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The Crolly Family Eviction: lessons from the past

Family evicted by their landlord during the Irish potato famine

 

Ireland, as most readers will know, is not a virgin to the spectacle of mass evictions. Between 1810 and 1843 there were almost 15,000 evictions of tenant farm families from their homes and small holdings. After the famine, and with a number of years of good harvests, it appeared the troubles of the small tenant farmers and their families was at an end. Not so. The crop harvests of 1877/8/9 came in with a much lower yield than expected and the dreaded potato blight was in evidence once again in many parts of the country. With low crop yields tenants found it very difficult to pay ever increasing rents demanded not only by absent landlords but also Irish born well-to-dos.

To try and counter rising rents and looming mass evictions, tenants across Ireland, with the support of the Fenian movement, many well known members of the clergy and prominent home rule politicians, formed land leagues. The National Land League of Ireland was formally launched by Michael Davitt in Mayo in 1879. The League used Boycott as their central weapon against landlords intent on evicting their tenants and landlord’s agents, Sheriffs and bailiffs. Boycott involved campaigns in local areas in which locals were encouraged to do no business with such landlords and their agents, to literally cross the street when they passed you by and in some instances assault on property was the result of boycott campaigns.

 

botcott poster from 1880s

 

In County Louth, the National Land League rapidly became a powerful force to be reckoned with and one story from the time is a prime example of the power of collective community action, an example that is as apt today as it was back then. The story involves the Crolly family (now known as Crawley) who were tenants on Lord Louth's estate. Louth raised the rents of his tenants to the extent that they simply couldn't and wouldn't pay. On the 9th of May 1881, sixty five tenant farmers met in the village of Louth, facilitated by the National League, and they agreed to withhold rent from Lord Louth until the outcome of the "Land Bill" was known. The Land Bill was legislation intended, tenants thought at the time, to introduce rent controls. The sixty five brave tenants made their decision known to Lord Louth.

Lord Louth's response was predictable and he decided to pick one or two of the "disturbers" for special treatment, in other words to evict them and their families as a lesson to the rest of his tenants. Lord Louth was even quoted as saying that he had the power to "do what he liked with his own". He chose to make a particular example of the Crolly family, as Lawrence Crolly was a pro-active National Land League member in the area where he lived, Kilroney. The Crolly family had been on the small holding for over two hundred years. One month after the tenants had delivered their local league decision to Lord Louth, the Crolly family was evicted but were back in their home for Christmas 1881.

On the day of the eviction thousands of people from all over County Louth visited the Crolly family, with local clergy such as the outspoken Fr. Markey (CC) who spoke of the injustice of eviction of the poor. The eviction was carried out by the local Sheriff, with two Bailiffs in attendance and two other "hirelings" and 300 members of the Police force and two troops of military personnel, up to one thousand in all to evict one family. Planning the eviction had been very problematic for the authorities as all but two of the local bailiffs handed in their notice rather than be involved, with only two bailiffs willing to evict the Crollys, one Robert Bingham from Collon, Co Louth, and a Mr price (apt name) from Castlebellingham who had been fired from his post two years previous.

In the lead up to the eviction the local branch of the National league had decided to build a cabin for the family until such time as they were re-instated into their home. Committee members travelled to the local town of Dundalk to acquire the materials and within a number of days the cabin was ready for occupation. As the thousands gathered booed and heckled the soldiers, police, Sheriff and bailiffs, the Crolly family were forcibly removed from their home, and they moved into their cabin, assisted in carrying their meagre belongings by the many locals who had gathered.

This isn't a story with a sad ending however. Lord Louth couldn't hire anyone to bring the harvest in on Crolly's tenant holding, not even the local Orange Lodge from whom he had requested assistance. The crops rotted in the field and Lord Louth came under the pressures of a significant boycotting campaign. By Christmas Lord Louth had submitted to the will of the National Land League and the Crolly family were allowed to move back into their home.

Is there anything we can learn from the community spirit of the 1880s in County Louth?

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