Estates and Demesnes

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Estates and Demesnes

Visually significant components in the modern Irish landscape, estates and demesnes are particular Irish expressions of a system of landownership and social control that was characteristic of much of western Europe and had its origins in the feudal manorial system of the Middle Ages. They have been mainly associated with the Protestant Ascendancy class in Ireland, though some estates were owned by Catholic families and others who were not part of the ascendancy. It might be more accurate to characterize them as being held by a heterogeneous group of landowners who belonged to the "gentry."


The estate system grew out of an amalgam of Anglo-Norman medieval manors, lands which were confiscated by the Crown and granted to or purchased by new British planters and settlers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in such projects as the Munster (1586) and Ulster (1610) plantations and the Cromwellian settlement in the 1650s, as well as some Gaelic sept lands which survived confiscation. Plantations introduced many representatives of the new mercantilist British state, like Richard Boyle (later earl of Cork) or Moses Hill (later the marquis of Downshire) in County Down, who were intent on the vigorous economic development of their new lands. Some landowners in the eighteenth century owned estates in both England and Ireland.


Estates varied greatly in size and economic capacity, reflecting the impact of initial plantation settlements, subsequent speculative land purchases, incremental additions to the original holding, marriage endowments, and random sales. As a result of defective land surveys, the initial plantation schemes in Munster and Ulster sometimes allotted estate properties that were too large and beyond the investment potential of the Undertakers or Adventurers (who "undertook" to plant the land with settlers or who "adventured" their capital in the enterprise). The Downshire and Kildare estates comprised 120,000 and 67,000 acres respectively, but most were properties of less than 10,000 acres. Economic viability, however, was determined more by land quality: the Lansdowne estate in Kerry (95,000 acres) consisted mostly of mountain and bogland.

The plantation of a landed elite in Ireland had the economic objective of stabilizing regional economic and political conditions. Estates were leased in farms to tenants for specified periods at agreed rents. Tenants were bound by their contracts to develop the landholding, build a house, pay the rent, and so on. Leases reflected contemporary economic conditions. During the seventeenth-century wars and economic recession, leases were long and cheap in order to attract tenants. Many obtained long leases on large portions of estates, which they subsequently subleased in smaller sections at higher rents, and shorter leases. These leaseholds produced what became known as the middleman system, which in places allowed fragmentation of landholdings and the growth of unsustainable population densities. By the time of the Napoleonic wars and the wartime boom in agriculture, rents rose significantly and leases were shortened by landlords (in many cases smaller farms were let on annual tenancies). Population rose rapidly as farms were subdivided on many estates in the decades prior to the Great Famine. In general, subdivision among tenant families, and subletting to landless laborers or cottiers occurred most often on poorly managed estates, especially in more marginal western districts that had little economic potential beyond rental farming. In regions of commercial agriculture, estates were more carefully managed by their owners, with tenant leases and laborer numbers controlled.

Larger properties usually had an array of estate officials to help with management, such as land agents, stewards and bailiffs, as well as an office holding records of the tenancies and the estate's business—of vital importance to modern historians. Management practice often varied between resident and nonresident (or absentee) owners. Smaller, more fragmented properties, often on poorer lands that may have had a history of speculative ownership, may have had a less alert management. There were, for example, many estates where the tenants were largely unknown to the owners in the 1840s.

These differences were reflected in landscape and settlement patterns that echo down to the present. The texture of farms and fields, hedges and trees, road networks, and housing density reflected varied management strategies. For example, estates in south Monaghan, which contained many house clusters in the 1770s, were characterized by dispersed farmsteads by the 1830s as a result of land-reform policies pursued by Lord Bath, an influential landlord from Wiltshire in England.

In the eighteenth century the more innovative landlords and land agents were preoccupied with improving their estates, introducing enclosure, rearranging settlement, planting trees, setting up model farms, and offering prizes to encourage better husbandry. Improvement extended to the local economy, with landowners getting involved in the development of towns and villages as focal points for markets and industry on their estates. By the mid-eighteenth century, the linen industry was developing and colonies of weavers were established in villages like Collon, Co. Louth, and Monivea, Co. Galway. Estate towns like Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, Hillsborough, Co. Down, and Kenmare, Co. Kerry, as well as encouraging the local economy, were important marks of status for the landowner.

In an age of paternalism some landlords considered that they had responsibilities as social improvers too, and appointed moral agents to look after the welfare of their tenants, especially to stem over-indulgence in whiskey drinking. Most ideas on improvement were encountered in England or on the Grand Tour in Europe. Landlords were also patrons of the arts and many Big Houses contained paintings and sculptures bought on the Continent. By the 1840s ideas on improvement encompassed schemes of assisted emigration in order to relieve many overpopulated estates of surplus tenantry.


Demesne is a medieval term for lands set aside for the lord of the manor, especially deer parks, which continued in some instances into modern demesnes. By the 1650s the demesne was essentially the home farm of the landlord, and by the late seventeenth century its design began to incorporate fashionable gardens laid out in the classicalism of Le Nôtre. But by the time of the mideighteenth-century romantic movement, pastoral designs from nature became popular and most demesne landscapes are legacies of this period. Irish demesnes are distinguished by high enclosing walls to keep out poachers and the populace from what were called the pleasure grounds of the landlord. Rising estate incomes in the eighteenth century led to increased investment in demesnes involving a range of elements, which were as much a mark of contemporary fashion as a necessary function. Grand Tours of the Continent and seasonal visiting by the landed class led to the diffusion of fashionable gardening and architectural ideas.Vistas; winding avenues; serpentine lakes; ponds and canals, kitchen, walled, and exotic gardens; fanciful gate lodges; boathouses; Swiss cottages; shell houses; glasshouses for soft fruit; icehouses for summer drinks; and extravagant follies appeared in the most prestigious properties to match imposing mansion houses and modern farm buildings. Many examples remain as important resources of cultural tourism today—Carton, Castletown, Florence Court, Powerscourt, Kilruddery. There are also many derelict demesne landscapes and Big Houses, which reflect the demise of the estate system following the Land Acts and the burning of many houses by the IRA during the War of Independence.

SEE ALSO Country Houses and the Arts; Landscape and Settlement; Rural Settlement and Field Systems; Woodlands


Crawford, William H. "The Significance of Landed Estates in Ulster, 1600–1820." Irish Economic and Social History (1990): 44–61.

Dooley, Terence. The Decline of the Big House in Ireland. 2001.

Proudfoot, Lindsay J. "Spatial Transformation and Social Agency: Property, Society, and Improvement, c. 1700 to 1900." In An Historical Geography of Ireland, edited by Brian J. Graham and Lindsay J Proudfoot. 1993.

Reeves-Smyth, Terence. "Demesnes." In Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape, edited by Frederick H. A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan, and Mathew Stout. 1997.

Somerville-Large, Peter. The Irish Country House. 1995.

Patrick J. Duffy

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Estates and Demesnes

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