The Abercorn estate

All of the townlands in the Bready area, with the exception of Grange Foyle, formed part of the manor of Dunnalong which turn formed part of the Abercorn estate. This estate owed its origins to the Ulster Plantation scheme. Successive members of the family carefully managed the estate so that it became one of the wealthiest and most important in Ulster. On 31 January 1835 a new run of original leases was issued for farms in the Abercorn estate, all of which were for one life or twenty-one years. A total of 51 leases were issued for the manor of Dunnalong in this run.  Only two leases were for farms in the one to 20 acres category, while 30 related to holdings of between 21 and 40 acres. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the farmers in the Bready area, as elsewhere, took advantage of a series of acts of parliament to buy their holdings and thus own their farms outright. Thus the Abercorn estate was gradually broken up as the farmers, many of whose families had been tenants to the Abercorns for more than two hundred years, became proprietors in their own right.

Changes to the countryside

As the population of the Bready area expanded in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was increasing pressure on the available agricultural land.  This caused expansion into previously uncultivated areas. Bog in the low lying areas was steadily exhausted and the ground converted into arable land. Along the Foyle an embankment was constructed in the early nineteenth century allowing an extensive area to the reclaimed and turned into agriculturally productive land. This was most noticeable in Grange Foyle. The 1858 Ordnance Survey map of the area shows the elaborate drainage system in this townland and the regular plantings of trees in what was an important example of landscaping at the time. Draining land was, however, an expensive improvement. Robert McCrea of Grange House estimated that it cost from £5-8 to drain one Cunningham acre. He himself had drained a field of seven acres and it had cost him £50 besides his own time, though he still considered it a worthwhile exercise. The use of lime had become widespread in the nineteenth century. Other fertilisers and manures which were used in the district included farmyard manure, sea shells, bone dust and guano.

In the eighteenth century of rundale had been prevalent in the area. Rundale was the name given to the practice of several farmers jointly holding a lease for a farm and then deciding among themselves how it would be divided up. Eventually, however, rundale was done away with and the normal procedure was for farms to be leased to individual tenant farmers. Thus the compact farms that we know today originated. From the late eighteenth century there were the first real efforts to divide farms into fields and plant hedges. In the nineteenth century the main crop was oats. Agricultural returns from 1850 for the electoral division of Dunnalong (covering more or less the Bready area) showed that 1,736 acres of oats were grown, while there were 382 acres of potatoes and 485 acres of turnips and 499 acres of wheat. Not one acre of barley was grown in the Bready area in 1850, yet it is now the main cereal crop.

A farming survey of 1821

On 6 October 1821 James Haslett, curate of Donagheady, wrote out a series of answers to questions posed by the North West Agricultural Society.  The responses he gave to the Society’s questions make interesting reading and reveal much about agricultural life in the parish, including the Bready area, in the early nineteenth century. Some extracts are given below:

Farms in general about 20 acres, very few are enclosed.  Potatoes are the general preparation crop throughout this parish.  The usual rotation as follows, according to the soil: potatoes, barley, flax, oats, potatoes, oats, flax, oats, potatoes, oats, oats.  Flax is never sown after potatoes except near the mountains.  Draining and enclosing the land would very much contribute to the improvement of the soil throughout this parish.  There is very little pasture here unless near the mountains.

There is nothing in this parish which can, with propriety, be called a wood.  There are 4 banks extending on each side of the River Denit for a considerable distance, which, with the little planting about my place, contribute to the beauty of the place.  There are many orchards of small extent throughout the parish, very few plantations.  Trees of every description if well secured from cattle thrive here.

The only improvement as to tillage is planting potatoes with the plough. Scotch ploughs and carts are much used. Hawthorn and furze fences are in most use and in my opinion suit best.

The black cattle here are of an inferior kind, no care whatever being taken to improve them. A few cows are fattened, but for the most part young cattle are the stock which they sell in fairs except such as are kept for their own use.

In the most arable part of the parish horses bred from blood stallions and draught mares are used, no good draught stallion being in the country. In the mountainous parts a mixture between the small Ragheries and the small Irish breed.

Dunnalong fair

An important event in the local calendar was the fair at Dunnalong. In the early seventeenth century the Abercorns were granted the right to hold a fair at Dunnalong. While no longer a seat of power, Dunnalong continued to be a strategically important place in economic terms. The ferry here was an important communication link and meant that people could attend the fair from County Donegal. Little is known of the early history of the fair, but it was regularly advertised in the Belfast Newsletter in the eighteenth century. A map of Dunnalong from 1777 marks the ‘Fairstand’ on a site within what would have been the location of the early seventeenth century artillery fort. In the early nineteenth century the fair became the scene of a number of faction fights. The Londonderry Journal of 5 September 1815 published a proclamation by the magistrates of County Tyrone of which the following is an extract: ‘The circumstances of the riot which took place at Donelong on the Twelfth are at present in progress of enquiry and in order to do justice to those who may have been beaten or abused … we hereby call on all aggrieved parties to lay their complaints before us’.  The fair continued to be held until about 1912 when the last licence holder was a publican from New Buildings.  The ferry service was discontinued in the 1920s.

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