On this day in 1846, as the Great Hunger ravaged the people, 300 tenants were evicted at Ballinglass, a village in County Galway. It was an incident that vividly highlighted the injustices suffered by Irish tenant farmers during the 19th century and how landlords used times of famine to clear people from the land.
At the time, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, being governed directly by its parliament in London, and the Great Hunger had begun (an Gorta Mór), the catastrophe that eventually killed an estimated one million people while millions more were forced emigration. One of the longer-term causes of the famine included the system of absentee landlordism.
The eviction in the townland, located near Mount Bellew, became one of the Famine’s most notorious incidents, and it was the single most merciless eviction Ireland had witnessed at the time because the tenants had been paying their rent in full and on time. It was universally condemned, and sent shockwaves and disbelief across Ireland, even among the landlord class.
Many hard-working Irish farmers were tenants under landlords, producing potatoes, cereal and livestock, but only the potatoes remained as food the farmers consumed themselves. The other products were sold to pay rent and exported from Ireland to Britain. The exports to Britain continued even when the potato crop failed one year before the eviction, in 1845. Many tenants were evicted from their homes because they couldn’t afford to pay rent during The Great Hunger. Quite often, the evictions were at the whim of ruthless and cruel landlords.
Over 300 people in the small village of Ballinglass were evicted on Friday the 13th March, 1846, shortly after dawn. A party of bailiffs 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 “arrived at the place marked out for destruction.”
The tenants protested, insisting that they had their rent money ready for payment (their repeated attempts to pay their rent had been refused). Despite their desperate pleas, soldiers and police started the demolition, destroying all 67 homes in this townland.
The brutality was met with the sounds of men cursing, frightened children screaming, and the cries of women as they clung onto their doorposts “from whence they were dragged by the bailiffs.” Strewn among the ruins were items of household furniture, broken crockery, cooking utensils and farming implements. In their mercilessness, the stick-and-blanket shelters some families had erected the night before in anticipation of the likely demolition, were also pulled down, and the families were driven out onto the roads, with every material thing they owned destroyed.
The 300 inhabitants of the village were regarded as relatively ‘wealthy’ and were able to pay their rent, unlike many who were not. Yet they were evicted because their landlord, Mr Gerrard, wanted to set up a grazing farm where the village was situated.
In the aftermath of the eviction, all of the homes, as well as the foundations, were destroyed by the army and the police. Those evicted had to sleep in the ruins overnight, erecting crude shelters against the remaining walls of the cottages, but the next day, the police and the army returned to evict them permanently, destroying all trace of the cottages (including foundations); their neighbours were forbidden from taking them in. The displaced people had no option but to spend the weekend sheltering in the ditches, huddled around fires in parties of ten or fifteen.
The Roscommon Journal was first to report the harrowing eviction. A publication on the 14th of March 1846 read:
“AWFUL EXTERMINATION OF TENANTRY [Roscommon Journal: 14 March 1846]
To add to the misery of the wretched peasantry of this unfortunate country, the landlords are ably contributing to their bitter draught.
“Day after day we hear of families, aye, hundreds of wretches turned to die in the ditches by their heartless oppressors, the landlords of this country. Not later than yesterday, we are told Mrs. Gerrard dispossessed not fewer than four hundred and forty-seven wretched beings-turning them upon the world and razing their huts to the earth.
“A poor man whose family was lying in fever implored to have the walls of his cabin left up in order to shelter them-but to no purpose. A poor woman with her child at her breast, was not even allowed time to quit her domicile, and in the act of running out a beam fell, and, we are told, killed the infant in her arms. If we are correctly informed, Mr and Mrs Gerrard have dispossessed upwards of two thousand human beings within the last few years.
“CORRECTION 26 March: We cannot omit correcting an inaccuracy which occurred in our last publication, relative to a child having been killed at the wholesale extermination of Mr Gerrard; the child still lives, we also forgot stating that the poor wretches had their rents in their hands, and implored the military officers, who commanded the detachment, on the sheriff, to receive it, and not remove them.
The Dublin post, on the 24th March 1846 published this:
THE EDITOR OF THE DUBLIN EVENING POST [Tuesday 24 March 1846 ]
“I regret to find that your paper, in general so remarkable for accuracy, contains some errors, of detail, in reference to the recent eviction of tenantry by Mr. Gerrard, as the clearance did not take place in this county, nor, to the best of my belief, have either Mr. or Mrs. Gerrard any property in any part of this county, nor within some miles of its frontier. Mr Gerrard resides at Gibbstown, in the county of Meath and is a man of large property and a very extensive grazier; he is not a Catholic, but a very anti-Catholic, gentleman.
“Mrs Gerrard has a large estate in her own right, as heiress of the Netterville estate, in the county of Galway. It is said that she manages it exclusively herself, without reference to Mr. Gerrard, and I have heard, from good authority, that she has, from time to time, evicted fully one thousand families. In the late clearance which took place within a mile of Mount Bellew, upwards of two hundred families were dispossessed.
“It also said, that Mr. or Mrs. Gerard (or both) have an uncontrollable fancy for converting tenanted lands into pasture, although this must cause a good deal of trouble, and cannot yield much profit. The best excuse for such a fancy is, that it is a species of “monomania,” as, indeed, I believe that it is.”
The Freeman’s Journal sent one of their journalists to get a full report, while John Gerrard wrote to the Roscommon Journal vigorously defending his actions.
Even the Times of London, never regarded as a supporter of Irish rights, rallied against the injustice that unfolded. It commented that the eviction showed “the sublime indifference to social considerations of which no one but an Irish landowner is capable.”
“How often are we to be told that the common law of England sanctions injustice and furnishes the weapons of oppression? How long shall the rights of property in Ireland continue to be the wrongs of poverty and the advancement of the rich be the destruction of the poor?” the paper wrote.
The eviction of the entire village received huge publicity and was “personally investigated” by Lord Londonderry, who, in a statement to the House of Lords on 30th of March 1846, said: “I am deeply grieved, but there is no doubt concerning the truth of the evictions of Ballinglass. Seventy-six families, comprising 300 individuals had not only been turned out of their houses, but had even – the unfortunate wretches – been mercilessly driven from the ditches to which they had been taken themselves for shelter. These unfortunate people had their rents actually ready…”
On April 3 1846 the Belfast Newsletter covered the story, reporting that it 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.”
Despite widespread condemnation, the eviction order was not revoked.
- Read the full text of ‘Landlordism in Ireland: Letters on the eviction of the Gerrard tenantry” here.
- Full text of “Landlordism in Ireland : letters on the eviction of the Gerrard tenantry” (archive.org) here