The Fitzgibbon Years

Mountshannon House was erected by Silver Oliver of Kilfinane where after many years of work the place was finally occupied in 1750. Soon after, the famous White family bought the estate and it came into Fitzgibbon ownership around 1765. John Fitzgibbon from Ballysheedy, a Catholic who had studied medicine in his youth, decided to change his profession and his religion to become a lawyer.

He converted to the Protestant faith because at that time Catholics were debarred from practicing in the Irish Courts. He amassed a great fortune and bought Mountshannon. Along with being a brilliant lawyer, having written many papers and books on law that made him very successful and wealthy, he was noted too for his humane treatment of his tenants, an honest man who preferred the privacy of his beloved Mountshannon to the public glare of the courts of justice and were it not for the shameful activities of his notorious offspring he might have been remembered with more honour and respect. When he died in 1780, his son John, later know n as Black Jack, inherited Mountshannon.

Born in 1748 at Ballinguile House in Donnybrook, Dublin, he was educated at Trinity College and called to the bar. He entered politics in 1780 and soon made his mark, rising quickly to the position of Attorney General. In 1789 he was appointed Lord High Chancellor of Ireland. He was knighted in 1795, becoming the first Earl of Clare. But already success had gone to his head and he turned his back on the Irish and became much hated for his opposition to Catholic Emancipation and moreso for his part in putting down the rebellion of 1798. His well-recorded saying that he would make the Irish as tame as a mutilated cat evoked more hatred and bitterness towards him and he was in constant danger of being attacked.

On one occasion, when returning to his Dublin house in Ely Place, a dead cat was thrown into his carriage which was surrounded by a mob of several hundred, armed with clubs, forks, aledges and other implements. Luckily for Fitzgibbon, the mob dispersed on hearing of the approaching military, but not before his carriage was stoned and he received several head injuries. Following this escapade Black Jack had an iron fortress erected around his Dublin home. Even in Mountshannon he lived in constant fear and there was a further attempt made on his life when the mansion was attacked and one of his servants killed while defending the place.

Fitzgibbon's final sell-out of his country came when he backed the Act of Union which brought about the uniting of the Parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland and came into effect in 1801. His last act of treachery was to oppose the granting of civil liberties to Catholics. Following the Act of Union Lord Clare, as he was now titled, took his seat in the House of Lords. During a debate there in which Fitzgibbon ranted and raved, the great British statesman, William Pitt, was heard to remark, "Good God, did you ever in all your life hear such a rascal?" Pitt's famous remark is probably the most accurate and apt summing up of the character of Black Jack Fitzgibbon.

He soon found himself out of favour and unwanted even by the British who now saw him for what he was and even despised him for his betrayal of his own country. The pity was that Fitzgibbon - the ablest of politicians and a brilliant mind who had achieved the greatest honours possible for an Irishman then - did not use his high position and influential status for the benefit of Ireland and his countrymen. But in his blind obsession with more power he rejected his nationality and lost sight of all integrity. His shameless pandering to gain favour with the British proved to be his eventual downfall.

In fairness to Fitzgibbon, however, it must be said that he was not completely devoid of human feeling and there were occasions when he showed a different and more pleasing side to his character. He was once in a duel with John Philpot Curran, when Fitzgibbon, a crack shot, fired wide of his opponent so as to spare his life. He was also instrumental in saving the lives of several of the United Irishmen after the rebellion of 1798. There were many more acts of mercy and good deeds attributed to the much-maligned Earl and it may be that he has been treated somewhat too harshly by history. But then history is a poor respecter of sentiment and, in Fitzgibbon's case, the scales weigh too heavily on the more unsavoury side of his career.

Dejected and disenchanted with the world of politics, Fitzgibbon retired to Mountshannon and busied himself with the running of the estate and there are many tales of his cruel treatment of the workers and tenants there.

Every year about a hundred women were employed to harvest the estate's huge corn plantation and Lord Clare himself supervised the work and was present there every morning and after satisfying himself that all the workers were present and everything was in order he would give the signal to commence work. He was in complete control and insisted that the day's toil should not begin unless he was present. What was not generally known was that Black Jack was an excellent farmer and several farming methods were initiated and used by him - including his ingenious Liquid Manuring Scheme, by way of streams through the land - farming skills that were to be copied and used by many generations of farmers.

One morning, after the Lord had wined and dined to excess the night before, he did not arise at his customary time to oversee the starting of work despite the appeals of his servants who informed him that the women workers were waiting and growing restless.

In a rage he ordered his servants to set the dogs on the workers and drive them off the estate. His orders were carried out and many of the women were savaged by the animals. One woman in particular was badly torn about the face. Later in the day, when Fitzgibbon had come to his senses and his better nature appealed to him, moved by remorse he sent his servants to bring back all the workers. Each woman was paid a full day's wages and given the rest of the day off. The woman with the badly injured face was given £1, a good amount of money at that time.

Following a fall from his horse at Mountshannon in the Christmas of 1801 Lord Clare was badly injured and, on the advice of his doctors, he set out to travel to the Continent for special treatment. He had only reached his Dublin house on the first leg of the journey when his condition deteriorated and he died on 28th January 1802 in his early fifties. He was buried at St. Peter's Church in Dublin where the bitterness and hatred he had once aroused surfaced again with the appearance of the dead cats - thrown on his coffin and grave.

It was an ignominious finale for poor Fitzgibbon, the man who, in his relatively short life, had attained so much yet lost so much more. John Fitzgibbon is remembered in happier times in a life-sized portrait by the Dublin painter, Hugh Douglas Hamilton, showing the Earl in full dress and robes of office of Lord Chancellor of Ireland, complete with beautifully embroidered bag containing his seal of office and other important documents. The painting, the property of the National Gallery of Ireland, can be seen at Malahide Castle in County Dublin. Clare Street in Limerick and Dublin's Fitzgibbon Street commemorate his name.

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