Travelling through Ireland in the summer of 1847 Alexander Somerville lamented that it was an opportunistic time for evictions, suggesting that landlords were using the social conditions as a pretext for clearing their estates of the cottiers and smallholders who had obstructed improvement in the past and who had been continually in arrears.
By this time eviction had become a ubiquitous feature of the Irish Famine. Later, some of the more notorious evictions occurred at Strokestown, County Roscommon; Kilrush, County Clare; Ballinrobe, County Mayo; Birr, King’s County (now Offaly) and Toomevara, County Tipperary. At Toomevara, for example, what made the evictions on the Massey Dawson estate so memorable (and why they are remembered today) was the fact that 500 people were evicted in May 1849 and subsequently local people were hired to pull down their makeshift accommodation. Likewise, in Ballinrobe where 187 families (913 persons) were evicted in an 18 month period, the social memory of the event lingers to this day. A subsequent report found that of those evicted at Ballinrobe, some 476 were receiving relief; 170 had emigrated and 275 were dead. In county Clare, the infamous land agent Marcus Keane – of whom it was said ‘he would evict his own mother’, oversaw the eviction of more than 12,000 people in the Kilrush region. Indeed, so inhumane was Keane and others, that Captain Arthur Kennedy, a Poor Law Inspector for Kilrush Union, commented:
‘there were days in that western county when I came back from the scene of eviction so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery I had seen in the days work that I felt disposed to take a gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlords that I met’.
Reasons for Eviction
Prior to the day of eviction, landlords and their agents tried several means to force payment of rent which included warning that the rent was due, threats, and distraining of crops or animals in lieu of arrears before progressing to the court where an eviction notice was served. There were a number of reasons why landlords choose to evict tenants during the Famine, chief amongst them was the arrears of rent. The scale of arrears in the eastern half of Ireland by the mid-1840s has been estimated at 15-20% of an annual rental, whereas in the west it was usually more than half.
From 1838 onwards with the introduction of the Irish Poor Law Act landlords also looked to evict smallholders who had become a burden on the estate. They did so safe in the knowledge that the workhouse system would now provide sanctuary. More still evicted to embellish or redesign the ‘Big House’ or demesne. Others saw the removal of the poor as a necessary perquisite to agricultural improvement, while more still were evicted having been found guilty of agrarian crime. The hotly contested 1841 election, in which support shifted nationally to the Repeal movement, also caused an upsurge in eviction as landlords enacted revenge on those who did not vote as they wished.
Eviction during the Great Famine
And so eviction was not just a Famine phenomenon. However, whereas in the pre-Famine era most eviction and clearance occurred without publicity, it was very different during the Famine. Initially when the Famine commenced landlords and their agents granted abatements and in general did not press for the collection of rent. However, when they realised that the failure of the potato would not be short-lived, attention soon shifted to removing people in arrears.
Eviction left a lasting legacy in a number of respects particularly amongst the Diaspora and the displaced. Changes in landownership; landlord/tenant relations and community relations all affected how eviction would be remembered. Much of this Famine memory was driven by the physical force and heavy handed tactics of the ‘crowbar’ brigade and those employed to carry out the eviction. This was more pronounced where local people were employed to do the ‘dirty work’. Yet despite the obvious hostility that they drew, some evictions have faded from popular memory. Take for instance the case of the Ashtown estate at Bracknagh, King’s County (Offaly) where over 700 people were evicted on a single day in 1851. To a large extent the fate of those people remains unknown.
The Irish Famine Eviction Project is looking for any information from individuals, societies or libraries that may help its research to find new locations, names of those involved and the background stories from evictions during the Great Famine. If you would like to contribute any information no matter how big or small you can send your details via email or twitter below