John Hamilton the Good/Great?

At this time one hundred years ago, after the first anniversary of her husband’s disappearance at Gallipoli, Kittie Calderon decided it would be wise to channel her energies into a number of projects. One of these was to erect a memorial tablet to her father John Hamilton at the entrance of the causeway leading to St Ernan’s Island, Donegal Bay, where he had built a house that was to become Kittie’s childhood home.

Kittie was now in correspondence with the Arts and Crafts sculptor-mason Eric Gill, whom she had visited earlier in the summer at Ditchling Common, Sussex. Gill wrote to her on 26 July 1916 suggesting ‘a panel about six feet long by 18 inches high (this would allow of one and a half inch letters)’, recommending Grey Roman Stone, and giving a quote for the whole job. Kittie’s handwritten draft for the inscription reads:

This Causeway stands to commemorate the great mutual love between John Hamilton and the people of Donegal, both his own tenants and others.

After a time of bitter hunger and pestilence, when John Hamilton, not for the first or last time, had stood between them and death — knowing that his great wish was to build a road joining his favourite dwelling place, St Ernans, to the mainland, and that owing to the Atlantic tides he could not achieve this without expenditure far beyond his means — the people, Roman Catholic and Protestant, came in their hundreds with spade, pick, and barrow and built this Causeway, refusing all recompense.

John Hamilton J.P., D.L. of Brownhall and St Ernans was born in 1800, succeeded his father in 1807, and died in 1884.

The final version of the inscription, which is essentially as Kittie drafted it and can be seen at the entrance to the causeway today, is given on page 41 of this fascinating biography of Hamilton by a veteran of the Irish Times:

John Hamilton of Donegal

The incident the memorial refers to is well attested. It is not clear when Hamilton decided to build the causeway, but it must have been after the Irish famines of 1831 and 1845-50, as these have to be the ‘time of bitter hunger and pestilence’ that Kittie refers to. Possibly it was 1860. Hamilton had tired of gaining access to his house at low water or by boat. All the local experts warned him he would not be able to build a causeway because the tidal currents were too strong; they therefore advised him to build a bridge in two sections. He is said not to have been able to afford this solution (the distance was 220 yards), but the truth may be that he was so stubborn that he determined to prove everyone else wrong.

He took on a hundred labourers with wheelbarrows and attempted to complete the causeway foundations during a low spring tide. They managed three-quarters of it when the surge got the upper hand and Hamilton postponed the effort until a midsummer neap tide. That day’s work too was swept away. The next day, however, in Dermot James’s words, ‘a very large group of men turned up, offering their services to Hamilton free of charge’. All they would accept was a drink of whisky and water twice a day. This bank held and next day two large parties turned up, playing fifes and drums, to carry on the work. These were Orangemen (Protestants) on the one side, and Ribbonmen (Catholics) on the other! In friendly rivalry, they helped complete the causeway by late evening and, in Hamilton’s words, ‘striking up each their own tune marched off in the best of humour’.

The debt of the people of Donegal to John Hamilton was indeed great. During the famine of 1831 he organised a subscription fund, which the gentry, Government and others contributed to, in order to assist the poorest people with cheap food in the short term. Then he personally laid out large amounts of money to import meal, rice, beef and seed potatoes of the highest quality, he personally employed the starving, and he took no rents. During the Potato Famine itself, he employed people from his own estate and outside on land improvement projects financed largely by himself, arguing that rather than spending huge sums on soup kitchens and road-building it would be better to enable the starving to grow more food for the next year; for which purpose he again bought the seeds and encouraged his tenants to diversify away from potatoes. Against a background of one million deaths in Ireland as a whole, not one of Hamilton’s tenants during the Potato Famine years died of starvation. ‘It would appear to be almost impossible’, Dermot James concludes, ‘to exaggerate what John Hamilton did for more than two thousand desperately poor and vulnerable people around him.’

But when I said that James’s biography is ‘fascinating’, I meant it. It is fascinating because it shows Kittie’s father to have been complex. He had a luminous sense of Christian duty, a great propensity to act, dynamism and determination, but he was pitifully exploited by the Irish (British) government of the day, was undoubtedly regarded as an easy touch by many of his tenants, and (as he admitted himself) was disastrously undermined by his own inexperience and impetuosity. By 1850 much of his estate was mortgaged. His patrimony was largely spent and he was heavily in debt. ‘In all Ireland there never was, nor is there, a more considerate and humane landlord than the good and kind-hearted proprietor of St Ernan’s’, wrote the Catholic Parish Priest of Donegal Town about Hamilton (an Anglican) in 1880. The army of causeway-builders must have recognised this.

Hamilton’s first wife, whom he had married in 1823 when she was seventeen and with whom he had five children, died in 1854 and her death brought him very low. However, in 1858, at the age of fifty-seven, he married the thirty-three-year-old Mary Simson, who bore him John Pakenham Hamilton in 1861 and Katharine (Kittie) six years later. Kittie, then, was his youngest child. They became extremely close, especially after her brother left for public school but Kittie continued to live at home and be educated by her parents and an inspirational governess. Without question, John Hamilton nurtured Kittie’s own Christian faith, her views on compassion and charity, her own lifelong propensity to act to help those in sickness or need, her own powers of empathy and emotional intelligence.

Hamilton was complex… By 1880, when he had basically retired to St Andrews, near his wife’s family estate, his children by his first marriage were in their fifties. They probably agreed that their father was Good, but not that he was Great. He had in fact become what he never wanted to be, an absentee landlord; he had got through his fortune and was living on his second wife’s money; there was a suspicion that his generosity was a form of religious self-gratification; he deeply regretted and reproached himself with his own financial mismanagement. When he died in 1884, all he left his eldest son James in the family account at the Ulster Bank, Donegal, was fifty-four pounds, nineteen shillings and a penny. James inherited a heavily mortgaged estate which took him and his descendants three generations and the sale of much property to turn round.

Yet John Hamilton was more than ‘one of the most benevolent of that now rarely remembered class of good landlords’, as Dermot James puts it. Throughout his life he was above all a seeker after truth. Whether to religion, medicine, social welfare, education or politics, he brought genuine critical and creative thinking. He never ceased intellectually to question and move forward — and again I think this is something he imparted to his daughter and which George Calderon deeply appreciated in her. Although at the end of his life Hamilton remained proud of what he had done for his tenants during the Famine years and in greatly reducing illness amongst them by improving drainage and sanitation, he concluded that the whole landlord system had to go. He himself encouraged his tenants to buy their holdings. Whilst he thought there were advantages to the whole of Ireland remaining in the Union, he also approved of a form of Home Rule. My own favourite quotation of John Hamilton’s is from his 1852 Journal:

The people are not yet fit to rule because they are not yet capable of willing obedience to any rule for the general benefit. I am in principle a more utter democrat than any I have ever met with, but before the people can govern, they must be able to govern, the test of which is willingness to be governed for the general good; for the people who govern must govern something, and in this case that something is themselves.

A perennial truth, it seems to me.

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