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 The Bellews of Mount Bellew
A Catholic Gentry Family in Eighteenth-Century Ireland
Karen J. Harvey

 Irish Studies Review
‘In the Introduction to her fine book, Karen Harvey suggests that her intention is to explain the fact that in 1767 a member of a Catholic landlord family from County Galway, who owned some ten thousand acres, could complain that things were so difficult for them in Ireland that he was contemplating emigrating to the continent.  Harvey’s focus, she notes, is to be on the Catholic gentry of the eighteenth century, and especially on families like the Bellews of Mount Bellew, County Galway and Barmeath, County Louth, who refused to conform to the established Church throughout the century.  Harvey bases her research primarily on the private correspondence and estate records of the Bellew family itself, and concludes in her epilogue that they were one of the most successful Catholic gentry families in Ireland in that century. For them at least, ‘The existence of the Penal Laws resulted in a life which was rarely, if ever, uncomfortable, but was one which could never be completely secure’ (p. 175).

The 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.

The 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 situation.

Like 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.

In 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.

In 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.

The 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.

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