On April 9th 1861, the second day of the Derryveagh Evictions, the Deputy Sheriff and his 200 men, armed with battering rams and crowbars made their way through the townlands of Derryveagh. Their purpose was to clear the land of men, women and children to make way for the flocks of sheep that landlord John George Adair had imported from Scotland. Convinced that one of his stewards had been murdered by his tenants, and vexed that the murderers had not been identified by police, he set in train a legal process to evict all of them from his lands.
According to the official report, 37 Husbands, 35 Wives, 159 Children and 13 ‘Other Inmates’ were evicted – a total of 244 people. Of these, 31 people, representing 4 families, were readmitted into possession as tenants, and a further 28 people, representing 6 families, were readmitted into possession as caretakers. These numbers include children. Eventually however, only 3 of these families were permanently reinstated, the rest were removed in the months after the main evictions. In Derryveagh, on those 3 terrible days, 28 of the 46 houses were either levelled or had the roof removed.
Accounts of the evictions and the effects on the families concerned make for harrowing reading. The first house to be levelled was that of a 60-year-old widow, Hanna Ward (Award), her 6 daughters and one son. Eyewitness accounts tell of the wailing and deep distress as they were forced from their home. When the ‘crowbar brigade’ began to demolish the house, the family ”became frantic with despair, throwing themselves to the ground; their terrifying cries resounding along the mountains for many miles”. It was said that ”those who witnessed their agony will never forget the sight”. This scene was repeated over and over again during the following few days. It was reported that the scenes were so harrowing that the policemen carrying out the evictions were moved to tears. In one house, an elderly man was repeatedly told by the sheriff to leave the house, and “the old man in doing so, kissed the walls of his house and each member of his family did the same”. There was no regard for individual circumstances – no mercy was shown to Rose Dermott, an orphan, whose house was levelled just the same as those of 3 of her close neighbours, although a brother and sister who were both deaf and dumb had their house spared.
Such unimaginable terror was in itself bad enough, but the evicted families and their children had to find someplace to live. In the townland of Altnadogue for example, three Sweeney families with 18 children between them, were locked out of their homes. They moved to nearby Glendowan, away from Adair lands, and built sod houses for themselves. Hearing of the evictions, people in nearby Cloughaneely provided temporary shelter for some of the families. One family in Staghall, a man his wife and two children,were found to still be living in the ruins of their house some time later. The family had lived there for generations. A further group of five men were discovered huddled around a fire with no shelter as they were unwilling to move away. A month after the evictions, 14 families were still unaccounted for or were wandering through the ruins of their homes.
Six families found shelter with or near to, relatives and friends, but 13 families had to take refuge in the Workhouse in Letterkenny. In the Workhouse it was reported that the Derryveagh people sat in a huddle weeping, and were so distressed that they were unable to eat. The elderly John Doherty of Castletown died only days after being admitted to the Workhouse and Michael Bradley is said to have gone insane.
News of the evictions and the desperate plight of the dispossessed reached Irish people across the world. In Dublin, in France and in Australia money was collected. The Donegal Relief Committee assisted young people from Derryveagh in making new lives in Australia. On January 18th 1862, emotional and heart-rending scenes once again broke the hearts of the people of Derryveagh as parents and friends bade farewell to 68 young men, 70 young women and a young married couple with their 2 small children, as they left Derryveagh forever on the long journey to Australia, probably never to return.
Over the next few years, many mostly young people emigrated from this locality – they headed to America, to Australia, to New Zealand.
Dolan, Liam. 1980. Land War and Eviction in Derryveagh, 1840- 65. Annaverna Press.
McClintock, May. After the Battering Ram- the trail of the dispossessed from Derryveagh, 1861- 1991. An Taisce Pamphlet
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