The fascinating story of the Carys of Normandy, Devon and Inishowen

Architectural Photographer based in Belfast
Architectural Photographer based in Belfast

Dan Hull, visiting Ireland for three months from Salt Lake City, Utah, in the United States of America (USA), is a direct descendant of Peter Benson, writes Brian Mitchell.

In September 1614 Matthias Springham, the founder of Derry’s historic Foyle College, asked Peter Benson, a master builder from London to tender for the building of the walls to create a fortified settlement on the island of Derry.

Benson accepted and in return was granted 1500 acres of land in Donegal along with his fee which, as it turned out, he had great difficulty in collecting.

Benson ultimately completed the work in 1619 at cost of £10,755.

To commemorate this achievement, and to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the completion of the walls, Dan is organising a reunion in Derry in the summer 2019 for all of the descendants of Peter Benson.

Dan tells me that there were five generations of Peter Bensons: Peter, the Builder; Peter, the Alderman; Peter of Birdstown; Peter, the Scamp; and Peter, the Lawyer, which is very useful as I was getting a bit confused in distinguishing them!

William the conqueror

As the Bensons were related by marriage with the Cary family of Inishowen, Dan also shared with me a marvellous 14-page document, detailing the family history of the Carys back 10 centuries to the time of William the Conqueror!

It is clear that the compiler of this manuscript had a great knowledge of the family history but also a lovely turn of phrase that keeps the reader interested in following the family story.

In summary, the Cary family were of Norman descent, taking their name from their estate, manor of ‘Kari’, which is listed in the Domesday Book, - the great ‘Charter of Winchester’ - on the bank of river Cary, in southeastern Somerset.

Devon connection

Inishowen Carys trace their descent from Carys of the manor of Clovelly in Devonshire; Clovelly being a precipitous fishing village on the Bristol Channel.

In early 17th century Carys in England, like sons of many landed families, were seeking opportunities in the expanding domains of England overseas.

The nearest area of expansion was Ireland where the family had the advantage of their friendship with their Devon neighbour, Sir Arthur Chichester, who as Lord Deputy became the chief administrator of the ‘plantation of Ulster’.

King James granted the confiscated property of Sir Cahir O’Dougherty, chieftain of Inishowen, to Chichester, after the 1608 rebellion.

The Plantation of Inishowen

Chichester parcelled Inishowen out among a score of his Devonshire comrades, one of whom was George Cary, eldest son of the youngest brother of George Cary of Clovelly. George built his house at Redcastle, a few miles north of Derry, on the shore of Lough Foyle.

George Cary died in 1642. He left 5 sons who extended the family landholdings: the eldest, George, inherited Redcastle; Robert built Whitecastle on an adjoining tract; Edward established his home at Dungiven, south of Londonderry; and Tristram went to Coleraine.

While Irish Carys flourished, their kinsmen in Devon declined; ‘they had a fatal propensity of loyalty to the losing side in national crises.’

Northern haven

Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Carys of Inishowen lived ‘a peculiarly sheltered life. The whole of Ireland in those days was remote from the main currents of history, but the far northern peninsula was remote even from the rest of Ireland.’

During the first two or three generations in Inishowen the Carys sought their brides from within their own limited ranks of other English households of the region.

These included the Vaughans, the Bensons, the Staples, the Cunninghams, and the Harts.

At the peak of their prosperity in the middle of the eighteenth century there were at least seven branches of the Cary family.

These branches flourished on separate estates in Inishowen and in the adjacent territory.

Internal tension and isolation

As 18th century progressed tensions grew ‘as a result of isolation and squabbles over inheritances and marriage settlements.’

Because their acreages were relatively small and infertile they could not afford the luxury of spending much of their time in Dublin or London, ‘and so they did not lapse into the vice of absenteeism that devastated the relationship of landlords and tenants in the more productive parts of Ireland.’

Act of Union

After the Act of Union in 1800, however, the economy of Ireland was rapidly undermined.

Overpopulation and poverty could not be controlled by even the most conscientious of landlords.

‘The fatal spiral of evictions, emigration, and famine darkened the first half of the nineteenth century, in Inishowen as in the rest of Ireland.’

Hence, it was not surprising that the seven Cary branches began to diminish slowly.

‘It was no longer possible to provide for younger sons by acquiring new estates for them, and so they had to seek their fortunes either by leaving the country or by adopting professional careers.

Last of the name?

The lines in Dungiven and Raphoe faded out through the absence of male heirs; the next stage in the process of decline manifested itself when the senior branch lost its inheritance through debt.’

Redcastle estate was put up for sale in 1822, with the Whitecastle following not long afterwards.