Gentry of Balrothery 1641 – 1670

Seamus Murray

Skerries historical Society is indebted to Seamus Murray for the November presentation, ‘Gentry of Balrothery 1641-1670’. Seamus gave a massively detailed talk, all the more impressive since he did not once refer to notes, which explored the fortunes of the landowning class during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the middle of the 17th century. He got his information from a variety of sources but fundamentally from maps which are a fascinating study.

The Balrothery Parish map for the 1640s and ’50s shows that the biggest centre of population in the area was Balrothery itself, while Balbriggan existed only as a ‘great farm’, presumably with a few farm labourers’ cottages (population 30). Annotations of this map show Balrothery as ‘a faire towne’ (population 68) while Newhaven, now totally abandoned, was ‘a towne of fishing’ (population 34). Skerries, which must also have been a ‘towne of fishing’, was a bit more substantial than Newhaven with a population of 53.

Seamus researched a couple of dozen families in this area but here we’ll just look at the Barnwalls as an example. They were an Anglo-Norman family (Bernavals) originally granted lands around Meath and County Dublin in the 12th century. Several branches of the family added to their holdings in the 16th century after the dissolution of the monasteries. Despite profiting from Henry VIII’s split with Rome, the Barnwalls remained Catholics and wanted to see an end to discrimination against their co-religionists. Throwing in their lot with the rebel forces during the Irish Rebellion of 1641, the Barnwalls forfeited their lands when the rebellion failed.

Who was to benefit from the forfeitures? There were at least five prominent members of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth government who were awarded lands in County Dublin including John Jones Maes y Gardnedd, a brother-in-law of Oliver Cromwell. All five were among the signatories to the death warrant for Charles I.

By 1660 Cromwell was gone and there was a king on the throne again. Some of the Old English gentry got their lands back – including the Barnwalls – but Charles II wanted revenge for his father’s death and anyone involved in the regicide forfeited their lands. That didn’t mean they were returned to the original owners – instead they were to be transferred to the king’s brother, James, Duke of York.

This sounds all nice and straightforward, but was it? Land ownership was decided by the newly established Court of Claims but the Duke of York was land hungry and his agents, described as ‘a pack of knaves and cheats’, don’t seem to have minded skirting around the laws of the time to ensure that James got everything he wanted – whether he was entitled to it or not. The Stuarts believed in the divine right of kings after all. So some families endured hard times during the interregnum but recovered in the end. Others prospered for a time but ultimately paid the price for choosing the wrong side in wars.