The final Ascendancy family that we shall look at are the Southwells, the pre-eminent Ascendancy family of Letterkenny. When Johanna Marbury died, the 1000 acres that had been granted to Captain Crawford that included the town of Letterkenny passed to her son from her second marriage, William Sempill, who in 1639 created the district of Manor Sempill, which included the small market town of Letterkenny and the surrounding townlands of Ballyraine, Glencar, Sallaghgraine etc. Upon his death, the estate passed to his daughter Catherine Sempill and her husband, Sir Charles Hamilton, 2ndBaronet of Castlehamilton, County Cavan.
Sir Francis Hamilton 3rd Baronet succeeded to the estate upon his father’s death and when he died in 1714 without any children, the estate of Manor Sempill passed to his nephew, the son of his sister Nichola Hamilton from her marriage to Philip Cecil. Thus Arthur Cecil Hamilton became the owner of Manor Sempill and when his daughter, Margaret Hamilton married Thomas George Southwell, who had been made a Viscount in 1776, the lands passed into the Southwell family of Castle Matrix in County Limerick.
Thomas George Southwell, 1st Viscount Southwell (1721-1780) served in the Irish House of Commons for Enniscorthy and also Limerick County. His son, Thomas Arthur Southwell, 2nd Viscount Southwell (1742-1796) was an MP for the Irish House of Commons in 1767 and inherited the Manor Sempill lands upon his father’s death in 1780. His son, through his marriage to Sophia Maria Josepha Walsh, was Thomas Anthony Southwell, 3rd Viscount Southwell (1777 – 1860) who built the red-bricked houses at the top of the Market Square in 1837 and after whom Mount Southwell Place is named.
By several accounts, Thomas Anthony Southwell, was a quite popular landlord. Henry D.Inglis in his “A Journey throughout Donegal” in 1834 tells us “The town (Letterkenny) is the property of Lord Southwell; and I was glad to hear his lordship everywhere well spoken of.”
He was succeeded as Viscount by his son Thomas Arthur Joseph Southwell, 4th Viscount Southwell (1836–1878), followed by Arthur Robert Pyers Southwell, 5th Viscount Southwell (1872–1944), Robert Arthur William Joseph Southwell, 6th Viscount Southwell (1898–1960), Pyers Anthony Joseph Southwell, 7th Viscount Southwell (b. 1930) and the current heir apparent to the title is the Hon. Richard Andrew Pyers Southwell (b. 1956).
However, by the twentieth century, the Southwell Family grew less and less interested in retaining property in the town. With more and more people gradually being able to purchase their own property through the introduction of various Land Reform Acts, this pre-eminent family of the Letterkenny Ascendancy sold up various leases throughout the town in the twentieth century. Canon Maguire wrote in his local history book of 1917 that, despite constructing several buildings in the town, due to their prolonged absences and role as absentee landlords, the Southwells never took much interest in the development of Letterkenny as a market town:
“Though the Southwells have done something for the embellishment of the town, neither they nor their predecessors in title did much to promote its material progress.”
With this gradual sale of the leases of various plots of land around the town by the Southwells, the original 1,000 acre land grant that had been granted to Captain Patrick Crawford in 1611 and had been passed down through various marriage alliances and their offspring by the Marburys, Sempills, Hamiltons and finally the Southwells, was now at an end. Letterkenny’s Ascendancy was no more.
An interesting fact concerns the Southwells and the humble potato. The family had been established in county Limerick since the 16th Century and following a revolt in 1579, the lands of the Munster Geraldines were divided up amongst Edmund Spenser, Walter Raleigh and Edmund Southwell with Southwell being granted Castle Matrix in County Limerick. Raleigh gave a present to Southwell for his new estate that he had brought back from America. These ‘Virginia Tubers’ potatoes were planted in the land around Castle Matrix and, in 1610, the crop was distributed throughout the province of Munster, and the potato had ‘arrived’ in Ireland. Thus, the direct ancestor of Lord Southwell of Letterkenny is credited with introducing the use of the potato crop amongst the people of Ireland!