'Gaunt and miserable [...] being hunted there, as wolves, by the blood hounds of the unchristian, that diabolical system which had turned many...into desert wastes and howling wilderness'.
The eviction of tenants during the 1840s is one of the enduring themes of the Great Famine. The above description of the clearance of over ninety people from the Concannon estate in county Galway in September 1849 aptly captures both the horrors of eviction and the rapacity with which it was carried out.
Historians and others have long debated the exact number of people who were evicted during the Famine years, with some estimates suggesting between 250,000 and 500,000 families were removed. However, as the constabulary were only required to record eviction statistics from 1849, and many people were readmitted to holdings as caretakers, a definitive figure of how many were evicted during the Great Famine remains elusive.
Famine era evictions occurred in four great waves. Firstly, following the introduction of the Irish Poor Law Act in 1838, landlords began to remove tenants, ushering them to the newly created workhouse system where they were somebody else's problem.
Secondly, a flurry of eviction occurred following the heated 1841 General Election (and the same was true of the 1852 election) when landlords reacted to their waning political influence by evicting tenants. When the potato blight struck in 1845, landlords initially granted abatements of rent and contributed to relief schemes, hopeful that it would be a short-lived crisis.
However, some landlords used this period of distress to their own advantage and moved to evict tenants, particularly those in arrears. Rev Townsend of Aghada, Cork deplored the 'horrid clearance system', which had extended across the country.
These clearances, such as at the Gerrard estate in Galway, quickly gained notoriety. The introduction of the Gregory Act, or 'Quarter Acre Clause', in 1847 heralded another phase of eviction which saw little sympathy for the plight of the poor as 'crowbar brigades' and 'hut tumblers' moved in to erase the poorer classes from the landscape.
A fourth and final wave of Famine eviction followed the implementation of the Incumbered Estates Court legislation in 1849 where people were evicted before and after the sale of an estate. One of the more notorious of these evictions involved the removal of 440 people from Lord Gort's estate in county Galway, which made the property more desirable to a prospective purchaser.
By 1847, the sheer scale of eviction across Ireland prompted newspapers to employ special correspondents who visited the scene of clearances. Among the reporters in the field was James MacCarthy, proprietor of the Limerick Examiner, who led the way in reporting on the 'scenes of havoc and despair'.
MacCarthy had no shortage of material to report on, particularly in counties Clare and Tipperary. Reporters like MacCarthy were successful in harnessing public opinion and in some instances preventing eviction. It was often a perilous task and MacCarthy was 'assailed and insulted in the discharge of his duty by some of the disgruntled wretches who were employed in levelling the houses of the evicted tenants'.
Yet he was undeterred in reporting eviction, including at the Waller estate in Limerick where he described the evicted being left 'to burrow into the earth for shelter'.
The so-called 'exterminators' were frequently challenged by the local press who were quick to report on the sensational aspects of eviction, especially where women and young children were ejected. Following evictions at the Westropp estate in Clare, it was reported that the body of a young boy had been found dead and eaten by dogs.
Likewise, when Arthur Kiely-Ussher cleared over 700 people at Ballysaggartmore, Waterford it was reported that groups of famished women and crying children hovered the ruins where they clung for refuge beneath the crumbling chimneys.
Eviction was not just a west of Ireland phenomenon and no part of the country was spared. In counties such as Wexford and Kilkenny where landlords and their agents were widely praised for their benevolence, by 1847 many had turned their attention to clearance.
Likewise, eviction occurred in Ulster with notable clearances taking place in Ballymena, Banbridge, and Strabane amongst other places. However, counties Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick, Kerry and Tipperary had far higher rates of eviction and attracted considerable attention in doing so.
Lack of resistance
What was perhaps most remarkable about the Famine evictions was the lack of resistance which was offered by the evictees or the local community. In Athlone, county Westmeath, for example, the Freeman's Journal queried how the people had remained 'remarkably quiet and exemplary' during eviction.
At an eviction at the D'Estere estate in Limerick it was claimed that there were only two people present as the evicted pulled down the houses themselves. Much of this apparent apathy stemmed from the frequency of eviction, by then an almost daily occurrence.
However, retribution was forthcoming; most notably the murders of Major Denis Mahon in Roscommon, Robert Pyke in King's County, and Thomas Douglas Bateson in Monaghan.
Zealousness of the 'levellers'
Despite this apparent lack of resistance, the memory of eviction lingered for several generations largely because of the actions of bailiffs and the 'hut tumblers'. The fact that these people were often members of the local community created greater animosity. This was certainly the case during what came to be known as the 'sack of Toomevara' in 1849 when members of the local community were hired to do the 'dirty work' and showed little remorse or charity to the evicted.
Such was the zealousness of the 'levellers' that whole townlands could be razed in an afternoon's work. There was also resentment towards those who failed to offer support to the evicted.
In some areas the 'hordes of squalid wretches' as the evicted from 'Famine' counties were described were greatly resented. In Dungarvan and Strokestown, for example, an unsympathetic shop keeping class complained that the evictions were causing their towns to be swamped with refugees.
This social memory of eviction was also acutely remembered amongst the diaspora. For example, in Australia the 'storming of Ballagh' near Clonoulty in Tipperary in 1850 is still recalled. In contrast, and somewhat curiously, evictions in other areas were quickly forgotten.
In Roscommon, for example, the eviction of 270 people at Frenchpark by the Dublin landlord William Murphy was deemed unimportant and it was quickly lost to local social memory.
PERCENTAGE DISTRIBUTION OF EVICTIONS PER COUNTY 1846–52
This map, based on the surviving police records and court records of ejectments proceedings, illustrates the percentage share of evictions per county between 1846 and 1852. These combined official records of evictions suggest that at least 100,000 families –or approximately half a million people –were put out on the road during the Famine years.
The map shows a strong western and southern emphasis with Tipperary (10.4%) leading in the eviction stakes, followed by Cork (9.0%), Mayo (7.8%) and Clare (7.2%). The three Ulster counties of Antrim, Armagh and Cavan –as well as Counties Roscommon and Leitrim – saw much greater 'thinning out' of estate tenantry in the earlier period (1846–48), while north Leinster counties saw an acceleration of evictions from 1849.
While some landlords used legal processes, others cleared their estate holdings by compelling surrenders, by 'assisting' tenant mobility or emigration for trifling sums and by even more devious and/or aggressive means. The more realistic human figure for all these 'clearances' is that between two-thirds and three-quarters of a million people lost their homes and way of living. Many were forced onto relief, some managed to emigrate, many others died.
Who were the evictors?
The evictors did not only include members of the aristocracy and gentry, but people from all classes including merchants, shopkeepers, doctors and other professional people who had acquired land in the decades prior to the Famine.
Schools, colleges and institutions evicted too including the College of Physicians, the Erasmus Smith Schools, Commissioners of Education and Mercers Hospital. As the largest landholder in Ireland (with more than 195,000 acres) eviction on the Trinity College estates were particularly numerous during the Famine; including in county Kerry in 1849 where more than 600 people were evicted from college property.
Significantly, the evictors also included clergymen and members of the Repeal party who ironically were condemning eviction in the House of Commons and elsewhere.
As the Famine continued little attention was paid to the plight of evicted tenants and the clearance 'system'. The individual narrative disappeared from national and provincial newspapers which prior to this had fastidiously printed the names of those evicted.
By now, eviction had created something of a side industry with auctions of household possessions taking place in every town and village in the country. Often it was the sight of furniture piled up in a ditch which caught the attention of the newspaper reporter or travel writer. Silently, as the Freeman's Journal wrote, 'the work of depopulation' went 'bravely on' as thousands more were removed from the land.
This piece is part of the Great Irish Famine project coordinated by UCC and based on the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.