Background History 1647-1922


The history of England and Ireland is long and complex and it is not in the scope of these records to cover it in detail. Rather, starting in 1647 when Colonel Richard Townesend arrived in Ireland, this page is a simple historical background to the fortunes of the Townsend family, with particular reference to those who were directly involved or affected by it.


Following the rebellion of the Catholic Irish nobility in 1641, Colonel Richard Townesend was ordered by Parliament on 17 September 1646 to raise a regiment of one thousand soldiers for service in Ireland. Robert Phayre was appointed Richard's Lieutenant Colonel and they remained encamped near Bath until 19 June 1647 when Parliament ordered that the regiment move to Ireland to join the Parliamentary Army under the command of Murrough O'Brien, the first Earl of Inchiquin. In November 1647 Richard commanded the main body of the infantry in Lord Inchiquin's Parliamentary Army at the Battle of Knocknones against the Irish army led by Lord Taaff.

After the execution of Charles I in January 1649 most of the factions in Ireland, including Lord Inchiquin, united against Cromwell, who was in the country and marching on Munster, but Colonel Richard and a number of fellow officers declared for him. Preparing to receive Cromwell in Youghal, Richard and the others were betrayed to Lord Inchiquin who arrested and imprisoned them in Cork. They were freed when the garrison in the town rose up in support of Cromwell on 16 October 1649. Later that month the 'Protestant Army of Munster' sent a Resolution to Cromwell pleading that they had been forced by Lord Inchiquin to serve the Irish cause. Colonel Richard's signature is the first one on the Resolution and in November that year Cromwell wrote that Colonel Townesend had been

"an active instrument for the return of both Cork and Youghal to their obedience".

By 1652 the revolt in Ireland had been finally and ruthlessly crushed. One third of the Irish Catholic population had been killed and thousands of others were transported to the West Indies to work as slaves. Those that remained had their lands seized and distributed amongst the soldiers and creditors of the Commonwealth.(1)

Following restoration of the monarchy, with the accession of Charles II in 1660, events in Ireland remained unsettled (2) for the next three decades, during which time Catholics were prevented from holding any public office. Succeeding to the throne on the death of his brother in 1685, James II, an ardent Catholic, proclaimed religious freedom for all denominations and admission of Catholics to public office in 1687. However, the birth of his Catholic son in 1688, James Edward Stuart - The Old Pretender, was too much for the English Protestant nobility which, fearing a Catholic succession, invited William of Orange (William III) to take the English throne, thus forcing King James to flee to France during the 'Glorious Revolution' in November 1688.

Hoping to regain the English throne, James crossed from France to Ireland in March 1689 and landed at Kinsale. With a small army of 1,200, he marched on Dublin where the Irish Catholics feted him as King and provision was made for the restoration of land to expropriated Catholics. That same year, under an Act of Attainder, the Irish Parliament drew up a list of 3,000 names of those who were reported to have been disloyal to King James.(3)

Despite winning some minor skirmishes in Ulster during the latter part of 1689, James was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne on 1 July 1690(4) and fled back to France. Irish Catholics continued to fight for another full year only to be defeated and finally forced to surrender at Limerick in 1691. Immediately afterwards the Protestant position in Ireland was secured by Acts of Parliament in Westminster which declared the Acts of King James' Irish Parliament illegal and restricted membership of future Irish Parliaments to Protestants. The sale of lands forfeited by James II's supporters reduced Irish Catholic ownership of land and by 1703 it was less than 10%.(5) Further restrictions were placed on the Irish Catholics, who represented about 95% of the population, and these were applied with vigour, particularly in the first half of the 18th century.(6) The 'Protestant Ascendancy' was firmly established.


After the turbulence of the latter part of the previous century the first half of the 18th century was relatively quiet and settled in Ireland.(7) The English Parliament in Westminster kept tight control over the country by limiting the powers of the Irish Parliament but this led to increasing resentment amongst the Ascendancy.(8)

The latter half of the 18th century was a period of increased political turmoil in Ireland and almost continuous war overseas – Seven Years War, the American War of Independence and the French Revolutionary Wars.(9) In Ireland the Catholic population grew from some 2 million in 1700 to about 5 million in 1800. Meanwhile, the re-organization of many large estates led to increased agricultural output and enclosure of the land for cattle farming, which caused great bitterness among the Catholic poor. Dispossessed and disenfranchised, they faced rising unemployment, evictions and deprivation and this gave rise to an agrarian backlash. The first outbreak occurred in County Limerick in late 1761 and escalated over the next years - men wearing white smocks and known as 'Whiteboys' started levelling fences and attacking property and cattle by night.(10)

As mentioned above, the tight control that Westminster exercised over the Irish Parliament in Dublin in the first half of the century generated resentment in the Ascendancy, but it was not until the American War of Independence 1775-83 that anything significant began to change. The largest army ever to leave Britain was sent to America, and, when France entered the war on the American side, Ireland was left open to attack from the French and vulnerable to internal disorder. In response to this situation the Ascendancy raised a volunteer army(11) and patriotic opposition, led by Henry Flood and Henry Grattan, began agitating for reform, which led to the Irish Parliament being granted greater legislative initiative in 1782.

Prompted by events in France, the 'Society of United Irishmen' was established by Wolfe Tone in 1791, with the aim of securing Catholic emancipation and universal male suffrage. After the outbreak of war with France in 1792, many of the political restrictions on the Irish Catholics were lifted in 1793 and, in an attempt to secure their loyalty, the English Parliament in Westminster gave them freedom to hold civic office. Dissatisfied, and seeking an Ireland completely free from English rule, Wolfe Tone and other radicals, reinforced by 'Whiteboys' and other agrarian activists, were forced underground.

Realising that external assistance was required, Wolfe Tone sought military support from Revolutionary France and a naval expedition sailed for Ireland in 1796. Storms scattered the fleet and, though some ships reached Bantry Bay, no troops were landed.(12) The Irish Parliament, in an attempt to break the 'Society of United Irishmen', passed the Insurrection Act in 1796, thus suspending habeas corpus. This led to the Great Rebellion, which broke out in May 1798, (13) principally in Ulster and Wexford; the rebels in the north were defeated at Antrim and Ballinahinch and those in Wexford were defeated by General Lake at Vinegar Hill on 21 June 1798.


Events in the last decade of the 18th century convinced the Prime Minister in Westminster, William Pitt, that the only way to solve unrest in Ireland was to get the Irish Parliament to pass the Act of Union. He thought that Irish Catholics would be better off as a minority in a united kingdom, rather than a majority in Ireland - the exact opposite of the views espoused by Wolf Tone. Through bribery, corruption and patronage, and very much against the wishes of the Protestant Ascendancy, who sought to retain their power in the Irish Parliament, the Act of Union was passed into law on 1 January 1801 and provided that Ireland would be represented in Westminster by twenty-eight peers in the House of Lords and 100 Members of Parliament.(14) Successive reforming measures in the first three decades of the 19th century drove Protestant society into a position of permanent political minority, replacing it with a (largely) catholic elite. From the early 1830s, three main groups sought political power; firstly the Protestant Tories, progressively undermined by political reform; secondly the supporters of Daniel O’Connell who sought acceleration of the reform process, but wished to maintain the Union; thirdly supporters of Daniel O’Connell who sought both increased reform and the repeal of the Union. The latter two groups regarded the Tories with vehement animosity.

For the Ascendancy, the Union appeared to be the end of the Irish nation as they saw it; for the Irish Catholics, full emancipation and freedom from English domination remained their goal. Determination to break from Westminster was the central theme of Irish politics for the remainder of the century and Daniel O'Connell became the focus for discontent over the issue. In 1828, even though his Catholicism did not allow for it, O'Connell contested the by-election in County Clare and won, beating Vesey FitzGerald who had earlier been invited by the Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, to join his Cabinet. This election immediately led in 1828 to repeal of the Test Act, which forbade Catholics from standing for Parliament, and O'Connell was able to take his seat. He quickly became leader of the Irish members in the House of Commons and pressed for repeal of the Act of Union. In Ireland itself he organised mass protest meetings, known as 'Monster Meetings' as they attracted huge numbers of people. Arrested in 1843, O'Connell was tried, found guilty of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to a year's imprisonment, with a fine of £2,000. He was released three months later but his health rapidly failed him and he died in 1847.

At the same time that the Test Act was repealed, free trade between Ireland and England was eased and Irish merchandise was admitted to the British colonies on the same terms as that for British goods. Sadly, these advantages were not enough to offset the disastrous effect in Ireland of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.(15) Furthermore, following the Act of Union, many estates in Ireland were neglected by absentee landlords and fell into decay. Within 50 years, agricultural produce plummeted in value, estate rentals declined and the population increased rapidly. Remaining landlords quickly found that it was more profitable to evict their tenant farmers and turn the land over to grazing.

Political agitation for repeal of the Act of Union was completely overshadowed in 1845 by the first outbreak of potato blight, which hit a severely impoverished peasant population very hard.(16) The blight struck again in 1846 and 1847 and led to the most terrible famine, which lasted until 1851 — the highways of Ireland were filled with starving, dispossessed peasants wandering aimlessly about begging for food. Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 did little to help the starving Irish and public works projects, which by December 1846 employed some half million Irish, proved impossible to administer. It is estimated that about one million died of starvation and a further 1.5 million emigrated, mainly to America, Canada and Australia.(17)

Within Ireland, the issue of home rule dominated the second half of the 19th century. Catholic Irish peasant farmers who remained in the country after the famine waged a fierce campaign to improve their circumstances. Realising that something drastic had to be done, the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, disestablished the Protestant Church of Ireland in 1869(18) and introduced the first Irish Land Act in 1870(19). This move gave tenants a reasonable expectation of security and the right to sell the occupancy to another tenant. The Act failed to meet its objectives and this, coupled with the return of bad harvests in 1879 and renewed fears of famine, led to the foundation of the Irish Land League by Michael Davitt and the start of the Land War. The League sought to secure full security of tenure, fair rents and freedom to own and sell property. Additionally, the league promoted obstruction and insurrection amongst tenant farmers against their landlords. Michael Davitt was later joined by Charles Stewart Parnell, a young landowner and member of the Home Rule Party, who adopted a policy of persistent obstruction at Westminster to focus attention on the need for land reform in Ireland. The issue was met in part by the introduction of the Land Law (Ireland) Act 1881 which gave tenants real security, established the principle of dual ownership by landlord and tenant and created the Irish Land Commission and a Land Court.(20) However, like the Land Act of 1870, the 1881 Act was not altogether effective and further measures for reform continued until 1900 by which time the balance of land ownership had shifted radically in favour of Irish Catholics.


By the closing decades of the 19th century, pressure was mounting for Home Rule, in which Ireland would remain part of Great Britain, but have its own Parliament again. The Liberal Party favoured the plan, but Protestants in Ulster opposed it because they feared the establishment of a Catholic Parliament in Ireland and the Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1892 were defeated. The issue became increasingly heated in the early years of the 20th century, as Edward Carson mobilized Protestant opposition in Ulster against any form of Home Rule. When Herbert Asquith's Home Rule Bill was presented to the House of Commons in London in January 1913, the unionists in Ulster raised the Ulster Volunteer Force of 100,00 men. The Irish Nationalists responded to this by raising in November 1913 a similar sized force in Dublin called the Irish National Volunteers.

It was not until the second month of the Great War in 1914 that the Home Rule Bill was passed, but Asquith sought to defuse the issue by putting the legislation on hold until the end of the war. Thinking that the war had given them a chance to secure their independence the Fenians, led by Patrick Pearse, rose up in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916, only to be brutally crushed by the British Army. The subsequent execution of 15 republicans created enormous sympathy in Ireland for Sinn Fein.

In January 1919 violence erupted again in Ireland (the 'Troubles') between British forces and Sinn Fein, led by Michael Collins; guerrilla warfare ensued - ambushes, arson, explosions and reprisals. In 1920 Lloyd George, who had succeeded Asquith as Prime Minister, managed to get the Government of Ireland Act passed but in was not until the truce of July 1921 that violence came to an end(21) and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, creating of the Republic of Ireland, was signed on 6 December 1921.


  1. During the Commonwealth and after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Colonel Richard Townesend made extensive purchases of land; in all about 8,000 acres. Pardoned for his allegiance to Cromwell and avoiding the forfeitures placed on many Cromwellian soldiers, his purchases of land were confirmed by royal patents in 1666, 1668 and 1680.
  2. From the time that he established himself in Castletownshend in about 1665 until his death, Colonel Richard Townesend sought to consolidate his estates and to lead the settled life of a landowner. However, having been appointed High Sheriff of County Cork in March 1661, and elected MP for Baltimore in the Irish Parliament that same year, he would have been closely involved in maintaining law and order during those troubled times, particularly after the accession of James II in 1685. He was frequently engaged in various armed skirmishes with Irish rebels who in 1690 besieged Castletownshend and Richard was forced to surrender. He was subsequently paid £40,000 in compensation for the destruction of his home. Lewis' Topographical Dictionary 1837 records that in June 1691, following a number of disturbances during the previous twelve months
    "Col. Townsend, with his forces, killed 100 of the rapparees or insurgent marauders, and brought away a quantity of plunder"
    This was probably Richard's son, Colonel Bryan Townsend, as Richard would have been 73 years old at the
  3. It was under the Act of Attainder passed by James II's Irish Parliament that Bryan Townsend [200] and his brothers Francis Townsend [102] and Kingston Townsend [105] were proscribed traitors and were forced to flee Ireland. Bryan returned shortly afterwards along with Francis, who was at some time a Captain in Colonel Frederick Hamilton's Regiment of Foot, whilst Kingston, who fled to Barbados, never returned to his homeland.
  4. Bryan Townsend [200] on returning from exile in England was at the Duke of Schomberg's headquarters in Belfast in May 1690, three weeks before William III landed in the province and six weeks before the Battle of the Boyne. Bryan's brother Captain Horatio Townsend [104] brought the Duke of Schomberg to Ireland in the sloop 'Lynn'.
  5. James Copinger, the son of Dorothea Townsend [112] and Dominic Copinger, forfeited the lands that he had inherited at Whitehall in 1690 because he was a Roman Catholic and supported James II. He fled to France and nothing further is known about him. The estate was later acquired by Samuel Townsend [400].
  6. Colonel Bryan Townsend [200] was MP for Clonakilty 1695-99 and when he came home from sittings of the Irish Parliament in Dublin it was to assist his neighbours evade the laws passed by the very Parliament in which he had been sitting! These laws made it virtually impossible for any but the Protestants to hold land and many of Bryan's Roman Catholic neighbours, trusting Bryan's integrity, gave their lands over to him. At one time he had in his care £80,000 worth of property, which he defended at some cost to himself, and, when the time was right, the property was returned to the real owners along with accrued arrears.
  7. During these early years of the 18th century, whilst the senior branch of the family were developing the estate at Castletownshend, Colonel Bryan's younger sons were settling elsewhere; John Townsend [300] at Skirtagh, Samuel Townsend [400] at Whitehall, Captain Philip Townsend [500] at Derry and the Reverend Horatio Townsend [600] at Donoughmore.
  8. Four members of the Castletownshend branch of the family were involved in national politics and civil administration during this period.
    • Colonel Richard Townsend [213], who inherited the Castle Townshend estate in 1751, was elected MP for the County of Cork in 1759, 1761 and 1768. Though a staunch Tory, he refused to be bullied into voting for laws which he knew would be disadvantageous to Irish interests, despite the offer of a peerage. In addition to his parliamentary commitments, Colonel Richard was appointed a 'Commissioner of Revenue' in 1759.
    • Colonel Richard's brother, John Townsend [214], was elected MP for Dingle in 1790 and MP for Castlemartyr in 1797 and was appointed 'Commissioner and Overseer of the Barracks in this Kingdom' in 1798.
    • Colonel Richard's son, Richard Boyle Townsend [219] was elected MP for Dingle in 1783 and again in 1790, as was his uncle John Townsend.
    • Richard Townsend [221] was a 'Collector of Excise' and in 1810 his brother Henry Owen Townsend [223] was appointed a Landwaiter and Secretary to the Commissioners of the Irish Fisheries in 1820.
  9. Several in the family were involved in these wars, amongst them:
    • Philip Townsend [500] was a Captain in O'Farrel's Regiment [22nd of Foot] during the Seven Years War and embarked for America at Cork in 1756 taking with him his son Thomas Townsend [502] as a volunteer. Philip resigned his commission sometime before 1763 on account of poor health, brought about by what he had suffered at Louisberg in 1759.
    • Philip' nephew, Samuel Townsend [403], having purchased his commission in Drogheda's Horse in about 1755, saw action with the 19th Regiment of Foot at the Siege of Belle Isle in 1761. During the American War of Independence, Samuel was appointed "Inspector General and Superintendant of the Recruiting of all the Forces employed on Foreign Service".
    • Aged 16, John Townsend [230] purchased his commission as a Cornet in the 14th Light Dragoons in 1805 and three years later set sail with his regiment for Portugal; over the course of the next five years he saw action in most of the battles of the Peninsula War. A year after he returned to England John, with two squadrons of his regiment, sailed for North America and was involved in the abortive attack on New Orleans in January 1815. He later commanded his regiment in India.
  10. Members of the family were called on to restore law an order in West Carbery and Richard Townsend [213] was appointed Colonel of County Cork Militia Dragoons in 1756. With his cousin Edward Mansel Townsend [401] as his adjutant and his brother, John Townsend [214], he was much involved in suppressing 'Whiteboy' disturbances after the initial outbreak in 1761; Francis Tucky's The City and County of Cork Remembered, records that on 18 February 1777
    "Richard Townsend, John Townsend, Samuel Jervois and Daniel Callaghan, magistrates, with several gentlemen of the county and their servants, well mounted and armed, set out at two o clock in the morning to the mountains above Bantry, in the neighbourhood of Murdering Glin and Glanunbannoul, where they apprehended several persons, charged with cutting off the ears of a horse."
  11. Six members of the Townsend family enrolled in the Protestant militias and volunteers. John Townsend [214] — Carberry Independents. Rev John Townsend [309] — Hanover Society, Clonakilty. Dr Richard Townsend [501] — Cork Union. Rev Edward Townsend [601] — Muskerry Volunteers. Richard Townsend [6A00] — Kinnelea & Kirrech Union. Samuel Townsend [6B00] — Blarney Volunteers.
  12. Having inherited Castletownshend inn 1783, Richard Boyle Townsend [219] went to great expense to fortify the village and equip a flotilla to protect it under threat of this French invasion. However the foggy weather veiled the harbour entrance and the French fleet passed on to Bantry. News of their arrival there was carried to Cork by the sister of Richard's wife, Mrs White of Glengariff, and from Cork it was taken by sea to Bristol in the small ship commanded by the youngest grandson of John Townsend of Skirtagh, Commander John Townsend [316] who later left the Royal Navy and was appointed Recorder of Clonakilty.
  13. Samuel Townsend [405] was High Sheriff of County Cork in 1798 and large numbers of troops and Militia Dragoons were placed at his disposal to restore order in West Carberry. Whilst his cousin Samuel was busy restoring order in West Carberry, Horatio Townsend [5D00] maintained the peace in the Clonakilty neighbourhood assisted by his brother, William Townsend [504].
  14. Richard Boyle Townsend [219] as MP for Dingle in 1790, as mentioned above, was a staunch Tory who refused to vote for measures, such as Union, which he felt were not in the interests of Ireland. Not even the offer of an English peerage could bribe him into supporting Union and for this he lost the favour of his party and the Borough of Dingle was disenfranchised. He was, however, paid £1,500 in compensation by the Government.
  15. Failing returns from the land and the depressed state of the economy forced several members of the family to seek their fortunes through emigration. The first to do so was Jonas Morris Townsend [237] who, with his family and all his agricultural machinery valued at over £2,00, emigrated to Australia in 1828 and acquired 2,500 acres of land in New South Wales. None of his descendants in the male line survive today (2011) unlike his kinsman Thomas Townsend [339] who emigrated to Australia in 1838 and is represented today by many descendants in the male line.
  16. Three in the family, are notable for the good work they undertook during the potato famine. The Reverend Chambre Corker Townsend [5D01], the Reverend Richard Boyle Townsend [332] and the Reverend William Robinson Townsend [6B02] were all much involved in relieving the suffering of the poor by striving to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and provide work for the unemployed. The Reverend Richard gave evidence before Parliament on the causes of the distress and toured England collecting money for those suffering. He founded a temporary hospital in Skibbereen and spent much of his time personally caring for those with typhus, only to die of that disease in 1850. The Reverend Chambre contracted scarlet fever in 1851 and died in his lodgings in Cork, attended by his kinsman Dr Edward Townsend [6C00]. The Reverend William was averse to the giving of alms and promoted a range of schemes from drainage of marshland to the making of clogs and clothing in order to give people work.
  17. Nine members of the family emigrated to Australia and America during and after the famine.
    Edward James Townsend [340] — ca 1845. James Townsend [342] — 1859. Edward Becher Townsend [433] — before 1883. Edward Townsend [445] — before 1853. Edward Carr Townsend [5A01] — 1867. Samuel Philip Townsend [6A20] — 1887
    Richard Townsend [335] — 1847. John Townsend [338] — 1847. Neville Townsend [6C11] — 1886.
  18. Disestablished and partly dis-endowed by Gladstone's Irish Church Act of 1869, the parish of Baltimore in west Cork fell on very hard times. As a native of Baltimore and a benefactor of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Ireland, the Reverend Richard Townsend [337] subsequently managed to raise about £2,500 to establish a permanent endowment.
  19. In 1876 twenty members of the Townsend family owned 36,600 acres of land in Co Cork and the Land Acts had a devastating effect. The principal landowners were Jane, wife of Jonas Morris Townsend [222] 1,500 acres, Geraldine Townshend [252] 8,600 acres, Richard Townshend [236] 5,900 acres, Samuel Nugent Townshend [432] 995 acres, John Hancock Townshend [523] 6,000 acres, Richard Townsend 3,900 acres and three of the 'Firmount' Townsends with about 1,00 acres each.
  20. Letters written by Commander John Townsend [622] and his wife Marianne Townsend [5D16] about their affairs at this time typify the situation faced by many in the family. The letters contain much detail about the financial problems they experienced on account of falling rents from their Irish properties as a result of the rulings by the Land Commissioners. The Land Acts and the activities of the Irish Land League led to both voluntary and compulsory sale of most of the land owned by the family at the end of the 19th century; part of Derry estate was sold in 1885 and most of the Castletownshend estate in 1897. The remainder of the Derry estate and the Whitehall estate were sold in the early years of the 20th century and the Myross Wood and Garrycloyne estates were sold in 1940.
  21. Several members of the family were affected by the 'Troubles' — some lost their homes whilst others decided to leave Ireland and settle in England.