Between 1869 and 1909 a revolution took place in land ownership in Ireland. A succession of Land Acts gradually reduced the powers of the landlord, and gave their former tenants the means and the opportunity to buy out their tenancy, and to own their own farms. Generous terms were given to tenants by the Wyndham Act of 1903. £100 million was advanced for land purchase, which was immediately availed of by the great majority of tenants. Tenants were advanced the whole purchase price of their holding, at a little over three per cent to be repaid over 68 years. Most landlords were pleased to accept the ready cash, and a whole new social structure emerged throughout the island. However, initially landlords were not compelled to sell, and the independently wealthy marquis of Clanricarde of east Galway refused to cooperate. But his days of evictions, disparaging remarks about his tenants, his bully boy land agent Edward Shaw Tener and his henchmen, were numbered.
Alarmed at the large number of evictions on the Clanricarde estate the British parliament set up the Evicted Tenants Commission in the autumn of 1892. Once again we learn of the suffering of the evicted families, and the devastation of large tracts of east Galway. Pat McDermott formerly of Derrygoolin, Woodford, testified that the area round Woodford was ‘empty of tenants’. It contained nothing but ‘ dilapidated houses, land idle, and very much deteriorated, drains closed up’. On his own farm, Clanricarde’s men ‘took down the corn stores, all the wood, and burned it, and the haylofts and the fuelling mill were all burnt, even the corn mill’.
John Shaughnessy testified that he tried to pay rent so he could return to his former holding, but that Mr Tener would only admit him if he also took the farms of his evicted neighbours, which Shaughnessy refused. Patrick Tuohy testified that he was evicted by Tener accompanied by 14 emergency men who knocked his dwelling.*
The stories of a devastated community continued. At first it looked as if the Commission would have to be abandoned when Clanricarde requested that his counsel, Edward Carson (later leader of the Ulster Unionist Party ), be allowed interrogate witnesses. When this was refused, Clanricarde ordered Carson to withdraw, and forbade Mr Tener to attend.
Nevertheless the Commission continued its investigation. In February 1893 it published its findings. It concluded that the reduction of rent demanded by Clanricarde’s tenants were justified. This opened the way for a series of land reform bills, leading to the 1903 Act which was to change forever the status of land ownership in Ireland, giving the right to ownership to those who lived and farmed the land.
‘Unwholesome and repellent’
Clanricarde, of course, was not the man to accede willingly to new government policy. He refused to comply with any Act that infringed on what he believed were his rights as landowner. When he realised that he could not flout the law any longer, and that the Estate Commissioners were entitled to purchase his estate, with or without his permission, he argued that the compensation offered of £228,075 for his 45,000 acres was insufficient. The courts found in his favour. An extra £10,000 was added. Again he appealed to the House of Lords. He was able to hold off the inevitable for a further 11 years following the 1903 Act. His appeal to the House of Lords was not heard until November 1914, and was dismissed by unanimous decision.
It was an extraordinary victory for the people of east Galway, the Irish Parliamentary Party; and a succession of supportive British politicians of whom some may have been motivated by the hope that by meeting the needs of the Irish peasantry it would postpone the call for Home Rule. It took 30 years of deep social unrest, an ongoing parliamentary debate, and an act of parliament to resolve the east Galway situation. Such rights and freedoms were granted in no other corner of the British Isles, or throughout its empire.
Dr Miriam Moffitt gives us one final glimpse of the marquis of Clanricarde. During a debate of his tenants’ struggle against him in the House of Lords, he suddenly stood up in the press gallery and railed against the proposed bill. His fellow-peers watched his ‘ unwholesome and repellent presence’, with ‘insolent and resentful looks’. An observer remembered that ‘his face was narrow and worn, of a mouldy and pallid complexion, and his eyes were small and dim’.
As a direct result of his management of his Irish estate, and of his efforts to frustrate the application of the law, Clanricarde had become ‘ the most unpopular man in the United Kingdom’.**
‘You are now overthrown’
I don’t know who Bridgid was, but this poem sums up the spirit of the people of east Galway unafraid and unbowed despite enormous odds:
A reply to Lord Clanricarde's Letter,
So you say we are cunning, ungrateful
Our cabin doors kept on the latch
Show nothing but squalor within them
While money we’ve hid in the thatch
That we smile in the face of “his honor”
And blessings invoke on his track
While we mutter a curse as he leaves us
And shake the clenched fist at his back
But you don’t give a hint, my Lord Marquis
That we dared not to own those few pounds
Or show signs of comfort around us
For fear of your sharp scented hounds
For fear of your spies and informers
On the watch to report to their lords
If their serfs had coin in their pockets
Or a decent meal on the boards
And you hint not, at times not long vanished
When ye chased us to woods and the caves
Where we wailed over the corpse of our freedom
A poor stricken nation of slaves
We are cunning, aye we needed cunning
When our lives were scarce held as right
And plundered unarmed and unlettered
T’was our last weapon left for the fight
It was men such as you taught us cunning
As up these old tales we must rip
When for Limerick’s trust they repaid us
With pitch-cap and gallows and whip
When we dared not stand upright and fearless
As men should on their own native sod
Nor dared the faith of their fathers
Save in secret to worship our god
Can it be your Lordship in College
Never heard a text all should know
Coming straight from the lips of our saviour
Men should only reap as they sow?
Why the words of our poor hunted teachers
That ever kept school by the hedge
Could tell that if fathers eat sour things
Their children’s teeth will be on edge
Ah my lords, up to this it was your day
Our bent necks were held in your thrall
For you were soft ease and rich plenty
For us were the labour and gall
But today we feel life in our members
Good blood each vein flows apace
Tis not the clenched fist to your back now
But sturdy demand to your face
Cling not to your old rules they are broken
Old customs have rotted away
Ireland must be at length for the Irish
No more in strange lands shall you squander
What this land our labour has sown
As of old fell the horse and the rider
You are now overthrown
* Leaning on Dr Miriam Moffitt’s Clanricarde’s planters and land agitation in east Galway 1886 - 1916, published by Four Courts Press, on sale €9.95
** Edward Shaw Tener died in November 1915. He had to have police protection as late as June of that year.
The marquis of Clanricarde died a few months later in April 1916. He is buried in Highgate cemetery, London. On his death his peerages became extinct; the earldom of Clanricarde title passed to the 6th marquis of Sligo. Its present holder is Jeremy Ulick Browne, 11th marquis of Sligo. Born 1939, he is married to Jennifer Cooper. There is no male issue.
Next: There is a lot more to this story. I will leave it for a week or two, then look at the arrest of Wilfrid Scawn Blunt, an aristocrat who was arrested during the disturbances at Woodford. He describes his time in Galway gaol.