Murder, mayhem and the Irish Famine

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As conditions worsened during 1846 and 1847, increasingly the starving and evicted began to voice their anger in a more menacing way. As most landlords were too far removed to face the wrath of disgruntled tenants, naturally it was their agents, bailiffs, drivers and other estate workers who bore the brunt of this discontent.

In many cases eviction or the threat of eviction was the foundation for this violent behaviour towards landlords and their staff. No area of the country was exempt from outrage and mayhem as highlighted below by the Freeman’s Journal, 6 March 1846. While initially the modus operandi of these agrarian agitators took the form of threatening letters and the mutilation of animals, they soon turned their attention to murder.

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Freeman’s Journal, 6 March 1846

Some areas of the country were particularly noted for the ferocity in which they carried out attacks on estate officials. The editor of the Cork Examiner for example put it plainly in 1845 when he exclaimed that ‘in Tipperary they murder’. Indeed, such was the frequency of such crime newspapers simply reported on ‘another murder’ in Tipperary.

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Cork Examiner, 5 May 1845

Perhaps the most high profile of the Famine years was that of Major Denis Mahon of Strokestown, county Roscommon.  Murdered on 2 November 1847 it was widely reported that the parish priest of Strokestown, Fr McDermott had denounced Mahon as ‘worse than Cromwell’ on the previous Sunday from the altar. Mahon’s murder sent shockwaves through the country and beyond. Yet his murder was not the first or the last of the Famine period.

Major Denis Mahon
Major Denis Mahon

 

In Offaly, for example, fifteen men, including four landlords, seven agents and four other estate employees, were murdered between 1838 and 1852. The first recorded murder of a land agent during the Famine was John Mayne in 1845 who managed the estates of Sir St George Ralph Gore, ninth baronet (1841-1887) partly located in counties Limerick, Galway and Offaly. Unfortunately there seems to be no reports at all of evidence surrounding his murder. His successor appointed the following year was Charles Trench Cage, described as ‘a gentleman most respectfully connected’. When he arrived as agent he began an extensive remodelling of the estate in what has been described as the ‘broom syndrome’ where many tenants were quickly cleared. Subsequently reviled by the tenants he was murdered at Ferbane in October 1849 following the eviction of four families and the serving of several others with ejectment bills. The King’s County Chronicle noted it was ‘one of the most daring and atrocious murders carried out in this blood stained county’, the latter adjective suggesting the extent of violence there. The Gore estate consisted of the townlands of Endrim and Creggan, near the village of Ferbane in barony of Garrycastle, amounting to 1,100 acres. By the mid-1840s the tenants on the Gore estate at Ferbane had fallen into arrears. When Cage arrived Mayne’s murder obviously still played on his mind and he carried a percussion gun stick on all occasions when going over the estate. His bailiff, Molloy had been warned that if Cage came to live at Endrim he would be murdered. On Sunday 12 October 1849 he left Endrim cottage to attend service at Ferbane. Riding a horse belonging to a farmer named Patrick Spollen, he was accompanied by a tenant, Patrick Cahern. Somewhere near Ferbane he was ambushed. He unsuccessfully returned fire at his would be assassins before falling dead. This was a very public road and there were several witnesses but the assassins were never convicted

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Tuam Herald, 20 Oct. 1849

 

The failure to apprehend the assassins mirrored the murder of William Lucas, from near Brosna, acted as agent for his own estate. In 1847 he began to clear recalcitrant tenants from the estate. A number of these erected temporary huts and continued to reside there. John Julian, the crown solicitor for Offaly, regretted that these tenants at Lisduff had returned ‘it affects every person residing and having property in the neighbourhood’. After Lucas was murdered in October 1848 Julian reported that it was by distress and civil bill process that he got rent ‘tolerably well’. It mattered little that he had reduced some rents or that he had subscribed to the Seir Kieran relief committee. It seems that Lucas had received a number of threats that his life was in danger but continued to accompany his bailiff and was present at the levelling of fourteen houses at Brosna which eventually sealed his fate. No one was ever convicted of the murder but a man named John Scott later confessed to the crime as he lay dying of typhus in Tullamore gaol in May 1849. The other landlord murdered was Roger North near Croghan in September 1850. Once again his eviction of tenants at Garyduff was perceived to have been the reason for his murder.

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