John D’Arcy was descended from an illustrious Galway family, the D’Arcys of Kiltullagh. The family were of Anglo Norman and Gaelic origin and were prominent in Galway from the 16th century. The first of the D’Arcys to win notoriety in Galway was James Darcy, nicknamed Riveagh, who was appointed vice president of Connaught and chief magistrate of the town during the reign of Elizabeth I. James (Riveagh) was mayor of Galway at the time of his death in 1603. From his will it is clear that he was a very wealthy man and was in a position to make ample provision for his seven sons and one daughter. John D’Arcy of Clifden was descended from James (Riveagh)’s seventh son, Patrick.
Patrick D’Arcy (1598–1668) is considered to have been the most important constitutional lawyer of the 17th century. He had a highly successful private law practice and was an active member of the Irish House
During the Confederate War (1641-53) Patrick D’Arcy was a leading member of the supreme council and was one of those that concluded peace with the lord lieutenant, the Earl of Ormond. He was also one of the commissioners later appointed by the assembly to raise an army of ten thousand men to aid King Charles I against the English Parliament. Following the defeat of the royalists, Patrick was imprisoned in the 1650s and his large estates in Mayo, Sligo and Galway were confiscated. He was allocated sixty-six acres in Omey Parish, in Connemara, and transplanted there in 1656. He was later granted permission to return to Galway, where he continued his legal practice. Patrick died in 1668 and was succeeded by his son James.
James (1633-1692) inherited large estates from his cousin, also named James D’Arcy. These included lands in Connemara and at Kiltullagh, Co Galway. The lands had been awarded to James under the Acts of Settlement and Explanation following the Cromwellian land settlements and the restoration of the king. The Kiltullagh lands were awarded for an act of kindness by a female member of the family in saving the lives of some English soldiers during the civil war.
The D’Arcy estates were entailed and therefore had to pass through the male line. John D’Arcy inherited the estates from his cousin Patrick in 1804. John’s inheritance comprised the lands in Connemara, along with land in east Galway and Mayo. Included in his inheritance was the family seat, Kiltullagh House, near Athenry, where the proprietor of the D’Arcy estates usually lived. On 4th June 1804, John married Frances Blake, daughter of Andrew Netterville Blake, of Castlegrove, near Tuam, Co Galway, and great granddaughter of Nicholas, 5th Viscount Netterville. Over the next eleven years, the D’Arcys had four sons and two daughters. John had a keen interest in sailing and, from the start, seemed to have shown more interest in his estates on the west coast of Connemara than those in other parts of the county.
John was young and ambitious, and soon became involved in local politics. He was appointed High Sheriff of the county in 1811. This was a prestigious position and one that carried power and influence in the county. John overstepped his powers, however, when in April he released from Galway gaol three Connemara men who were serving a sentence that included three public whippings. John was partly responsible for their arrest and was perhaps suffering pangs of conscience at the time, or maybe he considered the punishment too severe for the crime. Nonetheless, his action brought him into conflict with Dublin Castle and was the cause of him being removed from his position as High Sheriff later in the year. It also spoiled his chances of contesting the Galway county seat at Westminster the next year. Following his fall from grace, John seems to have turned his energy towards the development of his Connemara estate and in particular the setting up of a town, which he named Clifden. John was granted patents to hold markets and fairs at Clifden in 1812. This identified the village as a town and would have been a spur to John’s endeavours.
Frances D’Arcy died on 15th June 1815. Soon after this, John took his family to live permanently in the newly constructed Clifden Castle, a little west of the town. In 1820, John broke with family tradition and crossed the Shannon for a new wife. He met and married Louisa Bagot Sneyd from Dublin. Louisa was the daughter of an English father, Henry Sneyd of Keele Hall in Staffordshire, and an Irish mother, Elizabeth Malone. Louisa was just twenty-one years of age when she married John. It was a brave step for a young woman, removing herself from her family, society and the comforts of life in Dublin to take up residence in what was one of the remotest parts of the kingdom. But Louisa soon found that life in the remote west was anything but dull. Her relationship with her six stepchildren appears to have been close. Louisa and John went on to have eight children of their own, one of whom died in infancy.
Throughout the twenties, Clifden developed rapidly under John’s stewardship. By granting generous leases at low rents, he succeeded in attracting shopkeepers, merchants and artisans on to his estate. Aware that the new arrivals came from many parts of the country, he was ever conscious of fostering a united community. Over the years, John’s even-handed approach to his duties as landlord and magistrate endeared him to his tenants, but this did not mean that they could ever be called submissive. They were all the more independent minded, because of their diversity.
John went forward for the Galway seat at Westminster in five elections between 1812 and 1835. In three of these he withdrew before the final count. He contested the other two to the end, but failed to get elected. John was greatly aided in his political campaigning by the very able parish priest, Rev. Peter Fitzmaurice. He espoused the causes of Daniel O’Connell; he was a strong advocate of Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s and Repeal of the Act of Union in the 1830s. But O’Connell was wavering in his support, perhaps feeling that John would never be able to unseat the more powerful Thomas Martin.
John was noted throughout the county as a hospitable man and, according to one source, prone to live beyond his means. Like so many of his contemporaries, he borrowed heavily against his estate and, on his death in 1839, he left little behind for his wife and large family. His son and heir, Hyacinth, was eventually declared bankrupt and the entire D’Arcy estates were sold in the Encumbered Estates Court in 1850.
Five of John’s children from his first marriage lived out their lives in Clifden and are buried in the churchyard in the town. The exception was John Talbot, who lived for a time in Co Roscommon, but retired to Clifden and was the last of the family to live there until his death in 1896. The children from the second marriage held a strong affinity for Clifden, but were forced to seek their fortunes in other parts. They did, however, pass on to future generations a strong sense of identity and a pride in their ancestor, John D’Arcy.
This article is reproduced courtesy of Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill
Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, a native of Clifden, is the author of five books, two booklets and numerous articles on the history of west Co Galway. Her work is based principally on primary sources, from public archives and private collections. In recognition of her contribution to the heritage of the county, she has received two Heritage Awards from Galway County Council and an honorary Master of Arts Degree from NUI Galway. Kathleen lectures frequently to local history societies and other groups throughout the country.