From Sligo to Merioneth –the Flight of Sir Charles Phibbs

The surname Phibbs, originally a Lincolnshire family name, appears in Ireland towards the end of the sixteenth century when two brothers, both soldiers, each received a grant of land from the crown, William near Cork and Richard in Kilmainham outside Dublin. Not much more is heard of the family until 1659 when a Richard Phibbs took possession of lands in the baronies of Corran and Tireagh in County Sligo. Richard, described as a soldier, was part of what was called the Cromwellian settlement of Ireland whereby the native Catholic population were moved off their lands and transplanted to the west of the Shannon in Connaught. This harsh policy would create a deep-seated hatred of English rule amongst the native Irish. To keep some order and a semblance of English authority certain lands in Connaught were reserved for ex-soldiers who were willing to chance their luck in such a hostile environment. It was to these lands that Richard Phibbs and his family moved.
Although seen as an Ascendancy family and always under threat of attack, real or perceived, the Phibbs seem to have done well for themselves and by the middle of the nineteenth century they had accumulated a vast amount of land in Sligo and Galway. From the evidence available they were always on the lookout for more land, and this was the case in 1870 when Charles Phibbs purchased what was known as the townlands of Doobeg some thirty miles to the south of the town of Sligo.
Over the next few years Phibbs spent a large amount of money trying to improve the estate which, according to his testimony, was in a run down condition. He also built himself a new house called Doobeg on a small hill with a commanding view of the district. Though not large it had, as one contemporary describes ‘an awe-inspiring effect, something of the nature of a courthouse, something dreary and dangerous’.
At first it seems that there were cordial relations between Phibbs and his tenants, though this was due more to the popularity of his wife – he himself was regarded as being arrogant. But this popularity soon evaporated when he tried to introduce a series of changes on the estate. The rents were raised and this at a time when there was a severe economic depression in agriculture. Further resentment was caused when he took over the turf bog for his own use, driving the tenants to dig for peat in a wet and useless bog further away. For this act he was boycotted and was forced to get police protection for cutting the turf. Relations got so bad that there was a permanent police presence at Doobeg to protect the family and those who would work for him.
In 1900 Phibbs once more incurred the wrath of the tenancy when he leased a boycotted farm from Lord Harlech. For the United Irish League, a society set up by William O’Brien of Land League fame to defend the interests of the tenants, the actions of Phibbs were unforgivable. On July 1, 1901 the Sligo Champion reported that the League had passed the following resolution against Phibbs:

‘That we regard the action of Phibbs… in grabbing the Leitrim ranch as deserving of condemnation and we call on all League branches to take united action… and make it clear that he will not be allowed with impunity to ignore the League.’

The action would mean that Phibbs was once more boycotted. In a letter to George Wyndham, the Chief Secretary of Ireland, he complains about the lack of action by the government against the League and through this inaction it was impossible for him to run the estate properly. His workforce had left him and he was boycotted by everybody – even the police were not to be trusted.
‘the smith who promised to shoe for me refused to do so, the miller sent me a note that he will charge me more than others for meal, and this day an assistant (at a draper’s shop) told one of my daughters that Mr. Kane had given them orders not to supply my family with any goods at present’.
This state of affairs lasted until Phibbs finally relinquished the land.
In 1916 Charles Phibbs died and was buried in the private family plot not far from the house*. He was succeeded by his son, also named Charles, who seems to have inherited the same arrogant ways of his father. Though regarded as a good and innovative farmer his days at Doobeg were troublesome. During the ‘Tan’ war he was viewed as the chief British sympathiser in the area, a situation he seems at first to have relished, unwilling even to retire as a Grand Juror on the Quarter Sessions even though the local I.R.A. kidnapped him for a short period and threatened to shoot him. A hay shed was put on fire and his workers were threatened but the British presence seems to have guaranteed his survival.
The Truce and subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty further compounded his difficulties. With the protection of the British army removed Phibbs was all on his own and in a vulnerable position. The I.R.A. had not forgotten his stand during the Troubles and determined to get rid of him. Throughout May 1922 there were repeated attacks on the house. A generator building used to supply electricity was blown up whilst shots were fired at the hall. On the night of 21 May a grave was dug in front of the house with an epitaph to Phibbs on it:

‘Here lies the remains of Charles Phibbs who died with a ball of lead in his ribs. His tenants are all aggrieved at as quick as he went, for he went of a sudden without lifting the rent’

Slogans were also painted on the walls and the house and buildings were ransacked. The writing was literally on the wall for Charles Phibbs – the threats and the attacks were taking their toll and he decided to leave Ireland. His destination was Wales and in particular Dyffryn Ardudwy in Merioneth where he bought a small estate with 100 acres of land called Plas Gwynfryn.
What compelled him to come to Wales and especially Plas Gwynfryn? Some say it was the influence of Lord Harlech who not only had an estate nearby but was also a distant relative of Phibbs. Others say that he saw an advert for the sale of the estate and visited the place on chance and that his wife who accompanied him fell in love with the gardens there. Whatever the reason it was to Plas Gwynfryn that he came in July 1922.
Back in Ireland the Republicans took over Doobeg House and used it as a local headquarters during the Civil War. As to the estate workers who remained loyal to Phibbs their future was spelled out in no uncertain terms when a letter was sent in the Autumn of 1922 to Pat Hunt, a foreman on the estate. They were ordered to stop working for Phibbs by October 6, 1922. The letter went on:

‘Should ye fail to obey drastic measures shall be taken by night or by day’

It was signed with a melodramatic flourish by ‘the Man behind the gun’.
Not all were glad to see Phibbs leave. The Easter Vestry of the Church of Ireland unanimously passed a resolution sympathising with the family:

‘for having to leave their home in Doobeg and the loss they have sustained in doing so’.

Despite the threat to his life Charles Phibbs did return to Doobeg in the Spring of 1923. It was a hazardous experience with the I.R.A. looking for him. According to tradition he managed to salvage some furniture as well as some silverware which had been hidden by one of the servants. One other thing he brought back with him to Wales was the bell used to call the servants to lunch which he eventually gave to the church at Llandanwg not far from his home.
He was never to visit Doobeg again but the fear of reprisal remained. Apart from his family one other person left Ireland with him. Sergeant John Browne was an ex R.I.C. officer who acted as bodyguard to Phibbs in case the I.R.A. decided to follow.
In Wales Phibbs became a successful landowner building an estate of over 700 acres. He dabbled in politics and stood three times as the Conservative candidate for Merioneth though with little success. In 1936 he was knighted for his services to local government. Yet as in Ireland he was never a popular landlord and few mourned his death in 1964. Ironically there is no grave for Sir Charles Phibbs: he was cremated and his ashes scattered on the hills of his adopted country.
Doobeg House was purchased in 1932 by a Mr. O’Dowd who later sold it to the present owners. The site of the grave is still to be seen as well as the marks of bullets in the shutters. At the back of the house still stands the ruined generator house blown up by the I.R.A. As in Wales the local people, especially the older generation, still remember Charles Phibbs and his sudden departure from Ireland.

* During the Anglo-Irish War his grave, which was brick-lined and covered with a stone slab, was used by the local Volunteer company to hide their arms.

: Einion Thomas, Archivist, Archifdy Meirion / Merioneth Archives Service, Dolgellau, Gwynedd, Wales.

Published in The Green Dragon No 6 Spring 1998