Duties of the gamekeeper

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Gamekeepers at Emo


John Dempster



The gamekeeper was one of the most important members of the outdoor staff. His duties included rearing game birds for shoots, breeding, killing and skinning rabbits, breeding deer, setting traps, destroying vermin, training hunting dogs and keeping watch for poachers. He was expected to be well-trained in gun use and an excellent shot.

April and May were busy times for gamekeepers, as this was when the breeding season for game birds such as pheasants and partridges began. First, the hens had to be caught and taken to laying pens. Once the eggs were laid, broody hens were brought in to act as surrogate mothers. All the,  while, the gamekeepers had to keep a vigilant  watch for predators such as magpies and jackdaws.


When the eggs hatched, the chicks were moved to the rearing field, where numerous wooden bird coops were set up. Tunnels and traps were set up around the edge of the coops to catch vermin such as rats and stoats. When the birds were a few weeks old they were released into nearby cover where they were watched day and night. Gamekeepers usually took turns at night-watching.


Generally, under-gamekeepers were assigned the task of vermin control, and products such as the rat pellets advertised here helped them in their work.



Coops outside the Head Gamekeeper’s house at Emo



The shooting season began in Autumn and was another busy time for gamekeepers. A shooting party at Emo in 1861, for example, shot 675 birds, hares and rabbits in just three days! At such times, beaters were brought in to beat the undergrowth with sticks, to draw the birds into the open. Gamekeepers stood by during the shoot, collecting the birds as they were shot and providing cartridges for the shooters. Gamekeepers often received tips from visitors, particularly when they had to return to base to get new cartridges. Indeed, a visitor who was not generous might find that the gamekeeper mysteriously disappeared when new cartridges were needed!



Beaters at Emo Court



Rabbits were a particularly valuable asset on the Emo estate and were often the target of poachers. A court case from October 1923 recorded in the Leinster Express newspaper records how Thomas Holmes, a gamekeeper at Emo, caught two poachers stealing rabbits on the estate. In court, the agent, Bertram Fitzherbert reported that,

“The Park bred and produced a very large amount of rabbits, they killed from 8,000 to 10,000 rabbits a year, and it was a very valuable asset to the estate. They kept a staff of men looking after them and a staff of men for killing them. For the last couple of years they had got a lot of trouble from gangs of poachers going about there.”              


The judge found the two men guilty of poaching and fined them 10-15 shillings each, although he warned that should another such case come before his court he would not be so lenient.  Indeed, in earlier years the penalty for poaching could be much more severe: a poacher caught stealing a rabbit from a snare on the Abbeyleix estate in 1892 was sentenced to one month’s hard labour (Leinster Express Dec. 3rd 1892). Rabbits brought in a considerable income on the Emo estate; in 1921 when the house lay empty and the estate grounds were much reduced, the income from rabbits was still estimated at ₤500 a year.

The gamekeepers at Emo also had to closely guard the fallow deer in the Deer Park. They were valuable enough to be mentioned in the wills of the Earls and the gamekeepers had to count them regularly, not an easy task considering there were 170 deer on the estate in the 1820s!


As suppressors of poaching, gamekeepers were often unpopular with the local community, and even their wives could be treated coldly. The job could also be dangerous – a gamekeeper murdered on an estate at Timahoe in 1892 was believed to have been shot by poachers, as he had recently had several poachers fined in court (Leinster Express Dec. 26th, 1892). 

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Advertisement for Gamekeepers

An advertisement posted in the Leinster Express gives an indication of the skills expected of a head gamekeeper in 1892:



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Gamekeepers at Emo

Like most of the upper staff on country estates, head gamekeepers were usually recruited from abroad. The best known gamekeeper at Emo is John Dempster He was head gamekeeper from the late 19th century until the house was closed in the 1920s. He was born in Scotland and lived with his wife and eight children in a cottage on the estate. From the 1901 census we know that his two eldest boys, George Alex (aged 17) and James Dean (aged 15) worked with their father as gamekeepers for a time, while an Englishman named Earnest Walker served as under-gamekeeper. In 1911, John was helped by an under-gamekeeper named William Weiley, who lived in a separate cottage on the estate.


Other gamekeepers at Emo Court include ‘McClean’ (who left in 1831), John McDonald (1849), Joe Conway (1850), James Lane (1854-89) and Richard Holmes(1877), Henry James Holmes(1896), William Wiley(1901), John McTarish(1918), Thomas Holmes (1920-23). Thomas Holmes was the gamekeeper who caught the rabbit poachers, mentioned earlier. In 1920, when the house at Emo Court lay empty, he was installed in the house for security.

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We have very little record of what the gamekeepers at Emo were paid, although head gamekeepers’ wages ranged between ₤20 and ₤80 on various estates. In 1850, however, Joe Conway was paid only 10d per day for keeping, or 11 shillings and eight pence for 14 days work. Gamekeepers could supplement their income with tips (during shoots) and perquisites, as they were often allowed to take home skins, feathers and rabbits. The feathers of mallard drakes, for example, were used to make fishing flies and could be sold on to fur and feather merchants who paid up to one pound an ounce for them.


Head gamekeepers at Emo were sometimes left money in their employer’s will. For instance, James Lane, head gamekeeper for the 3rd Earl of Portarlington, was left an annuity of ₤20 a year for life by the late earl. Tax returns show that he was paid this amount for 23 years until his death in 1912! The 5th Earl of Portarlington also left his head gamekeeper John Dempster a sum of ₤50.

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John Dempster


John Dempster on the grounds of Emo Court



John Dempster was the head gamekeeper at Emo from the late 19th century until the house was closed in the 1920s. From the 1901 census we know that he was born in Scotland and was a Protestant. In 1901, he lived with his wife and children in a 6-roomed house on the estate. His two eldest sons, George Alex (aged 17) and James Dean (aged 15) worked alongside their father as under-gamekeepers. Prior to coming to Emo, John may have worked as a gamekeeper for the Heathcote-Amory family, at Knightshayes Court in Devon. This is suggested by a photo album from the Dempster house, dated 1883, which was inscribed with the words, to “John Dempster, with best wishes from Sir John and Lady Heathcote-Amory”. 

From the 1911 census we know that John and his wife had 10 children, two of which died young. The family was to be beset by further tragedy, however, as they would also lose two sons in the Great War. The names of these sons, James Dean, the former gamekeeper, and his younger brother William S., can be seen on a war memorial in the church at Coolbanagher, where they are listed among the members of the parish who lost their lives.                                            


John Dempster was a familiar figure on the Emo estate. At the 1892 Servants’ Ball, he acted as Master of Ceremonies at the dance. Viscount Carlow, youngest son of the 6th Earl recalled that his father used to play cricket on the Dempster’s front lawn. He vividly describes the Dempsters in his journal of 1907-44,

          ‘Perhaps the most familiar figures of all were the Dempsters, who looked after the farm just beyond the garden, and lived in a small house with wall flowers growing round the front…Mr. Dempster, the gamekeeper, was a man of weighty appearance with a broad expanse of front view well in keeping with his position. Mrs. Dempster on the contrary was short and skinny, and talked in a high pitched croak, at the same time displaying a remarkable absence of teeth. Beset with misfortune throughout her life, her speech had a tone of tragedy about it’.

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