In North America we say “I live in Essex County.” But if Essex County were located in Ireland we’d say “I live in County Essex.” I can’t explain why the word order is reversed, but I suspect that everyone who has done genealogical research of Irish ancestors from this side of the pond has noted that curiosity. In the case of the Brett family of Co. Essex (Ontario), there’s much to ponder about Co. Sligo (Ireland) and the Bretts who have made it into the history books.
The name Brett is of Norman origin, meaning “of Brittany.” A region in the northwest of France, Brittany is directly south of and separated from England by the English Channel. Historically, Brittany was considered to be one of the seven Celtic nations (the others being Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, and Galicia).
It is believed that the Bretts arrived in Ireland following the Anglo-Norman Invasion of 1169-1172, during the reign of Henry II. Norman lords controlled the island for a time, but many assimilated into Irish culture over the next 200-300 years. The area under English control eventually shrank to a territory called “The Pale” – stretching from Dublin to Dundalk on the eastern coast. The Bretts are described as “Palesmen from County Louth” in Mary O’Dowd’s book Early Modern Sligo 1568-1688: Power, Politics and Land. This made them “Old English” in the eyes of the native Gaelic lords.
O’Dowd also reports that the Bretts arrived in Sligo in 1610 with their relatives, the Taaffes, who became the largest landlords in Co. Sligo by 1633-1635. Sir William Taaffe’s first wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Sir William Brett of Tullough, in Fingall, north of Dublin.
The Brett patriarch who arrived in Sligo in 1610 was named Jasper Brett. He lived at Rathdoony, just above Ballymote, and he built a fortified dwelling – perhaps a castle or maybe a fortified manor house – at Derroon (Doire Uan, meaning “the wood of the lambs”). The remains of that property have been identified, along with ancient burial mounds located on the nearby hills. During times of war and civil unrest – and there were many during the 1600s – fortified properties gave added protection.
On a map of Derroon and the surrounding area, you will find place names that are significant to the Bretts of the 19th century – places like Ballinacarrow, Ballymote and Moymlough. This suggests that the descendants of Jasper Brett remained in the same small region of Co. Sligo for over 250 years, despite all the troubles that they were to encounter.
Brett historian Bill McGee quotes J.C. MacDonagh’s History of Ballymote and Emlaghfad as follows:
Jasper Brett, the founder of the family, lived at Rathdooney, and afterwards built the fortified dwelling, now a ruin, at Deroon. He was High Sheriff during the years 1627-28, and again in the year 1635.
The High Sheriff held the highest position in the county, acting as the king’s representative on administrative and judicial matters. McGee notes that the High Sheriff in Ireland was tasked primarily with collecting the king’s revenues for the Exchequer in Dublin, including fines, fees, and rents. He presided over the county court, summoned juries, levied fines and delivered prisoners. McGee writes: “The sheriff was frequently obliged to defend the county in time of war, and, when necessary, to enforce writs by calling on the aid of the posse.” The appointment appears to have been made annually. Jasper Brett held the position of High Sheriff for three years – 1627, 1628 and 1635.
Other Bretts receive brief mention in the history books, but before I share that information I think it’s important to understand the political and religious conditions that existed in England, especially during the Tudor and Stuart reigns.
It is fair to suggest that political ties and tribal loyalties motivated the Bretts to move to Ireland during the Anglo-Norman Invasion. For almost 500 years they lived in the Pale (the area from Dublin to Dundalk on the east coast), benefiting from the protection that being “Old English” and being loyal to the Crown bestowed.
The Protestant Reformation would change all that. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. Among other things, Luther and his supporters were opposed to the Catholic church’s practice of selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins.
Initially Luther’s movement was confined to parts of Europe and King Henry VIII of England (1509-1547) voiced his opposition to it. Raised a devout Roman Catholic, Henry had no use for Protestantism until he wanted a divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. When the Catholic church refused his request, he established the Church of England and became the head of that church.
The Bretts, like most Old English families of the Catholic faith, would have started to feel uneasy around this time, torn between the widespread acceptance of the Pope’s authority in Ireland and their allegiance to the English monarchy. To make matters worse, Henry was declared King of Ireland after a failed rebellion there. British interest in the small Celtic nation intensified.
For the next hundred years or so, religions fell in and out of favour depending on the views of the reigning monarch. Loyal subjects were motivated to adopt whichever religion was in favour at a particular point in time to avoid imprisonment, torture and execution. The Bretts appear to have held to their Catholic faith throughout the reigns of several Protestant and one Catholic ruler:
The Bretts may have been uneasy about their faith during the years of the Tudor dynasty, but their concerns would multiply exponentially during the 1600s and the Stuart reign.
In 1609, Stuart King James I began the systematic colonization of Ulster, the northernmost province of Ireland. The Ulster Plantation scheme was designed to populate the region with Protestants (about half of them Scottish) to prevent further rebellion. In this most Gaelic part of Ireland, a group of chieftains led by Hugh O’Neill had rebelled against the imposition of English rule but had lost the Nine Years War by 1603. Their lands were seized and the “Plantation of Ulster” began.
The historic antagonism between Catholics/Protestants and Irish/British sympathizers in Ireland finds its origins in this time.
When Charles I succeeded his father on the throne, Anglicanism remained the approved religion. But the king’s marriage to a French Catholic raised concerns. On the one hand, Protestants feared that the king’s children would be raised in the Catholic faith, which rendered the future of Protestantism uncertain. On the other hand, Catholics hoped for religious tolerance and petitioned the king for full rights in society and freedom of religion. They even agreed to have their taxes raised in exchange for these rights and freedoms. King Charles eventually agreed to their demands, but after the levies were implemented in 1630 he postponed the fulfillment of his promises.
The political position of the “Old English” lords was becoming increasingly precarious. Loyalty to the Crown, even though it had been demonstrated for centuries, was no longer viewed as sufficient proof of fidelity without conversion to Protestantism. Many of the Old English now spoke the Irish language, patronized the Irish culture and had married Gaelic women. They continued to be staunchly Catholic.
Like most of the Irish Catholic upper class, the Bretts would not have been ideologically opposed to Charles I’s sovereignty over Ireland, but they would have rightly feared the loss of their lands and their social position in Irish society.
In 1640-41, King Charles sent Thomas Wentworth to Co. Roscommon and Co. Sligo to check land titles with a view to raising revenue. When Wentworth started to confiscate the lands of Old English families it became clear that the British intended to expand the colonization (or plantation) of Ireland, a fear that had been festering for almost 40 years.
The Irish Rebellion of 1641 started in Ulster but quickly spread throughout Ireland. The Old English in the Province of Connaught (which included Co. Sligo) were slow to join but rallied to the cause about six months in. Most of the bloodiest violence occurred in Ulster, with both sides suffering great losses. This rebellion marked the beginning of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland that continued down to the 20th century.
Near Dublin, the Lords of the Pale organized a rebel force and gave notice of their grievances to the king on 17 March 1642. In response, King Charles sent a large army to suppress the rebellion. Only a few short months later Charles was forced to withdraw his troops from Ireland when civil war broke out in England. King Charles’s woes in England multiplied and kept him at bay until his execution in 1649.
What happened to the Bretts during this time is unknown, but we do know that their circumstances did not improve under Cromwell’s rule.
After Charles I was put to death, Parliament invited the Puritan Oliver Cromwell (1649-1658), followed by his son Richard (1658-1660), to rule as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Oliver passionately disliked Irish Catholics, while his son passionately disliked ruling the country. During the Cromwellian period, the Old English in Co. Sligo, including the Bretts and the Taaffes, openly opposed the Puritans. If the Bretts and the Taaffes had not been dispossessed of their lands during Charles’ reign, they most certainly were relieved of them now. Land ownership passed mostly to Protestant settlers and Cromwellian soldiers.
In 1660, things started to improve for the Old English. Parliament invited Charles II (1660-1685) to return from exile. This period is known as “The Restoration.” The history books tell us that the Taaffes were re-granted their lands, probably because Theobald Taaffe, was a favourite in Charles II’s court. The king made Taaffe the first Earl of Carlingford and restored his lands. Bill McGee says that the Bretts and others seem to have managed these lands until they were sold in the 1750s. It is unknown what happened to the Brett property at Derroon.
In 1662-63, a Mr. Brett assisted in making a survey of the town of Sligo. Around the same time, a John Brett of Sligo served as a Member of Parliament in the Irish Parliament of Charles II and as an assessor for the province of Connaught. Although British law prevented Catholics from holding high official positions, it did not yet prevent them from working in important positions or holding public office.
During the short reign of James II (1685-1688), the final Stuart king and the last Catholic monarch of England, a resurgence of Catholicism occurred. James II, the son of Charles I and his French Catholic wife, had converted to Catholicism after the Restoration and his reign brought with it new turmoil. An uprising against James was ultimately crushed.
In short order James II managed to alienate the British nobles. First he held treason trials called “The Bloody Assizes” and sent many rebels to their deaths. He then produced a Catholic heir. Fearing for the future, leading nobles called upon William III of Orange (1688-1702) to invade England and claim the crown with his wife Mary (James’ daughter). This William did. James initially fled to France, but in 1689 he arrived in Ireland where he enjoyed strong support. In The Irish and Anglo-Irish Gentry When Cromwell Came to Ireland, John O’Hart reports that five Bretts fought for James. The deposed king’s forces skirmished with Williamite supporters, but the Jacobites (James’s supporters) were ultimately defeated at the Battle of the Boyne. James fled to France where he died in 1701.
The Treaty of Limerick was signed on July 1, 1690. It permitted Catholics to practice their religion but forbid them from owning land. A series of punitive laws soon followed that prevented Catholics from having guns, holding political office, or receiving an education unless it was in the Protestant faith. Many Irish converted to Anglicanism to avoid the Penal Laws.
The 1700s brought consistent and widespread Protestant rule to England, Ireland and Scotland.
Although the first Bretts in Essex County were Protestant in religion, starting with John Brett (1825-1880), there is no historical evidence that points to a conversion from Catholicism. It is interesting to note, however, that John Brett’s older brother George is buried in a Protestant cemetery, the Rathbarron Church of Ireland Graveyard located in Coolaney, Co. Sligo.
Aside from religion, questions about land ownership or land management cannot be easily answered. We know that a Jasper Brett owned land in the townland of Moymlough in 1825. An entry in the Title Applotment Book for that year (which listed property valuations for taxation purposes) includes a listing for Jasper Brett.
[NOTE: A “townland” was the smallest division of land in Ireland, but it could vary in size from a single acre or less to several thousand acres. Five to thirty townlands were grouped together to form a civil parish. Civil parishes were grouped into baronies. A number of baronies were grouped together to form a county. Because the 19th century Irish census returns were destroyed, land and property records have become quite valuable as a means of identifying where Irish ancestors lived in the mid-1800s.]
We also know that our ancestor, John Brett, had an older brother named George who was a livestock farmer. From letters written by George to his brother John in the mid-1870s, we know that George moved from the townland of Mumlaugh (Moymlough) to the townland of Cornabby, Balinacarrow, Ballymote in 1861. The 1858 Griffith Valuations lists George Brett as the lessee of 68 acres of land in the townland of Moymlough, Parish of Killoran. He appears to have retained the leasehold on the land in Moymlough when he moved to Cornabby. From his letters, we know that, as of 1874, George held 64 acres of land in Ballymote, the 68 acres in Moymlough, and a large farm in County Mayo.
As land rights were key to economic wellness, it is likely that the Bretts converted to Protestantism some time after the Treaty of Limerick, possibly as early as 1690 or perhaps much more recently. We really have no way of knowing.
What we do know is that land ownership in Ireland continued to be fraught with problems. The practice of male primogeniture, whereby the firstborn male inherited the land and estate of his father to the exclusion of younger siblings, left many young Irish adults with few options. They could stay on the land, remain unmarried and work without pay, or they could emigrate to another country. The plight of unmarried women was particularly grim.
Evidence suggests that George Brett, as the eldest sibling, inherited his father Jasper Brett’s property. The fact that all of George’s siblings but one emigrated to North America is not unique to the family. About 3.5 million people left Ireland between 1815 and 1855.
By that time, memories of Doire Uan (Derroon) had probably become quite faint, if not forgotten.
Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Bill McGee of Nepean who has done all of the Ontario Bretts a great service by researching the Brett family exhaustively. Although forging connections between the Essex County Bretts and other Ontario Brett families has been difficult, I continue to have some hope that someone will crack the code eventually. For more from Bill McGee, visit http://www3.sympatico.ca/wfmcgee/Brett/