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Éire-Ireland 42.3&4 (2007) 207-228

The Battering Ram and Irish Evictions, 1887–90
L. Perry Curtis, Jr.

The battering-ram may be good for hunting children from their homes, but it fills no pockets and pays none of the evictor's debts—debts that will go on accumulating till the crack of doom, if he does not consent to do justice (cheers).

CANON DANIEL KELLER of Youghal, speaking at a Plan of Campaign rally near Youghal, Co. Cork, 4 March 1888 (Cork Examiner, 5 March 1888)

The autumn of 1879 marked the advent of the first countrywide protest by a formidable coalition of tenant farmers and laborers, their urban allies, and Home Rule MPs against Irish landlordism.1 Stirred into action by bad weather, crop failures, and agricultural depression, tens of thousands of Irishmen joined the Irish National Land League led by Michael Davitt, whose own family had been evicted and their house razed at Straide in County Mayo when he was only four. The League's leaders sought not just fair rents but also security of tenure and eventual ownership through state-assisted land purchase. At mass rallies nationalist speakers urged tenants to demand large abatements of rent and to boycott anyone who dared to defy the Land League's will. With evictions and agrarian crime [End Page 207] sharply rising, Gladstone's Liberal government was forced to prescribe more coercion as well as the conciliatory Land Act of 1881 that bestowed the famous "three Fs" on yearly tenants. The creation of the Land Commission and a set of courts with the power to assign "fair rents" infuriated the landed interest but failed to curb agrarian unrest in the short run. Alarmed by this threat to their privileged lifestyle, many landlords warned tenants in arrears that they would be evicted in a determined effort to squeeze some rent out of them. Waves of ejectment decrees and the distraining of livestock preceded eviction and helped to boost the number of agrarian outrages (including threatening letters) from 301 in 1878 to 3,433 in 1882. Over the same period the number of evicted families rose from 980 to about 5,200 (not counting readmissions as caretakers).2

Before the advent of the Land League, obstructing the sheriff and his bailiffs was relatively rare in the postfamine period. Resistance to rent was one thing; concerted resistance to removal was quite another. As William Vaughan contends, tenants had many ways of defying or thwarting the wishes of their landlords short of shooting them. But physical assaults on the evictors with their heavy police escorts were exceptional in spite of the hatred that such assaults engendered. At the same time attacks on process servers and distrainers of chattel were frequent, and some of these proved fatal.3

At the height of the Great Famine most evictions passed off without violent disturbances. Unlike the nationalist press, local newspapers of a conservative hue like the Clare Journal and Ennis Advertiser paid little attention to expulsions and concentrated instead on hunger, disease, and emigration. Starved and demoralized tenants confined their anger to groaning, threatening gestures, and cursing [End Page 208] while the crowbar brigade destroyed their decrepit cabins or "scalpeens" (from the Irish word scailp, for shelter). Desperate or defiant tenants who reentered their former dwellings after the evictors had left were soon forced out again. Rare indeed was the crafty tenant who took his landlord to court, thereby delaying expulsion for a year or two. Here and there, local tenant-right protection societies worked to foil the seizure of chattel, and after the famine farmers foolish enough to take over evicted holdings—the despised land-grabber—often paid a painful price for their temerity. In general, however, the crowbar brigades encountered little opposition before 1879, as police escorts effectively overawed thoughts of popular resistance.4

The shooting of William Scully, a Tipperary landlord, in August 1868 while he was serving notices to quit was almost as exceptional as had been his conviction and imprisonment in 1865 for assaulting a tenant...


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