The Heenan surname originated in Ireland so it’s only appropriate that today, as part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge, we look at the life of someone from that country.
In the history of the Great Famine, the men who acted as agents for the great landed estates have been traditionally represented as “devils one and all.” They’ve been held responsible for a multitude of wrongdoings against their peasant tenants: ignoring the desperation caused by the repeated failure of the potato harvest; evicting them when they couldn’t pay their rents, charging them for improvements to the estate. In Irish fiction and drama one of the most popular stereotypes and conventions has been that of the villainous land agent.
During the years of the Irish Famine, one of these land agents was George Heenan.
Born around 1814; the son of John Heenan, a doctor from Parsonstown; George became a land agent after retiring from his own medical practice.
He held numerous land agencies in Tipperary, Roscommon and Mayo and was also the agent for Garrett O’Moore‟s estate at Cloghan in the west of King’s County. From the 1830s, in his capacity of agent to Lord Rosse, the second largest landowner in King’s County (now County Offaly), he was responsible for an estate of more than 25,000 acres.
One of his key tasks was to secure the payment of rents from tenants of the estate. But he also performed a variety of other duties: keeping the accounts, surveying the land, handling the sale of land and allotting work on the demesne.
In 1851 a dinner was held in his honour by 250 representatives of the Rosse tenancy, to “show their gratitude for the great leniency by which they have been treated by him during the last few years of distress and depression.”
This eulogy gives the impression that George Heenan was one of the more benevolent of land agents during the time of the Irish Famine. The people at the dinner were of course not those who had lost their farm or who had needed poor relief. The guests were clearly among the more affluent of the tenants.
And yet there is evidence that George Heenan was not one of those agents who ignored the plight of the poorer tenants whose crops had been wiped out.
When the potato blight first struck King’s County, George – like many other agents – was at a loss to know how to respond His boss, Lord Rosse, initially misunderstood the reports he received about the extent of the blight and consequently reported to government officials in Dublin that only one third of the crop was affected. When the fuller extent became known, some agents began to issue instructions to tenants on how to care for potatoes to prevent the spread of disease. George Heenan, having no background in agriculture, admitted he didn’t have the knowledge to advise tenants on how to grow Indian meal as a substitute for potatoes. Instead he told them he would allow them three and half pence for their rotten potatoes provided that they would pit those potatoes which were sound.
In January 1847, he was instructed to implement a new set of estate rules devised by his employer Some were intended to improve the tenant holdings – replacing thatch roofs with slate for example – while others seemed more directed at getting rid of tenants who were in arrears.
George Heenan made a concerted effort to gather in rents and arrears. Smallholders he had no difficulty in evicting but he was reluctant to evict what he described as “quite solvent‟ tenants, giving them the opportunity in 1848 to sell the harvests to pay their rents. He told the earl that he didn’t consider it “judicious to press them at present‟. The threat of eviction was, he considered, enough to get the defaulters to pay up.
By the end of the year he had collected more than £9,000 in rent and arrears.
He did execute evictions. Between 1848 and 1849 at least eighty families (estimated to be up to 500 people) were forced to quit their holdings. The evictions on the estate continued in 1851 when Heenan evicted a further thirteen families ( about sixty-five people).
George Heenan: a figure of the establishment
George Heenan had a finger in many pies. In addition to his role as land agent, he acted as receiver for the sale of other estates, regularly being mentioned in newspaper adverts. He was secretary to the board of the Dublin, Tullamore and Parsonstown Junction Railway Company and a member of the board of the Poor Law Guardians for the union of Parsonstown ( responsible for the provision of poor relief. From 1856 he was also coroner for Kings County, presiding over inquests.
His multiple interests enabled him to occupy neo-classical mansion at Tullynisk Park (often referred to as Woodfield) that had been built in 1815 by Sir Richard Morrison as a dower house for the Rosse family. His sons also enjoyed a private education, being tutored alongside the sons of Lorde Rosse.
He stood down from the role of agent in March 1853, but was still working as the coroner when he died suddenly on 18, December1866. His body was found lying in a deep drain near his house. It was believed he fell while making his way home in the dark. An inquest brought in a verdict of accidental death.
Discover more information
George Heenan and his descendants are part of family group 127 – the family tree can be viewed in PDF format here Heenan family tree 127.
Details of the family can be accessed here on the Heenan Footsteps website.
A detailed biography of his son Richard Hammersley Heenan is here.
- Kings County Chronicle 1841-1866. Accessed via Find My Past
- Freeman Journal, 1845 Accessed via Find My Past
- The Advocate 1857 Accessed via Find My Past
- Land Agents and Estate Management in King’s County During the Great Famine 1838-53: Postgraduate thesis, by Ciaran Joseph Reilly, 2010