Despite some honourable exceptions the conduct of most Galway landowners to their tenants during the latter part of the 19th century was a disgrace. It led to disastrous social consequences. Although ultimately, the landed class were removed from their houses and lands, as a result of the Land War and acts of parliament; in many cases the peasantry too was decimated, demoralised and scattered to the winds.
It was not only the landlords who wielded the power of eviction and control. Many estates went bankrupt, and were snapped up by London investment groups such as the impersonal Law Life Society which demanded a quick return for its investment. It believed that if the tenant could not pay his rent, it would evict him, and turn the land into more profitable grazing or meadow areas.
Sir William Gregory of Coole attacked the Law Life Society in parliament protesting that it had prosecuted up to 3,000 evictions on its newly acquired lands.*
By the late 1870s the gentry class still held more than 70 per cent of the entire land in Galway. Most of the landowning class were Protestant, the result of Tudor and Cromwellian plantations; but Galway was unique in having a large Catholic land owning gentry, many of whom were descended from the original tribes of Galway. Initially the Catholic proprietors supported Daniel O'Connell's campaign for Catholic Emancipation; but when it came to Home Rule sentiment, and the emerging political consciousness of their tenants, they feared they would lose their landed status and prestige. They sided with the general land owners in opposition; and were regarded by their tenants, political opponents, and the growing power of the local and national press, such as The Freeman's Journal, as all being tarred by the same brush.
The Martins were seen as exemplary landlords. Tom Martin of Ballinahinch, the son of the legendary Humanity Dick, died of famine fever after visiting tenants in the Clifden workhouse.
Tenants whose rent was in arrears on the Martin of Ross estate were given time to pay, or were allowed to supply turf in its place. Evictions were unknown.
The Ross tenantry had medical care provided for them by the Martin ladies, who were sought even in the middle of the night. Lady Gregory described her own early visits of charity to the poor tenantry on the Roxborough estate.
The tenantry on the Spiddal estate regarded Michael Morris " to be quite omnipotent and came with every possible and impossible demand for his help".
When Judge Morris was asked about his tenants' appeals for leniency in cases of imprisonment, or fines for making poteen, he replied humorously: " Here I am spending my time in Dublin sending blackguards into prison, and do you think I come down here to let them out."
When times became difficult chief justice Morris and his brother George Morris MP. reduced rents, and distributed tons of seed potatoes to poor tenants.
Fields for cattle
I have written before about the bitter struggle between the people's Plan of Campaign against the wealthy and powerful marquis of Clanricarde; but equally desperate wars erupted throughout the county. Particularly nasty was the behaviour of landlords Marcella Netterville Gerrard, Ballinglass, near Mount Bellew; and Maria Blake of Dartfield, near Loughrea, both of whom were originally from Catholic stock. Marcella Gerrard's eviction of 270 persons to make a grazing farm on her estate in 1846 was considered such an outrage that it was condemned even by other local landlords.
Maria Blake of Dartfield, drove off all her tenants, some 80 families, burning their houses as they went. Their small gardens were turned into fields for cattle.
The violence surrounding the Carraroe evictions in 1880 was inflamed by 'estate rules' being enforced by an unpopular agent. The 4,000 acres in the Carraroe townlands were owned equally by the Kirwans of Blindwell, and the Berridges of Ballynahinch. The Carraroe tenants had to perform a certain number of days free ' duty work' during the year. In addition some 20 families were fined subsequently by the agent, a Mr Robinson, for marriages taking place without his permission.
The severity of the Connemara evictions of the Blakes of Tully (near Spiddal ), St Georges of Tyrone, and the Law Life Society were raised in the House of Commons. The Tully evictions appear to have been illegal as notices had not been served. Witnesses in court testified that members of the Blake family had personally carried out the evictions in harsh circumstances, and while under the influence of alcohol.
Answering accusations, St George, who was MP for Galway, defended himself robustly. He told the House that there were 600 households on his property, that large arrears of rent had accumulated, and that squatters had crowded into his land. He had previously borrowed £6,000 for land improvement.
What more could a landlord do?
Next week: The end of the Big House society.
* I am still leaning heavily on Patrick Melvin's excellent Estates and Landed Society in Galway, recently published by De Burca Books, Dublin, on sale at Kenny's Liosban, at £75. It is expensive; but it represents practically a life time's work of research, and scholarship.
The author was born in Kilkerrin, north Galway, educated at St Jarlath's Tuam, and NUIG, London and Trinity College universities. He was the archivist at Leinster House library until his retirement in 2008.