BY JOHN FITZGERALD
The dark spectre of eviction hung like an enormous black cloud over many families in 19th century Ireland. Landlords who cared nothing for the wellbeing of their tenants saw these people as mere commodities, and not human beings. Profit was all that mattered.
Pierce Francis Garvey was a landlord in the Brownsford area in the post famine years. To free up his land for more productive usage, he inflicted exorbitant rent hikes on his tenants, knowing they would it difficult, if not impossible to pay.
He cared nothing for the fact that many of the families had been in their homes on that land for generations. Nor the years of backbreaking labour they had devoted to tilling their plots of land to eke out a meagre living bother the landlord.
He lived and moved in a different world from the people who occupied the humble stone cabins. Their forebears had built these homes with their bare hands.
Pierce Garvey sat back and waited for a response to his cruel demands. Knowing that the families had no prospect of finding the extra money to pay him, he contacted his friends in the judiciary, with whom he went fox hunting at weekends. The order went out…Twenty poor families were to be evicted. And no mercy was to be shown.
On a winter’s morning in 1868, as a raging blizzard drew a carpet of snow over the hills and fields of Brownsford, dozens of police and men wielding crowbars arrived to implement Garvey’s mass eviction order.
Under the command of Resident Magistrate Bodkin and Inspector O’ Hara of Thomastown, the stern-faced enforcers fanned out across the locality, loudly banging on the doors of the little cabins. Men objected, to no avail, women and children sobbed, babies cried uncontrollably as families were given just minutes to vacate their homes.
Elderly folk unable to move quickly enough were dragged and beaten out on to the roadsides and boreens. Police batons struck down relatives of the weak and infirm who tried to ward off the blows, or to assist them in exiting their homes.
When all the cabins had been emptied of their occupants, Inspector O’ Hara instructed the crowbar gangs to enter the former homes and wreck or remove every bit of furniture that remained inside.
The well-trained eviction teams set to work. As the families, including women holding small babies, stood shivering in the snow, they heard above the sound of the blizzard the smashing to pieces of the few precious items of furniture they had failed to take with them.
The house interiors were ripped apart. Then the thatched roofs were set alight; the smoke billowing towards Heaven and mingling with the ice-cold wind that swept the district.
It was a scene of utter cruelty and desolation. What had been, less than half an hour before, the cherished homes of twenty families; were now burning brightly against the stark background of a white landscape.
The evicted tenants sought refuge in neighbours’ homes, as well as in stables and cowsheds. Some took the emigrant ship to Canada and America where today their descendants can be numbered in the hundreds.
The enterprising landlord of Brownsford used the stones from the broken and shattered homes of his tenants to build stone walls on his land. At a hunt ball shortly after the evictions, he joked over a glass of brandy about how he had freed his land of idiots and grubby little cabin-dwellers.
“They played Pocket full of Posey in the snow whilst my lads were torching their damned shacks!” he quipped, to howls of affected laughter from the assembled gentry of the district.
Pierce Francis Garvey danced gracefully to the music of Mozart’s The Magic Flute as his former tenants begged for food, sought shelter from the elements, or prepared to cross the Atlantic, never again to see their native land.
Wellesley Bowes Prendergast of Listerlin was another landlord whose name struck fear and terror into the hearts of 19th century tenants in South Kilkenny. He held 1,500 acres of land and was hailed by the establishment of his day as a successful horse breeder and frequent winner of prizes at agricultural shows.
He rode to hounds in the company of the rich and famous in the South East, rubbing shoulders with Royalty on more than one occasion. The quality of the vegetables he produced turned heads in stunned admiration when displayed at Inistioge, Waterford, and New Ross…
To be continued…