Friday March 13 1846 turned out to be a very unlucky day for the 447 tenants on the Gerrard estate in the townland of Ballinlass, near Mount Bellew Co Galway. Shortly after dawn the sheriff, accompanied by a large force of the 49th Regiment under the command of Captain Browne, and an equally large detachment of police, arrived at ‘the place marked out for destruction.’ Despite the vehement protestations of the people, and their insistence that they had their rent money ready for payment, and that their repeated efforts to pay their rent was refused, the soldiers and police began systematically to demolish their homes, 67 in number. *
The evictions were reported in the Roscommon Journal the following day under the headline ‘Awful extermination of tenantry’. Shortly afterwards a reporter from the Freeman’s Journal, Mr S Redmond, wrote extensively about this distressing incident. Walking among the ruins he could see that they were once ‘comfortable, clean, and neat kept habitations, with snug kitchen gardens either before or behind them’. Scattered among the ruins were items of broken crockery, household furniture, cooking utensils and farming implements.
Due to the large force of soldiers and police the only resistance to the evictions were the sounds of men cursing, children screaming with fright, and distressing cries and screams of the women as they clung to the door posts ‘from whence they were dragged by the bailiffs’.**
Eyewitnesses told the reporter that on the night of the evictions, some of the evicted tenants erected crude shelters against the remaining walls of the cottages. On the following day the bailiffs returned and completely destroyed the remains of the cottages including the foundations. The people were driven out on to the roads.
A pitiless method
The evictions from the Gerrard estate was probably the most notorious event of its kind, especially as it was in the early months of the Great Famine, and would have even harsher implications on families later. Tenants unable to pay their rent usually faced eviction, unless due to the humanity of their landlord, they were allowed to stay on until times improved. There were many good landlords in Ireland; but the Gerrard evictions caused shock and disbelief even among the landlord class. It was not only the pitiless methods of the eviction that were employed that caused such indignation; but they were enacted because when it came to profits, raising cattle on the land was more valuable than having tenants. Marcella Netterville had married John Gerrard, a very successful cattle farmer in Co Meath. She wanted to convert her 7,000 acre estate into grazing land to fatten cattle. Tenants, even those who had lived there for two generations, and who had the rent money put aside to pay, were of no consequence to her new plan.
‘A very great hardship’
Perhaps concerned, if only briefly, at the widespread condemnation of the evictions, John Gerrard wrote to the Roscommon Journal stoutly defending his actions. He wrote that in the month before March 13, he had made available men, horses and carts at his own expense ‘to such persons as desired to move off the lands their provisions, manure, and furniture of their houses and that some of the tenants availed of this offer’.
He further contended that in the course of the eviction his men were very careful in taking down the houses so that very little of the timber was broken, and that the dispossessed were permitted to take it away with them. He made the astonishing claim that his agent treated the evictees with such kindness that ‘several of them at the time, and since, thanked him for so treating them’.
Gerrard claimed to have given £4 each to the four widows who were among his 30 original tenants. He vehemently denied anybody was injured during the incident. He said the whole business, including the outstanding rents due, the local rates, and the costs of the proceedings had cost him £1,062.18s.
His letter concluded with the whinge that it was all so unfair that he should be criticised at all. He had carried out extensive improvements, and given great employment. He posed the question:‘ is it not a very great hardship that I have been dragged before the public in the manner that I have been lately in relation to my estate in the county of Galway.’
‘Not a farthing’
Probably only his wife Marcella would have agreed with his last sentiment. Certainly The Times of London was far less supportive. It noted that Mr Gerrard’s defence in the Roscommon Journal ‘ shows the sublime indifference to social considerations of which no one but an Irish landowner is capable.’
Some days later the same newspaper published a letter from a correspondent, describing himself as an onlooker, who referred to the party of bailiffs who arrived at Ballinlass on March 13 as consisting of ‘ 12 carts, each having four men as levellers, and in each cart a supply of spades, pick-axes, and crow-bars, brought out with the military and the police’. The letter said that on the night before the evictions some tenants, aware of their approaching doom, left their homes, perhaps fearing they would be injured. They erected shelters with sticks and blankets. These too were torn down, and the tenants ‘driven off.’
On April 3 1846 the Belfast Newsletter sent Col McGregor to investigate the outrage. He reported that the story was ‘perfectly correct and the numbers dispossessed by no means exaggerated ...In a state of misery not to be described, scattered over the neighbourhood, residing in the ditches or anywhere they can find shelter’.
Col McGregor also suggested that prior to the evictions; Mr Gerrard had been advised by some of his landlord neighbours that he give a sum of money to his Ballinlass tenants to facilitate their emigration to America. Gerrard replied that he would not give them a farthing.
Next week: Who were the Nettervilles, and who was Kitty Cut-A-Dash?
NOTES: * I am taking this from a new study Marcella Gerrard’s Galway Estate, 1820-70 by Tom Crehan, published by the Four Courts Press last August, and on sale €9.95.
** Taking part in evictions was disliked by troops. A little later, on April 9, at an eviction of nine families at Guitmore, Co Tipperary, a detachment of 72nd Highlanders, ‘openly said they detested this duty and gave the people money’. (The Great Hunger - Ireland 1845-9, by Cecil Woodham-Smith ).