‘I found the girl lying in a wretched little shed, built up within the open wallsteads of the house from which the family had been lately evicted’.
In July 1849 the tragic case of Biddy McLaughlin was brought before the Buncrana Petty Sessions in county Donegal. Few in attendance, or indeed those reading about the incident in the weeks that followed, could ever recall such an appalling case. Indeed, few stories during the Famine matched its horror. In late June 1849 the landlord George Harvey of Linsfort House issued a notice of ejectment against the widow McLaughlin of Leophin and her three children. Prior to this McLaughlin had been an industrious
tenant, selling her eggs and butter in nearby Buncrana but had fallen on hard times and now sought a stay of execution with the eviction notice. In an effort to highlight her plight, the widow McLaughlin went to Derry to meet the landlord. Having failed to do so she returned to Buncrana where she was intercepted by the police who had also arrested her children. The eviction had proceeded and two bailiffs McLaughlin and Kelly had knocked the walls of the house. Biddy, her eldest daughter aged 18, she was told, had been severely beaten by the hut tumblers.
Visiting the scene Dr Waddy found the McLaughlin children living in a veritable ‘pig stye’. In his own words he was ‘altogether disturbed by the state of the children’. However, it was Biddy ‘terribly bruised and wounded’ about whom he provided most information. According to the other children the bailiffs had severely beaten Biddy when she attempted to resist the eviction order. Determined to put up a fight she had hit one of the bailiffs with a spade. For her efforts she was severely beaten and was now ‘a horrid sight- her hair appeared to be clotted with blood, her mouth was severely wounded, there were one or two painful contusions on her head, and four or five bloody marks on her neck’.
When the case came before the Buncrana Petty Sessions, the courthouse we are told was ‘densely crowded with the gentry, shopkeepers and merchants’ of Buncrana and the surrounding area anxious to see the outcome of the case. Remarkably, after hearing evidence from several witnesses (although some refused to testify out of fear) the magistrates fined Biddy McLaughlin ten shillings or failing to do so she would be imprisoned for a fortnight. It was little wonder such a verdict had been arrived at seeing as one of the magistrates was a man called Miller, agent to George Harvey.
What happened to the McLaughlins thereafter?