The last stand of ‘spirited’ Caroline Blake

Week II

On St Patrick’s Day 1920 Eamon de Valera was on the review stand in New York, watching the Irish American celebration which the city is famous for. But this time the parade was joined by hundreds of Indian republicans with banners proudly proclaiming: ‘Up the Republic of India’, ‘315,000,000 of India with Ireland to the last,’ and ‘President de Valera’s message to India: Our cause is a common cause.’ Mahatma Ghandi, the iconic leader for an independent India, was a great admirer of Dev. Whereas Ghandi had little interest in the physical force methods of Sinn Féin and the IRA, he was very concerned at how the land was redistributed among the people, once Britain withdrew.*

In fact towards the end of the 19th century, various land acts in Ireland had ensured that much of the arable land was bought from landlords and distributed among the people. It effectively ended the iniquitous landlord system which had blighted Irish peasant life for centuries. However, the redistribution of the landlord’s estates did not come about from the goodness of the landlord’s heart. It was won by a carefully planned, and at times vicious and cruel, Land War.

It began in Co Mayo in 1879 where the distress was greatest. Initiated by the Land League, headed by Charles Stewart Parnell, the movement rapidly spread throughout the country. When landlords did not concede the reductions demanded by their tenants, the League insisted that the tenants withheld the rent altogether. When the tenants were threatened with eviction the League delayed them by legal challenges. It organised protests which impeded the police who came to evict the tenant; and it prevented the replacement of evicted tenants. Some landlords and their agents were shot dead on the roads. Local shops boycotted the landlords and their agents. The feet of landlord’s animals were sometimes hacked with a blade or otherwise mutilated. Cattle and horses were released on to the roads, or chased into a neighbour’s field. Many tenants, who got on well with their landlord, and were anxious for a peaceful life, quietly offered to pay the rent. But men called to their homes and they were afraid not to play along. It was a difficult and a disturbing time. However, it had the desired effect. Many landlords availed of the various government schemes to sell their land for redistribution. They either lived on in greatly reduced circumstances, or emigrated themselves.

Spirited account

I wrote last week about the Blakes at Renvyle, Connemara, who took up residence there in 1823. The family enjoyed their contact with their tenants, and were reasonable in their rent demands. But the Blakes were unsuited and ill prepared for the wet, boggy climate; and were effectively ruined by the collapse of agriculture prices. Renvyle was inherited by the eldest son, Edgar Blake, who died prematurely leaving his wife Caroline to run the estate in the dangerous years of the Land War. We might never have heard of Caroline Blake but for her spirited account of her difficulties at this time, which she gave to a commission in London set up to investigate the violence and the coercion of tenants that the Land League was accused of. The Commission was particularly concerned at the role played by its president Charles Stewart Parnell. The Times covered the inquiry in full, and as a result Caroline Blake (whose pet donkey had its ears sliced off ), became something of a hero for the Unionists and the landlord class.

Commission: ‘Towards the end of 1879 was there any difficulty with some of the tenants as to the payment of rent?**

Caroline Blake; There was some difficulty when the agitation began; none before. I was on the very best of terms with the tenants. The family had been there some fifty or sixty years...Afterwards they refused to pay unless with a reduction, and they came round to the house in a number and said they would be killed if they paid, and asked would I support their children if they were murdered; they had the rent, but dared not pay. I went out to them and said I would give no reduction demanded in that way, but I would consider every case on its merits, and give time or reduction according to what I thought right...

Commission: After that did they come to you?

Caroline Blake: Some of them came secretly, and one old man came with a little boy, and the little boy had the money in his sleeve. It was taken out of his sleeve - £5 or £6 - and he paid his rent, and got a receipt pinned inside his jacket of the little boy, for fear he might be searched.

Capable hands

The question of cattle-driving and the killing of stock was also raised. Caroline reported that in December 1879 some 100 sheep belonging to tenants who paid rent were thrown into the sea, and a bullock was pushed in.

Caroline Blake: About this time protection was given me. The people used to drive their cattle onto my land to trespass in great numbers, and one could get no one to drive them off. Even the most friendly would not do so unless you were with them to give them the support of your presence, and I had myself to go and help drive the cattle off. I have driven 50 sheep, 16 head of cattle, and nine horses off one grass farm where they were tresspasing...When I had to go out sometimes at night at 11 o’clock to drive them off, I thought I ought to have protection.

A few of Blake’s tenants also appeared before the commission. It must have been dangerous for them, so I am sure this old gentleman played it safe and cute.

Commission: Do you know what boycotting means?

Tenant: I do not, sir.

Commission: Don’t you know what ‘boycotten’ means?

Tenant: Oh, ‘bycotten,’I know him! (laughter ). I have not much good English to speak.

Commission: You put the accent on the second syllable.

Tenant: (Witness looked puzzled ). I go about my own business (Loud laughter ).

Parnell, and other leaders of the Land League were exonerated, but it was found that they had incited their followers to intimidation, which had led to criminal outrages.

Caroline’s plight attracted sympathy, and a fund was set up to help her. The money raised was sufficient for her in 1883 to turn the house into a hotel. Her land was gradually sold off to the Congested Districts Board (set up in response to the Land League agitation ), which distributed it among her former tenants. The hotel barely prospered, until it was famously bought by Oliver St John Gogarty in 1917 who enjoyed Renvyle first as a holiday home then as a hotel, until once again it was sold (1953 ), and is now in the capable hands of the Coyle family.

NOTES:

*Twent-five years after Ireland signed the Anglo Irish Treaty, which gave total Irish control to 26 counties (while six counties remained under British control ), India achieved her independence in 1947. But like Ireland, India too was divided. Pakistan was created to accommodate the Moslem population.

** I am taking all this from Tim Robinson’s second book on Connemara The Last Pool of Darkness, published by Penguin Ireland, now on sale €27.40. Written in Robinson’s distinctive style, his award winning books and maps reveal the fascinating story of a landscape we are all familiar with.

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