The saga of one
rural Irish family of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries,
a tale characterised by Poverty, Servitude, Starvation, Resistance, Evictions,
Famine, Workhouse tenure, Imprisonment, Emigration, and Murder during the Land
Struggles, the War of Independence and the Civil War.
The Battle of Magheracloone, 1843
A few months ago I, along with my brother
Michael, was asked to be a guest of honour at the unveiling of a commemorative plaque
in a rural area of county Monaghan (Irish = Muineachán = little hill) to celebrate one small almost insignificant
and largely forgotten tale that was just one of many thousands of similar incidents
that happened in the land struggles between the Anglo-Irish landlords and the
rural native tenantry which dominated the politics of nineteenth century Ireland.
The following text was inscribed on the plaque:
In 1843 the tenants on the Shirley estate, of which the parish of
Magheracloone was a part, refused to pay their rents until their complaints had
been addressed by the landlord. Attempts by the bailiffs to seize cattle or
goods from the tenants who would not pay were stopped by the activities of the famed
‘Molly Maguires’. These bands of young men dressed up in women’s clothing with
their faces blackened, would ambush and beat up the agents of landlords who
attempted to confiscate the goods of the poverty stricken tenants.
The centre of British rule in Ireland,
Dublin Castle, was asked to provide troops to protect the agents who were
serving notices of eviction to tenants. On June 5th 1843, a bailiff
from the Shirley Estate along with a company of troops marched towards the Church
of Peter and Paul (this very church) in Magheracloone. The intention was to
post a notice of eviction to several tenants in the area on the door of the
church. They were met by a large howling and hooting crowd who blocked their
path. The troops fixed bayonets and moved forward, only to be met with a shower
Several of the troops were hit with stones
and at the same instant the entire company discharged one round each from their
guns into the crowd. The crowd backed off.
The company commander, fearful of a great
slaughter, called his troops back to their carriages and they beat a hasty retreat
followed all the way by angry remnants of the crowd.
However back on the road in front of the
church (amongst the wounded people on the ground) a young servant boy lay
dead. Twelve year old Peter Agnew from Lisnaguiveragh Carrickmacross was at service
with Owen Smith of Corrybracken.
Peter Agnew was my
great great granduncle and it was for this reason that I was invited to speak
at the unveiling of a commemorative plague that was the end result of excellent historical research undertaken by Reverend Father Michael Gilsenan.
This request from the Magheracloone
(Irish = Machaire na Cluain = Plain of the Pasture) Heritage group and recent
ongoing correspondence with Ed Eccles, a recently discovered distant cousin in New
Jersey USA, made me delve further into the history and origins of what became
known as the Land Wars, the subsequent struggle for national independence from
British imperial rule, and to ascertain the fortunes of my family and my home
district of Carrickmacross during this turbulent period.
|Father Gilsenan, Michael Smith (my brother) and Ethan (nephew)|
1830s Ireland: Strife, Poverty and
So who was Peter Agnew and why was he
working away from home at the tender young age of twelve? Why were there so many
violent evictions of tenants in 19th century Ireland? Who were the
landlords and how did a tiny elite of people who gave their allegiances to
another country come to own the lands of Ireland? Why was Ireland at that time
the poorest country in Europe?
An Gorta Mór - The Great Hunger
Two years after Peter’s killing by the
British military, Ireland experienced a famine that led to the deaths of
over one million and possibly up to one and half million people as well as the emigration of another million, mainly to
the North American continent.
But it is worth noting that incidents of mass starvation had occurred in many districts across Ireland during the late eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth century. The Gaelic language
version of the Great Famine – An Gorta Mór (The Big Hunger) sums up best the
reality of the time, as the period 1845-50 witnessed the most extensive period of starvation in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Furthermore, it was characterised by hunger amongst the general population rather
than a failure of a food harvest as wheat and other tillage crops as well as
livestock were still being exported from Ireland to Britain and its colonies by
a well-fed aristocracy and their agents who continued
|part of the commemorative Famine sculpture at Custom House Quay Dublin |
their luxurious dance balls and hunts whilst the Irish peasantry starved to
. In the worst year of the Famine, known as Black ’47
, it is estimated
that 4,000 ships laden with food exports left Irish shores for Britain.
To get answers to many of the questions
mentioned above, we need to view the economic, social and political life of
nineteenth century Ireland as the legacy and outcome of the proceeding centuries.
Conquest, Colonisation and Slavery
By the 1840s, Ireland was not only the
poorest country in Europe, it was also the most densely populated. The
country had been occupied and colonised by invaders from the neighbouring
island of Britain since the 12th century. But beginning in the reign
of the Tudor royal dynasty during the 16th century, the native
Celtic peoples of England’s oldest colony increasingly suffered from what we
now call ‘ethic cleansing’ as the indigenous populations were forcibly removed
from their ancestral lands, massacred or sent in large numbers as slaves, indentured
servants and prisoners to English colonies in the Caribbean, North America and later
The policy of Queen Elizabeth's goverrnment can be deduced from the following comment of Arthur Chichester, the English Viceroy in Ireland in 1601 when he stated:
"I have often said, and written, it is Famine which must consume [the
Irish]; our swords and other endeavours work not that speedy effect
which is expected for their overthrow."
Territorial expansion, enslavement and mass butchery of native populations and colonisation extenuated by racial and religious differences was a characteristic of not just England but many other European and Asian imperial powers during this period of history.
|Cromwellian troops breaching the walls of an Irish town |
Irish Slaves in the Americas
Between 1652-1656, after the victory of Oliver Cromwell and his English
Puritan army over the Irish rebels, research by historian Sean O'Callaghan for his book "To Hell or Barbados" shows over 50,000 Irish mainly women and children were
sent as slaves to work in the sugar plantations and brothels of Barbados and other islands in the British West Indies. John Martin of the Montreal-based Center for Research and Globalization in his recent study entitled The Irish Slave Trade, The Forgotten White Slaves, estimates that during
the 1650s "over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14
were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies,
Virginia and New England. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2,000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica
and sold as slaves to English settlers."
But as Martin points out, the trafficking of the Irish began even before Cromwell "...when James I
sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation
of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to
English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were
the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70 percent
of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves...Ireland
quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English
merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were
Interestingly, the English settlers began to
breed Irish females with African men to produce “mulatto” slaves which would get a better price at the markets. This practice of interbreeding
Irish women with black slaves was so
widespread that, in 1681, legislation was passed “forbidding the
practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the
purpose of producing slaves for sale.” Hence the practice was stopped only
because it interfered with the profits of the large slave transport
Cromwellian Desolation of Ireland
The effects on the native Irish population was devastating. During the Cromwellian war period alone, the
deliberate burning of crops, the forced mass evictions and removal of populations
to the badlands in the West of Ireland, the resultant famine, the slaughter of
civilians and the trafficking of the Irish to the British colonies in the Americas saw the
elimination of an estimated 600,000 out of a total Irish population of
In the following century, during the
period 1700 and 1776, it is estimated that, of the approximately 400,000 who
arrived in the British North American colonies from the British Isles, approximately
50% were un-free men and women. The British historian Dan Cruickshank stated that Negro slaves often referred at the time to the Irish as having less status than the Afro-American.
It was a policy of extermination.
Irishwoman Ann Glover-last woman to be hung as
a witch in Boston
One of the most well known of these Irish
slaves and servants in the Americas was Goody Ann Glover, the last woman to be
hanged as a witch in Boston. She and her husband had been sent as slaves in the 1650s
to Barbados. The husband was put
to death on the island as a result of his refusal to renounce his Catholic
religion. By the early 1680s, Goody (Goodwife) Ann and her daughter were in Boston working as
housekeepers in the Goodwin family. She was though accused of witchcraft after four of
the Goodwin children fell ill. Her Puritan accusers included Reverend Cotton
Mather who later played a key role in the Salem Witch Trials. During her trial,
Ann defiantly refused to speak in English and communicated only in Irish, her
Mather stated that, "the court could
have no answers from her, but in the Irish, which was her native language.” and
called her "a scandalous old Irishwoman, very poor, a Roman Catholic and
obstinate in idolatry."
In 1988, the
Boston City Council declared November 16th “Goody Glover Day” in recognition of
the injustice done to an innocent woman by bigoted religious zealots.
Destruction of the Irish Forests
Much of the conquered lands taken from the
native Irish were handed over by the British crown to loyal Protestant settlers
that arrived from England and Scotland. The great forests that covered huge
swathes of the Irish countryside, forming an integral part of the Celtic psyche
and way of life, were extensively cut down in the 17th and 18th
centuries by get-rich quick merchants and gangsters who flooded into the
country. The timber extracted was used to build ships for the British navy, for
stave pipe production and as fuel for the iron smelting industry. Ireland
became after Iceland and Malta the least forested country in Europe. The native wild fauna that inhabited these forests such as the wolf (Irish = mac tíre = son
of the land), the capercaillie (Irish = capall coille = horse of the wood) bird, the red squirrel (re-introduced in the 1800s), the boar (Irish = torc) and the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Irish = snagan daraich = little creeping one of the Oak tree) were hunted to extinction or died out as a result of the disappearance of their woodland habitats.
The forests never regenerated as herds of sheep
brought in by the settlers ate the tree saplings.
Celtic Spiritual Affinity with Nature
Primogeniture and the privatisation of the
Irish countryside carried out by the English invader were alien concepts to the
Gael. In Celtic society, land was not owned by individuals or families but was
held in trust by the clan or tribe. Each mountain, hill, bog, tree, rock,
spring, river and lake had a spiritual essence which those that lived there recognised. Places of worship for the pagan Celts were groves of oak trees
rather than huge man-made edifices. The early Irish Christian monks, hermits
and saints followed this tradition of respect for the sacredness of Nature. In
Celtic Brehon law if a tree was cut down, an honour price had to be paid by the offender.
Penal Laws: Apartheid Ireland
Under the Penal Laws (Irish = Na Péindlíthe) that were enacted in
the early 1690s after the victory of King William of Orange over the Irish
forces loyal to James II the English Catholic Stuart King, and which remained in
force until the last legal remnants were abolished in 1829, Catholics were not
allowed to vote, purchase land, openly practice their religion, marry Protestants, hold political elective office, receive an
education or to enter professions such as law or commerce. These apartheid laws also applied initially to Protestant dissenters such as Presbyterians.
The result was that by 1870, 97% of the
land of Ireland was divided into huge estates owned by a tiny largely Protestant
(of the Anglican communion) imperial aristocracy with 33.7% in the hands of 302
individuals and approximately 50% owned by 705 families. The population then
was 6.5 millions.
Catholic and Presbyterian rural population were also forced to make payments, equivalent to one
tenth of the income from their agricultural produce, to the minority
Anglican Church (Church of Ireland). These compulsory tithes only ended in
Popular uprisings against oppressive colonial rule occurred from the 17th century through to the early 19th century. Rebels known as Rapparees continued to undertake hit and run attacks against the new settlers and the military operating on their former lands from their hideouts in the bogs and mountains across Ireland. These Rapparees, similiar to the legendary Anglo-Saxon Robin Hood attacks on the Norman lords of Nottingham, became folk heroes to the downtrodden masses. When large scale revolts took place, they were put down with great slaughter. The most significant was the Rebellion of 1798 by republican Protestants and Catholics inspired by the French republican ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity which was defeated by British forces led by two commanders, Lord Cornwallis and General George Lake, who had been involved in the surrender at Yorktown in 1781 to a united American and French army under George Washington during the American War of Independence.
|1798 Irish Rebel Pikeman|
'Boolavouge' - Song of the 1798 Rebellion
Click on the image below to hear a version of this popular rebel song by Brian Roebuck
Native Irish: Strangers in their Own Country
The native Irish became strangers in their
own land forced to rent small holdings from their colonial masters at
exorbitant prices which could be increased at any time. The relationship
between landlord and tenant was one of conqueror and conquered.
For centuries, the English justified their conquest and colonisation by portraying the Irish as unworthy occupants of the island, people who were ogres and ignorant wild savages compared to the civilized God-fearing Christian British.
Tim Pat Coogan quotes in his authoritative book on the Irish Famine ('The Famine Plot') a speech made in 1836 by Benjamin Disraeli, the future British Prime Minister, which perfectly summaries the racial antipathy towards the native Irish, "The Irish hate our order, our civilizations, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character...Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood."
Well before the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species (1859) that was subsequently used by some European imperialists as a scientific basis for their views on racial superiority and supremacy, the Irish were already portrayed as monkeys and apes as shown in this 1848 cartoon from the popular Punch magazine.
The Cambridge historian Charles Kingsley, who accompanied Queen Victoria on her visit to Ireland in 1860 wrote: "I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that 100 miles of
horrible country. I don't believe they are our fault... But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would
not feel it so much."
Absentee Landowning Elite: Living the ‘Good Life’ in
The majority of the ruling Anglo-Irish
and English landowning elite in Ireland, known as the Ascendancy class, were absentees enjoying the high life in their country estates
in England, in their palatial mansions in London or on grand tours on the European mainland, a lavish lifestyle made possible
by the rents extracted from the poor downtrodden Irish peasantry.
|Moyode House, Craughwell, county Galway|
Many of these aristocrats became, after the Act of Union was passed in 1800, members
of the Houses of Parliament (& cabinet) at Westminster elected by a corrupt system of
patronage and wealth. Thus the landed gentry had political as well as economic
and social control of Ireland.
They cared little about the conditions of the peasantry, having no
paternal loyalty to tenants or to a locality that they rarely visited. Their
primary interest was to extract maximum financial returns from their Irish
This they achieved by employing Irish
agents who had no scruples in using gangs of thugs to evict tenants when rents
were not paid or to clear people off lands to make way for the conversion to
pasture for the less troublesome raising of cattle. Many of the brutal bailiffs and hired hands involved in the
evictions were themselves Irish Catholics.
Tenants: People without Rights
Except in some parts of Ulster, the tenants had no fixture of residency.
Failure to pay meant immediate eviction from their miserable little holdings
with no entitlement under law to compensation or appeal. "Rack Renting" (the raising of
rents) was a common occurrence and was practised in order to get rid of unwanted
tenants for non-payment. There
were no legal appeals allowed and no mercy shown. No incentive existed for
tenants to improve the lands that they lived on. In fact the opposite was the
case; a higher commercial return from their rented lands due to a bumper crop
growth or extra livestock would mean an increase in rents.
Likewise, the rent would be higher if the
tenant had windows on his dwelling; if his door was over a certain height or if
he made any type of enhancements or enlargements. Thus any improvements by
tenants to their dwellings designed to make life easier for their families were
deliberately discouraged and penalised.
The majority of the population were rural laborers, many of whom worked for tenant farmers with larger holdings in return for the rent of a small
piece of land to grow food and to build a mud cabin for their family. Known as
cottiers, the only nutritious crop that could grow in the poor soils of their small
holdings was the potato. In
the 1830s, over half of the rural Irish lived in single room hovels made of mud
with no chimneys or light. These simple primitive buildings could be erected in
a matter of hours.
Potato: A Blessing and a Curse
The poor people’s main source of food was
the potato, a highly nutritious plant that could be grown in large quantities
on the poor tiny strips of land that was all the cottiers and small tenant
farmers possessed to grow their own food.
The potato's availability led to a surge in
population. But an over-reliance on one food crop would have tragic
consequences for the inhabitants later in the 19th century Ireland.
Carrickmacross and south Monaghan in the mid-19th
This was the situation in Ireland when my
ancestor Peter Agnew was a young boy, the son of a farm labourer with a small
unsustainable holding of eight acres. His destiny and that of the majority of the eight
million inhabitants of the island was it seemed to endure a lifetime of
poverty, servitude, disease, humiliation and injustice.
The Shirleys: Classic Absentee Landlords
The Agnews’ British absentee landlord on the other hand enjoyed a life of wealth, privilege and political power.
Evelyn Philip Shirley (1812-1882) was the largest
landowner in county Monaghan with an estate of 26,386 acres in the barony of
Farney. His neighbour, the Marquess
of Bath, owned 22,761 acres. The origins of the Bath and Shirley estates go
back to 1575 when the English Queen Elizabeth 1 granted lands in Monaghan to
Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex in recognition for his wars
against the ‘rebel’ Irish. In Celtic
society, these lands were not owned by one person or family, but instead were held in
shared ownership by the members of the local clans. As a conqueror, the earl did not recognise the rights of the
natives and intended to ‘plant’ his newly acquired lands with settlers brought
in from England
Evelyn Philip Shirley, as with his
predecessors, spent most of his time at the family’s English residency of
Ettington Park (below) at Stratford-on-Avon in the county of Warwickshire.
Shirley's fellow south Monaghan landlord, the Marquess of Bath, enjoyed an even more regal lifestyle at his manorial residency of Longleat in Wiltshire, England.
It was the rents that these absentee landlords extracted from their poverty stricken Irish tenantry that allowed them to build lavish English as well as Irish residencies and to enjoy opulent lifestyles. EP's father
Evelyn John Shirley commissioned in 1826 the construction of a magnificent
mansion at Lough Fea to serve as a home for his twice yearly
visits. Built in the manner of a college, it contained a Great Hall, chapel and
ornamental gardens. He also had built Shirley House, a fine town house
in Carrickmacross as a residency for his agent. Shirley probably owned a
mansion in London that he could stay in whilst attending parliament at
Westminster. Of course, all of these buildings had to be maintained and staffed
all year round.
|Longleat, home of the Marquess of Bath|
Though based primarily in England with usually a twice yearly visit to Ireland, Evelyn
Philip nevertheless was elected in 1841 as a Member of Parliament (MP) to
represent county Monaghan at the imperial parliament in Westminster. In these
elections, there was no secret ballot and only men of property could vote.
In the early 1830s, the electorate comprised 37,000 in an Ireland that had a population of over 7 millions. As
with his father Evelyn John (1788-1856) he alternated his time as a Monaghan
MP, with being an MP for Warwickshire South in England. Likewise, both father
and son served at different times as High Sheriffs of Monaghan and of Warwickshire.
The Shirleys were thus classic examples of how the economic, political and
judicial powers in colonial Ireland and to a lesser degree in mainland Britain up until the early 20th
century was concentrated in the hands of a small self-perpetuating landowning
Evelyn Philip had little interest in the
welfare of his Irish tenants. His primary objective was to gain the maximum financial
returns possible from his Monaghan lands. To ensure that this objective was
realised, the gentry hired men whose profession as agents has become a byword
for brutality and tyranny. None more so than Sandy Mitchell, Shirley’s agent
from 1829 until 1843.
The Hated Agent
Father Smollen, Catholic parish priest of Donaghmoyne ('Estate Agents in
Farney: Trench and Mitchell' by L. Mearáin in Clogher Record, vol x, 1979-1981)
Mitchell had the rents “…raised fully one-third and in some instances to more,
and the bogs (for the extraction of turf as fuel for domestic fires) which from
time immemorial were free to the tenants were now rented at from £4 to £8 per
acre', and doled out to the tenants in very small lots of from 25 to 40 perches
each, with an obligation of taking out at the office each season a ticket for
which they paid a certain tariff. If any poor tenant had the misfortune of displeasing
Sandy during the year, he was doomed to sit with his family during the long
winter nights at a fireless hearth. ... He [Mitchell] insisted on the
Authorised Version of the Bible, without note or comment, being read by
Catholic children in those schools, a system of instruction which neither the
[Roman Catholic] bishop nor clergy could tolerate. The consequence was that the
bishop insisted on the children being withdrawn from the schools, while the
agent used all manner of persecution against the parents for obeying their
Forced evictions became commonplace.
died whilst sitting on the men of property-only Monaghan Grand Jury in the March of
1843. When news of his death reached south Monaghan, “bonfires were lit on
every hill-top, expressive of the rejoicement of all Farney at having got rid of
so unscrupulous a monster”.
tenants were hopeful that his replacement as agent, William Steuart Trench, would
be fairer in his dealings on land and bog rents. Sadly this was not to be.
After consulting with the newly arrived Trench
for the first time at the agent’s office in Carrickmacross on Friday March 31st,
Shirley come out onto the street to be confronted by a large group of angry tenants demanding a reduction in rents due to a significant drop
in the prices received for farm produce (grain and cattle) that was used by
tenants to pay their rents. Taken by surprise, he hastily consented to a meeting on Monday (April
3rd) when he promised that he would personally listen to the complaints of the aggrieved peasantry. However
after the crowd dispersed, he immediately changed his mind, confirmed to Trench that no rent reduction would take place and
put up placards cancelling the meeting with the tenantry. But it was too late. Word had already spread like
wildlife that a rent reduction would be announced. It was estimated by Trench that
at least ten thousand people turned up including many tenants from the Bath
estate. However Shirley, frightened by the size of the crowd, decided to hide inside
his town house.
Shirley's Agent's Rent Office, Carrickmacross
He instructed Trench
to inform the tenants that would there be no relief and that they could give up their land if they so wished. According to some sources Trench stated that“he would
collect the rents at the point of the bayonet if necessary.” The angry tenants grabbed the agent,
roughed him up and forcibly carried him off to the Lough Fea mansion where they
expected Shirley was residing. With no landlord coming out to talk to them at
the country demesne, only the intervention it seems of a Catholic priest Father
Keelaghan saved Trench from being seriously hurt and secured his release.
|Shirley Lane facing towards the Agent's office. 10,000 tenants turned up there on April 3, 1843|
In his biographical book ‘Realities of
Irish Life’ which gives a fascinating account of his life as a landlord and
landlord agent in Ireland during the period 1843-1868, Trench does not acknowledge
Keelagan’s assistance but credits his salvation to his own personal courage and
that of some brave loyal tenants. But in fact only a member of the Catholic clergy at that time could have persuaded such a large angry poverty-stricken and starving mass of people to peacefully release an agent of a landlord that had shown them so little compassion and had threatened them with violence.
Privitisation of Bogs
Shirley continued though to demand the immediate
payment of the exorbitant land rents, refused to abolish the charge on
extracting turf from the bogs or on lime (used as a fertiliser). Both of these
local natural resources had since time immemorial being free commodities to the
native population. The bogs were commonage, the turf being the fuel that feed
the fires of the Irish homesteads in the cold winters. But the landlord privatized the bogs and
imprisoned those who ‘trespassed’.
|Turf in Monivea Bog, Galway. July 2013|
Military Force against Unarmed Tenants
Troops were stationed in Carrickmacross to
quell any disturbances and an array of infamous series of law enforcers and thugs were organised
by Trench to seize tenants’ livestock and crops; to evict them from their
holdings; to have them arrested and to destroy their homes. The infamous
Shirley’s Crow Bar Brigade broke down the roofs and oftentimes the walls of the evicted tenants so that
they could not be re-occupied at some later stage. With no home and no source
of income, many of these destitute families, estimated at three million people across
Ireland in the early 1840s, starved or were forced to apply for residency in
the dreaded Workhouses, one hundred and thirty of which were built in Ireland from 1841 to 1843.
The unarmed populace fought back as best
On April 25th 1843, Daniel
O'Connell (above), the Irish political
leader and campaigner for Catholic Emancipation and the Repeal of the Union (to
Britain), came to Carrickmacross to support the tenants' campaign. Over 20,000 people turned up to welcome the man known as the Liberator and the first Catholic member of the parliament of Westminster of the modern era.
The peasantry refused en-masse to pay rents
until reductions were given and their other grievances were met.
Guerrilla Tactics: The Molly Maguires
Groups of young male tenants with blackened
faces and dressed up in female clothing issued warning letters to the agents of
Lord Shirley threatening violence should they attempt to evict tenants for
non-payment of rents. If they failed to heed these threats, many a bailiff and
their hired hands across Ireland were ambushed as they went about their cruel
duties. Affectionately known as Molly (a popular Irish female name) Maguires,
these 'direct action' defenders of the poor have become revered in song and verse
as courageous folk heroes.
Shirley sent his bailiffs out with large
groups of armed police to seize the cattle of recalcitrant tenants and remove
them to the pound in Carrickmacross. In an ironic twist of fate the site on
which this holding yard once stood and that today is still known as The Pound, is
the property of cousins of mine, direct descendants of the Peter Agnew that was
shot in 1843.
However the efforts of these armed
expeditions into the countryside largely proved futile. According to Trench, the people would watch
the progress of this slow moving military force from the top of the numerous
hills that dot the landscape of south Monaghan and would give ample warning to those in the area
of the lowlands under threat so they could move and hide their livestock. The column of
police and bailiffs would be shouted and jeered at all along their journey by
the watching crowds on the hills.
To further counter the guerrilla tactics of
the peasantry Shirley, as well as bringing in additional military
reinforcements, successfully applied to the law courts in Dublin for new eviction
bills which would not have to be served personally on the tenant but could instead
be posted in certain public venues such as places of worship with a list of the
names of the tenants to be ejected.
On June 5th armed with these new
bills, bailiffs and troops left Carrickmacross to nail the eviction notices on
the doors of Catholic churches in the surrounding countryside.
Mass Unarmed Mobilisation Against Tyranny
However the local population mobilised en
masse to protect their families, friends and neighbours.
Huge crowds of all ages and of both sexes
stood together in front of the chapels at Corduff (Irish= An Chorr Dubh = the
rounded black hollow or hill), Corgreegagh (Irish = An Chorrghráig = the
cattle enclosure at the rounded hollow or hill) and at Rockchapel
to block entry to the armed men on horseback and in carriages. After securing
additional men from the town of Kingscourt, the armed force led by a Captain
Barry proceeded to the church of Peter and Paul at Magheracloone. There they were met by an even
bigger crowd. With fixed bayonets, the military moved towards the church. When
stones were thrown, a volley of shots were fired low into the crowd, wounding some
of the protestors and killing outright Peter Agnew. When the unarmed country folk
who initially dispersed re-grouped in front of the church and rushed forward Captain Barry, fearing that his unit
would be overwhelmed and annihilated, ordered a hasty retreat to the safety of
Though the victim was only a young lad of
twelve years of age, he was already working as a farmhand away from home in
Corrybracken (Irish = Corr Bhreacáin = Rounded Hollow of
the Tartan) trying to earn money for his poverty
According to the documents sent to me by
the excellent Carrickmacross Workhouse restoration committee, that same evening Peter’s body was
removed from Magheracloone church “…via the chapel road, past the farm of his
employer (Smith) on the left, as it made its way up Corrybracken Hill, past the
fort, across the coal-pit road, up the Lurgans (Irish = An Lorgain – long low
ridge) Hill to Mullanarry (Irish = mullach = hilltop), left across the Shercock Road to the
Aghalile (Irish = Áth Ó Líolaigh = Ford of Ó Líolaigh ) Road,
to the family home in the townland of Lisnaguiveragh (Irish = Lios na gCuibhreach = Fort of the Bond)."
|View from Lurgans' Hill towards Magheracloone|
It is surreal that the cortege passed the
site of my parental home on Lurgan’s Hill, a house that we only moved into three years ago.
|Abandoned house, Mullinary|
In memory of this sombre occasion of 1843,
I myself travelled the same journey earlier this month.
|Old Farm buildings, Aghalile|
An inquest jury of twelve men examined the
body in Lisnaguiveragh. "The funeral took place immediately after the
inspection of the body, and was one of the largest (if not the largest) ever
seen in this part of the country, notwithstanding the tempestuous state of the
|A botharín (road) in Lisnaguiveragh today|
Peter was buried in an unmarked grave
beside the ancient ruins of Magheross church, a burial ground at the time for
both Protestants and Catholics.
On June 8th the coroner’s
inquest jury listened to first-hand accounts from witnesses or a reading of
The Dublin Evening Post reporter present at
the inquest wrote that the first witness Francis Marron stated "…the gentleman who was with Captain
Barry had a paper in this hand: he appeared to be reading, but witness did not
hear him; the police began to stick the people with their bayonets, and the
horse policeman with his sword; they had their bayonets fixed from the time
they came into his sight; the moment they began to attack the people, the
crowds took to the fields as fast as they could; he saw Captain Barry take out
a pistol from his breast and fire after the crowd; they were running in the
direction of the chapel when they fired…”
The final verdict by the jury in the
coroner’s court included the following, "it has
not been sufficiently proved to us, that at the time of firing, the party of
constabulary were in imminent risk of their lives and that we have no proof who
fired the identical shot which caused his death”.
Humiliation and Starvation of Patrick
Agnew and family
The death of his son brought only more
distress to Patrick Agnew and his family. Already poverty stricken, he had to
borrow money to supplement whatever savings he had in order to pay for the cost of Peter’s
funeral. The subsequent loss of
his farm animals (pigs) to disease and, unable to plant a crop, meant that he had no
means to pay the rent to Shirley.
With his family overcome with illness and hunger, a series of letters
written (probably by a sympathetic lawyer) to the landlord’s agent
appealing for clemency fell on deaf ears.
Below is one of these letters:
To William Steuart
Trench Esq. (Shirley Estate Land Agent)
The Petition of Patrick Agnew of
That your petitioner most Respectfully begs leave to advert to a
Petition which he handed to your Honour in February last in which he stated
part of the many grievances which have rendered him a monument of misery since.
He stated also that he was the father of the unfortunate Peter Agnew who was
shot by the police at Magheracloone on the 5th of June last, whose death has
filled the measure of his calamities, accompanied by Poverty, nakedness and all
species of destitution.
Besides the above, a malignant distemper carried off his pigs and a
lingering painful illnefs seized all his family, who had not a pound of woolen
day or night covering, a drop of milk or the smallest comfort in human life,
till the whole family are so overwhelmed with Distrefs and poverty that they
should rather prefer death than life -------Together with all his misery he is
in arrears of Rent, without hopes of being able to retrieve as he could not
Crop his ground this season. lie therefore submits all his Distrefs to your
humanity, and throws himself entirely on your clemency, beseeching you for love
of God to visit his place and ascertain the above facts, and afterwards dispose
of himself, his family and place as your own Humanity shall dictate.
And he will ever pray
May, 23rd. 1844
The words are too legalistic, too formal and
servile to be written by a poor tenant farmer. Patrick probably could not read
or write in English and as with most of the population used Irish as his everyday language. But I am sure
that these supplicant words broke the heart and spirit of Patrick as he had them
read out to him by the lawyer friend. After all, he was writing a letter
begging for mercy and help from the man ultimately responsible for the death of
his son. But he felt that he had no choice if he was to save the rest of his
According to local folklore, William Trench
did not forget or ever forgive those who participated in the land campaigns
against landlords. For years afterwards, those who had campaigned for
reductions in rents were denied any clemency and evicted when the opportunity
Today, his grave lies broken at St. Patrick's Church in Donaghmoyne a few miles from Carrickmacross, a sure sign of the hostility still felt towards him by the inhabitants of south Monaghan.
Between 1845 and 1849, the Agnew families living
in Lisnaguiveragagh disappeared. In the years of the Great Famine, many of them probably died from starvation and disease. Evictions dramatically increased during
the Famine years as landlords mercilessly cleared the lands of the poor starving tenants unable to pay rents. Patrick Agnew and his family were thrown onto the roadside in
|The Broken Celtic Cross at the grave of William Steuart Trench, Donaghmoyne|
With nowhere else to go it seems probable
that Patrick and those of his children that were still alive ended up in the
dreaded Workhouse in Carrickmacross.
Written records on the inmates of the Irish
workhouses during this period are very sketchy as these ‘jails’ were
overwhelmed with a deluge of starving people seeking salvation from certain
death. Built in 1843 to accommodate 500, by 1851 approximately 2,000 were
crammed inside the Carrick workhouse. To gain admittance, applicants had to
forfeit whatever lands they owned. In return, they were treated like prisoners
in a 20th century concentration camp. Families were separated, with
men, women, boys and girls forced to live in separate Spartan dormitories. The food was basic and unvaried, the work hard, the buildings cold and the regime harsh. The
Irish referred to the workhouse as ‘Teach na mBocht’ (Poor House).
Between the years 1844 and 1851, the death
rate in the overcrowded 162 workhouses was extremely high. 285,765 people died,
of whom 138,576 were of children under the age of 15 (source: Northern Standard, July
|Carrickmacross Workhouse today|
On July 14th 2013, I attended a religious blessing by the local Catholic parish priest of a field behind the Carrickmacross Workhouse that was used
as a mass burial site during the Famine era. No grave stones or memorial marked this site, the
individuals buried there remain unknown. But there is no doubt that the remains of the
Agnews and others of my ancestors lie in his hallowed ground.
The site was largely forgotten about until
uncovered recently by the herculean efforts of the volunteer workhouse restoration
Earl Grey, British Secretary of State for the
colonies, introduced the Pauper Immigration Scheme that involved the transportation of female orphans living in Irish workhouses to British overseas colonies where there was an imbalances of the sexes. According to the Sydney Living Museum, "Grey's vision was twofold: youthful lives spared of misery and the ex-convict colonies enriched with hardy, humble, fertile females.”
Between October 1948 and August 1850, over 4,000 teenagers from the workhouses were sent to Sydney in New South Wales to become servants and wives to the settlers. Research by the Carrickmacross Workhouse committee research has uncovered the names of 19 of the 38 orphan girls who were shipped to Australia during this period. Some of these young females may have been my relations.
There was a belief common amongst the
ruling Victorian aristocratic and middle classes that whatever calamities fell
on the native Irish was a punishment from God for their wickedness, even though it was the cruelty, wastefulness, greed and lack of investment of the imperial landlord elite that was responsible. With a regime that practised
laissez faire (leave alone) economics and unhindered free trade, state intervention was limited.
Charles Trevelyan, head of the colonial administration for famine relief in Ireland and later knighted by Queen Victoria for his services during this period, summarised best the religious, racial and economic philisophy of the British Empire towards the Irish when he said,
"The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson,
that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which
we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the
moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the
The monarchy's chief economist, Nassau Senior went even further:
''[existing policies] will not kill more than one million Irish in 1848
and that will scarcely be enough to do much good.''
The end result of this doctrinal British policy was that one million and possibly up to one and half million (population statistics were patchy) people may have
died between 1845 to 1850.
Why no mass Insurrection during Famine?
Yet amazingly no mass countrywide insurrection occurred during these
terrible years. In spite of the arrival of an additional 20,000 troops from Britain, it still remains somewhat of a mystery why none occurred. It may have been partly due to the control exerted by a very conservative
Catholic Church hierarchy over the native population. Just as with the colonial administration, many of the bishops feared a populist armed revolt that could have republican, nationalist, democratic and revolutionary overtones similar to what was happening in contemporary Italy where in 1848 Pope Pius IX fled Rome in advance of the arrival of Giuseppe Garibaldi's (photo) nationalist army.
Fields of Athenry: Song of the Irish Famine
Click on the image (left) to hear one of the most popular songs on the theme of the rebellion and the Great Famine sung by Paddy Reilly and a member of the internationally renowned band The Dubliners.
Fields of Athenry was written by Pete St. John and is sung everywhere across the world where Irish gather. It has become an anthem of Glasgow Celtic soccer club (founded by Irish working in 19th century Glasgow) and of Liverpool Football Club (with different words).
Eliza Eccles- The Miller's Daughter
But at least one of the Agnews survived
this terrible period in Irish history.
Thomas, son of Patrick and a younger
brother of Peter, married an Eliza Eccles in 1876 or 1877. They lived in the
townland of Beagh (Irish = An Bheitheach = Birch Tree) which adjoins the Agnews' former townland of Lisnaguiveragagh
and in which the Agnews had a tiny plot of land in the 1827 census of the
Shirley estate. Thomas was a farm
labourer. Eliza came from a family of milliners, possibly of the Protestant faith. that lived at the nearby
Creevy Lake (Irish = Lough An Chraobhaigh = The Lake of Craobhach).
Mill owners and operators would of course
be higher up the social scale than hired farmhands. The Eccles came originally to Ireland as colonists from Scotland or northern England colonists during the Plantation of Ulster of the 17th century. The 'Creevy Lake' Eccles possibly moved into the district during the
1820s from county Armagh or north Monaghan at the behest of the Shirleys to
establish or manage a water-based mill for the grinding of locally produced corn to make
flour for bread.
In spite of the presence of religious strife over many centuries, there was always intermarriage between the different Christian faiths in Ireland at grassroots level. Some Presbyterian rural communities in Ulster spoke Irish as their native tongue and even continued to do so when they emigrated to British Canada. Furthermore, many of the great struggles for civil rights, democracy and independence from England were led by enlightened Protestants such as Wolfe Tone, Napper Tandy, Edward Fitzgerald and Charles Stuart Parnell.
According to family lore, Eliza fell in
love with a destitute Thomas. They had six children.
However Eliza and Thomas were also to suffer hardship,
eviction and even imprisonment as the land wars gathered momentum in the
But that is another chapter in this story of my family.
The Agnews are an ancient Gaelic family
originally known during the Medieval
period as O'Gnimh, hereditary poets or bards of the O’Neills of
|15th Century Ulster|
The name was later anglicised to Agnew.
It is accepted by local historians and family tradition that our branch of the Agnews moved from the neighbouring
county of Armagh sometime in the early part of the 19th century to
settle in the townland of Lisnaguiveragagh in county Monaghan. They may have wandered south looking for work opportunities as farm labourers on the
huge landed estates, part of the great mass of landless rural poor.
Carrickmacross: A Plantation Town characterised
by the Symbols of Colonial Control and Repression
|Site of Essex Castle, later the office & residencey of Lord Bath's agent. From 1885, it functioned as St. Louis Convent school|
The name Carrickmacross is a misspelling of
the Irish wording ‘Carraig Mhachaire Rois’ meaning the
rock on the wooden plain.
One can clearly see today that the centre
of the modern town is located on a great rocky upland that is surrounded by a plain
of lakes, low lying fields and small hills known as Drumlins (little hills in
Irish) now sadly stripped of the ancient woods referred to in the name.
|St. Finbarr's Church of Ireland with St. Louis convent in the background|
rock outcrop is most obvious at the site of St. Finbarr’s Church and St. Louis
Convent (formerly Essex Castle), located at the southern end of the main
street (see photo above).
However one can still visualise what the
landscape must have looked like in Gaelic times by looking out from the Lurgan's hill onto the tree-covered drumlins of the Shirley demesne (photo below).
|Overlooking wooded drumlin of Shirley demesne 2013|
A small Gaelic settlement clan existed in
the locality during the medieval period at a fort of the McMahon clan on Lurgan's hill(where my family live). But it was not until after the building of a castle in
1630 by the third Earl of Essex on
what is now the Louis Convent that a town started to form.
But it was only with the active involvement
of the Bath and Shirley families, inheritors of the Essex estate under English law and the
largest landowners in south Monaghan, that from the middle of the eighteenth century the town took on the fine shape and street structure that we still have today. The main street was the dividing line between the properties of the two landed estates.
Rural Victorian Mercantile Opulence
The two families worked together to develop Carrickmacross into the main market and town of southern Monaghan.
Merchants and artisans
were settled in the town, many brought in from England and Wales.
|Market Square (built 1861), Carrickmacross|
dwelling cottages, multi-floor commercial buildings with street level shops,
schools and religious place of worships were constructed to cater for their
social, commercial and spiritual needs.
|Gothic style 'Weymouth Cottages' built in 1871 for workers of the Bath landed estate.|
These magnificent buildings still define
the modern townscape of Carrickmacross.
|Markey's Bar wih 19th century horse-drawn carriage yard entrance on right|
|Main Street, Carrickmacross|
Shirley Arms Hotel
This impressive hotel was built in 1831 to serve as a hostelry for coaches traveling on the Dublin to Derry route. Coaches were bought to a large yard at the back of the hotel where there was stabling and fodder for the horses as well as a blacksmithy. The heraldic Coat-of-Arms of the Shirley Family is located over the front door.
Grammar School (site)
Behind the horse and carriage entrance (on Main Street) was the site of the former Viscount Weymouth Grammer School. This Church of Ireland (Anglican) secondary school was opened in 1711 in the former residency of the Bishop of Clogher. Rebuilt by the Marquess of Bath in the 1830s, it closed in 1955.
The school buildings were later demolished and the grounds were converted into a carpark.
Church of Ireland (Anglican) Primary School
This fine sandstone building built in 1838 was the former Protestant primary school. Located directly across the road from the St. Louis Convent (Essex Castle) it became a Gaelscoil (Irish speaking) national school in the 1990s. Today it serves as a commercial arts and crafts centre.
Church of Ireland (Anglican) Rector's House
Built as a Methodist chapel circa 1870. By 1925, the Methodist community was so small that it became instead a Presbyterian place of worship.
St. Finbarr's Church of Ireland
St. Finbarr's (Anglican) Church of Ireland dominates the southern end of the town. Located on an elevated site (the rock that gives Carrick (Carraig) its name) it was built between 1775-1779 when the population of the town was largely Anglican.
18th Century Catholic place of worship, Lurgan's hill
When Protestantism became the state religion of England in the middle of the 16th century, the Catholic church property in Ireland was put into the ownership of the new Anglican church including the local (original) church of St. Finbarr's in Magheross.
For most of the next two centuries, Catholics would clandestinely hold their religious services in fields, caves and private houses. With the
partial ending of the Penal Laws from the mid 18th century onwards, Catholics were gradually allowed to practice their religion openly by the authorities. In 1775, the 3rd Viscount Weymouth (from 1789 known as the 1st Marquess of Bath) granted permission for the construction of a small place of worship on the Lurgan Hill. It was probably a thatched building. Little remains of it today.
It is located across the road from my parents' house.
|Ruins of Catholic Mass House, Lurgans|
St. Patrick's Church of Ireland (Anglican), Donoghmoyne
The church grounds contains the grave of William Stueart Trench. Though the building is now abandoned, it is thankfully undergoing renovation.
Abandoned Farm, Drumgeeny, near Lattylanigan, Carrickmacross
Edifices of Death and Repression
But it is the built structures that symbolise
control and oppression that clearly identify the town as a colonial settlement
surrounded by a restless indigenous population.
The presence of a Police Barracks, Jail, Courthouse, Gallows' Hill, Workhouse, Fever (disease) hospital, Toll house (payment to
Bath and Shirley on all livestock sold in the town) and The Pound (for the
holding of livestock taken from poor tenants by the Anglo-Irish landowners) are
a legacy of a harsh imperial rule. It was only with Catholic emancipation in
1829, that resulted from a mass mobilisation of the majority Irish Catholic
population by Daniel O’Connell, that the power of the tiny Anglo-Irish Ascendancy
elite began to be gradually eroded.
The Bridewell - Carrickmacross Jail
It is said that there is a tunnel connecting the Jail to the Courthouse built to counter the threat of rescue attempts by friends of the prisoners.
|Courthouse. Built 1884|
Behind and to the side of the courthouse is the appropriately named Gallow's Hill, where convicted prisoners were hanged until death.
|Gallows Hill, looking down on the Courthouse and Shirley Arms Hotel|
All those who wanted to sell produce in Carrickmacross had to pay a fee to the Shirley and Bath landlords, the co-holders of the market rights for the town.
These fees were paid to the officials working at the Toll House (above) located at Market Square. The fleur-de-lys heraldic coat of arms at each gable end of the building shows that the Baths and Shirleys trace their ancestry back to the 12th century Angevin (House of Anjou) kings of England.
The former barracks of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) is now a Garda Síochána (Irish = Peace Guards) station. During the British period, the police buildings were always referred to as a 'barracks' thereby alluding to a military presence rather than a civilian law and order enforcement agency.
Built in 1841, fever hospitals were established to care for the diseased in the locality and prevent the spread of infection in the homes of the
Fevers such as cholera, scarlet and particularly typhus were common in the mid nineteenth century.
Located at the junction of Shercock Road and Mullinary Cross, the pound was an enclosed yard and sheds built by the Shirleys in the early 1800s to hold cattle and other livestock seized by his bailiffs from tenants unable to pay rents. In the early 1900s, it was owned by a Patrick McGeough who set up a carpentry business. He married Margaret Agnew, grand niece of the murdered Peter Agnew. Margaret was daughter of Thomas and Eliza (neé Eecles) Agnew and my grand aunt.
'Barn' church, Magheracloone
of Peter and Paul where the Battle of Magheracloone took place was built in 1826. As the Penal Laws started to be relaxed from the late 18th century, Catholics were granted permission in some areas to build modest size places of worship. Known as 'Barn' churches, they were often thatched and were used also at harvest time for the threshing and the storing of corn.
The Magheracloone church is a good example of this type of building that was common until Catholic Emancipation was achieved in 1829 when more imposing architectural structures became the norm. Only a handful of these Barn chapels are still in existence today.
Sean O'Callaghan, "To Hell or Barbados"
John Martin, "The Irish Slave Trade, The Forgotten White Slaves"
|'The Pound' 1920s, Patrick and Margaret MeGeough family & my grandfather Peter Agnew(2nd left)|
Ades, “The Famine”
Tim Pat Coogan, "The Famine Plot"
L. Mearáin in Clogher Record, vol x, 1979-1981, "Estate Agents in
Farney: Trench and Mitchell"
William Steuart Trench, "Realities of
Maghercloone Heritage Group
Carrickmacross Workhouse Committee