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WESTMEATH (County of), an inland county of the province of LEINSTER, bounded on the east by the county of Meath ; on the north, by those of Meath, Cavan, and Longford ; on the west, by those of Longford and Roscommon ; and on the south, by the King’s county.
It extends from 53º 18’ to 53º 47’ (N. Lat.), and from 6º 55’ to 7º 55’ (W. Lon.) ; comprising an area, according to the Ordnance survey, of 386,251 statute acres, of which 313,935 are cultivated land, 55,982 are unimproved mountain and bog, and 16,334 are under water. The population, in 1821, amounted to 128,819; and in 1831, to 136,872.
This county formed part of the kingdom of Meath when the island was divided into five provincial dynasties, and was then known by the name of Eircamhoin, or “the Western Division.” Its provincial assemblies were held at the hill of Usneagh, supposed by some to be the Laberus noticed by Ptolemy as one of the inland cities of Ireland .
In 1153, the northern part of the county became the scene of contention between two sons of Dermod O’Brien, who terminated their strife by a bloody battle fought near Fore, in which Turlogh having obtained the victory, became master of his brother’s person and put out his eyes.
The principal Irish families during this period were those of MacGeoghegan (chieftains of Moycashel), O’Mulbrenan or Brenan, O’Coffy, O’Mullady, O’Malone, O’Daly, O’Higgins, Magawly, Magan, O’Shannagh (afterwards changed to Fox), O’Finilan and O’Cuishin.
The annals of the religious houses prove that this county suffered much during the period in which the island was exposed to the predatory incursions of the Danes ; the town and abbey of Fore alone having been burnt nine times in the 10th and 11th centuries, either by the Danes or by the bordering Irish chieftains.
After the settlement of the English in Leinster , the county formed part of the palatinate of Hugh de Lacy, who allotted it in large tracts to his principal followers, the most remarkable of whom were Petit, Tuite, Hussey, D’Alton, Delamare, Dillon, Nugent, Hope, Ware, Nangle, Ledewich, Geneville, Dardis, Gaynor, and Constantine .
Subsequently, the families of Darcy, Johnes, Tyrrell, Fitzgerald, Owen, and Piers settled here at various periods previous to the Reformation.
The ancient Irish were not at once exterminated by the new settlers : they made several attempts to recover their former position, in one of which, in 1329, Mac Geoghegan, chieftain of Moycashel, defeated an English force under Lord Thomas le Botiller, who was killed in the action.
Two years after the Irish were defeated in a battle near Finae by Sir Anthony Lucy, Lord Justice. Mortimer, Earl of March, who married Philippa, daughter and heiress of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, third son of Edward III., finding it necessary to conceal himself during the troubles that followed the deposition of Richard II., chose this county as his place of refuge, where he remained a long time in concealment.
In 1468, Delamar, abbot of Tristernagh, was attainted by act of parliament for uniting with the Irish enemies and English rebels in an insurrection in which the town of Delvin was burnt. By an act of the 34th of Hen. VIII., the ancient palatinate of Meath was divided, the eastern portion retaining its former name and the western being distinguished by the appellation which it still retains.
Longford was a portion of the latter division, until it was formed into a distinct county by Elizabeth . The plan for the insurrection of 1641 is said to have been concerted in the abbey of Multifarnham, in this county, as being conveniently situated in the centre of the island and a place of great resort for religious purposes, so that the assemblage of large numbers there at any particular time was less liable to suspicion : and in the subsequent war between William and James the county was the scene of several severe actions. So great was the change of property occasioned by the confiscations after these wars, that not one of the names of the persons who formed the previous Grand Juries are found on the modern lists.
The principal families who obtained grants of confiscated lands were those of Packenham, Wood, Cooke, Stoyte, Reynell, Winter, Levinge, Wilson , Judge, Rochfort, Handeock, Bonynge, Gay, Handy, Ogle, Middleton, Swift, Burtle, and St. George.
Those of Smith, Fetherston, Chapman, O’Reilly, Purdon, Nagle, Blaquiere, and North obtained property by purchase or inheritance. Among the recent settlers, the family of Nagle alone claims from an ancient proprietor, having inherited in the female line from the MacGeoghegans.
On the landing of the French at Kilcummin a rising took place in this county, in consequence of an erroneous report from the north : the peasantry first assembled at the hill of Skea, whence they proceeded to Lord Sunderlin’s park, but retired without committing any act of hostility. Afterwards they attacked and plundered Wilson’s Hospital, where there was a collection of arms, and having converted it into a barrack, kept possession of it until driven out by a detachment of the royal forces.
This county is partly in the diocese of Ardagh, but chiefly in that of Meath, and in the province of Armagh . For purposes of civil jurisdiction it is divided into the baronies of Brawney, Clonlonan, Corkaree, Delvin, Demifore, Farbill, Fartullagh, Kilkenny West, Moyashel and Magheradernan, Moycashel, Moygoish, and Rathconrath.
It contains the market and assize town of Mulingar, part of the borough and market town of Athlone, the corporate and market town of Kilbeggan ; the market and post towns of Monte, Rathowen, Castletown-Delvin, Ballinacargy, and Clonmellon ; the market town of Collinstown ; and the post-towns of Castlepollard, Kinnegad, Ballymore, Tyrrells-Pass, Killucan, Rochfort-Bridge, and Drumcree : the largest villages are Finae (which has a penny post), Coole, Castletown, and Rathconrath.
It sent ten members to the Irish parliament, two for the county and two for each of the boroughs of Athlone, Mullingar, Kilbeggan, and Fore, the last of which is now a small village ; since the Union it has returned three members to the Imperial parliament, two for the county, and one for the borough of Athlone,
The county constituency, as registered up to the beginning of 1837, consists of 302 freeholders of £50, 146 of £20, and 1079 of £10 ; 13 leaseholders of £20, and 110 of £10; making a total of 1650 re-gistered voters. The election takes place at Mullingar. Westmeath is included in the Home Circuit : the assizes are held at Mulhingar, where the county court-house and gaol are situated ; general quarter sessions are held alternately at Mullingar and Moate, and at the latter place are a court- house and bridewell.
The local government is vested in a lieutenant, 7 deputy-lieutenants, and 94 other magistrates. There are 47 constabulary police stations, having a force of 1 stipendiary magistrate, 1 sub-inspector, 6 chief officers, 50 constables, 222 men, and 9 horses. The district lunatic asylum is at Maryborough, the county infirmary at Mullingar, and the fever hospital at Castlepollard : there are dispensaries at Glasson, Bally nacarrig, Multifarnham, Street, Killucan, Kinnegad, Tyrrell’s-Pass, Moate, Kilbeggan, Athlone, Castletown-Delvin, Drumcree, Clonmellon, Milltown, and Castlepollard, supported by Grand Jury presentments and private subscriptions in equal proportions.
The Grand Jury presentments for 1835 amounted to £23,296. 14. 8¼ .of which £15. 7. 0. was for the roads, bridges, &c., being the county charge ; £609. 0. 10½ . for the roads, bridges, &c., being the baronial charge ; £8837. 3. 4¼ for public buildings, charities, officers’ salaries, and incidents ; £5618. 14. 3¾ .for the police, and £8216. 9. 1¾ for repayment of advances made by Government. In the military arrangements the county is included in the western district, of which Athlone is the headquarters, where there are two barracks, one for artillery and the other for infantry, which, with an infantry station at Mullingar, afford accommodation for 80 officers and 1806 non-commissioned officers and men, with 208 horses.
The surface of the county, though nowhere rising into tracts of considerable elevation, is much diversified by hill and dale, highly picturesque in many parts, and deficient in none of the essentials of rural beauty, but timber. In its scenery it ranks next after Kerry, Wicklow, Fermanagh and Waterford . None of the hills are so high as to be incapable of agricultural improvement. Knock Eyne and Knockross, on the shores of Lough Dereveragh, have on their sides much stunted oak and brushwood, the remains of ancient forests.
The former of these hills is about 850 feet high. Benfore, near the village of Fore , is 760 feet high.
The lakes are large, picturesque, and very numerous, mostly situated in the northern and central parts, the southern being flat and overspread with bog. The largest and most southern of the lakes is Lough Innel or Ennel, now called also Belvidere lake : it is 1½ mile from Mullingar, and is studded with eight islands, the largest of which, called Fort Island, was garrisoned and used as a magazine by the Irish in the war of 1641, and was twice taken by the parliamentary forces, and ultimately retained by them till the Restoration.
The names of the others are Shan Oge’s, Goose, Inchycroan, Cormorant, Cherry, Chapel and Green Island : the Brosna passes through it from north to south. To the north of this lake is Lough Hoyle, Foyle, Onel or Owel, in the very centre of the county ; the land around it rises gently from its margin, and is fertile and richly planted.
The only stream by which it is supplied is the Brosna. Two streams, called the Golden Arm and the Silver Arm, formerly flowed from it, one from each of its extremities : both have been dammed up, and the low grounds on the borders of the lake raised by embank ments so as to increase the body of Water contained in it, in order to render it the feeder of the summit level of the Royal Canal : this alteration has enlarged the surface of the Hoyle to an extent of 2400 acres. The lake has four islands, on one of which is an ancient chapel of rude masonry, with a burial-ground, much resorted to by pilgrims from distant parts ; it afforded an asylum to many of the Protestants in the neighbouring country at the commencement of the war of 1641 : the other islands are planted.
Further north is Lough Dereveragh, a sheet of winding water of very irregular form, 11 miles long and 3 in its greatest breadth ; its waters discharge themselves through the lower Inny into Lough Iron, or Hiern, which is the most western lake in the county, and is likewise a long sheet of water, being a mile long and but ¼ of a mile broad, and very shallow : its banks are enriched with some fine scenery towards Baronstown and Kilbixy ; from its northern extremity the Inny takes its course towards the county of Longford. Lough Lein, three miles to the east of Lough Dereveragh, is of an irregular oval form, two miles long and one broad : its waters are peculiarly clear, and remarkable for having no visible outlet, nor any inlet except a small stream which flows only in rainy seasons : it is surrounded on every side by high grounds, which on the north and south rise into lofty hills from the margin of the lake, and are clothed to their summits with rich verdure and flourishing plantations : there are four fertile and well, planted islands in the lake.
In the west is Lough Seudy, a small but romantic sheet of water near the old fortress of Ballymore. Two miles north-east from Mullingar are the small lakes of Drin, Cullen and Clonshever ; Lough Drin supplies Lough Cullen, which, after flowing through a bog, falls into Lough Clonshever, whence the Brosna derives its supply since the waters of Lough Hoyle have been appropriated exclusively to the supply of the Royal Canal.
Among the other smaller lakes scattered throughout the country, the principal are Lough Maghan and the two lakes of Waterstown, near Athlone. The fine expansion of the river Shannon, called Lough Ree, may be considered as partially belonging to this county, as it forms the principal part of the western boundary between it and Roscommon : it is twenty miles long in its greatest length from Lanesborough to the neighbourhood of Athlone, and is adorned with several finely wooded islands : those adjoining Westmeath are Inchmore, containing 104 acres, once the site of a monastery built by St. Senanus ; Hare island, containing 57 acres, and having the ruins of an abbey built by the Dillon family ; Inchturk, containing 24 acres, and Innisbofin, 27.
An abbey built on this island by a nephew of St. Patrick was plundered by the Danes in 1089. Lough Glinn forms a small portion of the same boundary towards Longford ; Loughs Sheelin and Kinale are on its north-western limit towards Cavan : the white lake, Lough Deel, and Lough Bawn are small boundary lakes on the side of Meath. The water of the last-named of these has the peculiarity of being lower and more limpid in winter than in summer, being highest in June and lowest at Christmas : in summer its colour is green, like sea-water ; but in winter it is as pellucid as crystal and remarkably light.
Throughout the eastern part of the county the soil is a heavy loam from seven to twelve inches deep, resting on a yellow till : the land here is chiefly under pasture and feeds the fattest bullocks ; from its great fertility it has been called the “garden of Ireland;” the northern part is hilly and very fertile, extremely well adapted for sheepwalks, but chiefly applied to the grazing of black cattle.
The barony of Moygoish is fertile, except towards the north, where there is much bog and marshy land. The central barony of Moyashel and Magheradernan is mostly composed of escars, ‘chiefly formed of calcareous sand and gravel. In the western baronies the country is generalhy flat and the soil light : the bog of Allen spreads over a large portion of the baronies of Brawney and Clonlonan.
The farms are generalhy large ; the chief crops, oats and potatoes, with some wheat, barley, flax, rape and clover. The resident gentry and large farmers have adopted the system of green crops ; the most improved implements are in general use. Oxen, yoked in teams of two pairs, are frequently used in ploughing ; limestone gravel is preferred to any other substance as manure ; lime, either separatehy or in a compost with turf mould and the refuse of the farm-yard, is also used.
The fences are bad and much neglected, except in the neighbourhood of demesnes and towinlands. The valleys throw up an abundance of rich grass, the hay of which, however, is much injured in consequence of not being cut till a late period, sometimes in September, and being suffered when made up to stand in the felds until the autumnal rains, by which the surface is injured, the lower part of the cocks spoiled, and in low situations the whole is liable to be carried away by the floods.
Though dairy husbandry is not practised as extensively as the fertility of the soil would warrant, great quantities of butter are made of very superior quality, and always command a high price ; it is chiefly sent to Dublin for the British markets. Much attention is paid to the breed of every kind of cattle.
The long-horned cows are highly prized, as growing to a very large size and giving great quantities of milk ; the oxen fatten very quickly, and the flavour of their beef is excellent. Sheep, for which several parts are well adapted, are not a favourite stock.
Westmeath produces superior horses ; the principal fair for their sale is at Mullingar ; great numbers are also brought from Connaught , and reared here for sale in Dublin and in the English towns.
Timber formerly abounded ; but the profuse use of it when plentiful, the great demand for charcoal for the old iron-works, and the neglect of any prospective measures to supply the deficiency thus arising, have rendered it scarce. The county has, nevertheless, some small copses and underwoods, the remains of the ancient forests.
Many trunks of large timber trees, particularly juniper, yew, and fir, have been found in the bogs ; the wood, when dried, is always black. The waste and neglect of past ages is now being remedied ; there are many thriving young plantations ; several of the hills are clothed with wood ; the ash grows in such abundance in hedge rows as to prove it to be indigenous to the soil ; hazel is encouraged, in order to make hoops for butter-firkins ; Scotch firs thrive on boggy bottoms, and larch still better.
The county is wholly included within the great limestone plain of Ireland, of which it forms the most elevated portion. The uniformity of its geological structure is broken only at Moate and Ballymahon, in each of which places an isolated protuberant mass of sandstone rises from beneath the general substratum.
The predominating colour of the limestone is a blueish grey of various degrees of intensity ; it is often tinged with black and sometimes passes into deep black, particularly in those parts in which it is interstratifed with beds of clay-slate, calp or swinestone, or where it abounds with lydian stone.
The black limestone in the latter case is a hard compact rock, requiring much fuel for burning it, and is by no means serviceable for agricultural purposes. The structure of the limestone varies from the perfectly compact to the conjointly compact and foliated, and even to the granularly foliated : beds of the last kind are quarried and wrought for various purposes in the northern baronies.
Copper, lead, coal, and yellow and dove-coloured marble have been found in small quantities, but not so as to induce searches for the parent bed. A pair of elk’s horns, found in a bog, were presented to Charles I. shortly before the commencement of the civil war ; stags’ horns in a state of great decomposition have been found near the shores of Lough Iron.
There are no fisheries of any consequence, although all the lakes are stored with fish of various kinds and excellent quality. The Inny is well stocked with bream, trout, pike, eel, and roach ; salmon is found only in the luny and Brosna, coming out of the Shannon ; Lough Dereveragh is celebrated for its white and red trout ; and about the month of May a small fish of a very pleasant flavour, called the Goaske, of the size of a herring, is taken in this and the neighbouring lake.
In the ditches near the borders of Lough Hoyle an incredible quantity of the fry of fish is caught from September to March. In the bogs, and especially in slimy pits covered with water, is found a muscle, flatter and broader than the common sea muscle, the shell brighter in colour, much thinner, and very brittle. They are not numerous, nor are they much used as food.
The Brosna and the Inny are the only rivers of any importance in the county : the former rises near Lough Hoyle ; the latter at Loughcrew, in the county of Meath .
Numerous rivulets, flowing through every part, discharge themselves either into one of the lakes, or of the larger rivers. The more remarkable of the lesser rivers are the Mongagh, the Glore, the Gaine, and the Rathconrath.
The Royal Canal enters the county from that of Meath, two miles north of Kinnegad, and after crossing the Inny by an aqueduct, enters the county of Longford near Tinellick.
A branch of the Grand Canal enters from the King’s county near Rahue, and proceeds to Kilbeggan. The roads are numerous through every part ; those of modern construction are well laid out and maintained ; the older are ill laid out and constructed, but these defects are in progress of being remedied.
Many vestiges of very remote antiquity may be traced in the neighbourhood of Ballintubber, and others of a similar description are observable in Moycashel. Of the numerous monastic institutions scattered through the county, those of Clonfad, Kilconiry, Drumcree, Forgney, Killuken, Leckin, Lynn, and Rathugh still remain, either wholly or in part, as places of worship either of Protestants or Roman Catholics.
The ruins of those of Farranemanagh, Fore, Kilbeggan, Kilmocahill, and Multifarnham are still in existence : those of Tristernagh and of the houses of the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians of Mullingar are utterly destroyed ; Athlone had a house of Conventual Franciscans : the existence of several others is now ascertained only by the names of the places in which they flourished.
The ruins of ancient castles, several of which were erected by Hugh de Lacy, are numerous : the remains of Kilbixy castle, his chief residence, though now obliterated, were extensive in the year 1680. Those of Ardnorcher, or Horseleap, another of de Lacy’s castles, and the place where he met with a violent death from the hands of one of his own dependents, are still visible. Rathwire, Sonnagh, and Killare were also built by de Lacy : the second of these stands on the verge of a small but beautiful lake ; the third afterwards fell into the hands of the Mac Geoghegans, the mansion of which family was at Castle Geoghegan, and some remains of it are still visible.
Other remarkable castles were Delvin, the seat of the Nugents ; Leney, belonging to the Gaynors ; Empor, to the Daltons ; Killaniny and Ardnagrath, to the Dillons ; Bracca, near Ardnorcher, to the Handys, who have a modern mansion in its neighbourhood ; and Clare Castle, or Mullaghcloe, the headquarters of Generals de Ginkell and Douglas when preparing for the siege of Ballymore.
Several castles of the Mac Geoghegans were in the neighbourhood of Kilbeggan. The modern mansions of the nobility and gentry are noticed under the heads of their respective parishes.
The peasants are a healthy robust race. The women retain their maiden name after marriage ; they perform the outdoor work, bring the turf home in carts, and share in the labours of the field.
The English language is everywhere spoken, except by some of the old people, and that only in ordinary conversa-tion among themselves.
The habitations are poor ; the roofs without ceilings, formed of a few couples, and supported by two or three props, over which the boughs of trees not stripped of their leaves are laid crossways, and these are covered with turf and thatched with straw. A hole in the roof gives vent to the smoke ; and the bare ground constitutes the floor and hearth.
The house-leek is encouraged to grow on the thatch, from a notion that it is a preservative against fire : the peasants make their horses swim in some of the lakes on Garlick Sunday, the second Sunday in August, to preserve them in health during the remainder of the year.
There is a chalybeate spa at Grangemore, near Killucan ; but the water is little used, in consequence of the difficulty of access to the place. Westmeath gives the title of Marquess to the family of Nugent.