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|Short Study of a Transplanted
Family in the Seventeenth Century
by Edward MacLysaght
Patrick the Sheriff (1564-1625) and William the Sheriff (1590-1645)
Up to this point I have had to take a certain amount for granted: I am not fully satisfied that William the smith was Edmond the goldsmith’s son. In genealogical matters it is wrong to jump to conclusions and nothing should be accepted without positive authentic proof From here on, however, I have abundant documentary evidence not only of the succession from father to son, but of the activities and character, and in some cases even the personal appearance of the people in whom we are interested.
I have assumed that Patrick, who is the next link in the chain was the son of William, the Kilmallock smith: it is very probable anyhow that he was the grandson of Edmond McLysaght, the Limerick goldsmith. Patrick was born in 1564 and died sixty years later in 1625. He was thus about forty years old when the “Flight of the Earls” signalized the end of the old order and the beginning of the three centuries during which England really held and ruled Ireland as a subject nation. Of course being himself a resident in Limerick city the change would not have been so apparent to him as to a man brought up in the clan tradition. He had associations with the country too, for he was lessee of the manor of Tullybrackey from 1595 but that fertile and open region of Co. Limerick came under the influences which were gradually undermining the old clan system at least two generations sooner than west Limerick, Kerry and even many parts of Co. Clare.
We now find the family assuming the social position it has held, with vicissitudes of course, ever since. In reading the history of the seventeenth century we hear a good deal of both “merchants”, and “minor gentry,” and those two phrases exactly describe the Limerick McLysaghts of the time. Patrick was a successful and respected citizen with a business in the city and a country place a dozen or so miles outside it. His son William (B. 1590, D. 1645) in due course inherits the place and is described as “of Tullybrackey, gent,” as well as “of Limerick City, merchant.”
It will be interesting to consider carefully not only the daily life of these Limerick city merchants and their recreations, but the nature of the business they carried on too. This I hope to do eventually, restricting myself, however, for the most part to the trade of Limerick, since the nature and extent of the commerce and industry of Ireland as a whole in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has already been thoroughly examined by Prof. George O’Brien, Miss A. Longfield and other writers.
As in more recent times, seventeenth century properties were often mortgaged up to the hilt by the improvident landowning class - the tradition of whose lavish hospitality and extravagance, which has lasted, in an attenuated and less spectacular form, down to our own pre-war times, was already old in 1658 when we find the poet Daithi O’Bruadair lamenting its decay. A new type was thus entering the ranks of the landed gentry as a result, and William McLysaght still further consolidated his position as a member of that class by acquiring South Ballynanty, a property of some 500 statute acres adjacent to Tullybrackey and Bruff. In his case it was the Whites who were the mortgagers, but the connexion between the families was closer than a mere business transaction, as William’s daughter married one of those Whites and they were all transplanted together as Irish Papists in the Cromwellian settlement.
I have shown how our particular branch of the family became landed proprietors of some standing in the Co. Limerick during the first half of the seventeenth century, and later on I shall have occasion to refer to their relatives the McLysaghts of Adare, who were also in a position of property owners of some consideration in the country.
But before dealing with that most interesting period covering the Wentworth regime and the Cromwellian War, as a result of which all the Co. Limerick McLysaghts were deprived of every acre of their property, I have something more to say about Patrick and his son William, of Tullybrackery, both of whom in turn filled the office of Sheriff of Limerick city.
Nowadays we are accustomed to regard people in Ireland as being immutably Catholic or Protestant; and the appalling persecution and degradation of Irish Catholic in the eighteenth century has completely coloured the view of most of us to the religious situation since Luther and Henry VIII between them broke up the old uniformity of creed. But in actual fact the position, particularly before Cromwell’s time, was entirely different from that existing under the real Penal Laws, which followed the final defeat of the Irish cause after the Treaty of Limerick. Religious tests were imposed, it is true, on men before they could fill certain offices, but such oaths were taken quite carelessly and were regarded more in the light of political formalities than as religious tests.
As far back as 1553 we read of “Desmond reverting to the old religion”  after having conformed for a while; in 1573 the citizens of Dublin itself are described by Dr. Wolf as almost all Catholics, especially the natives “though they are forced to go to the communion and preaching of the heretics.”
Our Patrick seems to have been even more easy-going in such matters than most of his contemporaries, as we find him taking the oath as sheriff in 1612, and again in 1616, when the famous “Battle of the Mayors” was at its height, after David Rice and John Rochford had been deposed for refusing the oath. Ferrar and Lenihan both state this “Patrick Lissaught” was a Protestant and I presume their original authority for this statement is the note in the unpublished History of Limerick written by Father James White in 1738, a MS copy of which is now in the Royal Irish Academy; but there is no other evidence of this, while there is good reason to believe that he was a Catholic, though by no means an enthusiastic or militant one. It was political rather than religious feeling which ran high in the Limerick Corporation during those years and we find the mayor being deposed in 1616 for refusing the identical oath he took when he held the office previously 1611-12.
This Father White is of more than passing interest to us, since he tells us himself that William the Sheriff was “great grandfather to James White the complier of this book.” He was, therefore, the grandson of Catherine McLysaght who, we know, married a White. Father White does not, however, mention that Patrick the Sheriff was his great great grandfather though such was of course also the case.
Patrick’s profession of Protestantism, if indeed he ever ceased to be Catholic, must have been temporary; but there would have been nothing unusual in various members of one family professing different creeds at that period, which we must remember before organised persecution had re-aroused the true spirit of the Church in her priests and bishops and crystallized the half-hearted and vacillating beliefs of various families. It was quite common for example for a man to attend the Protestant church for some reason of policy while sending his wife and children to Mass on the same day; in all probability Patrick did this while he was Sheriff, at the same time hearing Mass as a matter of course whenever he happened to be at his country home near Bruff on a Sunday or holiday. As he was quite well off he may even have kept a priest more or less as his private chaplain, a very common custom among the gentry of Ireland in the seventeenth century.
This state of affairs, of course, led to many confusing and even comic situations; and we have an example in our own family, the description of which occupies seven papers of the State Papers; a case against Edmund Sexton (Junior), his wife, and Catherine McLysaght his sister, for preventing the Protestant clergy from having access to Edmund Sexton (Senior) when he was dying. By the way of comment I may mention that old Sexton was buried in Our Lady’s (Catholic) Church.
The mention of the year 1636 reminds me that Patrick’s son William was also Sheriff of Limerick, and that in 1636; but the exciting controversy which convulsed the Corporation, and probably greatly diverted the citizens, twenty years before had quite blow over; Catholics held such offices either by connivance or disregard of the regulations without hindrance, and in 1626 the Mayor and Sheriffs even went publicly to Mass.
We are now within five years of the outbreak of the War in 1641, which was to change completely the fortunes of every Irish Catholic family, including ours. Before passing on to this time I will digress to follow a short way the branch of the family from which the present Lord Lisle is descended. We will not be concerned with them very much and their history from the date of the Peerage can be found in Burke or any similar standard book of reference. In any case my work is concerned with the minor gentry, while they were extensive landlords and influential people, until the extravagance of one or two generations reduced them in comparatively recent times to their original level. They have a common ancestor with the rest of us, and as they founded and maintained their fortunes by an early and consistent espousal of the Protestant and English cause, this point, when I have just been discussing the politico-religious questions of the time, seems an appropriate place to mention them. They descend from Patrick the Sheriff, whose opinions, both religious and national, even allowing for the different point of view of the times, were such as to cause us no surprise that one of his sons became a Protestant. This was Thomas (b.1596), the father of John, who was a cornet in the Parliamentarian army under Inchiquin, and thence in direct line to the first Lord Lisle. Though the relationship between the two branches of the family became of course, increasingly distant with each successive generation, they never entirely lost touch with each other, and even in 1742, in the very worst of the penal times, we find the great grandson of the Patrick who was dispossessed by Cromwell, another William, himself an almost bankrupt Papist, being kindly received by his rich and influential Protestant “relative” Lord Lisle. But that was a full century later on.
In all the documents dealing with the period 1500-1800 which I have been able to consult the only actual record of any of our family having been educated at a school or college is in the case of this Thomas. The records of Catholic schools of course have not been preserved. Thomas was a student of Trinity College in 1615, when he was nineteen years of age. It is interesting to note that among his contemporaries at the new seat of learning, which was then just beginning to develop from a mere school into a real university, were Thomas, son of Maurice Fitzgerald, and Fergal O’Gara, the patron of the famous Four Masters. The students at that time included a considerable number of Catholics. The smaller gentry could not afford to send their sons to Oxford and Cambridge, though it was not uncommon for sons of the chiefs to go there even as late as 1641. It is at the beginning of the seventeenth century that we find a continental education coming into fashion.
The universities at Salamanca, Louvain, etc, were then at their best. This growing practice certainly had a beneficial effect on culture, for it had fallen to a low ebb at this period, at least among the classes which had become more or less anglicized; in 1623 we are informed that “none of the common people and few of the (Irish) gentry can either write or read”; but the old Irish culture still survived side by side with an almost medieval style of living, as witness the poems of Pierce Ferriter, whose name not only as a Gaelic poet but also a heroic figure in the War of 1641-1651 is unaccountably absent from most histories of the time.
There are records of schools for Catholics of position being conducted in Limerick by Jesuits and others, and we may suppose that it was in these that our people were educated, at least as late as the transplantation after the Cromwellian War. In several of his letters and reports, dated 1672 and following years, Dr. O’Brennan mentions that the suppression of Catholic schools in his diocese had resulted in Catholics going to Protestant schools, but with little more than a temporary effect on their religious beliefs; and the works of contemporary writers contain many interesting references to this question, with which I hope to deal fully in my book. It would be outside the scope of the present essay to pursue it further here.
Patrick the Sheriff, as we have seen, was something of a Tadhg an dá thaobh. William the Sheriff, while sturdier in his religious opinions as a Catholic, was not over-zealous in his public duties, and we find him at one time fined for non-attendance as a juror  and at another getting into trouble for failing to levy a decree as Sheriff. He also happened to be Sheriff on the occasion of Strafford’s state visit to Limerick. If he did not actually absent himself he did not take any part worthy of note; but a first-hand perusal of the Arthure MSS. a most important source of information which I have not yet had an opportunity of consulting at first hand, may tell us a good deal more about William the Sheriff and other members of the family, the Arthurs and McLysaghts being closely related by frequent intermarriages.
It is stated in the anonymous MS. In T.C.D. (ascribed by Prof. O’Brien to Sir Henry Bourgchier, date 1623) that the Sheriffs of the time had introduced abuses into the working of the courts under their control, much to their own advantage and profit. I dare say, if such practices were in general in the time of either Patrick or William, they, as Sheriffs, were not above taking advantage of them.