Evictions in early 20th century recalled

Continuing Mr. Michael Murphy’s recent talk to Beara Historical Society about the Beara evictions in 1906 and 1907, he said that the last house visited was that of Jeremiah Stephen Murphy (Stephen was his father, so he was known as Darby Stephen) and there, when Mr. Gale sub-sheriff applied for rent due or possession, the tenant stoutly refused either.

When the sub-sheriff and the agents entered the house, the tenant came to the front, and amidst loud cheering and promises of support from those present declared that while there was law in the land he could not be dispossessed of his holding.

He went on to say that from the old landlord he had a verbal promise that he would never be disturbed in his holding, and that this had been renewed in writing by the present landlord. Soon the bailiffs entered the place and commenced removing the furniture and while they did so the tenant walked up and down expostulating vehemently amidst cries from the crowd of “Don’t pay any rent Jerry” and “We will stick by you”. ‘Easy to sleep on another man’s wounds’!

The report then goes on to describe how two sons of the tenant (17 and 15) came out with sticks but were ushered away by the police. There were also two younger girls, 12 and 8 years old. Mrs. Murphy is described as ‘evidently in delicate health’. She was 53 years old at the time, she lived another 35 years, dying at the age of 88. So the ‘delicate health’ was probably an indication of the stress and worry she was suffering because of the impending distress caused by the threatened evictions. I will continue quoting from the report: Subsequently, when the police had entered into possession and the emergency men were bringing in the necessary articles for culinary purposes to serve them during their stay, one of the tenant’s sons, with a well-directed throw, caught one of the bailiffs behind the ear with a stone, inflicting a slight wound.

He immediately decamped but was captured by police and brought in handcuffs to Castletownbere, where he now lies a prisoner, his family refusing to seek bail for him as a protest against their eviction. That was Michael Murphy who was the 17 year old son of the tenant, who was then held in Cork County jail for about seven days until the next Petty Sessions in Castletownbere (equivalent of District Court). In the case of the other family members, though a caretaker was put in the house, the agents agreed owing to the delicate health of Mrs. Murphy, to allow a room in the house to the family.
This, the tenant said he would not accept, and declared that he and his family would go to the Workhouse first. But when things calmed down, wiser council prevailed and the offer was accepted. Michael Murphy was brought before the next Petty Sessions in Castletownbere, presided over by the Resident Magistrate Mr. Purdon and three other magistrates who were local men. Dr. J. M. O’Dwyer, Mr. Dan Harrington and Mr. Michael Regan Harrington. He was charged with seriously and unlawfully assaulting William Supple, Cork City, who was employed by the Property Defence Union. He was bound to the peace for 12 months and acquitted. The R.M. stated that he disagreed with the verdict but was outvoted by the others. He, the R.M. would have imposed a more severe penalty if he had his way. People have been surprised to hear of evictions as late as 1907. History text books often give the impression that the Land Question was solved in the 1880s and the Wyndham Act of 1903 is usually the last reference you will find to the Land Question in those text books.

But in fact, by 1906, less than 30% of rural holdings had been purchased. (1906 was the year Michael Davitt the founder of the land League, died). In 1909 an important Land Act, known as the Birrell Act was passed, which provided for “compulsory purchase orders against reluctant landlords in the congested western districts and gave coercive power to the Land Commission for the first time.
As a result, by 1916 over 60% of rural dwellers had purchased their holdings. We know that in this parish negotiations dragged on and were not completed until after the War of Independence. Some would say there is still unfinished business as regards the terms of the agreement. When we hear the word ‘evictions’ in Irish history certain images come into our mind. They range from Famine clearances to the evictions of the 1870s and 1880s, from songs like ‘Skibbereen’ (they set my roof on fire, Your mother lay on the snowy ground) from illustrations in history textbooks of an evicted family in a rough shelter beside a bank, the Workhouse, the Crowbar Brigade, the battering ram etc. Compared to those images, the Kilmacowen evictions were almost humane.

It bears out something Prof. Joe Lee said in the ‘Land is Gold’ television programme - that after the various Land Acts of the 1880s the balance was tailing towards the rights of tenants. But having said that it would be wrong to dismiss or underestimate the distress caused by even the threat of eviction, especially in households where there were young children and elderly people. One wonders, too, did the presence of a press reporter, in this case from the Cork Examiner, have a restraining influence on proceedings. After all, it was a period in which British policy in Ireland was summed up in the phrase ‘Killing Home Rule with kindness’.

Why 300 policemen? It seems like a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Obviously the intention was to discourage any resistance with a massive show of force. (The combined population of both townlands was less than 180 - take children and the elderly - about 100 able bodied persons). It is true it was customary for large crowds to gather at evictions. At Rossmacowen, east of Castletownbere, a few years previously there had been violent resistance to the impounding of animals, which might have been worse but for the intervention of the local parish priest. It is worth noting that during the Kilmacowen evictions most of the hostility was not directed at the police but at the bailiffs, caretakers and agents. All the evidence points to good relations between the police and people at that time. A police officer at the time wrote that their duties were more like housekeeping than peacekeeping.

Even though the county was peaceful - the prison population of the time was approx. 320 - it was heavily garrisoned and policed with 27,000 soldiers and 12,000 policemen. The cost of assembling so many policemen on the occasions of evictions must have been a factor in convincing successive British governments of the wisdom of setting the Land Question.

The happy ending to this story is that all the families concerned later recovered their land through land Purchase agreement and succeeded, as Parnell had earlier advised, “to keep a firm grip of their holdings.” He concluded with a verse from “an Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” Thomas Grey was writing about people in the English countryside in the 18th century but we can apply it to the people of Kilmacowen and Golane of a hundred years ago.

Let not ambition mock their useful toil
Their homely joys and destiny obscure
Nor grandeur bear with disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor
At the conclusion Mr. Murphy was given a prolonged round of applause. The vote of thanks proposed by Connie Murphy was seconded by Gerdie Harrington. A number of questions were then put to Mr. Murphy by members of the audience.

Courtesy of Southern Star