history of the various branches of the Bellew family provides
us with a fascinating glimpse of the fate of Catholic landowners
in the Ireland created by the Cromwellian and Williamite confiscations
and not undone until the nineteenth century. The family
were of Anglo-Norman origin and had acquired extensive in Meath
and Louth, almost all of which they lost during the seventeenth
century, although were among the fortunate Catholic gentry who
were granted modest estates in Connaught as compensation.
Harvey provides us with a valuable glimpse of the process whereby
the transplantation to Connaught took place. She also
takes a detailed examination of how this extraordinary family
managed to expand dramatically its landholdings over the course
of the century that followed. Good fortune played some role
in this; the family that settled at Bellew produced only one
male heir in the first two generations of the eighteenth century,
and so avoided the worst consequences of the so-called ‘Gaveling
Act’. But the fact that Galway had a strong cadre of active
Protestant families who felt secure enough to allow many of
the Catholics to ignore the worst aspects of the repressive
laws, helped too.
Mount Bellew estate in County Galway provides an excellent opportunity
for the agrarian historian to examine the finer points of eighteenth-century
estate management. The Bellews leased large tracts of
land to grazier middlemen, who sub-let parts of their tenancies
to under-tenants. The Bellews also rented smaller lots
to more modest tenant farmers and to cottiers though, indicating
that the middleman system, while employed extensively here,
did not operate to the exclusion of considerable direct renting
from landlord to poorer members of this rural society.
After the middle of the century, rents on Mount Bellew rose
steadily but the agrarian disturbances that affected many other
parts of Ireland in the latter half of the century had little
impact here; the Bellew properties were less disturbed than
other estates in Galway, which themselves were unusually quiet
compared to parts of Munster and Leinster. Harvey postulates
that the common religion of landlord and tenant in this case
(and the vast majority of the Bellew tenants of all sizes seem
to have been Catholics) largely explains this relatively harmonious
many Catholic gentry families in eighteenth-century Ireland,
the Bellews had to make significant adjustments to allow for
the economic constraints placed on them by the Penal Laws, even
if these laws were not. always strictly enforced. Trade
was an important avenue of advancement for many, and various
branches of the Bellews engaged in significant commercial activity,
some of it international, most of it domestic. Harvey
notes that many of the Catholic merchants were not trading on
their own account though, but more as trading middlemen in a
commercial world that was still largely controlled by Protestants.
Additionally, like most wealthy Catholics, the various branches
of the Bellews sent many of their sons to the continent to be
educated and several of these went into military careers there.
A few joined the ranks of the priesthood, and one rose to the
rank of bishop.
her last, and in many respects most intriguing chapter, Harvey
outlines the family’s involvement in the politics of the Catholic
relief campaign in the final three decades of the century.
Sir Patrick Bellew of Barmeath was especially prominent here
and was an important member of the Catholic Committee, arguing
for a moderately activist approach. Harvey’s discussion
of his involvement reveals details of the inner workings of
the committee, as well as insights into the tensions within
the Catholic movement generally in the 1790s. The rise
of the United Irishmen exacerbated many of those tensions but
all branches of the Bellews remained aloof from that organisation.
the nineteenth century the Bellew families remained in the ranks
of the landed class but with the political and economic changes
that took place then they ceased to be regarded as ‘Catholic
gentry’ and became simply ‘gentry’ in the eyes of their tenantry.
For this reason the family faded from public life in the late
nineteenth century and the last members finally sold the Mount
Bellew estate, which was much reduced as a result of the land
reforms, in the late 1930s.
story of the Bellews is a fascinating one and Karen Harvey has
told it well. She has done a particularly good job of
analysing the general economic and political milieu in which
the family operated, and the book is as much about the Catholic
gentry in Ireland in general in the eighteenth century as it
is about this family alone. It would have been interesting,
perhaps, to have seen more detailed treatment of the management
of the estate and to have been more intimately introduced to
the individual family members and their family lives.
Harvey has written a good book, none the less, and one that
has made an important contributions to our understanding of
a century that is getting increasingly serious attention from
Irish historians’ Daniel J. Gahan, Irish Studies Review.