By Dr Ciaran Reilly
Few incidents in Roscommon, or Ireland for that matter, generated as much coverage during the Great Irish Famine as the murder of Major Denis Mahon in Strokestown in November 1847. Murdered as he returned to Strokestown, his demise was widely celebrated. ‘Within one hour of the foul deed being perpetrated the several hills were lighted by bonfires in every direction’, one newspaper commented as the people celebrated their victory over landlordism.
However, there were to be few victories in Roscommon during the Famine years. Prior to his demise Denis Mahon was actually lauded in some circles for the large-scale assisted emigration scheme which he had undertaken, where almost 1,500 people were sent to Canada as a means of relieving distress. On closer examination, however, there may have been ulterior motives behind Mahon’s assisted emigration scheme of 1847. Further examination of the scheme suggests that the people ‘selected’ for emigration came from townlands where Denis Mahon was actively encouraging the promotion of a railway line to reach Strokestown. Eviction by another name perhaps? What is clear is that the evictions, which followed on the Mahon (then Pakenham Mahon) estate in 1848 and 1849, displayed a vindictiveness and were carried out as retribution for involvement in the killing of Mahon. For example, in 1848 John Ross Mahon, the agent, wrote: ‘the more I think of the Dooherty tenants the more necessary it appears to me that a strong example should be made of the whole townland’.
This year marks the 175th anniversary of the Great Irish Famine, which began following the arrival of potato blight (or phytophthora infestans). Despite the passage of time and all that has been written in the intervening period, we have still much to learn and understand about what happened during those years. One area which is worthy of further examination is that of eviction. Associated with the Famine more than anything, historians have long concerned themselves with ascertaining the exact numbers who were evicted. For many, the accepted figure is close to 250,000 families, or a million people. County Roscommon was badly hit by each of the four great phases of eviction which characterised the famine period. While Strokestown and Ballykilcline have been examined in the past, other evictions have faded from popular social memory.
The levelling of Lisgobbin
Lisgobbin, about four miles from Roscommon town, was the scene of one of the worst evictions or clearances during the Great Irish Famine. Armed with carbines, about twenty police attended the levelling of Lisgobbin in September 1849 at the behest of the agent John Ross Mahon, who acted on behalf of the landlord, Mr Newcombe. The wrecking party, armed with crowbars, pick-axes and sledges, showed little mercy and spared no one. In a short space of time 32 houses were levelled and erased from their foundations and 140 people were thrown unto ‘the world’s wide waste’. The newspaper account of the levelling of Lisgobbin describes the wailing of women and children as husbands pleaded with them to allow the ‘wreckers’ do their work, lest the eviction scene erupt into bloodshed. Having overseen numerous evictions on the Mahon estate at Strokestown, John Ross Mahon was signalled out for criticism noting that his ‘work of desolation still goes bravely on’. ‘Under his agency’ the newspaper continued ‘more hecatombs of human victims have been immolated than under that of any other party’. We know little of the names or of the plight thereafter of the inhabitants of Lisgobbin, which was flattened on that afternoon in September 1849. One poor woman named Mary Devine, we are told was a widow of six children, and in the midst of the destruction was pulled from the cabin before it tumbled under her. The cabin was described as being 12 feet by 10 located in a piece of bog. The ‘wreckers’ were said to be unmoved by the scenes of misery as they carried out their duty. Paid mercenaries. The Roscommon Messengernoted that some of those evicted left that day for America.
The clearance at Lisgobbin was just one act in the large-scale plans to carry out a new ‘plantation of Roscommon’ by replacing starving tenants with prosperous English farmers from Norfolk and elsewhere. English and Scottish newspapers at the time carried advertisements about the vast swathes of land which awaited them in Roscommon. Many took up the offer, as they did from other Irish counties including Wicklow, Laois and Clare. However, there was pessimism, for example, on the part of the Roscommon Messenger newspaper who believed that the hoped for English tenants would not arrive in large numbers. Several Roscommon landlords were successful in renting their lands to English farmers, and families such as the Pearces and Elliots who took up holdings near to Roscommon Town were part of this plan.
In an effort to make way for new tenants, other proprietors did likewise. The evictions highlighted that the evictors did not just include the gentry and the aristocracy but also a significant number of merchants, shopkeepers and cattle dealers. Take for example the Frenchpark evictions in 1849, when more than 270 people were evicted from the townlands of Mullen, Raheela and Listrumneale, then owned by William Murphy of Smithfield, County Dublin. Murphy, it appears, had no connection with Roscommon and when rents were not forthcoming he duly sent a team of ‘wreckers’ to carry out the evictions. These evictions were widely criticised, as were others. In 1848 Peter McKeogh defended the decision to evict two tenants from the lands of Derrycunnane, near Kilglass, as they were ten years in arrears. In the same year 200 people were evicted by a middleman renting from a Mr. Ormsby near Roscommon Town and their houses levelled. At Gardenstown, near Boyle and Araghty, on the Galway/ Roscommon border, the landlord Nicholas Balfe evicted 42 people; at Slevin, near Castleplunkett, the representatives of the Goff minors evicted five; Charles Webber evicted seven people at Acres, near Roscommon, while Henry Moriarity and George Bolton were others who evicted at Ballyphesan and Lugboy. Three of the other large eviction scenes occurred in the vicinity of Boyle where Lord Lorton (45 people), Lord de Freyne (36 people) and from an estate which was in the Court of Chancery (91 people) all evicted tenants in the autumn of 1849.
The total annihilation of the people of Lisgobbin soon faded from popular social memory and today little evidence remains of this once-teeming population and settlement. How many more such settlements vanished from County Roscommon? In this, the 175th anniversary of the Great Famine, we should begin to explore these local issues further.
Dr. Ciaran Reilly is an historian of 19th & 20th Century Irish History at Maynooth University. He is the author of Strokestown and the Great Famine (published in 2014)