Eviction in the Montiaghs

Vol. 11 No. 1 - 2019

Eviction in the Montiaghs

by Pat Byrne

By the end of the 19th Century the so called "Land Wars" were coming to an end with the demise of the feudal landlord system which had existed in Ireland since plantation, and Lord Lurgan's estate was gradually being dismantled. This was facilitated by the 1885 Purchase of Land Ireland Act1 (the Ashbourne Act) which set up a government fund to provide loans to tenants who wished to buy their land.

One of Lord Lurgan's last evictions

One of the last evictions under Lord Lurgan, that of John Heaney in 1889, provides a dramatic and news-worthy story. Heaney was a farmer who had served as a Poor Law guardian for the Montiaghs and was at that time secretary of the Lough Neagh Branch of the Irish National League, the nationalist political party supporting Charles Stewart Parnell. Heaney was literate, well-read and confident and was also politically savvy. He had fought a previous attempt at eviction in 1888 through the courts, claiming he was due an abatement on his annual payment, and he won his case on appeal, defending himself in court. He proved a strong opponent to Lord Lurgan and a strident campaigner for his rights from the Land Commissioners for many years after.

Heaney's 20-acre farm in Derrytagh South was in no way profitable. In his 1888 court case, he gave an account to the judge of his finances: the total annual income from the produce of his farm was £22 8s 6d. His annual rent to Lord Lurgan was £21. The Belfast Morning News reporting the case commented: " ... How we should like to know could the tenant be expected to pay for the work and labour and the seed and the countless other things which he would be called upon to provide, to say nothing of doing justice to himself and his family and all for the paltry balance of £1 8s 6d ...".2

By January of 1889 John Heaney owed Lord Lurgan almost £70 in back-rent. He had earlier struck an agreement to buy his holding under the Ashbourne Act, and claimed that while his purchase was pending it was ultra vires (beyond the legal power or authority) of Lord Lurgan to enforce an eviction. Claude Brownlow, Lord Lurgan's estate manager, made a number of attempts to come to an agreement for payment, but Heaney stood his ground and eventually Brownlow called in the forces to carry out an ejectment writ.

A crowd gathers

The eviction took place on the morning of Saturday 12 January 18893. An impressive crowd started out from Lurgan just after 10am. There were 14 police tenders carrying District Inspector Starkey from Armagh and 40 policemen armed with rifles and swords; Mr. Moore, sub-sheriff for County Armagh, accompanied by five of his subordinate officers; Mr. Gibson RM, and Lord Lurgan's agent Claude Brownlow.

Eviction scene
Eviction scene circa. 1888 in County Clare. A disassembled battering ram is brought in on a horse cart.

When they arrived in Derrytagh South, their way was blocked by some recently¬ felled trees, and it took some time to make a detour to Heaney's farm. On arriving at Heaney's single-story thatched house they found it had the door barred and the windows boarded with smoke coming from the chimney indicating presence inside.

There was a large and very vocal crowd of locals and supporters present (300 by one report), and bands from Derrycor and Derrytagh South were playing "God Save Ireland" in the adjoining field.

No surrender

Sub-sheriff Moore approached the door and announced that he was there to carry out the eviction order. Heaney was heard to reply from within with a cry of "No surrender". Moore stated that he would use force if necessary, but this elicited much jeering and singing from both inside the house and the assembled crowd. The bailiffs then attacked the door with a crowbar and after some work the hinges began to give way. At this point boiling water was thrown out through the gap in the door onto the bailiffs. They then turned their attention to breaking in the windows, but were met from within by a barrage of stones and with attacks using pitchforks. One of the bailiffs was stabbed in the face and when DI Starkey grabbed the tines of a pitchfork, the agent Brownlow who was aiding him was cut on the hand. The struggle was getting quite fierce at this stage and the crowd became very excited, shouting encouragement to those inside the house.

Mr. Gibson RM then read the Riot Act, and the police fell in with fixed swords. Gibson called on Heaney to yield, and some of those in the crowd intervened to persuade Heaney that he should give up his fight. He eventually agreed that he would surrender, but to the police, not the bailiff party.

The door was opened and the bailiffs and police entered. They handcuffed those inside: John Heaney, Edward Burns, Patrick Hendron and Thomas McStravick. The resisting party emerged to cheers from the crowd and were driven to Lurgan where the four men were put on remand for 8 days in Armagh Jail. They were then released on bail until the Petty Sessions court of 5 February.

Jail with hard labour

In court, Claude Brownlow agreed to accept £40 from Heaney instead of the £70 owing4. Heaney, however, stood by his beliefs and reminded the court that should he be evicted, he would be provided with a hut and have a weekly allowance to live on (the usual course for evicted tenants), and then he could give his time to agitation, and put more than his rent out of Lord Lurgan's pocket. Heaney was sent to jail for three months and his three companions for 5 weeks each, all with hard labour. These sentences were later reduced on appeal to one month and two weeks respectively.

The estate agent immediately put in a caretaker to manage Heaney's land. This was of course an unpopular move with the local people, and, fearing for the safety of the caretaker, the police provided three constables to also live in the house. In July, Heaney's crop of hay was offered for sale, but there were no bidders forthcoming. The caretaker employed three or four men, described in the Belfast Newsletter as "... the sons of Protestant farmers on the estate of Lord Lurgan ..." to mow the hay5. When they set about this task it was found that strands of hard wire were placed in the ground in an attempt to sabotage the work. The hay was eventually recovered and sold, but when the purchasers tried to remove it to their own land in October, they found it was saturated with paraffin oil and rendered worthless. There was obviously much resentment in the townland of Derrytagh South over this eviction.

In early 1891 the police presence was removed from the farm, and on 14 February Lord Lurgan's agent Claude Brownlow "sold" the land to Christopher Stevenson of Derrytrasna. There was considerable outrage in the locality over this, with Heaney as chief activist. On more than one occasion Stevenson took some of the neighbours to court over trespassing on his property and insulting him on the roadway, calling him a "landgrabber", with one case seeing 13 named men in the dock6. The authorities were very aware of tensions building in the neighbourhood and although these received much publicity in the anti-national press, court cases were often dismissed or small fines applied.

Feelings evidently came to a head on 11 April 1891 when Heaney, together with a crowd of neighbours, forcibly retook possession of his house and farm. The holding of another evicted farmer in Derrytagh South, John Hendron, whose land had been sold to Stephen Turkington, was also repossessed in what appears to have been a well-planned event by local Land Leaguers7. Feelings at this time were so great that when Heaney's prosecution for the retaking came to court, the Lurgan police brought in forty men as reinforcements for the day of the trial. Heaney was again imprisoned with hard labour.

Burnt to the ground

A culmination of all these events came on 16 May 1892, when the house from which Heaney had been evicted was burnt to the ground. This happened just a few days before Heaney was released from his most recent spell in prison. There appears to have been no prosecution for arson, although at the following presentment sessions in Lurgan Christopher Stevenson made a claim for malicious damage, and was awarded £42 in compensation8. Once the house was gone, the fight by local resistors was somewhat dissipated, and things seem to have quietened down in the neighbourhood.

Turf hut

A labourer's family outside their temporary turf hut in Gweedore after being evicted from their home circa 1887

There is no evidence of what Heaney did in the immediate years after his house was destroyed, although he must have been disheartened by the turn of events and felt helpless in their wake.

Nevertheless, his battle with the authorities was not over. By the turn of the century he was working in the shipyards in Glasgow, living in a tenement in Govan and earning £1 per week as a labourer. He kept abreast of politics, and when the Irish Land Act of 19039 came into being (which extended the loans process to tenants with the objective of enabling a full buy¬out of all landed property and supported the reinstatement of evicted tenants), he wrote to the Land Commission in Dublin, who were then managing affairs, requesting information as to how he might go about reclaiming his holding.

Heaney returns to Derrytagh

At first the Land Commission replied to Heaney that they could not help him as they had already advanced money to Christopher Stevenson in 1892 and repayment on this was outstanding. Heaney left Glasgow around this time and returned to Derrytagh to work on his brother's farm, which was adjacent to his former holding. He had heard that Stevenson was willing to sell, and in his letters to the Land Commission he suggested that they negotiate the sale rather than Heaney himself approaching Stevenson.

Correspondence between Heaney and the Land Commission went on for some time (with 15 letters from Heaney in the Land Commission file to date), in all cases Heaney writing to ask for intervention and reinstatement10. He complains of his current situation, stating he is "... sick working for other people and every day, and hour of the day, looking at my once tidy and well cultivated farm nothing but wild weeds ...". The Land Commission repeatedly replied that it was not in their power to take any action in this case.

In March 1907 the Land Commission changed their position and one of their inspectors, a Mr. Ringwood, arranged to meet Heaney in the Imperial Hotel in Portadown, "... for the purpose of making enquiries into your application for reinstatement as an Evicted Tenant ...". After this meeting Ringwood spoke with Stevenson, who told him that he was willing to give up the land, provided the terms were agreeable.

“He has learnt his lesson and will profit by it”

Ringwood then sent a letter to Fr. McCartan, the parish priest in Derrymacash, asking for a confidential reference for Heaney. The reply came swiftly with Fr. McCartan stating: "... it is quite true there was some trouble about his eviction but I think I may say truthfully that if reinstated he would be a good tenant in future, pay his instalments as they become due, work his farm to the best of his ability and be adverse to all future disturbances to the government. He has learnt his lesson and will profit by it. Besides it would be most conducive to keep the peace in the district continued, with which it is happily blessed in the past number of years ...".

Ringwood then agreed to meet Stevenson to inspect the land on site on 16 April 1907, and presumably to negotiate a price. However, no one told Heaney that things were going in his favour and when he saw the inspector with Stevenson on the land he came to an erroneous conclusion. He appeared on the holding with a small hostile crowd and began to abuse Stevenson as a land-grabber. Stevenson immediately changed his mind about selling and Ringwood could not persuade him otherwise.

Ringwood must have been quite enraged by the turn of events and how Heaney's intervention had upset the progress he was making. In his subsequent report he says of Heaney: "... applicant is a lazy, worthless man who spends his time trying to get up agitation in the neighbourhood. And there is not the slightest probability of his succeeding as a farmer, if a holding were allocated to him. And I regret I have to dissent from the opinion entertained by Father McCartan, grounded on my personal knowledge of John Heaney..." By his actions on the day, Heaney inadvertently lost his support of the Land Commission and, in consequence, reinstatement on his own farm.

It took some time for the Land Commission to convey their decision to Heaney, who was ignorant of the turn of events. He continued to write to the Land Commission decrying his plight and suggesting alternative lands that they might allocate to him should he not be able get his own farm back.

Eventually, in 1909, twenty years after the original eviction, they acceded to his demands and he was allocated a piece of land through Lurgan Real Property Limited, who managed the Demesne of Lord Lurgan. He farmed this until his death in 1922.

  • Purchase of Land Act, Ireland 1885. Irish Statute Book. Available online at: www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1885/act/73/enacted/en/
  • Belfast Morning News (1888), “Lurgan Quarter Sessions. Important Ejectment case”, 16 January.
  • Belfast Morning News (1889), “Eviction on the Lurgan estates. Stubborn resistance. Four men Arrested. Exciting Scenes”, 14 January 14.
  • Armagh Gazette (1888) “Eviction prosecution in Lurgan”, 8 February.
  • Northern Whig (1889) “Disgraceful Affair Near Lurgan”, 1 August.
  • Belfast Newsletter (1891), “Crimes Act Prosecution in Lurgan”, 19 August.
  • Belfast Newsletter (1891), “The retaking of Evicted Farms on Lord Lurgan’s Estate”, 23 July.
  • Belfast Newsletter (1892) “Belfast Presentment Sessions. Claims for a Malicious Burning Arising out of an Eviction”, 29 November.
  • Irish Land Act 1903. Irish Statute Book. Available online at: www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1903/act/37/enacted/en/
  • Irish Land Commission. Evicted Tenants File. PRONI reference FIN/23/4/B/28. Contains correspondence between John Heaney and the Land commission.

The author, Pat Byrne, is a relation of Edward (Ned) Burns, one of the men arrested at the time of the eviction. Ned was an uncle of Pat’s father; and after her father's death Pat discovered notes written by him, presumably based on information from Ned himself. In the course of investigating her family tree Pat looked up the facts of the story behind the eviction and became intrigued by it ...