Women’s work

Women’s Work – a case for further investigating how the emergence of the landed gentry in Inishowen redefined the roles of women on both sides of the class divide.

Whether knowingly or not, when the Irish chieftains opted to accept the authority of the King of England, in exchange for the return of their lands, they inserted themselves into a system of land ownership which robbed women of the equality that they had enjoyed as property owners under Brehon Law.

Whilst Irish society under the Brehon Law was largely male-dominated, women enjoyed much greater independence than in most other European societies of the time. Wives and husbands retained their property separately, and in the event of their separation, each left with the property that they had brought to the union. In those cases where the joint property had increased, they each left with an equivalent percentage of their initial contribution. In this way, women held onto an identity that was independent of their spouses’.

In contrast, the system of primogeniture that regulated the English ruling classes, and which the high kings of Ireland adopted, presents a very different prospect for women. Based as it is on the sole right of the eldest son to inherit all land and titles, women were consigned to dependency on either their elder brothers or their husbands, dis-empowered and disenfranchised.

According to Amy Young in 300 Years in Innishowen, the conversion of Donegal to Protestantism didn’t really begin in earnest until after the Flight of the Earls and the defeat of Sir Cahir O’Dochartaigh in 1608. At this time, those gentlemen loyal to Sir Arthur Chichester – some native, some transplanted from elsewhere – were rewarded with lands and titles. It is then that we first begin to see the “Big House” names with which we will become so familiar – Young, Hart, Cary, Chichester, Downham, Vaughan, Harvey.

Young maintains that putting the Protestant house in order in Donegal was to a great extent effected by Andrew Knox, appointed Bishop of Raphoe in 1610. He took up residence in Raphoe, having previously been in residence in the Scottish Isles. He brought with him “several sons…from Scotland, whom he ordained and planted in different parts of the diocese.” Bishop Knox also ordained Robert Young in 1632, who was to establish the Young family in Culdaff, (of which Amy Young is a descendant).

In 1631, when Daniel (Dónal Gorm) McLaughlin, (of the famous McLaughlin brothers – one a Catholic priest, the other a Protestant minister) becomes Rector of Clonmany, he is a man without connections in the Protestant ascendancy, and so makes a suitable marriage. He marries Elizabeth Skipton, niece of Sir Alexander Staples, and so enters into a dynasty of wealth and status. Dónal and Elizabeth’s daughter subsequently marries George Young of Culdaff, and from them descends the main line of the Young family in Culdaff. From a letter written to Sir Alexander from his residence in Garvagh, their son, the Revd. George McLaughlin affords us an insight to the lifestyle to which Dónal Gorm’s family had become accustomed, well-stocked with “six dozen of Claret, and two dozen of Mountain Wine, put into four dozen Bottles; ….”  Already, within a couple of generations, there is a tight network of Protestant authority, wealth and privilege emerging in Inishowen.

Not surprisingly, not much is known about the women of the new, ever-expanding gentry. Within this strictly patriarchal and paternalistic society, it was not their part to attract attention, but rather to disappear behind the veil of decorum, propriety and domestic harmony which was considered the perfect complement to their husbands’ political power. The women of Inishowen’s new ruling class were expected to remain anonymous, presiding over an orderly and well-stocked household while also dutifully providing sons and heirs and a ready supply of daughters to be offered in marriage.
When researching the family trees of the landed gentry of Inishowen, it is impossible to ignore that being a lady of the manor in Inishowen seems to have been a precarious business. A striking number of the “mentioned” gentlemen are obliged to marry twice.

In 1775, Frances Hart of Kilderry married George Charleton of Rockstown House. In the same year her sister, Mary Anne married Revd. Dr William Chichester, great grandnephew of Sir Arthur Chichester, resident at the magnificent Dresden House, (both houses are now in ruins). The fact that both of these women were resident in Clonmany, just a few miles apart, helps to flesh out our understanding of how gentrified society was organised. Mary Anne was Revd. Dr Chichester’s second wife and unfortunately, she did not have long to enjoy the refinement of her sister’s company at Dresden House. According to the inscription on her gravestone, she died in 1786, aged 29, after sustaining “a lingering and painful illness with the patience and fortitude of a Christian and entirely resigned to the will of God”. It seems it was of the utmost importance that it be known that she was decorous until the death.

Hazardous to the health or not, presiding over the household was an extremely important responsibility. In rural areas, far from the seats of power, the Big Houses would have been where important local politics would be discussed and powerful allies wined and dined. It would have been necessary to accrue a team of reliable staff, headed by the housekeeper, who in turn would have organised the domestic servants. There is evidence to suggest that these servants would have been sourced from the local workforce, thus providing local women with prestigious employment.

There is a lot of research to be done on the relationships between these women and ladies of the manor for whom they worked. As indispensable as they were to the consolidation of their husbands’ power, there is some evidence that not all the ladies of the landed gentry were content to be only decorous and decorative. Catherine Chichester, sister to the Revd. Dr William Chichester married Samuel Ball of Grouse Hall in Gleneely. Her daughters are responsible for setting up Grouse Hall School. In later years in Clonmany, Lol Loughrey of Binnion House set up her own toffee factory which was sold in all the fashionable outlets in Dublin.

Probably the most poignant story of non-conformism is that of Catherine Young, daughter of George Young and Elizabeth McLaughlin, born in 1770. According to Amy Young, Catherine “ran away with a drummer named Murphy in her brother’s regiment, to escape, it is said, a distasteful marriage into which her brother, then colonel of the regiment, would have forced her.” Catherine is disowned by her family and even by the children to whom she subsequently gives birth. Her son, Charles, changes his name to Murray to hide his undesirable pedigree, and his sister, Catherine, changes hers to Murfoy. When their mother dies, Charles, in an effort to erase all connection to this blot on his good name, buries her in the Protestant graveyard in Culdaff, “and over her grave is a headstone with the simple inscription ‘My Mother’” (Young).

The penalty for disobeying the laws of primogeniture is to have your name erased from history.

There is a lot of work to be done in restoring the names of the Women of the Big Houses to our local history. It is hoped that an investigation into their relationships with each other and with the local women they employed will provide our group with material for an expanded chapter in an upcoming, more comprehensive publication.

Margaret Farren