This blog serial explored 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
“James Fitzmaurice took, for the sake of the family, the land from which [his brother] Edmund was evicted, and for this he was denounced as a ‘land-grabber’ and boycotted, and finally shot dead in the presence of his daughter [Nora].”
–William Henry Hurlbert
James Fitzmaurice was killed at dawn, 31 January 1888, at Lixnaw, County Kerry, about 175 southwest of Dublin, where Hurlbert awoke for his first full day in Ireland. The American journalist referenced the “hideous murder,” neatly summarized by his quote above, several times in the book he published later that year.
The Fitzmaurice murder fit Hurlbert’s narrative that the people who advocated on behalf of tenant farmers and Irish nationalism were lawless or misguided. He included Land League supporters, Catholic clergy, even British politicians.
“Mr. Gladstone [the Liberal British Prime Minister who in 1886 backed Home Rule for Ireland] would perhaps have hit the facts more accurately, if, instead of calling an eviction in Ireland a ‘sentence of death,’ he had called the taking of a tenancy a sentence of death,” Hurlbert wrote. Gladstone’s 1880 comment was generated by crop failures the year before, which meant many tenants could not pay their rent. The resulting evictions, often followed by starvation, was “very near to a sentence of death,” he said.
Three weeks after the Fitzmaurice murder, Hurlbert visited an estate in eastern County Galway. There, he touched a truth about this period of Irish history as he discussed the case with the wife of a landlord’s agent. “The tenants are in more danger than the landlords or the agents,” she said.
In Kerry and neighboring Clare, in particular, farmers and their families were targeted for boycotts if they leased land other tenants had been evicted from for refusing to pay high rents as part of the agrarian agitation, or if they fell in arrears for other reasons. Boycott activity ranged from social and economic ostracism to verbal harassment, threatening notes, livestock mutilation or physical assaults. Those who cooperated with police and other government authorities often experienced similar trouble.
Period illustration of the 31 January 1888 murder of James Fitzmaurice, witnessed by his daughter Nora. The family was boycotted in the Lixnaw community of Kerry.
On 28 July 1888, shortly after Hurlbert left Ireland, another land-related murder similar to the Fitzmaurice case occurred five miles east of Lixnaw. Boycotted farmer John Foran was shot point blank in front of his young son, instead of a daughter, in the afternoon, instead of at dawn. Their murders were among 262 agrarian crimes in Kerry during 1888, the highest tally of any county in Ireland for the year.
Two men were charged with the Fitzmaurice murder. Their trial was moved more than 200 miles away, to Wicklow, to avoid community bias. Both men were convicted and executed in April 1888, which Hurlbert neglected to mention in his book. Instead, he bashed the Irish nationalist press as “always putting in some sly word” on behalf of the two killers as it neglected the “poor girl and her murdered father.”
Five other people witnessed the Foran murder in addition to his young son, but they refused to identify the suspect in a trial that was kept in Kerry. The government dropped the case.
Both murders reverberated for years to come in legal proceedings and legislative debates about the land question in Ireland. They were raised during the special Parnell Commission hearings that began in the fall of 1888 about agrarian agitation in Ireland. They came up again in 1891 elections after Parnell’s extramarital affair became public and split the Irish Parliamentary Party.
It was through researching the Fitzmaurice and Foran murders that I first came across Hurlbert’s book, though it was hardly a primary source. For more details about both crimes and this period of Irish history, read my 2016 story, Nora’s Sorrow.
NOTES: This post is based on pages 127, 213, 251, 261 and 305 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, and my earlier research of the 1888 Fitzmaurice and Foran murders. … (This post was updated to show the correct location of an estate where Hurlbert recorded the quote about Irish tenants being in more danger than landlords and agents.)
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Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan