Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Classiebawn castle.
Classiebawn castle at Mullaghmore and the beautiful coast of North Sligo.

Lord Palmerston and Cliffoney

Upon the death of his father in 1802, some 12,000 acres of land around Cliffoney, including Mullaghmore and Ahamlish, was inherited by the young British nobleman, Henry Mount Temple, better known as Lord Palmerston. Harry Palmerston, as he was known to his friends, was still in school and a minor at the time. The second Viscount had been an absentee landlord, collecting the estate monies through agents and middlemen, and he was often swindled. He was not an improving landlord, spending his money on travelling and enhancing his collection of fine art.

The young Lord Palmerston first visited his new estates in 1808, and found he owned a large amount of marginal land, densely overpopulated with tenants, eking out a miserable living at the mercy of middlemen. His father had not even visited his Sligo estates, his few visits to Ireland being to Dublin and the surrounding area.

Map of Cliffoney.
Map of Cliffoney from about 1812.

North of Grange the road to Donegal passed through a wilderness of mountainous bog on the east with wind-blown sand to the west. The Cliffoney area was known as Halfway House, being halfway between Grange and Tullaghan:

When the traveller, on the way from Sligo, reaches Cooldruman rising ground, and looks northward, he is chilled by the change of scene, finding before him a bleak, bare, cheerless country, instead of the rich smiling landscape through which he has been passing; so that it was not altogether the spleen that occasioned Carlyle's exclamation at Cooldruman, "Lord Palmerston's country — a dingy, desolate looking country. Would we were well out of it all!"

Bits of good green land may be seen at Grange, Cliffoney, Moneygold, and some other spots, but the run of the parish is a low moory expanse, without any elevation to speak of, without hill or dale, without visible lake or river, without trees or other timber, except the whitethorn hedges along the sides of the highway, and some plantations at Mullaghmore, Cliffoney, and along the road to Bunduff. The sea shore too is for the most part rugged, and lined with a brown drift sand, still more sombre in hue than the moor of the inland.

Map of Mullaghmore.
Map of Mullaghmore from about 1812.

The Palmerston estate, giving it the name it should always go by, is a stretch of land, six miles long, by two or more wide, running between the Benbulben range of hills on the east, and the sea on the west. When it came into the hands of Lord Palmerston it was very much in the state in which Nature formed it: without houses worthy of the name, without cultivated land to speak of — a mere patch here and there, for — and with two thousand Irish acres of bog, abandoned, in the less sunken spots, to ground game, and, in the swamps, to the snipe, the curlew, and the long-legged crane.

Saint Brigit's well at Cliffoney in County Sligo.
Saint Brigit's well at Cliffoney in County Sligo. This may have been an ancient church or hermitage, the well, one of five, is within a ruined ringfort. A cattle fair was held here 200 years ago The cross slab is an unusual engraving with a clockwise swastika in the top of the cross.

Knaves in the middle

The fine green land, that stretches along the shore, was fast disappearing under the drifted sand which, being blown inland by the Atlantic breezes, swallowed up, as swarms of locusts do in the East, every green, and every growing thing, and wrapped the earth in a covering of sand, which gave the potatoes, barley, or oats appearance of a beach to the whole seaboard. In presence of this visitation, which had already destroyed six hundred acres, if the people felt themselves powerless, and resigned themselves to the loss, as to the inevitable.

Another untoward circumstance of the estate was the extreme populousness of its inhabited portions, the tenants holding only four or five acres apiece; and a still greater bar to improvement was the middlemen, from whom, and not from the landlord, many of the occupants held. Those middlemen were no "fools in the middle," but rather knaves in the middle; living much at the expense of the landlord, but mainly at the expense of the wretched tenant. "These people," says Lord Palmerston, "taking a certain quantity of ground, they reserve to themselves a small portion, and let out the rest to under tenants.

Truskmor and Benwisken.
Truskmor and Benwisken.

They make these unfortunate devils pay the rent of the landlord, and an excess, which they keep to themselves, and call a profit rent while they live upon the part they reserve without paying any rent for it." Of those bloodsuckers his lordship resolved to get rid, by degrees, conforming in this to the desire of his tenants and to the advice of Arthur Young, who conjures landlords, " as friends to themselves, to their posterity, and to their country, to let their estates to none but the occupying tenantry."!

Classiebawn Castle.
Classiebawn Castle.

Other landlords, if the case was theirs, would soon make short work of the four or five acre cotters; but Lord Palmerston, instead of throwing them out on the high road, as others, in his place, would certainly have done, felt it a duty to leave them where they were, and to better their condition by freeing them from the incubus of the middleman or petty landlord, by enlarging their holdings, as the reclamation of his bogs enabled him, and by providing them, in the meantime, with remunerative employment.

His measures against the blowing sand were entirely efficacious. Knowing, no doubt, that bent (Agrostis) was successfully employed in parts of the Continent for the purpose, he planted this grass round the edges of the exposed tracts, and soon stopped the ravages of the sand. In this he not only benefited himself and his tenants, but proved himself a public benefactor; for Sir Robert Gore Booth, Mr. Gethin, and other landlords, whose lands by the sea-shore had suffered, and were suffering like his, followed his example in planting bent, so that thousands of acres, lying between his property and Sligo, were saved from threatened inundation, and thousands, even after a little, restored to tillage and pasturage.

His stretch of bog he treated with the same satisfactory results. Associating with himself Mr. Nimmo, the distingushed engineer, they studied on the spot all the conditions of the task, and applied to its execution first-rate skill and unstinted capital. At first they were thinking of constructing an iron railroad six miles long, by which shelly sand could be brought from the beach to the bog, and in return, peat brought down from the bog to the shore; but on second thought they abandoned this project as less suited to their purpose, and made, instead of the railway, macadamized roads.

Map of Cliffoney from 1832.
Map of Cliffoney village from about 1832.

Such was the vigour with which they proceeded, that, in the October of 1826, the first year of the works, they had thirty acres of the "worst bog and most troublesome to cultivate," producing potatoes, turnips, and rape; though in the previous March, the land ''was wet unwalkable bog," as Lord Palmerston writes. The modus agendi was, first, "to drain the ground slightly, which was begun in April; then to dig up the surface, and pile it in heaps ,and burn it; then to level the ground, and form it into ridges, and plant it with potatoes, or sow it with turnips and rape, throwing the ashes on as manure, and adding a top-dressing of sea sand and clay." Proceeding with the reclamation at the rate of sixty acres a year, his Lordship soon had it in his power to enlarge the small holdings of his tenants.

Lord Palmerston
Lord Palmerston.

Cliffoney, September 12th 1808

The rain, which had commenced the morning we left Dublin, and had continued with little intermission, was more particularly violent this day, and William, who was not so much interested in seeing the estate as in keeping himself dry, returned home very soon. We, however, persevered, and saw the greatest part of the estate.

Thursday I employed in walking and riding about the town of Sligo with Chambers, and Friday we took another ride over the whole of that part of the estate which lies connected by the sea-coast. I find there is a great deal, I may almost say, everything, to be done, and it will be absolutely necessary for me to repeat my visit next summer, and probably make it annual for some time. It is a tract of country about two miles broad and six long, bounded on one side by the sea, and on the other by bog and high, craggy mountains. It is wholly unimproved; but almost all the waste ground or bog is capable of being brought into cultivation, and all the arable may be rendered worth three times its present value. This, however, must be the work of time, and to accomplish it much must be done.

The present objects which I must in the first instance set about, are to put the parish church in a state of repair, so as to make it fit for service; to establish schools, to make roads, and to get rid of the middlemen in some cases where it can be accomplished. After that, as opportunities occur, I mean to endeavour to introduce a Scotch farmer, to teach the people how to improve their land; to establish a little manufacturing village in a central part of the estate, where there are great advantages of water and stone; and to build a pier and make a little port near a village that stands on a point of land projecting into Donegal Bay, and called Mullaghmore. The schools and roads, however, are the most important points at present, and the condition of the people calls loudly for both.

The thirst for education is so great that there are now three or four schools upon the estate. The people join in engaging some itinerant master; they run him up a miserable mud hut on the roadside, and the boys pay him half a crown, or some five shillings, a quarter. They are taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and what, from the appearance of the establishment, no one would imagine, Latin, and even Greek.

Roads are the first necessity for the improvement of the land. The sea-coast abounds with a shelly sand, which is the best possible manure for boggy ground; and roads of communication between the shore and the upper country will enable the inhabitants of the bogs to reclaim their waste ground with this manure, and the people on the seaside to get turf for fuel from the bogs; and both are in need of a ready communication with Sligo market.

The worst circumstance attending the property is that it is so populous. Every farm swarms with little holders, who have each four or five, or at the utmost ten or twelve, acres. They are too poor to improve their land, and yet it is impossible to turn them out, as they have no other means of subsistence. Their condition, however, will be improved as I gradually get rid of the middlemen, or petty landlords.

Ballintrillick Bridge.
Ballintrillick Bridge.

Give us roads

These people take a certain quantity of ground, reserve to themselves a small portion, and let out the rest to undertenants. They make these unfortunate devils pay the rent of the landlord, and an excess, which they keep themselves, and call a profit-rent, while they live upon the part they reserve without paying any rent for it. In my last ride the day was very fine, and the whole tenantry came out to meet me, to the number, in different places, of at least 200 or 300. The universal cry was, 'Give us roads, and no petty landlords'.

Lord Palmerston.
Lord Palmerston from the introduction to:



Lord Palmerston was landlord over his estates in north Sligo until his death in 1865, while he was Prime Minister of the British Empire, and most of the buildings in Cliffoney village and Mullaghmore were built by him. He tried to visit his Sligo estates as often as he could, but there were long gaps – one letter mentions 12 years – between his visits. There is a huge amount of fascinating correspondence relating to Cliffoney and Mullaghmore surviving in the Broadlands archive. Among the rent rolls and leases are complaints, pleas, supplications, petitions, many direct letters to 'his Lordship' with a cover letter by Walker the Agent for Palmerston's Sligo properties.

It seems a large programme of building was undertaken in Cliffoney from 1826 to 1829 when the Church, the school (Cliffoney hall) were constructed and the Cliffoney Inn (O'Donnell's bar) was refurbished. Some of the letters mention that he kept a suite of rooms in Cliffoney Inn, ready for his use.

August 5, 1825.

I have been unlucky in my racing this year as yet, my horses having been ill and lame at the moment when they were to run for stakes which, if well, they would probably have won, and which would have been worth winning. As yet I have just won within two pounds of the amount I have had to pay for stakes and forfeits, so that I have all my training-bills to boot; but I hope to bring myself home yet before the end of the season.

I am going in a fortnight to Sligo again, to see the progress of my harbour, and to settle some further improvements with Mr. Nimmo, the civil engineer whom I have employed to survey my bogs. He recommends me to lay down an iron railroad of about six miles in length, by means of which I should be enabled to bring up a shelly sand from the sea-beach to reclaim the bogs, and to carry down in return to my new harbour turf from the bogs, prepared as fuel; and he thinks that a very considerable export-trade of this turf could be carried on with the town of Sligo and the coast beyond it. This would require a capital of between five and six thousand pounds to be immediately laid out; but I am inclined to think it will answer, and I could get the money advanced by the commissioners in Ireland, who are authorised by Parliament to issue Exchequer bills in aid of public works of this kind for the internal improvement of Ireland, taking repayment by annual instalments of so much per cent, added to the interest. But this matter I shall settle when on the spot.

......I believe I gave you a report of my Irish journey, which was very prosperous and satisfactory. I found the general aspect of affairs in that coimtry rapidly improving. I had Nimmo, the engineer, with me for ten days in Sligo; and we made arrangements for carrying into effect divers operations, which I trust will materially improve my property in the coursej of a few years.

Benbulben from an illustration drawn in 1812.
Benbulben from an illustration drawn in 1812.

Londonderry: October 21, 1826.

I have been, busily employed or actively moving about in Ireland. I went on to Sligo, where I remained eighteen days, the greater part of the time at Cliffony, with Nimmo the engineer, looking over the progress of my improvements, and planning arrangements for the future. My harbour is nearly completed, and will be an excellent one for my purposes: it will be about one and a quarter English acres in extent, and — will have fourteen feet water at high spring tides enough depth to admit vessels of 300 tons, and as much as any harbour on the west coast of Ireland, and it has an excellent anchorage in front of it, where ships may wait the tide to enter.

Mullaghmore harbour.
Mullaghmore harbour.

I have no doubt that in a short time it will be much frequented by the coasting and if I can get people which Nimmo thinks probable — trade to lay down a railroad to it from the end of Loch Erne, a distance of fourteen English miles, it would become the exporting and importing harbour for a large tract of very fertile country lying on the banks of that lake, and would communicate with an inland navigation of nearly forty miles in extent. This speculation, however, I shall leave to others, and only profit by it if they undertake it; in the meantime it will give much scope to the industry of my tenants.

I have begun cultivating my bogs, of which I have about two thousand Irish acres: I have got thirty acres now producing potatoes, turnips, and rape, which in March last were wet unwalkable bog. The process was first to drain them slightly, which was begun in April; then to dig up the surface and pile it in heaps and burn it; then to level the ground, and form it into ridges and plant it with potatoes, or sow it with turnips and rape, throwing the ashes on as manure, and adding a top-dressing of sea-sand and clay; as far as I am able to calculate at present this is likely to answer extremely well.

It seems probable that in the fourth year after an acre of bog has been thus taken into cultivation it may be let on lease at a rent of from twenty to thirty shillings; and that, setting on the one hand all the expense incurred upon the acre in the four years, and on the other all the profit made by selling the crops which it will have produced, and which will consist of potatoes, turnip, or rape the first year, oats the second and third, and hay the fourth, the permanent outlay at the time it is so let cannot exceed 81., and may possibly fall short of that sum, so that a proprietor may in this manner make twelve per cent, at least upon his money, while he gives employment to his tenantry, and provides the means of enlarging their holdings and improving their condition.

I do not expect to be able to accomplish more than about sixty acres a year, and at that rate I shall have scope enough for a tolerable number of years to come. I have, however, begun upon my worst bog, and that which was the most troublesome to cultivate, so that my future progress will be more rapid and less expensive. I have been planting bent upon a great tract of blowing sand, and I think with success.

I have about 600 acres of that description on the coast, and this year I planted bent on about 140 acres, which only cost me £50. The bent was taken up from parts where it grows in clusters, and planted closely in rows fourteen feet apart; it is almost all growing, and I see that in another year it will very much stop the sand, and I have no doubt that, by extending my plantation, I shall succeed in covering the greater part of the 600 acres with green bent, and when that has stopped the blowing of the sand it soon gives way to grass, but it is itself very good food for cattle.

I have established an infant linen market at Cliffony, held once a month, and have no doubt of its prospering and increasing. I have just got two schools on foot, but am at war with my priest, who, as usual, forbids the people to send their children. I know that if I was resident I should beat him in a moment, and I hope to do so, even though an absentee. I am getting the people to build some houses according to a plan of village which Nimmo and I have laid out; and, as a proof that my tenants and I are not upon very bad terms, I found when I arrived there the other day that one fellow was building a good house, two stories high, and to have a slated roof, and which when finished will not cost him less than £150, upon a piece of ground of which he has no lease, and of which he is merely tenant at not of Athens, but of will.

Of course, my friend Timon— will have his building lease, and, as an encouragement, I have promised to give him the cost of his slates. I have established a lime kiln at the foot of a mountain, where I can make lime at 6d. a barrel, which sells in the neighbourhood for 1s. a barrel; and, by contenting myself with a profit of 1d., I can undersell the others, and supply the people with an article of great importance to them, both for the improvement of their land and the cleanliness of their houses. On the whole, I find a considerable improvement going on in the country, and I trust its progress will be accelerated by the operations I am carrying on. They really are a good and simple-minded people, though they quarrel among each other without end or reason, and get most joyously drunk whenever they lose a relation or friend.

A correspondent of Sounder's News Letter give the following picture of the late Viscount as an Irish landlord:

"Lord PALMERSTON, besides owning some eight thousand acres in and around Dublin, where the tenantry did not require any fostering care, the most of the property being building ground, held two large estates in the County Sligo -- one near Ballytore, chiefly let to large farmers and graziers; and the ether at Cliffoney, tenanted by small holders. This estate, let to four or five middlemen, at the expiration of the leases, on the deaths of WILLIAM IV, and the King of Hanover, was found covered with a numerous population, paying exorbitant rents.

His Lordship, while giving annuities, or sixty-one years' leases of adequate farms, to the representative of the middlemen, let the rest of the estate to the sub-tenants at one-half or one-third of their previous rents, doing away with the "rundle" or "common" system, and giving each tenant his own holding. The estate was squared without one eviction, all wishing to go to America getting free passages, with permission to sell their cattle and grain, their arrears of rent forgiven, and a sum of money, according to the number of the family, on landing.

A story is told that when his agents, Messrs. STEWARTS and KINCAID, had arranged for the rate of passages. His Lordship wrote to the shipowner that if the rates agreed upon would not allow the best treatment and food on board to "his people," the contract should be canceled, and one made to treat then well. On being informed that the merchant was satisfied with the price, he replied, to give "a tumbler of hot rum punch every Sunday after dinner to his people," which was carried out in three or four ships; but on being remonstrated with by the clergy, that this was a bad example, he ordered the shipowner in the other vessels to give coffee and biscuit daily after dinner. These little traits will show the character of the man.

On the Cliffoney estate, which comprises nearly the whole parish of Ahamlish, and a portion of others, he settled on the parish priest a glebe of seven acres, with a house that cost £600, for the use of the parish forever, the respected priest being Rev. MALACHI BRENNAN, who calls it "Palmerston Glebe," and we are happy to say that this gentleman will be one of the honorary chaplains to the incoming Lord Mayor. He offered to the Protestant vicar of the parish double the quantity of land, which was refused because a glebe was not built, but which Lord PALMERSTON has kept for the next incumbent, beiog let only from year to year, and called the Glebe Lands. We trust that his successor will carry out his views in this respect.

Though having no residence in Ireland, he could not be ranked as an absentee, as he spent from one half to two-thirds of the Cliffoney rental in building the harbor at Mullaghmore, improving the estate by drainage and roads, and planting bent and the pinus maritima over 1,600 acres of blowing sands, which effectually stopped their spreading over the property. The tenant-right on this estate sells at 10 to 12 per acre, but the consent of the agents must be obtained as to the purchaser."

Chinese junks, 1824.
Chinese junks, 1824.