Church of Ireland and Conservative to being Roman Catholic and Liberal. His political career lasted for sixty years (1835-94) during which time he sat as MP for County Limerick (1847-74) and in the Lords (1874-94) and became one of the leading political figures in Ireland, serving under four Prime Ministers in a succession of offices between 1853 and 1873.  One of the most prominent lay Catholics in Britain and Ireland, he was a lifelong unionist, a Liberal Catholic and a friend of such giants as Gladstone and Pius IX; Cardinals Newman and Cullen; and Acton and Balfour.[xix] The English branch of the family was also significant. Bolton Meredith Eyres Monsell (1881-1969) had the most brilliant political career of any Monsell, culminating in a seat in the Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty (1931-6).[xx] 


The de Vere family were cousins of the Monsells through a common Pery ancestry and their country seat was at Curraghchase, on the main road from Limerick to Askeaton.  They held the baronetage of Curragh from 1784 to 1904. In the 1870s, their estate consisted of 4,166 acres, all situated in County Limerick. Sir Aubrey de Vere (1788-1846) and his wife Mary Spring Rice had five sons and three daughters.  Three of their sons were Sir Vere (1808-80), Sir Stephen (1812-1904) and the poet Aubrey (1814-1902). Stephen was an enlightened landlord and social reformer who travelled to Canada on a so-called ‘coffin ship’ in 1847 to experience the privations of Irish emigrants, and later campaigned for reform of the conditions under which they travelled to North America. [xxi]  


North of the Shannon, the O’Briens lived at Dromoland Castle, Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare.  Among the titles held by the family were Baron Inchiquin (from 1543), Earl of Inchiquin (1654-1855), Marquess of Thomond (1800-55) and baronet of Leaghmenagh (from 1686). In the 1870s, the family estates consisted of 20,321 acres in County Clare.  Sir Edward O’Brien (1773-1837) and his wife had five sons and four daughters. His most famous son, William Smith O’Brien (1803-64) resided at Cahirmoyle House, near Ardagh, County Limerick, which in the 1870s consisted of 4,997 acres . A commanding figure in the Repeal Movement in the 1840s, O’Brien led the abortive 1848 Rebellion for which he suffered transportation to Tasmania and consequently became a significant figure in the apostolic session of Irish nationalism.[xxii] 

A distant cousin was Augustus Stafford O’Brien (1811-58) who lived at Cratloe Woods House, across the Shannon estuary from Tervoe House, and also at Blatherwicke House, Northamptonshire. In the 1870s, the estates comprised 27,394 acres in Ireland (Counties Clare, Limerick and Tipperary) and England (the shires of Rutland and Northampton).[xxiii] 


The SEG reached the peak of their influence in the mid-nineteenth century, but continued to produce prominent figures into the early twentieth century.  The fourth Earl of Dunraven became one of the leaders of constructive unionism, and a supporter of land purchase and devolution. He was instrumental in the establishment of the 1902 Land Conference composed of representatives of landlords and tenants, whose report led to the enactment of the Wyndham Land Act of 1903. The second Lord Emly (1858-1932) became a fervent though eccentric convert to Irish nationalism and the labour movement while his cousin Elinor Mary Monsell (1879-1954) became a celebrated portrait painter and engraver, and was a close friend of Lady Gregory and the Yeats brothers.[xxiv]  Monteagle’s grandson was the prominent diplomat, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice (1859-1918), British ambassador to the USA from 1913 to 1918 while a great-granddaughter was Mary Spring-Rice (1880-1924), a noted Irish nationalist and social reformer.[xxv] Smith O’Brien’s daughter Charlotte Grace O'Brien (1845-1909) was a literary figure and social reformer who campaigned tirelessly to improve the lot of Irish female emigrants, and also supported land reform and the Gaelic League. David Fitzpatrick has rightly pointed out that ‘few regions of Ireland could have boasted of so dense a concentration of liberal-minded and educated patrician families’.[xxvi] 


The central research questions of this chapter are: what kind of elite was the SEG and consequently, how successful was it as an elite?  To begin in the field of organization, identified by Mosca and Michels as essential to elite power, the Group was bound together by several informal but powerful ties. In the first place, its members were closely related, both by birth and marriage as can be demonstrated by a few examples. Thomas Spring-Rice’s sister was married to Sir Aubrey de Vere, making him the uncle of the brothers Vere, Stephen and Aubrey de Vere. In turn, Spring-Rice was married to Theodosia Pery, a daughter of the first Earl of Limerick.  One of Edmund Sexton Pery’s sisters, Dymphna, was married to William Monsell of Tervoe, and their great-grandson was William Monsell, first Lord Emly. The latter’s first wife was Lady Anna Maria Wyndham-Quin, daughter of the second Lord Dunraven and sister to the third Lord Dunraven. One of William Smith O’Brien’s sisters Harriet was married to Charles Monsell, a first cousin of the first Lord Emly. Secondly, members of the SEG enjoyed the benefits of an elite education, often at public school followed by Oxbridge or Trinity College, Dublin. Again a few examples will suffice. Thomas Spring-Rice and William Smith O’Brien both attended Trinity College, Cambridge; William Monsell Oriel College, Oxford; and the third Earl of Dunraven, Trinity College Dublin. Thirdly, members of the SEG were united by ties of deep friendship.  Thus Monsell, the third Earl of Dunraven and the three de Vere brothers were bound together by their common adherence to the Oxford Movement and later conversion to the Roman Catholic Church; all five sympathized with Smith O’Brien when he was transported, while deploring his ‘folly’ in leading the 1848 Rebellion; Stafford O’Brien detested the religion of the Tervoe convert set, while continuing to have warm feelings for them personally.[xxvii] 


With regard to Pareto’s concept of an elite consisting of high achievers, the SEG included significant cultural figures. Generally, members of the Group self-identified as Irish patriots, but defined their Irish nationality ‘in cultural and territorial terms’ while ‘rejecting political nationalist aspirations’.[xxviii]  Thus, the two leading literary figures of the SEG,  Aubrey de Vere and the 3rd Earl of Dunraven were ‘cultural nationalists’, indeed major figures in the Celtic Revival, while remaining political unionists. Aubrey de Vere became a celebrated poet whose greatest work was Inisfail: A Lyrical Chronicle of Ireland (1861), and was a close friend of Wordsworth and Tennyson.  Indeed, Inis Fail is considered an important precursor of the Irish Literary Renaissance and his Ballad of Athlone long enjoyed high status in nationalist circles.[xxix]  The third Earl of Dunraven studied astronomy for three years under his friend Rowan Hamilton, and his vast range of intellectual activity included archaeology, architecture, theology and even spiritualism.  He was also a leading figure in the earlier stages of the Celtic Revival and his magnum opus, Notes on Irish Architecture, was published posthumously in 1875-77.[xxx]  In addition, Sir Aubrey de Vere, Stephen de Vere, and William Smith O’Brien were all minor poets, and William Monsell, though he published comparatively little, was a man of wide intellectual interests. The SEG were also local cultural leaders and made a large contribution to the built environment.  The Perys inspired the construction of Georgian Limerick and were later responsible for building Dromore Castle, (one of the most dramatic buildings of the Celtic Revival); the Earls of Dunraven created the beautiful mansion and village of Adare; the O’Briens built Dromoland and Cahermoyle and the Monsells constructed Tervoe House and the nearby estate village.[xxxi]


Nevertheless, their elite status was not based on possession of outstanding talents; on the contrary it was their wealth and leisure which enabled them to develop their talents and abilities (later to be eclipsed by the achievements of individuals from much less affluent backgrounds, such as Yeats, Shaw and Joyce). Here Burnham’s location of elite power in the control of a disproportionate amount of economic resources comes into play and it is difficult to avoid the Marxian conclusion that the SEG owed their elite position to their ownership of landed estates, mostly acquired in the Plantations and augmented during the era of the Penal Laws. From the Dunravens’ 40,000 acre estate to the Monsells’ 2,000 acres, their status as landowners gave them a massive advantage over all other interest groups in society before the 1880s. Indeed, the Dunravens, O’Briens of Dromoland and O’Briens of Cratloe Woods were part of the exclusive club of 305 landowners with Irish estates of 10,000 acres or more each. Ownership of land did not merely bring economic power, but also conferred much greater prestige than fortunes made in business or trade, and carried with it social hegemony in the locality. It was regarded as part of the natural order that society should be controlled and led by the landed elite. The connection between economic, social and political hegemony is demonstrated by the fate of the Irish landlords after the 1880s, when all three forms of social control slipped simultaneously from their grasp as a result of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the Land Acts and the creation of a democratic local government system in 1898-99.[xxxii]


In accordance with Wright Mills’ location of elite power, the SEG and their allies controlled most of the important local institutions and offices until the Land War. The principal offices in an Irish county were the lord lieutenant (not to be confused with the chief governor of the entire country) and the high sheriff. The lord lieutenant was the chief civil and military official in his county and though a ceremonial figure, he was also granted significant powers.    He commanded the county militia, appointed deputy lieutenants, was head of the magistry and recommended to the Lord Chancellor for appointments of all local magistrates. In County Limerick, this office was filled by the third Lord Dunraven (1864-71), the first Lord Emly (1871-94) and the fourth Lord Dunraven (1896-1922) and in County Clare by the thirteenth Lord Inchiquin (1843-72) and the fourteenth Lord Inchiquin (1879-1900). The high sheriff was an annual appointment, whose main functions were the selection of the grand jury (forerunner of the county council, an unelected committee chiefly composed of landlords, which administered each county) and the organization of parliamentary elections. Holders of the office in County Limerick included William Monsell (1835), Vere de Vere (1836), Stephen Spring-Rice (1837) and Stephen de Vere (1870). Members of the SEG also served as magistrates and sat on grand juries and poor law unions; indeed William Monsell was chairman of Limerick Board of Guardians from 1857 to 1882.


Members of the SEG also sat in both houses of Parliament for long periods, particularly before the 1880s. The 1850s and 1860s, framed by the two great nationalist movements of O’Connellism and Parnellism, were marked by a strong revival of the power of the Irish landed elite who benefited from the mid-century economic boom, the absence of a major nationalist agitation and the dominance of localist and deferential politics. Even the Irish Tory Party flourished at this time.[xxxiii] This Indian summer of the landlords enabled the SEG to enjoy a political prominence unimaginable after the 1880s which witnessed the creation of a mass Irish electorate and a powerful agrarian-nationalist political machine.[xxxiv] The Group included four significant political figures - Edmond Sexton Pery, Thomas Spring Rice, William Smith O’Brien and William Monsell, but many more were also parliamentary representatives, such as the third Earl of Dunraven, who, though not primarily a politician, was MP for Glamorgan (1837-51) and on being created a peer of the United Kingdom, a member of the Lords (1866-71).[xxxv]


The SEG also had Miesel’s three Cs.  In the first place, they possessed self-consciousness of being part of a coterie. Cultured, wealthy politically active and related by blood and marriage, they also shared a common social, religious and intellectual background. Secondly, they were a cohesive group, socially and (with important exceptions) in their general political ideology.  Most of them were liberal in the broadest sense and supported moderate, peaceful, piecemeal reform rather than radical revolution. Accordingly, the Catholic converts in the SEG can be classed as Liberal Catholics, followers of the French ideology which opposed the reactionary tendencies of Ultramontanism and strove to reconcile the Church with modern doctrines, such as parliamentary government, individual freedom, equality before the law and protection of private property, which they regarded as positive, and to be compatible with the teachings of the Church.[xxxvi]  Additionally, most the SEG espoused a dual Irish and British identity, in that they were passionately attached to Ireland, but were also conscious of an overarching British loyalty. They ‘saw themselves as British, but not English’, and ‘found it necessary to claim Irish identity, in order to maintain and reinforce their legitimate leadership within Ireland’. They cast themselves as mediators, representing the needs and desires of the Irish people to the British state. [xxxvii]   Thirdly, they possessed a common will to action centred on noblesse oblige and a strong social conscience.[xxxviii] They were nearly all resident and improving landlords, exemplified by Thomas Spring Rice who wrote in 1815 on ‘the elevated duties of the Irish country gentleman.  It is a sphere of personal privation and of personal exertion.  But when a mind is awake to that first of all delights, the power of becoming extensively and permanently useful, all privations are forgotten, all labour is well repaid.  A peasantry capable of improvement and grateful for every benevolent assistance, look up to the landlord as to a protector and friend.  He may not only assist their distresses, but may enable them to assist themselves’.[xxxix]  This may be regarded as the common ideology (Meisel’s ‘conspiracy’) of the SEG.


In the language of pluralist elite theory, the SEG was self-recruiting and ‘closed’ as membership was based on the two criteria of hereditary possession of landed wealth and relationship by birth and marriage. However, it was not immune from the influence of public opinion and the masses (indeed it is a moot point whether any elite in history operated in such a purely autonomous fashion). Even in the restricted political system of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, members of the SEG had contested parliamentary elections, which though conducted on the basis of a limited franchise, were still influenced by non-voters, such as urban and rural ‘mobs.’ Additionally, they were divided politically, ranging from conservatives, like the first Earl of Limerick and Sir Edward O’Brien, to an armed insurrectionary like William Smith O’Brien (though as revolutionaries go, even he was comparative moderate).  With the gradual widening of the franchise, the SEG’s responsiveness to public opinion increased, and many of them, such as William Smith O’Brien (whose political position evolved from Liberalism to Repeal and beyond) William Monsell (who converted from Conservatism to Liberalism) and the fourth Lord Dunraven (a Conservative who eventually supported Home Rule) modified their political views accordingly. In this manner, the SEG while remaining ‘closed, took on some of the traits of an ‘open’ elite.[xl]


Consequently, the Group succeeded in maintaining their position with at least the acquiescence of the non-elite majority, until the cataclysm of the 1880s brought about its demise as part of Irish landlordism’s general collapse. Elite theory usually accounts for the displacement of elites in two ways: ‘structural factors’ and ‘socio-psychological’ factors. In the case of the Shannon Estuary Group, the structural factor which brought about their displacement was the loss of their landed estates, which undermined the economic basis of their hegemony and left them in possession of large houses and assets without the wherewithal to support them.[xli] The major socio-psychological factor was the rise of the two-headed monster of Irish nationalism and land agitation which threatened the entire social system of which they were part.  Irish nationalist ideology excluded the Anglo-Irish from the Irish nation and the governing myths of twentieth century Irish nationalism - of an Ireland Gaelic, peasant, Catholic - took shape in the 1880s and 1890s.  This was completely antagonistic to the belief of the SEG in an Ireland that was Anglicised, ruled by enlightened gentry, made up of all classes and creeds, and above all part of the United Kingdom.


Fundamentally, the SEG was an example of a classic closed elite which was unable to make the transition to a democratic open elite. While there were often political differences within their ranks, the bulk of the Group were unionists who supported the social and political system within which they had always operated. Irish patriots and advanced reformers until the 1870s and 1880s, they were later regarded as being both social and political conservative. Yet, it was not their ideology that had altered but rather political circumstances had forced them, like so many of their fellow landlords, into a more strident and self-conscious espousal of unionism and the ascendancy of the Anglo-Irish. Unable to co-opt or recruit the rising Irish bourgeoisie, which had colonized local government and parliamentary representation, they found themselves squeezed between nationalism and unionism; gradually excluded from the emerging sense of Irishness; and derided for their identity of being both Irish and British. Some of the SEG did attempt to engage with the ‘new Ireland’.  Senior figures such as the fourth Lord Dunraven, second Lord Emly and second Lord Monteagle successfully contested seats on Limerick County Council, but their involvement ceased in the early 1920s. The curious involvement of Mary Spring-Rice and Conor O’Brien (grandson of William Smith O’Brien) in the Howth gun-running was a more picturesque episode but had little lasting impact. Although the fourth Earl of Dunraven sat in the Free State Senate from 1922 to 1926, the SEG as a whole held aloof from independent Ireland. By the mid-twentieth century, many of its  constituent  families had become extinct (the de Veres) or non-resident in Ireland (the Perys and the Monsells), though the Earls of Dunraven and Baron Inchiquins continued to be popular residents in their respective localities to the time of writing.[xlii] 


The Shannon Estuary Group are of interest for many reasons: their particular combination of religious and political views representing an ideological strand in Irish political life obliterated from the 1880s onwards; their status as a microcosm of the doomed Irish landlord elite; and perhaps most of all the inclusion in their ranks of some of the most idealistic, high-minded and interesting figures produced by the Anglo-Irish, several of whom aspired to Sewell’s idyllic vision of the Irish gentleman as ‘the most perfect speciman of civilised nature’.[xliii]

[i]  See David Fitzpatrick, ‘Thomas Spring Rice and The Peopling of Australia’ in The Old Limerick Journal No. 23, Australian Edition, (Spring 1988), pp 39-49 and Jennifer Ridden, ‘Making Good Citizens. National Identity Religion and Liberalism among the Irish Elite, c. 1800-1850’ (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1998).

[ii] Matthew Potter, William Monsell of Tervoe 1812-94: Catholic Unionist, Anglo-Irishman. (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009), p. 6.

[iii] William Sewell, ‘Romanism in Ireland’ in Quarterly Review,Vol. LXVII, No. 133,  (December, 1840), p. 121.

[iv] See Matthew Potter,The Government and the People of Limerick. The History of Limerick Corporation/City Council 1197-2006 (Limerick: Limerick City Council, 2006), pp 258-79.

[v] Olive Brose, Church and Parliament: the Reshaping of the Church of England 1828-1860 (Stanford: Stanford University Press and London: Oxford University Press, 1959).

[vi] David Newsome, The Convert Cardinals. Newman and Manning, (London: John Murray, 1993).

[vii] Peter Nockles, ‘Church or Protestant Sect? The Church of Ireland, High Churchmanship and the Oxford Movement, 1822-1869’ in Historical Journal, No. 41, (1998), pp 457-93.

[viii] Alan Acheson, A History of the Church of Ireland 1691-1996, (Blackrock, Dublin: Columba Press, 1997)

 p. 153. 

[ix] For Jebb, see Desmond McCabe, ‘John Jebb (1775-1833)’ in James McGuire and James Quinn (eds), Dictionary of Irish Biography, From the Earliest Times to the Year 2002 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for Royal Irish Academy, 2009), online edition, http:// (hereafter referred to as DIB).

[x] Geraint Parry, Political Elites (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969), p. 30.

[xi] See T.B. Bottomore, √Člites and Society (London: Routledge, 1993) and John Scott, The Sociology of Elites: the Study of Elites (Chletenham: Edward Elgar, 1990).

[xii] Parry, Political Elites, pp 30-63.

[xiii] Eva Etzioni-Halevy, Classes and Elites in Democracy and Democratization: a Collection of Readings (London and New York: Garland Publishing, 1997) and Ilkka Roustetsaari, ‘Coexistence of Elites and Democracy in an Information Society’ at http// www. 

[xiv] Kevin Hannan,  ‘The Rich Inheritance of a Limerick Mayor’ in David Lee (ed.), Remembering Limerick.  Historical Essays Celebrating the 800th Anniversary of Limerick’s First Charter granted in 1197, (Limerick: Limerick Civic Trust, 1997), p. 112.

[xv] For Speaker Pery, see A.P.W. Malcomson ‘Speaker Pery and the Pery Papers’ in  North Munster Antiquarian Journal , Vol. 21 (1973-4), pp 33-60 and David Huddelston, ‘Edmond Sexton Pery, Viscount Pery, (1719-1806),  in Colin Matthew; Brian Harrison, and Laurence Goldman, (eds),Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004), online edition, http:// (hereafter referred to as Oxford DNB).

[xvi] Malcomson ‘Speaker Pery and the Pery Papers’ p.  55. n. 44.

[xvii] The Dunravens have been the subject of much recent research: Odette Clarke, ‘'Caroline Wyndham-Quin, Countess of Dunraven (1790-1870), An analysis of her discursive and material legacy'(Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Limerick, 2010); Theresa Hereward-Ryan, is  'An examination of the life of Edwin Wyndham Quin, third earl of Dunraven, 1812-71' (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Limerick, 2010); and  Michael Spillane, ‘The fourth earl of Dunraven, 1841-1926: a study of his contribution to the emerging Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century’ (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, 2002).

[xviii] Charlotte Mary Murphy, ‘The Life and Politics of Thomas Spring Rice, First Baron Monteagle of Brandon 1790-1866’ (Unpublished MA thesis, University College Cork, 1991) and Bridget Hourican ‘Thomas Spring Rice (1790-1866)’ in DIB.

[xix] For Monsell, see Potter, William Monsell of Tervoe.

[xx] See Stuart Ball, ‘Bolton Meredith Eyres Monsell, first Viscount Monsell (1881-1969)’, in Oxford DNB.

[xxi] For brief profiles of the most important figures in the family, see Elizabeth Lee, revised M.C. Curthoys, ‘Sir Stephen Edward de Vere (1812-1904)’, and Robert Welch, ‘Aubrey Thomas de Vere (1814-1902), both in Oxford DNB and Desmond McCabe, ‘Sir Aubrey de Vere (Hunt) 1788-1846’ ; Desmond McCabe ‘Sir Stephen Edward de Vere (1812-1904)’ and Tom Kelley and Linde Lunney, ‘Aubrey Thomas de Vere (1814-1902)’ all in DIB.

[xxii] Grania R. O’Brien and Hugh Weir, These My Friends and Forebears: The O'Briens of Dromoland, (Whitegate, County Clare: Ballinakella Press, 1991).

[xxiii] All of the data concerning landed estates is taken from John Bateman (ed.), The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland, (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1971; Facsimile reprint of the edition of 1883.)

[xxiv] For Elinor Darwin, see Theo Snoddy, Dictionary of Irish Artists, 20th Century, (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1996), pp 93-94. 

[xxv] See Bridget Hourican, ‘Mary Ellen Spring Rice (1880-1924)’ in DIB.

[xxvi] Fitzpatrick, ‘Thomas Spring Rice and the Peopling of Australia’, p. 42.

[xxvii] For the offices held by Group members, see Thom’s Irish Almanac and Official Directory, (Dublin: Thom, 1844-1880) and Thom’s Official Directory of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, (Dublin: Thom, 1881-1922), hereafter referred to as Thom’s Directory, passim.

[xxviii] Ridden, ‘Making Good Citizens’, p. 218. 

[xxix] Sr. M. Paraclita Reilly, Aubrey de Vere: Victorian Observer (Univ. of Nebraska, 1953; Dublin: Clonmore & Reynolds; London: Burnes, Oates & Washbourne 1956).

[xxx] Edwin Richard Wyndham-Quin, 3rd Earl of Dunraven, (Edited by Margaret Stokes), Notes on Irish Architecture, (London: G. Bell, 1875-77).

[xxxi] For these building, see the website of the Irish Architectural Archive, http//

[xxxii] Bateman, The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland, passim.

[xxxiii] Andrew Shields, The Irish Conservative Party, 1852-1868. Land Politics and Religion, (Dublin and Portland, OR: Irish Academic Press, 2007).

[xxxiv] For the economic revival of the landlords, see W.E. Vaughan, Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994). For their political position in this period, see D. George Boyce, , Nineteenth-Century Ireland: The Search for Stability (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1990),  pp 124-53 and k. Theodore Hoppen, Elections, Politics and Society in Ireland 1832-85 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984),  pp 89-170.

[xxxv] Thom’s Directory, passim

[xxxvi] For the Liberal Catholics see also Josef Altholz, The Liberal Catholic Movement in England: The Rambler and its Contributors 1848-62 (London: Burns and Oates, 1962) and Hugh A. MacDougall, The Acton-Newman Relations: The Dilemma of Christian Liberalism (New York: Fordham University Press, 1962).

[xxxvii] Ridden, ‘Making Good Citizens’, p. 204.

[xxxviii] See Horace Plunkett, Nobless Oblige - An Irish Rendering (Dublin; Maunsel, 1908).

[xxxix] Thomas (Spring) Rice, An Inquiry into the Effects of the Irish Grand Jury Laws, (London: Privately published, 1815), p. 12.

[xl] A number of books chart Smith O’Brien’s political evolution, see for example Robert Sloan, William Smith O'Brien and the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000). 

[xli] Parry, Political Elites, pp 58-60.

[xlii] Ridden ‘Making Good Citizens’ pp 18-21 and 238-40.

[xliii] William Sewell, ‘Romanism in Ireland’ in Quarterly Review,Vol. LXVII, No. 133,  (December, 1840), p. 121.



mausoleum of the 1st Earl of Dunraven


Iverus Research Foundation is indebted to the author, Dr Matthew Potter, for his kind permission to reproduce this article.

photos: IRF