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last updated April 10, 2014

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County of Leitrim, by Samuel Lewis
(Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837)

LEITRIM (County of): a county, of which a very small portion is maritime, in the province of CONNAUGHT, bounded on the west by the counties of Sligo and Roscommon, on the south by that of Longford, on the east by those of Cavan and Fermanagh, and on the north by that of Donegal and by Donegal bay. It extends from 53° 45' to 54° 29' (N. Lat.) and from 7° 33' to 8° 8' (W. Lon.); and comprises, according to the Ordnance survey, 420,375 statute acres, of which 266,640 are cultivated land, 128,167 are unimproved mountain and bog, and 25,568 are under water. The population, in 1821, was 124,785, and in 1831, 141,303. According to Ptolemy, this tract, together with that comprised in the counties of Fermanagh and Cavan, was occupied by the Erdini, called in Irish Ernaigh, who possessed the entire country bordering on Lough Erne. This county, together with that of Cavan and part of Fermanagh, afterwards formed the territory of Breffny or Brenny, which was divided into two principalities, of which the present county of Leitrim formed the western, under the name of Lower or West Breffny, and Hy-Briuin-Breffny, from Brian, son of Eachod, and grandson of Muredach, first king of Connaught of the Scottish race. Sometimes this county was also designated Breffny O'Ruark, 0'Rorke, 0'Roirk, or O'Rourk, from the name of the family that ruled over it from a very early period. Its subordinate divisions were Dromahaire, the present barony of the same name; Lietdrumai or Liathdromen, the modern Leitrim; Munster Eolus, or Hy Colluing, the present baronies of Carrigallen and Mohill, the principal families of which were the Maghrannals, or Mac Granells; and Hy Murragh, the modern barony of Rossclogher, of which the chiefs were the O'Murroghs, or O'Murreys. For some time after the arrival of the English, the whole was considered to form part of the ill-defined county of Roscommon: but the O'Rourks maintained an independent authority in their own territory until the middle of the 16th century. Tiernan O'Rourk, an active military chief, governed here in the latter part of the 12th century, when the princes of Connaught and Leinster combined to expel him from his territory; and Dermod Mac Murrough, the king of Leinster, taking advantage of their success, carried off his wife Dervorghal; but the expelled chieftain having applied for aid to Turlogh, supreme king of Ireland, the latter not only reinstated him in his principality, but regained him his wife. The English, soon after their arrival, in conjunction with their ally Dermod, invaded the territory of Breffny, where, however, Dermod was twice defeated, and compelled to secure his safety by a precipitate retreat. O'Rourk afterwards made an unsuccessful attack on Dublin, when in the possession of Strongbow's forces; yet subsequently he joined Hen. II. against Roderic, king of Connaught. The line of independent chieftains of this family terminated in Brian O'Rourk, lord of Breffny and Minterolis, who, relying on the promises of Pope Sixtus V. and the king of Spain, threw off his allegiance to Queen Elizabeth; but having been forced to flee to Scotland, he was there taken prisoner and conveyed to London, where he was executed as a traitor, on which occasion it is recorded that the only favour he asked was to be hanged, after his country's fashion, with a rope of twisted withe. His territory having escheated to the Crown, extensive grants were given to English proprietors, and, in 1565, it was erected into a county by Sir Henry Sidney, under the name of Leitrim, from its chief town. The O'Rourks ruled over several subordinate septs, the principal families of whom were the O'Murrey's, Mac Loghlins, Mac Glanchies, and Mac Grannels, some of whose posterity still exist; the descendants of the last-named family are now called ReynoFamily History Library, a corruption of the original name.

The native Irish were constantly at variance with the English settlers to whom the lands had been parcelled out by Elizabeth and James I.: in the war of 1641 they were among the first, who joined the standard of O'Nial, and in a short time the whole country was in the possession of the insurgents, and so continued during the greater part of this war, on the termination of which the lands of all engaged on the part of the Irish were forfeited. At the Restoration, Chas. II. made extensive grants to new settlers; and on the abdication of Jas. II. many more grants of a similar nature were made by his successor. During the insurrection of 1798, this part of the kingdom was undisturbed except by a few isolated acts of violence.

The county is partly in the diocese of Ardagh, but chiefly in that of Kilmore. For purposes of civil jurisdiction it is divided into the baronies of Carrigallen, Dromahaire, Leitrim, Mohill, and Rossclogher. It contains the disfranchised borough, market, and assize town of Carrick-on-Shannori; the disfranchised borough of Jamestown; the market and post-towns of Manor-Hamilton, Ballinamore, and Mohill; and the post-towns of Drumod, Drumsna, and Ruskey. The largest villages are Cashcarrigan, Carrigallen, Dromahaire, Drumkeerin, Drumshambo (each of which has a penny-post), Leitrim (once the county and assize town), and Kinlough. Leitrim sent six members to the Irish parliament: since the Union two only have been returned for the county to the Imperial Parliament; the election takes place at Carrick-on-Shannon. The number of electors registered under the provisions of the 2nd and 3rd of Wm. IV., cap. 88, in January 1836, was 1491, of whom 186 were £50, 161 £20, and 1105 £10 freeholders; and 39 £10 leaseholders. The county is in the Connaught Circuit: the assizes and general quarter sessions are held at Carrick-on-Shannon; quarter sessions are held also at Manor-Hamilton and Ballinamore. The county gaol and court-house are at Carrick; and there are court-houses and bridewells at Manor-Hamilton and Ballinamore. The number of persons charged with criminal offences and committed to prison for this county, in 1835, was 310. The local government is vested in a lieutenant, twelve deputy-lieutenants, and sixty-one magistrates, with the usual county officers. There are 18 constabulary police stations, having a force of a stipendiary magistrate, a sub-inspector, 5 chief officers, 21 constables, 105 men and 6 horses, the expense of whose maintenance is defrayed by Grand Jury presentments and by Government, in equal proportions. The county infirmary is at Carrick-on-Shannon; the district lunatic asylum for Connaught is at Ballinasloe, where accommodations are provided for 13 cases from this county; and there are dispensaries at Ballinamore, Carrick-on-Shannon, Carrigallen, Drumsna Kinlough, Kiltubrid, Manor-Hamilton, and Mohill. The Grand Jury presentments for 1835 amounted to £15,638. 12. 10., of which £2107. 0. 10. was for the roads and bridges of the county at large; £2794. 7. 4 1/2. for those of the baronies; £5291. 8. 11. for public buildings, charities, salaries, and incidents; £2338. 3. 71/2. for the police, and £3107. 12. 1. for repayment of money advanced by Government. In military arrangements the county is included in the western district, and contains one barrack for infantry at Carrick-on-Shannon, having accommodations for 4 officers and 126 men.

The form of the county is somewhat pyramidal, or approaching to that of a slender cone, having its base resting on Longford, and its apex on the sea coast: its extreme length is about 46 miles; its breadth varies from 16 at the former extremity to 2 at the latter. The greater part of the surface not strictly mountainous being occupied by steep hills and deep valleys, it displays many varieties of picturesque scenery heightened by striking and sudden contrasts of wild heathy mountain, and rich cultivation, wood, and water. The southern extremity from Rusky to Carrick is fertile and well cultivated, particularly on the banks of the Shannon, which here separates Leitrim from Roscommon and spreads into Lough Boffin, backed by the heights of Sheebeg and Sheemore, forming a fine relief to the lofty grandeur of the more distant mountain of Slieve-an-irin, and the luxuriant swell of the adjacent part of Roscommon. Proceeding northward to Lough Allen, the country, though available for tillage, gradually assumes a gloomy aspect, and immediately from the verge of this lake steep ascents stretch to a distance of two, three, and four miles to the mountains, which on almost every side terminate the view: but even here various delightful prospects are obtained, especially near the points where the Shannon enters into and emerges from the lake. The summit of the group called Slieve-an-irin, or Slieve-an-Jaroin, to the east of Lough Allen, is the highest point in this mountainous district, which extends five or six miles northward; but large tracts of good land appear around Dromahaire, Manor-Hamilton, and Glencar, where the face of the country is extremely varied and pleasing. Not far distant are the mountains of Lacka, 1315 feet high; Lugnacuillagh, 1485 feet high; Doon; Glanfarn or Mullaghusk; Benbo, 1403 feet high; and Green Mountain, 920 feet. These mountains do not form a connected chain or group, but are separated by deep and broad valleys, containing innumerable low but steep hills. The mountains, too, like those of the Slieve-an-irin group, are all of similar character, rising at a steep angle from their bases, and, except Benbo, frequently presenting mural precipices from 60 to 100 feet deep; but their summits are all nearly flat and covered with coarse herbage. Further northward, on approaching the sea, the most barren mountains rise from the fertile vale, amid which many scenes of superior beauty arrest the eye. The Shannon and its tributaries add greatly to the beauty of the south-western part of the county, which is still further augmented by the numerous lakes scattered over its surface. The principal of these is Lough Allen, stretching about seven miles in length, between Drumkerrin and Drumshambo, and with a mean breadth of five miles; its south-western extremity is in the county of Roscommon; it is in some places very deep, and owing to the surrounding mountains, the storms upon it are extremely sudden and violent. Lough Gill, though forming part of the western boundary of the county, is chiefly in that of Sligo: it is about five or six miles in length, and two in breadth; and its shores, naturally romantic, have been richly planted and cultivated. Lough Melvyn, which separates the counties of Leitrim and Fermanagh for some distance, is 5 miles in length and varies in breadth from 3 miles to 3/4 of a mile; Lough Clane, otherwise Belhovel Lake, is situated about 4 miles to the north-west of Lough Allen, with which it communicates by the river Duibhachar; this lake is nearly two miles long and one broad. Loughs Bodarrig and Boffin are merely expansions of the Shannon to the south of Drumsna; the only other lake worthy of particular notice is that of Garadise, an extensive and pleasing expanse of water, which, with Newtown-Gore Lake and several smaller in the vicinity of Ballinamore and Cashcarrigan, add greatly to the picturesque beauties of this part of the county.

The climate is very cold and damp, and more variable, perhaps, than that of any other county in Ireland, owing to the great elevation of its surface and its contiguity to the Atlantic. The soil is also very various; the tops and sides of most of the hills towards the south have a surface composed of a thin layer of hungry ferruginous loam, resting on a hard gravel of similar nature, and forming a stiff heavy cold clay: that of the valleys is of a more valuable kind, being deeper, and much more fertile. The whole is exceedingly retentive of water, its hard gravelly substance being based on clay-slate of various colours, beneath which occurs, in many places, a yellow, brown, or blackish stiff argillaceous substratum, while in some parts this sort of raw unproductive earth, most commonly of a reddish colour, is found immediately beneath the surface. Large tracts of deep, dark, rich loam on a limestone bottom are found in the neighbourhoods of Sheemore, Mohill, Dromahaire, and Manor-Hamilton. The ordinary varieties of peat, forming the soils of the bogs, moors, and much of the mountain, occupy large tracts. This is by no means an agricultural county, although considerable tracts of land have been brought into cultivation within these few years. The principal crops are oats, potatoes, and flax; the culture of wheat has become more general of late, and bere, barley, and clover, are occasionally sown. The general rotation is potatoes, flax, and afterwards successive crops of oats, until the land is exhausted, when it is generally much encumbered with weeds, and in this state is left to recruit itself by natural means alone; fallowing is unknown, and grass or clover seeds are rarely sown; hence the land is almost useless until broken up again for potatoes after a few years. When the soil is considered to be too good for flax, wheat sometimes succeeds potatoes, but the land is scarcely ever manured for any but the potatoe crop. The old heavy wooden plough is generally used in the low country, while in the mountain districts the land is chiefly cultivated by the loy, a narrow spade, with a blade about 14 inches long by 3 inches broad, and much bent, with a strong handle 5 or 6 feet long; but neither with the plough nor the loy is fresh soil turned up, the same thin surface being merely broken year after year; and even where the wealthier farmers have introduced the Scotch plough, the ploughman, attached to the old method, will not cut his furrow deep enough. The light angle harrow is found only with the gentry and wealthier farmers, who are doing much to improve the system of agriculture. Potatoes are in some instances dibbled in with a pointed stake called "a steeveen," in others spread on the sward or on manure, and the soil dug out of the trenches is thrown over them with a broad awkward shovel. The grass lands are of every quality, from the richest herbage to mountain heath and rushes. It is observed, however, that even on the coarsest and most marshy soils, the old native cow thrives well, and both milk and butter are of excellent flavour. Though there are no regular or extensive dairies, almost every family, however poor, has one or more cows, and hence great quantities of butter are made, which is principally carried to market in firkins and bought up to be shipped for England. Leitrim, generally, is not a feeding county like Roscommon, yet there are some excellent farms on which great numbers of cattle are annually fed, principally for the Dublin or English markets. In most of the valleys are found limestone gravel and marl, which are extensively used for manure; and in the districts of Ballynagleragh and Glenfarn, which are deficient in these materials, the inhabitants bring lime from a distance of three or four miles: sea weed, shells, and sand are not only used in all parts contiguous to the shores, but are carried several miles into the - interior. The fences are chiefly a trench from four to six feet wide, having on one side a bank of earth thrown out of the trench, which becomes durable by exposure to the air; a layer of sods is sometimes added, and quicksets are planted on the breast of the bank; but this sort of hedge or fence is found only in the southern parts of the county, where, on some of the larger farms, double-faced banks, with trenches on each side, and planted with thorn, crab, and forest trees, are sometimes to be seen. Farms of every size, from 4 acres to 3000, are to be met with, the larger principally in the mountainous districts and mostly under pasture, with some enclosures near the dwelling-houses. Vast numbers of young and store cattle are reared, and in some districts there are large flocks of sheep, but they are not so general as they might be: horned cattle are preferred, because they require less attention. In the southern parts of the county, and generally in the fertile districts, great improvements have been made in the breed of this latter stock, by the introduction of English and Scotch cows of the most esteemed sorts. The Durham is a general favourite, but is too delicate for the climate except in sheltered situations: the North Devon and Hereford do not attain to so great a size as at home. The cross which appears best suited to the richer parts of the county is that between the old Leicester and Durham; and in the upland districts, the blood of the Leicester mixes well with that of the native long-horned stock, producing a large and useful animal, well adapted to the soil and climate, which thrives well, fattens rapidly, and makes excellent beef. The breed of sheep has also been greatly improved: the New Leicester answers well on the limestone soils, and in both size and fleece is not inferior to any in England. But the breed most encouraged is a cross between the Leicester and the native; the fleece is good and the flavour of the mutton highly esteemed. Pigs, though numerous, are neither so general nor so good as in some of the northern and southern counties. Goats are found most frequently at the foot of the mountains, and are often an appendage to the cabin on the plain, but they are not by any means so general as in the mountainous counties of Munster. The horse, which appears to combine the characteristics of all the breeds to be met with in Roscommon, Longford, and Sligo, is not so good as that of any of those counties, being mostly small and light: the gentlemen and large farmers, however, have horses admirably adapted for the saddle. A light and useful one-horse cart has every where superseded the old solid wheel and slide car. Leitrim was formerly celebrated for its numerous and extensive forests. So lately as 1605, five are distinctly mentioned as being of very considerable extent, under the names of the forests of Drummat, Clone, Drumdaragh, Cortmore, and Screeney; all of these have long since disappeared, and this county, like the rest of Connaught, presents a bleak and denuded aspect; yet vestiges of woods are seen around Lurganboy and Woodville, which have some appearance of the remains of ancient forests; and there are old plantations, containing full-grown timber, in various parts, with others of modern growth around several of the mansions of the gentry; there are also several nurseries. An orchard and a good kitchen garden is a usual appendage to the farm-house.

The geology of the county presents many remarkable features. The lowest strata are those of the primary mountain range entering from the county of Sligo and extending from south-west to north-east: this range is mostly composed of mica slate; a green steatite, thickly studded with valuable garnets, has been found at the foot of a mountain near Lurganboy. On the western base of Benbo a clay of a blueish white hue has been found and used for fullers' earth: the western side of the same mountain is traversed by a metallic vein containing copper pyrites, which was formerly wrought. Veins of the sulphuret of lead have also been largely wrought in several places between Benbo and Lurganboy. This primary range is generally bordered on both sides by beds of variously coloured freestone, to which limestone succeeds in every direction, occupying the remainder of the northern portion of the county and forming part of the great limestone field of Ireland. All the central portion of the county forms part of the great Connaught coal field, constituting a vast basin of which Lough Allen is the centre. The principal vein of coal is about 3 feet thick, of very great extent, and of excellent quality both for domestic purposes and for smelting; but the beds are often interrupted by faults, by which portions of the strata are, broken and thrown upwards from 20 to 40 yards. It was originally discovered in the Munterkenny mountains, and such was the importance attached to the discovery that a parliamentary grant was made for the formation of roads to it, but the workings were soon discontinued in consequence of a fault, by which the stratum was considerably elevated, which induced the workmen, who were ignorant of the cause of the interruption and of the means of remedying it, to relinquish any further operations. In the northern part of the coal district the beds are found only in the higher parts of Lugnacuillagh and Lacka. Extensive quarries of very fine-grained yellowish white sandstone are worked near the summit of Glanfarn mountain for window seats and various ornamental purposes. Lacka mountain contains a great bed of sandstone, the strata of which form a succession of abrupt precipices with considerable flat intervals between them: above the sandstone are beds of slate clay succeeded by layers of coal from 4 to 6 inches thick, alternating with beds of sandstone: this field has been but little worked. The stratification of Lugnacuillagh mountain, on the borders of Cavan, much resembles that of Lacka. The remainder of the coal district to the east of Lough Allen is composed of the great mountain group of Slieve-an-irin, or Slieve-an-Jaroin, "the Iron Mountain;" its stratification is extremely irregular. Three layers of coal have been discovered in it, one of good quality, 18 inches thick. Rich clay ironstone abounds also at various elevations, and was worked so long as timber could be procured to feed the furnaces: those of Drumshambo, the last in operation, were abandoned in 1765. The ore of this mountain is said to be far richer than that on the Roscommon side of the lake. In the channels of many of the streams descending from it are found beds of pipe clay and yellow ochre. Manganese is also found in great abundance.

The manufactures are few and unimportant; the principal are the spinning of flax and the weaving of linen cloth, which are carried on in some parts to a considerable extent; the greater part of the cloth is sold in the open market to the merchants and bleachers of the county, and the remainder is purchased by buyers from the neighbouring northern counties. There are only four bleach-greens now in operation, in which about 32,000 pieces are annually finished, principally for the English market. Coarse pottery is made near Dromahaire and Leitrim, in quantities merely sufficient to supply the domestic demand. Friezes, flannels, and woollen stuffs are made in various parts, and are considered equal to any of Irish fabric, particularly the flannels, which are in great esteem and always command good prices. The commerce of the county is also on a very limited scale, consisting chiefly in the sale of butter, live cattle, pigs, and a small portion of the manufactured articles above noticed. Fresh-water fish of every kind are abundant in all the rivers and lakes; very fine salmon are caught in the Bundoran river below Lough Melvin: and off the coast great quantities of herrings, sprats, cod, ling, and whiting are taken.

The principal of the numerous rivers is the Shannon (originally Sionan, signifying "calmness," but anciently written Shenan), which enters the county in a copious stream about four miles from its source in the midst of the lonely district of Glangavlin, in the county of Cavan, and descends southward into Lough Allen, whence it emerges near Drumshambo and pursues a winding southern course by Leitrim, Carrick-on-Shannon, Jamestown, and Drumsna; it thence proceeds southeastward, and after forming the Loughs Bodarig and Boffin, quits the county below Roosky. Throughout the whole of its course from Lough Allen to this point it separates the county from that of Roscommon, and is navigable. The Abhain-Naille, which takes its name from St. Naille, or Natalis, who built a monastery at its source, rises in Killowman lake, on the summit of Lacka mountain, whence it issues in a copious stream, and being soon joined by other rivulets, becomes a river of considerable size, and descends with rapidity to join the Shannon. The Duibhachar river runs from Belhovel lake southward into Lough Allen, it is but four miles in length and is at first a small stream; but being joined by numerous tributaries descending from the mountain and hills of Barradaaltdeag, or "the tops of the twelve dingles," it becomes both wide and deep. The smaller rivers are very numerous, rippling through endless varieties of scenery in various parts of the county, but the only one worthy of especial notice is the Boonid or Bonnet, which flows through the beautiful vale of Dromahaire into Lough Gill. The Shannon has been rendered navigable throughout its entire length by means of several cuts, or short canals; the principal is that from the south-eastern extremity of Lough Allen to Battle Bridge, four miles, above Carrick: it was completed in 1817 by means of a parliamentary grant of £15,000, and is about 5 miles in length; hitherto it has been of little advantage, but from the great mineral wealth of the districts with which it is connected, the high reputation the iron found in them has already acquired, the railway now in progress from the Arigna works to Lough Allen, and the numerous advantages to be expected from a spirit of internal commerce judiciously directed, it is to be hoped that this fine canal, now nearly choked with reeds, will be made available towards increasing the internal prosperity of the country. Other short cuts, more or less connected with the Shannon near the shores of Leitrim, belong properly to Roscommon, and are described in the article on that county.

The roads are numerous, but by no means well laid out, nor do they pass through the districts where they would be most useful to the public. Throughout every part of the mountainous tracts, with one exception, there are no passable roads; the want is generally felt, and universally admitted, but no effort was made to remedy it until the present year, when the Grand Jury decided upon opening a new mail line from Sligo to Ballyshannon, through the mountains of Rocclogher, between Cartrongibbough and the Deerpark; the line is already marked out, but its formation has not yet commenced. This improvement, however, will not touch upon, or afford an opening into the rich mineral districts of Leitrim. Some important roads have been formed in various parts, but being made by contract the foundations are defective, and the roads themselves are now much neglected, although the materials are everywhere most abundant and of superior quality.

Vestiges of the remotest antiquity are not numerous: there are but two druidical altars, one within half a mile of Fena, and the other on the demesne of Letterfyan: they are called respectively by the inhabitants Leaba Dearmudi Graine, or "Darby and Graine's bed or altar." Fifteen religious houses are recorded to have formerly existed within the limits of the county; and there are still remains of those of Fena, Annaghduff, Clone, Kilnaille, and Ince in Lough Allen. The castles and fortified mansions were also very numerous; those which still remain, more or less in ruin, are O'Rourk's Castle, near the fortified residence called Dromahaire Castle, those of Jamestown and Longfield, Castlefore, Castle John, Cloncorrick Castle, Castle Car, the fortresses of Dungarbery and Manor-Hamilton, and two castles on the banks of Lough Gill. The modern seats, which are not remarkable either for number or grandeur, are noticed under the heads of the parishes in which they are respectively situated. The farm-houses are usually long narrow cabins, which sometimes shelter the cattle in common with the family; but houses of a better description, with chimneys, partitions, and separate or detached buildings, are gradually superseding them. The fuel is everywhere turf, procured in great abundance through every part of the county. The general food is potatoes and oaten bread, sometimes with buttermilk, or fish; butchers' meat is only used at Easter and Christmas, or on other great festive occasions. The clothing of the men is neat and strong, the coat mostly of frieze, the small clothes of corduroy; the females mostly wear a coarse woollen stuff petticoat, and of late cotton gowns have become common. The general character of the people is that of sobriety and industry: the English language is everywhere spoken by adults and children, and mostly by elderly people, except in the remote mountain districts, and even there it rarely occurs that a person is met with who cannot speak it. The principal natural curiosities, besides those already noticed as forming the grand features of its surface, are its chalybeate and sulphureous springs, of which the most noted are the sulphureous spas of Drumsna, Meelock, and Athimonus, besides several others about Drumshambo, and Cashcarrigan. The principal chalybeate spas are those on the border of Cavan, at the northern extremity of Lough Allen; and Oakfield, within two miles of the sea. In 1783, Robert Clements, Esq., was created Baron Leitrim of Manor-Hamilton, advanced to the viscounty in 1793, and created Earl of Leitrim in 1795, which titles are now enjoyed by his son.

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