It would probably be safe to say that for every week Ireland spent in the throes of rebellion in the course of our history we spent a year involved in serious and often violent land agitation.
The 1830s and 1880s in particular were times of agrarian uproar as the Tithe War, the Land War and the Plan of Campaign dominated the political and social agendas. From the Land War came the word and the practice of ‘boycotting’ – a peaceful but effective form of isolation of despised and uncooperative landlords. But sometimes the tactics employed on both sides were less than peaceful and distinctly unpalatable. The term ‘Ribbonism’ was used to describe the activities of the members of illegal secret societies who took direct action against those opposed to the interests of the tenants. The term Royal Irish Constabulary was used to describe the response of the authorities.
One of the myths of the periods of agrarian violence that frequently bedevilled rural Ireland was that members of Ribbon societies spent their evenings running around with blackened faces killing landlords. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not that many Ribbonmen would have objected to doing violence to their friendly neighbourhood aristocrats it was just that they rarely got close enough to take a pot shot at them. More at risk were the agents of the landlords, bailiffs who did their bidding, fellow tenants who did something inadvisable, like taking on land vacated by someone who had been evicted, aka ‘land grabbers’. or, more often than not, completely innocent livestock.
One significant exception, however, was an extremely modest landlord based in Clonbur in Co. Galway, Lord Mountmorres. He was ‘modest’ in the context of the size of his holdings. He was one of the smallest landlords in the country with only 11 tenants producing an annual income of around £300. The country’s bigger landlords – there were about 10,000 landed families altogether – would have boasted 20,000 or more acres and incomes of more than £10,000 a year. Unlike some of his peers Mountmorres was not known for evicting his tenants, led a relatively frugal lifestyle in the unpretentious Ebor House and was said to be quite popular in the part of Galway where he lived. So why was he shot dead a few miles from his home in September 1880 when another Galway landlord, the loathsome and avaricious Lord Clanricarde, notorious for evicting tenants, avoided a similar fate.
Two reasons come to mind. Firstly Clanricarde didn’t regularly take to the roads of Galway in a horse and trap – he spent his life in London and paid others to do his dirty work. Secondly, when you scratch the surface of the ‘benign landlord’ narrative that surrounds Mountmorres you find someone who was not nearly as popular as he was cracked up to be.
Mountmorres was shot at around 8.00 on the evening of 25 September driving alone between Clonbur and Ebor House. When his horse and carriage made it home without their driver the alarm was raised. His body was quickly found. He had been shot six times, some of the shots were at close range, and he had obviously died quickly at the scene. A local family, the Flanagan’s refused to allow the corpse to be taken into their house before it was finally removed, saying that ‘if they admitted it nothing belonging to [them] would be alive this day twelve months.’
Despite a £1000 reward being offered for information no one came forward. One of Mountmorres’s tenants, Patrick Sweeney, who had been served with an eviction notice, was suspected but no one was ever convicted, or even tried for the murder.
Later Michael Davitt would claim that Mountmorres had been killed because he ‘eked out his wretched income as a landlord by doing spy’s work for the Castle’. When Lady Mountmorres testified at a tribunal investigating agrarian crime in the late 1880s she claimed that the atmosphere changed in the locality after Sweeney was issued with his eviction order – ‘The men ceased to touch their hats, and they were disrespectful in their manner.’ – she later fainted under cross examination.
It emerged that Mountmorres had little time for the activities of the newly formed Land League, had sought police protection and demanded that the army be brought into the area to suppress the activities of the League. None of this was calculated to increase his popularity.
But, the truth is that we will never know who killed Viscount Mountmorres, and precisely why he was murdered 135 years ago, on this day.