Thursday 22 February 2018

Archives show how Johnstown Castle became State property

Johnstown Castle (D Medcalf)
Johnstown Castle (D Medcalf)

We all know that Johnstown Castle is special. Now this newspaper's former editor Gerry Breen has been in touch with a piece showing just how special. The house and grounds have been in the news as they are poised to benefit from a €2.5 million investment of public funds to convert the property into a major tourist attraction.

Gerry recalls how the State first became involved 59 years ago with the passing of the Johnstown Castle Agricultural College Act, 1945:

'For a long time, Johnstown Castle was the private preserve of Lady Maurice Fitzgerald, her family and her aristocratic friends, but it is now open to the public. Seventy years ago, the castle and demesne were handed over to the nation.

'This generous gift was accepted, on behalf of the people, by the government of the day. A Bill was brought before the Dáil setting out that the estate was to be used for the purpose of an agricultural college to be known as Johnstown Castle Agricultural College.

'The Bill set forth that "the generous gift of Dorothy Violet Jefferies and Maurice Victor Lakin of the property commonly known as Johnstown Castle and demesne to the nation for the purpose of a lay agricultural college is hereby gratefully accepted".

'The conditions, rights of the donors, rights and liabilities of the Minister for Agriculture and provisions regarding certain employees of the estate were set out in the Bill. Amongst the provisions set out were:

* The gate lodge at Rathaspick shall be maintained in perpetuity as a residence for the District Jubilee Nurse for the time being and she shall be entitled to reside there rent free. The lodge shall be free of poor rates or other rates made by the local authority. The ornamental nature of the gardens and pleasure grounds should not be altered - the ornamental timber thereon shall not be felled or cut save in the course of management.

* By the conveyance the rights of shooting, fishing, fowling and sporting are reserved to Maurice Victor Lakin and his heirs and are not capable of being assigned or sub-let. Rights of way to the family private burial ground are preserved and will be maintained in perpetuity by the Minister for Agriculture.

* On the coming into operation of the Act, the Minister shall be entitled to possession and the receipt of rents and profits from 21st April, 1944, and shall be liable for all outgoings. He shall be liable also for £4,170 (€5,295) , the proportionate amount of all death duties (estate and succession) paid to the State in respect of the estate on the deaths of Lady Adelaide Jane Frances Fitzgerald and Gerald Hugh Fitzgerald, also for £637 (€808), the amount estimated to have been paid or payable by Maurice Victor Lakin from 1st January, 1944, to 21st April, 1944, for wages and pensions to the employees and £755 (€958) for miscellaneous expenses and outlay incurred in respect of the estate since 1st January, 1944.

'Provision was made in the agreement for the retention by the Department at wages not less than they were then paid, including their perquisites in kind, of seven farm hands, four garden employees, two tradesmen, two woodmen, a coachman, a chauffeur, a cook, a kitchen-maid, three housemaids and a laundry and dairymaid. The gamekeeper and the retired chauffeur were each to receive a payment of £1 (€1.27) a week and to be allowed to occupy their houses rent free. The present coachman and the chauffeur were to receive, on retirement, pensions of £1 a week and be allowed to occupy their houses rent free.

If any of the four was to be survived by his wife, the latter was to continue to occupy their house for her life-time. Six of the employees were to be entitled, on retirement, to a pension of £1 a week. Nine other employees and the female domestic servants were, on retirement, to be entitled to a gratuity at the rate of one week's wages for each completed year of service.

These arrangements were not to apply in any case in which an employee should prove to be unsatisfactory or in which he chose to leave the Department's employment of his own volition and not due to incapacity through infirmity before reaching the age of 65.

'The butler and footman whose services would not be needed, were each to receive a lump sum at the rate of £2 (€2.54) for each year of service, amounting in the butler's case to £46 (€58) and £16 (€20) in the case of the footman.

'In handing over Johnstown Castle to the nation, the owners showed their concern for workers on the estate and certainly did their best to make sure they would be looked after. It has to be said that this was not typical of the landlord class in Ireland, but it was nothing new for the owners of Johnstown Castle. They had a reputation for being ahead of their time when it came to looking after their workers.'

It turned out that the legislation of 1945 which drew Gerry Breen's attention was only the start of it. The act has been followed since by Johnstown Castle Agricultural College (Amendment) Act, 1959 and then the Johnstown Castle Agricultural College (Amendment) Act, 1996. The latter was important as it cleared the way for the Government to lease part of the estate to the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, scores of jobs were created for public servants on our Wexford doorstep, a worthwhile example of decentralisation, far removed from Dublin.

Now comes the Johnstown Castle Agricultural College (Amendment) Bill 2014, not yet passed but due to be enacted shortly. Once through all the hoops in Leinster House, it will allow 'the use of the estate at Johnstown Castle for heritage, tourism, amenity or recreational purposes'.

Another far-sighted piece of law making.

Gerry Breen writes (a shilling is about 6.4 cents):

Back in 1912 a new Insurance Act was passed, and under this act employers were obliged to pay certain contributions in respect of each eligible worker. It was well-known at the time that Lady Maurice Fitzgerald of Johnstown Castle took great care of all her workers, so people in Wexford were astonished when no less than 257 summonses were issued against her by the Irish Insurance Commissioners, alleging that she had repeatedly evaded paying the contributions of her employees.

When the case came up for hearing at Wexford Petty Sessions, there was a considerable amount of interest in the proceedings and, of course, the court was crowded.

Mr. James O'Connor, K.C., appeared for the Insurance Commissioners, and the Lady Maurice Fitzgerald was represented by Mr. Cecil Forde, B.L. (instructed by Messrs. M. J. O'Connor & Co., solicitors).

It was made clear by her counsel in the course of the hearing that the reason for Lady Fitzgerald's action was not that she objected to paying any contribution which she was bound to pay under the Act. She had always been perfectly willing to pay her contribution, but what she objected to was that she should be turned into a tax collector, and extract from unwilling servants sums of money in pursuance of regulations laid down.

Her counsel went on to tell the court that Lady Maurice Fitzgerald had been some thirty-three years in Johnstown Castle, where she employed forty farm hands and seventeen indoor servants, and he was instructed by some of her own employees that they had the greatest objection to paying their part of the contribution.

Counsel said that credit was due to Lady Maurice Fitzgerald for her public spirit and high sense of duty in appearing in that court at great trouble and expense to express her opinion – not in the interests of herself, because it did not matter much to her whether she was successful or not – but in the interests of her employees.

Lady Maurice Fitzgerald's Counsel told the court that none of Lady Fitzgerald's farm hands or servants wished to pay their contributions because whatever benefits they might get under the Act they believed were nothing in comparison to the benefits they received at present. They got from nine shillings to 14 shillings a week in wages, and every Christmas they got 10 shillings each at least. If they were ill, she paid their expenses and maintained them in various other things. She provided farm hands with a house each and three-quarters of an acre of land, and gave them potatoes. She never let one of her employees want in sickness or at any other time. In one or two cases of tuberculosis, at her own cost, she sent the patients to a sanatorium and where one died, she paid all the burial expenses.

Not surprisingly, the sympathy of the court was with Lady Maurice Fitzgerald and it was accepted that she was not trying to evade the lawful payment of the contributions under the Act, but was endeavouring to make a point.

For many years, Lady Maurice Fitzgerald served on Wexford Corporation and on other public bodies, and she is credited with making an impressive contribution to the public life of Wexford.

Wexford People

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