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Many of the Irish who came to Stafford during the Famine years and the 1850s had been evicted from their land in Ireland, particularly in the Castlerea district of Roscommon, Mayo and east Galway. Famine evictions started early in the Castlerea area, and it was the scene of one of the most notorious ‘exterminations’ to take place in Ireland during these years. It happened at Ballinlass townland near Mount Bellew, Co. Galway. The land was owned by Mrs Marcella Gerrard, an absentee who, with her husband, lived in Co. Meath and owned extensive cattle-rearing estates in Connacht.

Ballinlass townland before the Gerrard eviction showing the houses scattered along the tracks

Ballinlass townland before the Gerrard eviction showing the houses scattered along the tracks. Around 400 people were living here in 1846.

The tenancy arrangement at Ballinlass was typical of the evils of landlordism in pre-Famine Ireland. In 1827 the Gerrards had let their land to thirty tenants but then they colluded in allowing one of them, ‘Wealthy Tom’ Gavin, to become the middleman who paid all the rent to the Gerrards. The rest had to pay Gavin as undertenants. About forty other people then became undertenants of these undertenants, a diffusion of tenancy common in pre-Famine Ireland. But in 1842 Gavin absconded leaving rent arrears of £40. The undertenants offered to pay their rents directly to the Gerrards, but the latter refused to accept the money and used legal chicanery to obtain an enforceable ejectment order.[1] In other words, the landlord seized her opportunity to clear ‘surplus’ people off the land and convert it to profitable grazing.

On the morning of Friday 13 March 1846 the inhabitants of Ballinlass were evicted en masse. 270 people in 61 families were violently thrown out and left to fend for themselves. The Roscommon Journal presented a graphic report of what had happened:

Awful extermination of tenantry

To add to the misery of the wretched peasantry of this unfortunate country, the landlords are ably contributing to their bitter draught. Day after day we hear of families, aye, hundreds of wretches, turned out to die in the ditches by their heartless oppressors, the landlords of this country. Not later than yesterday, we are told Mrs Gerrard dispossessed not fewer than 447 wretched beings – turning them upon the world and rasing their huts to the earth. A poor man whose family were lying in fever implored to have the walls of his cabin left up in order to shelter them – but to no purpose. A poor woman with her child at her breast was not even allowed time to quit her domicile, and in the act of running out a beam fell and, we are told, killed the infant in her arms. If we are correctly informed, Mr and Mrs Gerrard have dispossessed upwards of 2,000 beings within the last four years.’[2]

This dramatic report was incorrect in some of the details, but the facts were shocking enough. What had happened at Ballinlass was publicised throughout Ireland and Britain in a series of eye-witness reports in The Freeman’s Journal between 27 March and 2 April 1846: [3]

‘The women and children … ran out of the houses half-dressed, and their frantic screams, as they gathered up some bits of clothing or furniture, was beyond all description, terrifically painful. Some were to be seen running off with the sticks that formed portions of their house roofs, and more of them, in their bare feet, were helping the men to carry off the dung in baskets on their backs and heads to the road side. Some of them clung with wild tenacity to the door-posts from whence they were dragged by the bailiffs, and those who could not be got away ran great risk of their lives by the tumbling down of the roofs and walls, and many had very narrow escapes.’[4]

‘In the first instance the roofs and portions of the walls were only thrown down. …. But on the night of Friday the wretched creatures pitched a few poles slantwise against the walls, covering them with thatch in order to procure a shelter for the night; but when this was perceived next day, the bailiffs were dispatched with orders to pull down the walls and root up the foundations in order to prevent the ‘wretches’ (this it appears is a favourite term applied to these poor people) from daring to take shelter amid the ruins. When this last act had been perpetrated, the ‘wretches’ took to the ditches on the high road where they slept in parties of from ten to fifteen each, huddled together before a fire for the two succeeding nights. I saw the marks of the fires in the ditches; everybody can see them, and the temporary shelter which the ‘wretches’ …. endeavoured to raise round them  – these, with the sticks rescued from their recent dwellings, the thatch and the dung remain there as evidence of the truth of my statement. It was a melancholy sight – but more particularly so, amongst the ruins. Here a broken chair, there a smashed pot, crockeryware, remnants of old dressers, boxes, and tables, together with broken farming implements, and a hundred other articles belonging to husbandry and household purposes, lay about the gardens of the houses (that had been), or on the fields adjoining.’[5]

It was alleged that Mrs Gerrard’s agent ordered her other tenants in the district to deny shelter to the homeless of Ballinlass, and although the order was sometimes disobeyed, it seems the majority of victims were forced to huddle in the ditches along the road to Mount Bellew. By the end of the month some were in Mount Bellew itself and in other local villages. A year later some were still in the district and in a pitiable condition. On 18 April 1847 Pat Gibbons, ‘who was one of the tenants ejected by Mrs Gerrard’ and ‘who had suffered much from severe destitution’ died on the road a mile and a half from Mount Bellew. His body lay by the roadside for over a day because no one would provide a coffin.[6] Other people and families ended up in a similar state, struggling for survival and forced into the workhouses, often to die there. Most of the families that survived were forced either to emigrate or to send people to England for seasonal work.

The memorial to the families of the Gerrard eviction, Ballinlass

The memorial to the families of the Gerrard eviction, Ballinlass

What have the events at Ballinlass got to do with Stafford? The answer is that some of the Gerrards’ victims may have settled in the town during and after the Famine, although it is impossible to be definite because their surnames were common in east Galway. In 1846 the Tuam Herald published a list of the heads of families evicted from Ballinlass. Four of these people were Patrick Mannion, James Monahan, John Walsh and James Egan.[7]  In 1851 a Patrick Mannion was to be found in Stafford. He was then a forty year-old widower, working as a labourer. It is known that he had connections with Moylough, the parish next to Ballinlass, so he may have been a victim of the Gerrard eviction who ended up in Stafford and established a family line still to be found in the town today. Families named Walsh, Monaghan and Egan also settled in Stafford. They too may have been survivors of Ballinlass.

These tragic events in Ireland may therefore have had direct consequences in the town. Mrs Gerrard had ‘exterminated’ Ballinlass in order to turn the land over to profitable cattle pasture. Dramatic as the eviction was – and the word ‘Gerrardising’ became commonly used for evictions in the Castlerea area during the Famine – it was only one case amongst many. By August 1846 the Roscommon Journal was saying eviction was ‘the order of the day’.[8] Stafford’s Irish population was suffused with many people and families from the Castlerea district whose lives had been shattered by the Famine and eviction. They had to begin life again and respond to new challenges in a new environment. Victims though they were, those who settled in the town under such circumstances subsequently showed many divergent paths in both their own lives and those of their descendants.

[1] The Freeman’s Journal, 2 April 1846: letter from John N. Gerrard and article, ‘Landlordism in Ireland: the Gerrard Tenantry’.

[2] Roscommon Journal (RJ), 14 March 1846.

[3] Many writers have used the Gerrard evictions to demonstrate the iniquities of landlord power during the Famine. In doing so they have relied on the accounts given by S. Redmond in The Freeman’s Journal. Redmond interviewed victims and local observers, and his account is a valuable record. His information on the local geography was, nevertheless, faulty since he named the townland as Ballinglass and wrongly located it in the parish of Killascobe. Most subsequent writers have uncritically accepted Redmond’s account without checking this detail. The correct identification is Ballinlass in Ballinakill parish. The population of the townland was decimated by the eviction, falling from 363 in 1841 to just four in 1851. For a recent review of the Gerrard case see Tom Crehan, Marcella Gerrard’s Galway Estate, 1820-70, (Maynooth Studies in Local History, Four Courts Press, 2013)

[4] Eye-witness account of Head Constable Dennehy of Mount Bellew, in the second article of ‘Landlordism in Ireland: the case of the Gerrard tenantry’, The Freeman’s Journal, 28 March 1846.

[5] First article of ‘Landlordism in Ireland: the case of the Gerrard tenantry’, The Freeman’s Journal, 27 March 1846.

[6] Tuam Herald (TH), 24 April 1847, a report quoted from the Galway Vindicator.

[7] TH, 4 April 1846. The same list was published in The Freeman’s Journal article on 27 March 1846 but with typographic errors. It can also be found on the memorial at Ballinlass itself that was unveiled in 2011.

[8] RJ, 29 August 1846.