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Agrarian Conflict in Clare: 1815 - 1831
By Michael MacMahon

Sectarian Clashes at Corofin

 

‘Our readers are aware that a public school has been for a time kept under the patronage of Mr. Synge of Dysert, near Corofin; and it is no less notorious that the school has met with considerable opposition from the Rev. Mr. Murphy, the priest of the parish.’
(Dublin Evening Post, 9 March 1826).

The newspaper extract cited above gives a clear enough picture of the backdrop to the high drama of souperism, bigotry and violence played out in the neighbourhood of Corofin over the following five years. The tensions aroused in this local conflict gave rise to some of the deepest animosities in the history of agrarian unrest in Clare, and attempts at its resolution precipitated a frightful saga of assault, retribution and murder.

Elsewhere in the county things were much less disturbed until another bad harvest in 1829-30. In fact, in its report of the Quarter Sessions at Ennis in January, 1826, the Dublin Evening Post noted that the criminal business had materially decreased. [24] The same report noted that the cases heard at Ennistymon a short time previously were ‘only such as might be expected in the best regulated society’. [25]

The sectarian clashes in the Corofin district were local in origin. Unlike most agrarian eruptions they did not originate in any breach of tenant/farmer contract, but rather in an attempt by a land agent to initiate what was perceived as a proselytising programme in schools which he had set up on his estate with financial assistance from the London Hibernian Society. The dispute therefore was rooted in sectarian rather than agrarian concerns. However, as the situation developed, agrarian concerns assumed primary importance, especially when the land agent in question, Edward Synge of Carhu, sought to enforce his wishes by means of harassment, distraining of livestock and ‘the six-month’s notice to quit’.

Edward Synge

Edward Synge belonged to a family which at various times had provided clergy to the Protestant Church at the highest level. Originally the name was Millington, called after the village of that name in Cheshire where the family originated as millers, the alias Singe or Synge being first adopted in 1584 by a son of Millington of Cheshire who became a canon. In Ormerod’s History of Cheshire the Millington armorials (containing three millstones) are given as for Singe or Synge ‘alias Millington’. The playwright, John Millington Synge, is said to have derived from the same family.

Of more immediate relevance to our purposes here is Nicholas Synge who was appointed to the see of Killaloe in 1745. The bishop acquired a lease of the churchlands in the Protestant Union of Dysert, which comprised the modern Catholic parishes of Corofin, Inagh and Dysert. The leasehold later passed to the Synges of Syngfield, near Birr in Co. Offaly, one of whom, George Synge, married Mary McDonnell of Newhall, Co. Clare. Edward Synge was the first son born to this couple. In 1823, then a forty-five year old bachelor, he was appointed agent for the Synge property at Dysert. He took up residence at Carhu House, Dysart, about two miles from Corofin.

Two of Synge’s estate schools were located in the parish of Corofin where Fr. Murphy was parish priest. Fr. Murphy was an outspoken priest with strong political views, deeply involved in the campaign for Catholic Emancipation. He had played a prominent role in the setting up of O’Connell’s Catholic Association and afterwards gained national notoriety for his part in O’Connell’s election in 1828. In rather inauspicious times in 1822 he had commenced building the Catholic church in Corofin and had then turned his attention to setting up a school in his parish. It was around this time that Synge, an eccentric evangelist and a newcomer to the district, began subjecting the children of his tenantry to what Fr. Murphy regarded as dangerous doses of biblical fundamentalism. The two men were soon at loggerheads, engaging in strident public exchanges which degenerated into open hostility. Synge was vehemently denounced from the pulpit and his Catholic tenants in Corofin parish were instructed to withdraw their children from his estate schools under pain of excommunication. [26] When some of them complied Synge retaliated by calling in arrears of rent, distraining livestock and in some cases by issuing eviction notices. The mutual animosity of the principals involved in this dispute can be gauged from the tone of a letter sent by Fr. Murphy to the poundkeeper at Corofin in connection with a tenant’s livestock impounded by Synge: [27]

‘Give the bearer, John O’Loughlin, his two cows impounded by that notorious bible-ranting Synge of Carhu on account of rent due to his landlord, but I believe the poor fellow’s stock were seized because he would not permit the infernal fiend, the devil, to seize and possess the little ones with which God blessed him. I promise that O’Loughlin will deliver up to me the cows on the day of the auction.
I am yours etc.
John Murphy, Richmond, Corofin.’

In July 1826 a nocturnal attack on one of Synge’s schools at Dysert was followed by an assault with firearms on his dwellinghouse at Carhu. In the course of this attack Synge put up a spirited defence and, with the aid of a servant, he succeeded in overpowering one of his assailants, a man named Michael Carroll. Carroll was charged under the Whiteboy Act and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to transportation. [28]

Although Fr. Murphy and the Catholic Association did their best to ensure that opposition to Synge was kept within the law, the outbreaks of violence continued for several years. The conflict became markedly sectarian; the homes of Protestants were attacked and at one period a notice calling on all protestants to quit the district was posted up at Corofin. [29] Synge’s own servants, both Catholic and Protestant, were frequently assaulted, sometimes even to death [30] and Catholics who continued to send their children to his schools were also subjected to beatings, sometimes even in their beds. Synge himself narrowly escaped assassination when he was ambushed by a party of Terry Alts at Clouna in Dysert in February, 1831. A firearm was discharged at him at close range, but the ball lodged harmlessly in a small bible that he carried in his breast pocket. A servant named Paddy Donnellan who accompanied him on the occasion was less fortunate. He suffered gunshot wounds and died within a week. [31] In March of the following year four men were sent to the gallows for this crime. [32]

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