William O’Sullivan, Carriganass Castle, Kealkil, Bantry, (1775-1859). His Life and Times. A Landlord, Middleman, Moneylender, Political Activist.


William O’Sullivan is a figure not well known but he is representative of a tenacity that characterised elements of the old Gaelic order despite the Penal Laws.  The bulk of the land held in West Cork by Catholics was forfeit for ‘Rebellion’; or lost through the legal chicanery of people like Richard Boyle the Great Earl of Cork or Sir Walter Coppinger.  The only families that come to mind who managed to retain their lands were the descendants of Sir Teague O’Regan who retained ownership to about 1905 when the estate outside Rosscarbery was acquired by the Land Commission.  Also Lord Kenmare estate took in part of the general Bantry aea as well as Kerry.

Landlord families could be adaptable, The Bernards of Bandon later the Earls of Bandon had extensive estate in West Cork and Kerry.  Annually there was a dinner for major tenants those in West Cork tend to be pious Protestant the dinner was a  muted affair.  However the Kerry dinner was for mainly Catholics and resembles a mediaeval feast by an Irish Chieftain, uilleann pipers, fiddlers and drink overflowing.

Recent work on land ownership and the Penal Laws would suggest that perhaps up to 30% of the land was in de facto Cathoolic ownership.  Underneath ownership there were various estates in land and the class of which William O’Sullivan was a member in West Cork had effective control subject to a head rent right through the 18th and into the 19th century.

Even for the group of whom William O’Sullivan was a member the pettifoggery of the Penal Laws rankled.

Father Barry, Parish Priest of Bantry  in evidence to the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Distress in Ireland under the Insurrection Act sitting in Bantry.   He said that 

Protestant  Half Pay Officers  on £40 a year  preferred as Quarter Session Jurors in Bantry to Opulent Catholics the likes of Deasy, Clonakilty on £2,000 a year. He was also presumably referring to John O’Conell of Bantry, a wealthy merchant and political activist.

In assessing the Penal Laws it is worth bearing in mind that in France broadly similar laws were passed but with the exception that they were applied to their own people the Huguenots.  In Ireland’s case they were imposed by an alien invading power.  By 1750 the worst was probably over but legal disabilities on holding land or having professional qualifications remained until the 1770s onwards.  Perversely the Penal Laws contributed to the development of a very wealthy Catholic Mercantile Class……,.,