Perhaps the most hated landlord in Ireland in the last two decades of the 19th century was Hubert de Burgh (Burke ), the second Marquis of Clanricarde. His domain was awesome in size. It consisted of 52, 600 acres, embracing estates in Loughrea, Portumna, Mellick, Woodford, Kilmore, Craughwell, Derrybrien and Crossmacrena. It yielded an annual income of £20,793. His father, Ulick John de Burgh, had staunchly defended the interests of the landlord class during the Great Famine. In its aftermath, his land agents promoted the assisted emigration of his tenants. Between 1841 and 1871, the population of the Clanricarde estates in Galway fell from nearly 22, 000 to under 10,000. In the 1880s remaining tenants who defaulted on their rent were evicted without mercy
Portumna castle, built in the attractive Venetian style, on the shores of the Shannon, was the Clanricarde fortress home for 200 years. It was gutted in a fire in 1826 and was never rebuilt.* Its empty and blackened windows appeared to symbolise the family’s regard for the country and its people which gave them a major portion of their substantial wealth. Hurbert de Burgh, Lord Clanricarde, never lived there. He is reputed only to have visited Portumna on the day of his father’s funeral. On that occasion he did not socialise, but stood apart from the mourners. At the first opportunity he returned to London. He lived, unmarried, at an address in fashionable Piccadilly. He appeared not to have enjoyed his wealth. He was described as having ‘a miserly personality, eccentric and reclusive with a fundamental inability to compromise or adapt to changing circumstances in Irish society.’
He did not answer letters, and ignored petitions from the Bishop of Clonfert who wrote pleading for a reduction of rent owing to successive poor harvests, falling prices, and flooding. However, on January 29 1881 he did write to his agent John Blake, responsible for collecting his rent, in such a way as to illustrate his contempt for his tenants. He complained about their lack of competence: ‘Unless husbandmen can afford to plant something better than stones (or bad potatoes which are as useless as stones ) they are not fit to be tenant farmers.’
The de Burghs obviously believed that they were within their rights, and they had a duty to their fellow landlords to insist that rent was paid on time. In the event, however, most other landlords thought the de Burghs were their enemies. Many were afraid that all landlords were tarred with the same brush. After the Woodford evictions even the Tory British government recognised that change was needed. The Chief Secretary Arthur Balfour became increasingly hostile to Hubert de Burgh and, expressed his disgust at Lord Clanricarde’s ruthless strategy for dealing with his tenants. But that was later.
It was the emergence of the Land League, and brilliant representation by Parnell’s Irish Party in the British parliament, that brought dramatic change to the old landlord/tenant system. Yet despite a succession of Land Acts, which increasingly gave support to tenants, a sharper edge to the tenant weapon of rent strikes and boycott had emerged. Radical groups within the Land League (which was to change its name to The National League ), were now promoting a more tenacious campaign which included intimidation, unlawful assembly, resisting the sheriff and eviction attempts, and murder.
If Clanricarde remained out of sight, his agent John Henry Blake was constantly visible. The third and youngest son of Lieutenant-Colonel John Blake of Furbo, Co Galway, Blake was a highly respected man. He came from one of the principle Tribes of Galway. He had worked as a bailiff on his father’s Furbo estate. In the 1830s he moved with his wife Harriet to Rathville House, Raford, in the parish of Kiltullagh, to take up his employment with Clanricarde.
On Sunday morning June 29 1882, on his way to Mass in Loughrea, in a pony and trap, with Harriet and his driver Thady Ruane, they were stopped by a blockage on the road. Men stepped into their path, and shot Blake and Ruane dead. The murder caused a sensation as Blake was associated as an agent of a peer of the realm.**
Blake’s murder did nothing to reverse Clanricarde’s attitude to his tenants. A new agent, Frank Joyce, was appointed, and put under strict instructions to collect £20,000 a year and to accept no excuse from defaulters. A state of war had been declared. The focus fell on four tenants, namely Pat Conroy (who had occupied his 30 acre farm for 40 years ), Pat Fahey (fourth generation farmer on his 18 acre farm ), James Broderick (30 years on his 16 acre farm ), and Thomas Saunders (17 years on his 34 acres ) in the Woodford area. The combined total of outstanding rent owed by these four men came to £128, plus £17 each for the cost of the eviction. In fairness Frank Joyce, who never went abroad without four constables at his side, tried to do a deal with James Broderick, or Bruder as he was known, as he was 70 years of age. Joyce reduced the amount owed, and poor Broderick was about to accept when Fahey, a younger man, with less at stake, pulled him from the office, and defied Joyce to throw them out of their homes.
It was a blow to the tenants when the National League refused to support them. The Home Rule Bill was just before Parliament and the League was loathe to get involved in an eviction process that was rapidly gaining wide publicity. In the end, however, the National League’s support did not matter. The Parish Priest Fr Coen, president of the local branch, at once vowed his support for the tenants. He was supported by the other two priests, fathers Fahy and Egan. With the priests in front the whole parish came out behind them. The press arrived in force, as did John Dillon MP, William O’Brien MP and Willie Redmond MP. To great cheers they publicly burned the government proclamation forbidding public assembly in the area.
Joyce had offered generous money to local men to help with the evictions, but no one came forward. Realising that a major confrontation was under way, he appealed to Dublin for help. A force of 500 police, mounted Hussars, supply wagons, and weapons arrived in Portumna. As they marched towards Woodford trees were knocked to block roads, stones were rolled from the embankments, hedges were set alight to startle the horses. It was a long and wearying process. Their arrival in Woodford was greeted with the blast of horns, and the church bells ringing tocsins of alarm. On October 17 1886 every man, woman and child for miles around hurried over the fields to Pat Conroy’s home, the first to be evicted.
*In recent years Portumna castle has been reroofed, and its first floor refitted. The walled gardens, and surrounding walks are a popular attraction today.
** Blake was survived by his wife (she died 1917 ), and their sons Edmond (1876-1944 ) and Henry. He is buried in the family tomb at Furbo.
Next week: Valiant Woodford puts up a brave fight