From Sligo to Wales – the Flight of Charles Phibbs

by Einion Thomas, Bangor University

Following the withdrawal of the British army from southern Ireland in 1922, the disbandment of the Royal Irish constabulary, and onset of Civil War, many landed families, who had relied on their presence for the maintenance of law and order and their own safety, found themselves in a vulnerable position. One such was the Phibbs family who were substantial landlords in counties Galway and Sligo.

In 1877 Charles Phibbs had purchased the townland of Doobeg in Bunnanadden, co. Sligo and spent the next few years improving this part of his estate. He built himself a new house, Doobeg, on a small hill with a commanding view of the area. It was not a typical landlord ‘Big House’; according to one contemporary, it had ‘an awe-inspiring effect, something in the nature of a courthouse, something dreary and dangerous’. Today the National Inventory of Irish Heritage describes this rather modest house as ‘unusually proportioned’ and truncated in its design.

At first it seems there were cordial relations between Phibbs and his tenants although he was regarded as arrogant. What cordiality there was soon disappeared when he tried to introduce a number of changes in estate management. The year he took over Doobeg also witnessed the beginning of a long agricultural depression in Ireland that would give rise to the Land War. Despite this downturn Phibbs insisted on raising his rents. Further resentment was caused when he took over the local turf bog for his own use, leaving his tenants to dig for turf in a wet, poor quality bog some distance away. Neighbourhood retaliation took the form of boycotting and he was forced to seek police protection, and a permanent police presence was established at Doobeg.

Phibbs survived the Land War but in 1900 incurred the wrath of the United Irish League when he leased a boycotted farm from Lord Harlech, a distant relative. In a letter to the Chief Secretary, George Wyndham, Phibbs complained of his treatment by the local population: ‘the smith who promised to shoe for me refused to do so, [and] the miller sent me a note that he will charge me more than others for meal’. This state of affairs lasted until Phibbs finally relinquished the farm.

In 1916 Charles Phibbs died and was succeeded by his son, Charles junior. Though regarded as a good and innovative farmer, he also inherited the arrogant manner of his father. During the War of Independence, he was viewed as the chief British sympathiser in the area, a situation that he seems at first to have relished. He was kidnapped by the local IRA and held for a short period; a hay store was burnt down and his workers threatened, but the presence of the police and British military seem to have guaranteed his personal safety. During the period of the truce, after 11 July 1921, his position became less secure. Attacks were made on the house, shots were fired into it, and a generator building was blown up. On the night of 21 May 1922, a grave was dug in front of the house with an epitaph to Phibbs:

The epitaph on the grave

Slogans were painted on the walls of Doobeg House and outbuildings were ransacked.

Charles Phibbs standing in the grave dug in front of Doonbeg house following an attack on 22 May 1922

These continuous threats and attacks eventually took their toll and by the summer of 1922 Phibbs decided to leave Ireland. His destination was Dyffryn Ardudwy, co. Merioneth in north Wales where in July he bought a 100-acre estate, Plas Gwynfryn. He decided on Dyffryn Ardudwy probably because of the influence of Lord Harlech who owned an estate nearby.

In Ireland anti-Treaty forces occupied Doobeg House and used it as a local headquarters during the Civil War. For those estate workers who remained loyal to Phibbs, their future was spelled out in no uncertain terms when a threatening letter was sent to Pat Hunt, a foreman on the estate, in the autumn, ordering them to stop working by 6 October 1922 or face the consequences.

Threatening letter received by Pat Hunt ordering the estate workers to cease working for the estate by 6 October 1922

Phibbs returned briefly to Doobeg in the Spring of 1923 when he managed to salvage some furniture and silverware that had been hidden by one of his servants. It was his final visit. In Wales, he became a successful, though never popular, landowner building up an estate of over 700 acres. He tried and failed three times to become a Conservative MP for Merioneth. In 1936 he was knighted for his service to local government. He died in 1964 and his ashes scattered on the mountains of his adopted country.

Further reading:

Michael Farry, The Irish Revolution, 1912-23: Sligo, Four Courts Press, (Dublin, 2012)

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