Ireland’s Vulture Funds in 17th century Wicklow

With the ending of the Nine Years War in 1603, Ireland enjoyed nearly 40 years of peace. During this time, more plantations were visited on the island, which meant an influx of industrious immigrants, anxious to make their fortunes. Despite periodic harvest failures, trade and wealth increased. The proceeds from this activity then became capital looking for investment, but in the 17th century, there were no banks in Ireland.

The Dublin statute Staple

In the mid-14th century, the English government had instituted a mechanism for the control of exports, which later became known as the statute Staple. By the late 16th century the Staple had also taken on the task of facilitating loans, providing a mechanism by which an investor might recover their money if repayment was not forthcoming.

In terms of the O’Byrne country, it is important to be aware that the O’Byrnes of Crioch Branach (the area of the coastal plain and low foothills, from the Downs to just north of Wicklow town) had, for over a century at this point, been firm supporters of the English government in Ireland (unlike the more westerly O’Byrnes and the O’Tooles). The eastern O’Byrnes had abandoned the raiding of south county Dublin in return for government subventions to guard the area. Many of them were accounted ‘gentlemen’, which meant they were part of the local elite and had adopted English dress, manners, and hairstyle. They were likely fluent enough in English to engage in trade negotiations

‘Funny Money’

It is our great good fortune to have the records of the Dublin statute Staple from 1596 to 1687. These reside in the Dublin Pearse St. library. From them we can gain the information that between the years of 1616 and 1639, nearly £21,000 (a current day equivalent of some £100 million) was invested in the county of Wicklow by participants in this Staple and a few other mortgages mentioned in the Mount Kennedy estate papers. Of this amount, only £64 was accounted for by loans among local people, specifically O’Byrnes and O’Cullens, not using the staple. These loans were for sums such as £5, £15 5s, or 40s with a milk cow and her calf. They were relatively modest sums that were realistically repayable by the one taking the loan. But investors using the Staple generally only dealt in much larger sums, at least £100 or multiples thereof. The advent of what would have been ‘funny money’ by local Wicklow standards of the early 1600s, significantly changed the stakes in the borrowing game.

With the influx of settlers into the Wicklow area in the mid-1620s, there would have been mounting pressure on the Gaelic gentlemen to keep up with the living standards of the likes of the Earl of Meath in Kilruddery, recently given his lands by the king. But their income was primarily from livestock farming carried on by their tenants, members of their septs, and would have been fairly modest. A number of harvest failures in the 1620s would have reduced even that income. This financial vulnerability was noted by Dublin businessmen, and they began to offer mortgages to these freeholders of Wicklow land. It was also at this time that Robert Kennedy, a clerical officer in the court of the Exchequer, Dublin, was in the midst of his gradual acquisition of land in Newcastle barony.

A gradual transition of landownership from local Gaelic men.

A good illustration of this gradual process in the transition of landownership from local Gaelic men to wealthy men from Dublin is the story of Farrell O’Cullen. His surviving records can be found in the estate papers of Mount Kennedy and the Dublin statute Staple. The O’Cullens were a professional family, the traditional physicians to the MacMurrough-Kavanaghs, and as such would have had the status of gentlemen. Farrell’s earliest extant document of 1610 describes how his father, Connor O’Cullen of Ballygarny, passed on possession of the townland of Cooladoyle to him. This was an important piece of property, containing as it did a mill and a sizeable village. (In the early 17th century, Cooladoyle was much larger and would have included more of the land south of the Altidore river, with Ballygarny on the other side.) Then, in 1616, Connor sold to his brother Farrell the townland of Carriglough (the boggy part of Tithewer) and the town area of Ballygarny (probably the area around the motte and down by the river). Despite this income, Connor still needed money, so he mortgaged his three acres of Kilmacullagh (the east side of Newtown main street) to an O’Byrne for £12. His son Matthew rented a portion of Kilmurry at £2/year from William Parsons, then Surveyor General, in 1618.

From property owner to landless

In 1619, however, Farrell (son of Connor) got involved with the Dublin Staple. He was one of four men who together took a £300 loan from Patrick Barnewall of Shankill. (Luke O’Toole, later leader of the rebellion, was another one of the four.) Access to such a sum of money apparently went to Farrell’s head, as two years later, he individually got £200 from Robert Clony, a Dublin tallow chandler. Only a year later he was one of five men to get £600 from the Shankill Barnewalls. They must have been giddy with their sudden wealth.

In February of 1623, however, the wider world meddled in O’Cullen’s property, when the king gave Cooladoyle, Carriglough, Ballygarny and Keane O’Cullen’s (probably a relative) lands in the Ashford area as a grant to Sir Lawrence Esmond of Wexford. Farrell then had to buy back his lands, said to be for only the cost of an administrative fee. But this then made him liable for a yearly fee to the sheriff of Wicklow of £1 15s, and 13 pence. So, back to the Staple. He got another £600 from Robert Clony, but this time Robert took the townland of Cooladoyle, with turf cutting rights in Carriglough.
Keane O’Cullen then decided to give Farrell all his land in the Ashford area, in return for which Farrell would pay Keane’s debt to ‘Lady Spark’ (a fancy name for an otherwise unknown woman), and Keane would owe Farrell £200. In January 1624, Farrell mortgaged Carriglough to a Ralph Leventhorpe, of Dublin, for £80. In April, Robert Clony rented Farrell’s land of Cooladoyle back to him for over £26/year. Finally, in 1626, Robert Kennedy swooped in and bought everyone out. He again leased Cooladoyle and the Ashford lands to Farrell, but this time for over £32/year. At the end of 1630, Farrell gave up his lease, unable to pay the rent. This is a sad story, of how a local man went from being a property owner to being landless.

A day of reckoning was looming.

As English (and some Dutch) settlers began to establish themselves on Wicklow land, generally leased from a few major English landholders, they began to coax much larger and more varied yields from their holdings. By 1641, as recorded in the reports of the depositions taken shortly after the rebellion, there were 42 claims for losses of £180 and above, with 12 of them being for over £1,000. (The rebels had stripped them of all moveable goods and burned their buildings.) Even if these records are inflated to some extent, it becomes possible to see that Protestant farms in Co. Wicklow were in the business of providing for the needs of Dublin, not only in terms of food, but other commodities as well. Milk, butter, cheese, beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, honey, four varieties of grain (wheat, rye, oats, and barley), hay, peas, vegetables, and malt were being produced in marketable quantities. Further, leather, timber, bark (for tanning), wool, charcoal, worked iron goods, fishing nets, and masts and spars for ships could be got from the county.
Driven by such a rapidly changing economic environment, leading O’Byrnes, O’Tooles, and O’Cullens had borrowed nearly £14,000 in just over 20 years. Given what we know of the previous level of borrowing, and their modest income levels, it is quite clear that they had gotten in well over their heads financially. Staple loans were secured on the lands of the debtors. Early on, it may have been possible for them to turn a blind eye on their obligations without consequences. But as the English population of the county increased, improving the reach of the county sheriff, this would have become more difficult to do. A day of reckoning was looming.

Open rebellion.

Starting in Ulster on 22 October 1641, Gaelic forces began exploding into open rebellion. The first attack on settlers in Wicklow happened on the 30th of October, just a week later. It would seem that deep dissatisfaction with a number of circumstances had already been near the boiling point in this area. Traditionally, the two major factors fuelling the rebellion are said to have been the loss of land by Gaelic families and religion. Both of these are well documented, with the O’Byrnes and the O’Tooles often quoted as shouting at the settlers, ‘this land is ours!’ Protestant disdain for popish Catholics is quite clear in many religious tracts. But what has not previously been clear in the Wicklow context is that the rebels were also significantly over-borrowed, and what land they continued to own was in danger of being taken for non-payment of these loans. With nothing left to lose, their armed rebellion was an act of desperation.

Comments about this page

  • Very interesting…Therese. Thank you.

    By Mary Hargaden (14/03/2021)

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