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Agrarian Conflict in Clare: 1815 - 1831
By Michael MacMahon

The Special Commission and its Effect


‘Out of Europe…’

The commission consisting of Judges Jebb and Moore sat for the first time at Ennis on 2 June amid scenes of great pomp and ceremony. The procession to the courthouse was headed by George Studdert, the High-Sheriff, George Greene, Under-Sheriff, followed by the entire Grand Jury of Clare, and the Attorney-General, Sergeant Thomas Goold. [49] The authorities had decided on a show of strength for the benefit of the crowds who had poured in from all parts. A reporter for the Ennis Chronicle stated that the streets were thronged to excess, and the numerous military, horse and foot, who presented themselves to the eye in every direction gave the appearance of a town in a state of siege. [50] The entire proceedings, he noted, ‘excited no small dismay amongst the friends of the prisoners’. When the judges finally reached the bench they found before them a list of 227 cases, including forty-one murder charges and ninety-six cases of appearing armed at night and attacking dwellinghouses. [51]

There was a distinct air of drama as the first case was called. Prisoners looked nervously at each other as they listened for a word that might give a clue to the mood of the bench. Thirteen men from Kilkeedy were put to the bar. Their names were called by Mr. Sampson, clerk of the Crown:

‘Michael McNamara, Patrick O’Connor, John O’Donoghue, James Quinn &c…that on the night of 31 March, 1831, at Kilkeedy you did feloniously administer an unlawful oath to the Rev. Oliver Grace, to the purport that he should give up his land…’

The sense of drama was intensified when Daniel O’Connell entered the court and took his place on the defence side. The examination continued. There were several witnesses, including Fr. Lahiff, parish priest of Kilkeedy. He admitted that his parish was very disturbed. A number of witnesses testified to the good character of the defendants. Relatives were hopeful.

After an absence of only twenty minutes the jury returned with a guilty verdict. The Attorney-General rose to speak:

‘The state of the county required prompt execution of the sentence in order that a salutary warning may be held out to the population…an immediate judgement was required.’

Judge Jebb now addressed the prisoners. He spoke at length on the disturbed state of the country…the unfortunate and misguided peasantry…the need to deter them from their wicked pursuits. There was an awesome silence as his lordship named the prisoners individually before pronouncing sentence:

‘…that you be respectively transported forthwith for the term of your natural life out of Europe, beyond the seas…’

The Ennis Chronicle reported that during the address of the court the greatest lamentation prevailed in the streets. The prisoners were removed immediately from the court and place on carts which had already been lined up outside. A large cavalcade of horse and a strong body of infantry surrounded them as they were conveyed ‘amidst uproarious lamentations’ to the hulk at Cork for transportation to Botany Bay. [52]

A Turning Point

The sitting of the special commission at Ennis in June 1831 marked the beginning of a drop in the level of agrarian crime. When the commissson adjourned after only seven sitting days it had already handed down the following sentences: to be hanged – 14; transportation for various periods – 50; imprisonment – 22. [53] By the time the resumed hearings had finished at the end of June many of the Terry Alt leaders were either hanged, transported or in prison; others were on the run, in some cases outside the county. One of a number of local men sought by the police for the murder of Edward Synge's servant, for instance, was arrested in the Tipperary mountains where he was posing as ‘a spalpeen from Clare’ under an assumed name. [54] The increased military and police activity was having an effect on the level of crime; police and military posts were everywhere and frequent patrolling was making movement by subversive factions more hazardous. The large sums of money invested by the government in intelligence-gathering were also bearing fruit as can be seen in the number of convictions secured by the evidence of ‘approvers’. More to the point, however, was the fact that some of the excesses of the Terry Alts had sickened the public conscience, and popular support was flagging. Tom Steele branded the Terry Alts leaders ‘miscreant villians’, and when a number of other public figures, including O’Connell and William Nugent McNamara, addressed a large crowd at Ennis in June and called on them to turn away from violence and hand up their arms, they were loudly cheered. [55]

Of relevance, too, is the fact that some public works schemes were being put in place under the aegis of the newly-formed Board of Works; and although these were still too embryonic to have any significant impact on the level of employment, it was felt that further social unrest could only have the effect of delaying their expansion. An improved harvest in 1831 may also have had some effect on the mood of the people.

As the second half of 1831 wore on the outrages reported in the newspapers became more sporadic and in fact the police were now making the headlines as a ‘mopping-up’ operation got underway. Many of those still on the run were rounded up before the spring assizes in March 1832; and by the time that court had completed its business the teeth of the Terry Alts had been well and truly drawn. On 5 March the Clare Journal reported:

‘We are in a state of repose and comparative quiet. The ordinary occupation of life can now be followed without any danger of personal injury or the destruction of property. The victims that have been made to secure this calm have been many and harrowing…let us hope that this necessary severity of the law may have the desired effect. When we consider the present state of the county to what it was but twelve months since, the contrast is satisfactory.’

Looking Back

In retrospect it can be seen that though agrarian violence was affected by many cross winds, its root causes were economic. This becomes more obvious when it is realised that that over 70% of the population of Ireland in the years before the Great Famine was composed of labourers, smallholders under five acres, and others with no stake in the economy. [56] From what we know of Irish agricultural conditions in the post-war depression that began in 1815 life for large masses of the people, even in the more favourable years, can scarcely have reached a higher pitch than mere subsistence; in bad harvests famine must been a real prospect. [57] The secret agrarian societies were most evident when changes in the agricultural economy, particularly those induced by motives of profit, were pushing the poorer classes to the margin of extinction. They sought to preserve traditional tenant-rights in the shifting economic sands and to infuse equity into the norms governing access to land – essentially to the potato plot, the poor man’s only insurance against starvation when the labour market collapsed. As one commentator put it:

‘their tenaciously held belief that they were entitled to a plot of land, however small, was reinforced by a variety of longstanding customs and traditions, the infringement of which constituted a moral transgression of such magnitude as to warrant direct and sometimes violent action.’ [58]

Agrarian conflict can be seen as a symptom of the unhealthy imbalances in the social structure of Irish rural life in the early nineteenth century. These imbalances were rectified, though in rather tragic fashion, in the 1840s when the Great Famine swept almost the entire cottier/labourer class off the face of the Irish countryside.

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