If you venture out on the roads around Rathkeale in Co Limerick you will come across some notable surnames… Bovenizer, Ruttle, Teskey, Delmege, Shier.
These are the descendants of Ireland’s first refugees – Palatines from the area we now know as Germany. Its history is not widely known, but the community left an indelible mark on Irish agriculture.
Similar to the Ukrainians who seek refuge on our shores today, the Palatines were fleeing one of the European wars.
“During the Thirty Years’ War, Louis XIV (the French king) invaded the Palatinate and implemented a scorched earth policy – confiscating houses and crops. This has been ongoing,” explains Austin Bovenizer, Chair of the Irish Palatine Association.
The Palatines were first shipped to London and then sent on to Ireland between September 1709 and January 1710 by over 800 families numbering more than 3,000 people.
Most went back to England or America within a few years, but 150 families settled and prospered in Rathkeale, Co. Limerick. A second successful settlement of Palatinate families arose at about the same time near Gorey in Co Wexford.
The arguments for immigration have changed little over the decades: openness to newcomers is morally right, economically beneficial, and culturally enriching.
This was partly the motivation of the landlords who received palatines, although their attitude was more out of self-interest.
“Ireland was under English rule. The landlords here decided it might be a good idea to take some of these people in,” says Austin.
“England was only interested in settling Protestants…Catholics were given the choice of returning to Germany, joining the army, or converting to Protestantism.
“They had to agree to become members of the Anglican Church of Ireland. They had to pledge to remain loyal to the British Crown. For them Ireland belonged to England. They had no idea of the political situation.”
Business was also involved, and the people of the Palatinate wanted to acquire land and own farms, Austin explains.
“They were taken to Ireland, paid off to various estates around the country and very quickly became unhappy because they didn’t get what they were promised,” he says.
“Two landlords who did what was promised were Thomas Southwell in Rathkeale and Abel Ram in Gorey.
“Southwell initially took 10 families, but later he traveled around the country collecting Palatines who weren’t happy. He expanded his original first settlement and created two more settlements.
“Southwell’s motivation was really to improve his country. He knew that the Palatinate had skills. He was interested in starting a linen industry in Rathkeale; He built a mill, and the people of the Palatinate supported it by growing flax,” he says.
Each Palatinate family received 8ac of land at a preferential rent to the local population and received three lifetime leases, which was not open to local Catholics under the penal laws.
“The land they got wasn’t farmland,” says Austin. “It was land that they had to clear, add dikes, bridges, canals, etc. There were stipulations in some places that if they didn’t clear that much land every year, there would be penalties.”
Similar to today, the influx of foreigners led to tensions in the local population.
“At first they were hated because they were thought to be English settlers, but over time they came to be admired as quiet people because they were just ordinary people and their stocks were quite small and they didn’t get into conflict with people and measured people”, says Austin.
“No Irish were driven from the country. It was not farmed. They kept their opinions to themselves.”
The Palatines were known for their agricultural knowledge and brought to Ireland an understanding of crop rotation, housing animals over the winter and the mechanization of agriculture.
Unlike the traditional Irish “lazy bed” method of planting potatoes, the Palatines used a hopper on their plows, which planted their potatoes in rows while the land was plowed.
Instead of hoeing by hand, they are also said to have pioneered the use of horse-drawn cultivators.
“The famine was not life and death for them. It was just the loss of a crop for them,” says Austin, adding that they had a variety of crops and orchards that “softened the blow of famine” in the region.
The reputation of the Palatines as top farmers lingered for generations after their arrival, with the Earl of Dunraven writing in 1865: “Observations of the superior management and thrift of the Palatines are valid to this day…
“The Palatines have lost some of their original German character, and the Irish, on the other hand, have adopted some of their neighbors’ improved agricultural practices.”
In later years many Palatines moved from farming to other trades and industries in Ireland, notably the Switzer family who owned Dublin’s largest department store, now Brown Thomas.
“After the first three lives and the leases were up for renewal, the original landlord’s sons took over, and the landowners wanted more money, the rent quadrupled and it just became unfeasible,” says Austin. adding that at that time many emigrated to North America, bringing back their cultures and traditions.
Austin explains that many of the Palatines who originally came to Ireland were Lutherans and had to become members of the Anglican Church.
“They were promised that a prayer book would be translated into German for them, but it didn’t happen,” he says. “They were promised German pastors and it didn’t happen, so they kind of fell away from the Church of Ireland.”
In 1756, John Wesley, an English minister who led a revivalist movement within the Church of England known as Methodism, visited the Palatine Congregation at Rathkeale.
“He traveled around Ireland and England preaching in markets and fairs,” says Austin. “He was a charismatic man. The Palatines were very enthusiastic about Methodism, and Wesley was a great admirer of the Palatines.”
According to Austin, Irish Palatines are credited with bringing Methodism to America, with the US congregation now said to total 12 million.
As is the case today, Palatinate residents found it difficult to integrate into the general population as refugees and immigrants.
“When they arrived, they must have been like aliens to the locals,” says Austin. “The Palatinate is said to be the sunniest part of Germany and you would have looked pretty tanned.
“The people of the Palatinate spoke German, their neighbors Irish and their landlord English.
“Up until my own childhood we were quite separated. A lot of what we’ve done has been done through the church—our schools, our fellowship.
“Of course, that meant they mixed with a lot of other English speakers.
“Initially it was just Palatinate to Palatinate marriages, but over time it was Palatinate with other settlers brought in by the English.”
Today, there’s little that separates the Palatines from their neighbors other than their distinctive surnames, unique heritage, and a strong sense of community.
But even they are not immune to the downside of integration issues, says Austin.
“I’ve been told, ‘We don’t want your kind here,’ and I’d be a seventh-generation Irishman.
“I have often said that I would like to talk to refugees about the fact that these people from the Palatinate came here. Maybe it would give them some kind of hope.
“Refugees can bring other skills and ideas and enrich society. I think we are an example of an immigration success story.”
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/rural-life/we-are-an-example-of-a-success-story-for-immigration-we-can-give-refugees-hope-the-story-of-irelands-palatines-42197095.html “We are an example of an immigration success story… we can give hope to refugees” – the story of Ireland’s Palatines