This is a work-in-progress blog serial about aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page. #IUCRevisited
“We are here on the eve of battle! An eviction is to be made to-morrow … ”
–William Henry Hurlbert
Near the end of February 1888, Hurlbert witnessed an eviction on the Winn (Wynn) estate in Glenbehy (Glenbeigh), County Kerry. The date, 22 February, was George Washington’s birthday. The American reporter suggested the “stern old Virginian landlord” would be amazed at the “elaborate preparations” required to evict a tenant in Ireland.
Tenant James Griffin was targeted for removal from the small holding eight miles southwest of Killorglin, and about twice the distance northeast of Cahersiveen, which his family had leased since the 1850s. He was evicted from the property in 1883 and again in 1887 for failing to pay several years of back rent but “re-entered unlawfully immediately afterwards,” according to Hurlbert. Griffin “was then and he is now, an active member of the local branch of the National League … actively deterring and discouraging other tenants from paying their rents.”
In 1886 and 1887, Sir Redvers Buller, special police commissioner, and Father Thomas Quilter, parish priest, negotiated new lease agreements between the landlord and about 70 tenants on the estate. Only a handful of the tenants paid the reduced rents they agreed, however, either because of pressure from the National League or because they were too poor. In turn, the authorities burned and leveled numerous houses to prevent re-entry by evicted tenants who did not meet their new rent obligations.
This “made a great figure in the newspaper reports and ‘scandalized the civilized world’,” Hurlbert reported. He suggested “the sympathy excited by the illustrations of the cruel conflagration and the heartrending descriptions of the reporters, resulted in a very handsome subscription for the benefit of the tenants of Glenbehy.”
Hurlbert contended that because of the subscription fund and “despite, or because, of the two evictions through which he has passed,” James Griffin was “very well off” with “a very good horse and cart, and seven or eight head of cattle.” He remained 240 pounds in arrears.
On the five mile hike to the Griffin house, Hurlbert joined other “gentlemen of the Press” in addition to about 50 police and troops deployed for the eviction. The group passed Winn’s Folly, “a modern medieval castle of considerable size” that no one ever lived in except as a temporary police barrack. It remains a tourist curiosity.
After we passed the castle we began to hear the blowing of rude horns from time to time on the distant hills. These were signals to the people of our approach, and gave quite the air of an invasion to our expedition. We passed the burned cottages of last year just before reaching Mr. Griffin’s house … [As the eviction began] there was no attempt at a resistance, and but for the martial aspect of the forces, and an occasional blast of a horn from the hills, or the curious noise made from time to time by a small concourse of people, chiefly women, assembled on the slope of an adjoining tenancy, the proceedings were as dull as a parish meeting.
The authorities took about two and a half hours to complete the eviction process, which required that “everything belonging to the tenant, and every live creature, must be taken out of the house.” Hurlbert suggested that New York City authorities could evict 50 tenants in the same amount of time. Griffin, “a stout, stalwart man of middle age … took the whole thing most coolly,” Hurlbert reported. An Irish bailiff told him that Griffin was “going to America.”
The scene got a little tense when Father Quilter tried to pass through the police cordon to deliver a telegram, the contents of which Hurlbert did not reveal in his narrative. “A squad of men” was put in charge of the house to prevent re-entry and “the rest of the army reformed for the march back” to the scattered boos and groans of the bystander tenants, Hurlbert observed.
“I shall be curious to see whether the story of this affair can possible be worked up into a thrilling narrative,” he wrote. I will explore Irish press coverage of the eviction that Hurlbert witnessed in the next post.
NOTES: From pages 196 to 214 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American.
NEXT: Irish press
Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan