Local history tours are a great way to learn more about where you’ve landed, what shaped the place you’re in, and what made the people as they are. Driving to Newbridge, in Co. Kildare, I spotted a sign for an Eviction Walk in a place called Clongorey. It’s a road I’ve driven many times before without an inkling of its past, or indeed, its present.
I persuaded the lovely KW to join me on my adventure. She booked tickets online – we were in one of 10 groups of 20-25 people who were of a similar mind. Some had connections to Clongorey; others had recently moved into the area and wanted to know more. And then there was us.
We parked in the field opposite Barretstown cemetery, checked in, got our hi-viz vests, and waited for our group to leave and take a few steps back in time, to 1822, when Edmund O’Kelly came to live in Barretstown Farmhouse to manage the family’s estate. When he decided he wanted out, his father George took loans and mortgages against the farm from relatives and so, in 1833, a Trust was set up. Things ticked along. When George Snr died, George Lionel took the reins and, having outgrown the Farmhouse, he decided to borrow again, this time to build the big house – Barretstown House.
The land, some 2500 acres, was half good land and half virgin bog. Seventy-two families, tenants at will, had no rights, other than Turbary rights – the right to cut, spread, dry, and remove turf for their own use. They had the cottages that they built themselves of mud and thatch. All but seven had one or two rooms and a kitchen. Of the bigger ones, four were built of stone. Theirs was a meagre existence, working their holdings (172 in all, only 6 of which were over 30 acres) and selling their turf to the British Army in nearby Newbridge. In those days, turf was gold. It provided a steady income and kept people busy, too busy to think about emigrating.
And for this they paid rent. The hatched window through which the tenants paid their rent is still in the big house – it was on the market at one stage for €3m; the photos are stunning. I could live there, but not if I had to get a mortgage. That said, it’s on my lotto list.
The tenants grew enough potatoes, corn, and turnips to feed themselves, bought whatever else they needed on tick from the shops in Newbridge, and cleared their debts when they sold their turf. They were one piece of bad luck away from destitution.
As we walked the 5 km down Bawn Lane and around, stopping at various points to listen to another voice take up the narrative, I was struck repeatedly by the similarities with today. How many are just one piece of bad luck away from destitution, living on credit, mortgaged to the hilt, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, trying to clear debts when the money does come in.
Our tour started in the cemetery where the landlord is buried next to one of his tenants. Death indeed is a great leveller.
As we walked the roads, we passed the ghosts – local singers and musicians who entertained us. While we were not to interact with them, the music added an ethereal touch that made the whole experience more alive.
The narrators, some direct descendants of those evicted, told the stories of the evictions that took place from February 1883 to September 1892.
George Lionel and his wife lived the high life. When he died suddenly in 1882 and the estate fell to his brother John, things began to unravel. When you borrow money, it’s only a matter of time before those you borrowed from come looking for it back. Such is the nature of a loan.
Bad weather in 1885, the River Liffey breaking its banks in 1886 and taking seven houses with it, and the drought of 1887 began a series of rent reductions – the tenants couldn’t give what they didn’t have to give.
But the O’Kellys, under pressure to repay their loans, needed the money. In the years from 1883 to 1892, seven sets of evictions took place.
In February 1890, The Leinster Leader published an extensive piece describing the horrors that took place. The names and numbers make it real.
Evictions were resumed at Clongorey on Friday last, and, as briefly reported in our last issue, twelve families (sixty-six persons) were thrust out of their homes. […] The eviction party arrived about eleven o’clock, and at once set to their foul work. The first tenant evicted was Thomas Fox, with nine in family. […] Thomas Fox Kelly was the tenant whose holding was next visited. […] William Rourke, with his wife and nine children, was next evicted. After a call at the house of Mary Kenny, who was ill in bed, the evicting party went to the residence of Patrick Murray […] He lived in the house with his sister. Elly Kelly, her son and daughter-in-law, and their three children were inmates of the [next] house. She is an old, feeble woman, who was confined to the bed until quite recently, and it was an affecting sight as she was helped out of the house. James Kelly, brother of the last named tenant, to whom was sublet 5 and a half acres of the farm, was, with his wife and four children, also evicted. Eliza Kelly [was next] […] Her aunt and two sons lived in the house with her. Margaret Dunne, eighty years of age, with her son, daughter, and son-in-law, were next evicted. […] Bryan Dunne has six in family […] Mary Kelly has six in family. […] At the house of Kate Daly, Father Kinsella informed the sheriff that he had prepared the poor woman for death the day before. Dr Murphy, of Newbridge, told him that she was suffering from gastric fever, and that her removal would be dangerous to life. Unfortunately they had not secured a certificate not anticipating the evictions that day, but he would get a certificate that evening. The sheriff postponed the eviction. […] The last eviction was that of Patrick Coffey, of Tankardsgarden, who has eleven in family.
The following day, eight emergency men destroyed the seven houses, levelling them to the ground so that the tenants could not return.
On Saturday the eight emergencymen were engaged with hatchets and crowbars cutting the roofs off the houses and levelling the walls of the houses from which the tenants had been evicted. A small crowd collected, but they made no demonstration of any sort. The emergencymen cheered as each roof fell in.
No doubt they were simply doing their job… but delighting in it? ‘Do unto others…’ comes to mind.
Black-and-white photographs posted at the various narration points told a story of wanton destruction and a shameful absence of compassion and common decency. Entreaties for mercy were ignored. The Land League got involved. Instead of paying rent to the landlord, the tenants paid a reduced rent into a Trustee account, which was then used to help those who had been evicted.
We heard the story of Mary Kelly of the Iron Gate who in 1890 built temporary homes on her holding to house those who had been evicted. The landlord deemed this a misuse of her property; she would be the last to be evicted. Another Mary Kelly also paid her rent so that she, too, could accommodate those who had been evicted. When they came for her in 1890, they arrested her daughter, her son-in-law, and her 9-week-old grandchild and took all four to Kilkenny Jail.
One family overextended. Seventy-two other families victims of circumstances beyond their control. This photo of a man looking at a life destroyed says it all.
When the tenants were cleared and the lands put up for sale, the sale was boycotted, adding again to the O’Kellys’ debt burden. What goes around, comes around.
Under the Wyndham Land Act of 1903, many of those evicted went back to their land. And, if you want to know more, Mary Ryan’s original research makes for an interesting read.
As we walked, I wondered what it would be like to live in the Big House, knowing its history. Or to live in Ivy House, knowing how its original owners, the Fullams, had fought a righteous fight. I wondered, too, at our ability to choose not to see the unpalatable or, worse still, not to see anything wrong with it at all. A couple of centuries later, has anything really changed?
Local tours, such as this one, are a great way to absorb history and get an insight into what has formed and informed how we live today. A huge amount of work was involved, with many volunteers contributing to making it the success it was. Massive thanks to Clongorey and District Community Association for this glimpse of history. The money raised all went to their charity of choice – The Dining Room Newbridge – which helps those who are homeless and living in food poverty. A blueprint for others perhaps?