April 8th 1861,150 years ago, marked the beginning of three days of terror for tenant farmers and their families in a beautiful scenic part of Co Donegal. By April 10th, 85 adults and 159 children had been evicted from their homes by their landlord, John George Adair. In this,the first of 3 posts to commemorate the evictions, I will look at the circumstances leading up to the event itself.
John George Adair hailed from Co. Laois (then Queen’s County) and was a land speculator who purchased land all over Ireland, including Tipperary, Kilkenny and Laois. His family had been engaged in managing estates for absentee landlords and as a result, made enough money to acquire property of their own. John George Adair married a wealthy widow in the USA and in 1857 he began to buy up property in Donegal. By 1859 Adair was landlord of the Glenveagh, Gartan and Derryveagh estates and had hunting rights on some adjoining estates, in a barren but spectacularly beautiful part of County Donegal.
He imported great numbers of sheep from Scotland together with Scottish shepherds to tend them. Some of these shepherds were men of dubious repute. His near neighbour, Lord George Hill, had acted similarly on his Gweedore estate lands, and that resulted in great unrest among the tenants who were fearful that their mountain pastures and small strips of land would be confiscated to make way for the grazing of sheep. So too, on the Adair estates, the tenants were fearful of losing their tenancies to make way for sheep.
The relationship between Adair and his tenants was fraught right from the beginning. He was a quarrelsome and deeply suspicious man; there were confrontations about straying animals and at one point he was convinced that he was the victim of a deliberate arson attempt, when in reality a fire was started accidentally in the house in which he was living. He generally treated his tenants with disparagement.
In January 1860, he served notice to quit on his Derryveagh tenants, with a view to ‘rearranging the holdings’. In November 1860 however, all the tenants were left in place with no evictions. But, just two weeks later, one of Adair’s Scottish shepherds – a man named Murray – was murdered and Adair suspected that he had been killed by one or more of the tenants. When the police failed to find the murderer, Adair decided that all of his tenants would be evicted for harbouring the wrongdoer. They were served with summonses and by the beginning of April he had obtained a decree for the repossession of his lands in Derryveagh, in an area near Gartan Lough.
A posse of some 200 police and the Deputy Sheriff marched into the Derryveagh valley on the morning of April 8th, to begin the evictions. According to press reports at the time, there were harrowing scenes as the misfortunates were dragged from their homes by a ‘crowbar brigade’. Battering rams were used to drive holes in the walls and in some cases to demolish the buildings altogether. At the end of 3 days, 244 people from 47 families, had been evicted from 46 houses, and 28 of those houses were either totally destroyed or de-roofed.
Evictions were relatively common in Ireland up to the 1850s, with 45,000 families dispossessed between 1845 and 1853. By 1861 evictions were usually confined to people who were troublesome or in rent arrears, but there was still an astonishing number of people removed from their homes. In 1863 for example, 1,522 families were evicted in Ireland and in 1864 the number was 1,590. Mass evictions however, such as those in Derryveagh were unusual. Tenants faced with eviction would normally (in Ulster at least) be allowed to sell the tenant-right to their plot of land, giving them some money when they were put on the road. This did not happen in Derryveagh.
The Derryveagh evictions caused widespread dismay. They were debated in Parliament; they were discussed and dissected in the newspapers of the time; they were the subject of correspondence between Adair and the Irish parliament, his estate management was investigated by the police. All of this was of no help to the hapless and unfortunate people who lost their homes.
John George Adair went on to build Glenveagh Castle on the shores of Lough Veagh, some miles from the area of the evictions. He died in the USA in 1885. The Glenveagh Estate and Castle are now in the ownership of the People of Ireland, thanks to one of the subsequent owners of Adair’s lands, Henry McIlhenny of Philadelphia, whose father was born some miles away. As I was growing up nearby, it was said that Henry McIlhenny was a descendant of an evicted Derryveagh family. He was not, but it was a good story! I like to think though that that this beautiful estate is in the care of the people of Ireland to honour those who were evicted. It is indirectly in the ownership of their descendants, wherever they may be, for they are scattered all over the world – in Ireland, England, Canada, the United States of America, Australia and beyond.
The next post in this short series to mark the 150th anniversary of the Derryveagh Evictions will take a closer look at the the men, women and children evicted from their homes on those fateful days in April 1861.
Vaughan, William Edward. 1983. Sin, Sheep and Scotsmen: John George Adair and the Derryveagh evictions 1861. Ulster Historical Foundation. Accessed at TARA: Trinity Access to Research Archive
Family History Ireland a blog by Darren McGettigan