|Clare County Library||
in County Clare 1534 - 1911
John Curwen, Observation on Agriculture, 1813
John Christian Curwen came from a Manx family. On his marriage to an heiress he adopted the surname Curwen. He represented the constituency of Carlise and Cumberland in parliament for close on forty years. A pioneering agriculturist, he was awarded the silver medal of the Irish Farming Society. The occasion of his Irish tour was Curwen’s retirement from parliament; he wished to divert his thoughts from England and by observing conditions in Ireland suggest means by which living standards might be improved. He arrived from Scotland in the company of a Manx lawyer in August 1813. Bringing their own carriage and coachman, the party travelled round the country visiting such well known tourist attractions as the Giant’s Causeway and the Lakes of Killarney. Curwen was passionately interested in agriculture and much of his tour is taken up with farming methods, crop yields and the reliance on potatoes. Coming from Galway, Curwen intended to visit the ruins at Kilmacduagh, but finding the road could not accommodate his carriage he proceeded on the turnpike to Ennis. His favourable comments on the neatness and opulence of the county town contrasts sharply with the views of travellers twenty years later. In dairying he noted the absence of cheese making and the dominance of butter. Grassland, reflecting the continuing prosperity, commanded rents four times the amount recorded by Arthur Young in 1778. Indeed Curwen’s whole work appears to have been inspired by Young’s tour and regular comparisons are made between the state of agriculture in 1813 and as it was recorded by Young thirty five years previously.
The country, for some little distance before we arrive at Ennis, is broken into a variety of hills, on which the crops appeared to be very good. The immediate approach to the town is delightful; every cabin has its garden, and these we were gratified in seeing highly cultivated. Such an appearance of comfort we had not before witnessed. The town is celebrated for its onions, the growth of which is much attended to, and they are sent to other parts of Ireland from this neighbourhood. There seems to be also a great profusion of the common fruits. I do not know that I was ever more pleased with the entrance to any town. In itself, Ennis is tolerably neat, and has a thriving appearance; it has a communication by water with the Shannon, at the distance of two miles. The remains of the abbey, in the best style of architecture of any Gothic building we had yet seen, we had an opportunity of observing at [Ennis]. Within two miles of the town is the castle of [Clare]; as a source of influence to government, the appointments about it may have utility to them, but it would be difficult to discover any other.
The recent act against illicit distillation, imposing fines on the parishes where private stills are discovered, has created much discontent. The people cannot be reconciled to sugar whiskey - potcheene is their darling liquor. We offered some whiskey to a fruit woman, which she refused; exclaiming ‘The country was in danger of being poisoned by the abominable parliament combustible stuff’ - but as soon as she understood it to be real honest potcheene, she received it with great courtesy. On the whole the comparative comfort which prevades all classes here makes Ennis one of the most interesting little places we have yet seen.
The first turnpikes we have met with are between this town and Gort; and I must say, at the same time, that in the three hundred miles we have travelled, this is among the worst specimens of road we have encountered. A serious evil attends the rearing of cabins close to the high roads. The children make them their play-ground, and heap on them numbers of stones in various directions, so as to require great attention in driving, to avoid them. The inconvenience is especially found as the day closes, - it is incumbent on the surveyors of the highways, or the persons charged with the care of them, to have this nuisance removed.
Limerick, Sept. 8, 1813. In the neighbourhood of Ennis there are many great dairy-farms; and though there did not appear to be any impediment to the making of good cheese, the produce from the cows was almost exclusively employed in making butter. No attention at present is paid to the selection of stock, the greater proportion of the milch cows being from the Kerry breed, which are very neat small animals, much resembling the Kylo, though the land on which they depasture is admirable, and equal to sustain the largest species of cattle.
Sir Edward O’Brian’s beautiful seat of Dromoland is about four miles from Ennis. The house seems modern; great additions have lately been made to the pleasure grounds, and the plantations are extensive over the domain, which is happily broken into the great inequality of surface. Sir Edward farms on a large scale; last year he grew one hundred and twenty acres of wheat, and his green crops bore a good proportion to those of his grain. One hundred head of oxen are fed annually for market, besides a great number of sheep. A grass farm adjoining his residence is now to be let; the rent demanded is six guineas per acre, which is four times as much rent as Mr A. Young speaks of in the year 1778. I certainly do not know of a soil superior in quality: as a proof of the value in which it is held, a level has been driven in limestone for a considerable way in order to drain a few acres of it, which are liable to be flooded.
Great improvements are making in the road near Dromoland, and a large cut is nearly completed, which will considerably reduce the ascent of the hill. We stopped to take a view of the mode in which the work proceeded, by a number of labourers, under the superintendance of a manager. It was really farcical to observe half a dozen stout fellows loading a car, each not lifting, at any time, more than five pounds weight in their shovels; two English labourers would have done more in the same time than all six. The poor fellows petitioned very earnestly for tobacco; but they would have been much affronted to have had it supposed they were capable of begging. Their wages were thirteen pence a day.
As there was no other place where our horses could be fed, we breakfasted at Newmarket, though but eight miles from Ennis. The country we had passed through was very rich and beautiful, and the inn at Newmarket neat and orderly.
The new road to Limerick is quiet flat, and but twelve miles; the old one fourteen, and very hilly. We were led by the absence of guide posts into the old road, and while our distressed horses suffered by climbing over Clonnelly hill, we became gratified by a noble prospect of the Shannon, from Limerick to Foyle’s Island, at the distance of nearly thirty miles. At the foot of the hill is Bonnelly the seat of the O’Brians, the Princes of Thomond.
Meadow land here is from six to seven pounds an acre: the grass is sold and built into hay by the purchaser, who pikes it on the ground, and there it remains until it is paid for; this arrangement accounts for our seeing so much unstacked. Indeed the general management in matters of husbandry is very wretched. Nothing can be less excusable than the neglected state of the grounds within four miles of Limerick, notwithstanding the excessive price at which they are rented. The potatoes are cultivated in lazy beds of an undue proportional width, which must be highly prejudicial to the crop, while the want of thatching to the ricks of grain must subject the farmers to loss, against which the enormous rents and small produce might be supposed to be a sufficient guarantee.
The hills which extend from Clonnelly to Limerick were covered with coppice wood. We found the peasantry busily employed in threshing out their grain in the open fields: their cabins seemed to be extremely poor and wretched; and, if I am correct in estimating the general poverty of the inhabitants by the appearance of the sex, whose hair was no longer the object of their attention, but hung in disfiguring disorder and neglect, I should conclude the people of these southern districts to suffer more privations than those in the north.
Taken from J. C. Curwen, Observations on the State of Ireland, Principally Directed to its Agriculture and Rural Population; In a series of Letters Written on a Tour Through that Country, 2 vols. (London 1818), i, pp 361-7.