John Hamilton – A Landlord with a Difference

John Hamilton 1800 – 1884

A Landlord with a Difference

Each day as we travel on the Donegal Bay Waterbus, we pass St. Ernan’s Island and we mention that it was once owned by the local landlord John Hamilton. Here’s a little more detail on this Donegal landlord who will always be remembered because he did things differently….. he cared about his tenants.

Only a minority of Irish landlords were benevolent, but few treated their tenants with such consideration as did John Hamilton of Donegal, who almost bankrupted himself in the process. He kept a journal – upon which a book is based – recording events around him as they were happening, providing an almost unique contemporary account of what it was like to live before, during and after the Famine Years in nineteenth century Ireland.

At the age of 21 John inherited the extensive, entailed Brownhall Estate, totalling around 20,000 acres. The main part of the estate ran inland from Donegal Bay, between Donegal Town and Ballintra, almost as far as Pettigo and Lough Erne; and northwards to near Lough Eske and the Barnsmore Gap. Separated from this, about twenty miles further north, there was a further, very large tract in the Finn Valley.

St. Ernan
St. Ernan”s Island as seen from the Donegal Bay Waterbus 2012

In 1824 John took possession of the island of St. Ernan. He then began the task of building his cottage and, two and three quarter years after the young couple had moved into Brownhall, they re-settled in St. Ernan”s. Hamilton became very attached to his cottage, as it then was, but while its island location seemed so attractive at first, he soon realised that it suffered from one obvious disadvantage:

“We found it very inconvenient having no access to the land except at low water or by boat. At half tide, we could not well use either way of access; I therefore set to work to have a causeway made between the island and mainland”.

Six weeks after the work on the Causeway had commenced, John Hamilton”s carriage was ceremoniously driven across it. After his death, a stone plaque was erected to commemorate its completion, on which the following inscription was placed.

The cuaseway leading to St. Ernan
The cuaseway leading to St. Ernan”s Island outside Donegal Town

This causeway stands to commemorate the great mutual love between John Hamilton and the people of Donegal, both his tenants and others, through a time of bitter famine and pestilence. John Hamilton, not for the first or last time had stood between them and death. Knowing that his great wish was to build a road joining the island of St. Ernan”s, his favourite dwelling place, with the mainland, and that owing to the Atlantic tides, he could not achieve this without expenditure far beyond his means, the people, Roman catholic and Protestant, came in their hundreds with spade, pick and barrow to build this causeway, refusing all recompense. John Hamilton J.P., D.L. of Brownhall and St. Ernans was born in the year 1800, he succeeded his father in 1807 and died in 1884.

The distinguished Irish historian, Professor J. C. Beckett, wrote of Hamilton:
“He devoted sixty years of his life to improving the conditions of his tenants. He moved freely among them, giving advice and listening to their complaints; he visited their homes and knew the particular circumstances of every family on his estate. Hamilton was not typical; indeed men of his stamp are rare in any community. But it is the very fact that he was untypical that makes his experiences instructive”

This excellent book on the life of John Hamilton is available in The Four Masters Bookshop in Donegal Town
This excellent book on the life of John Hamilton is available in The Four Masters Bookshop in Donegal Town