Rev. John Kinnear 1823-1909

Rev. John Kinnear 1823-1909

The mass eviction of 244 people from Derryveagh in 1861 was an example of the lack of rights that tenants had on their lands in Ireland at the time and highlighted the ease with which they could be evicted. Since 1850, the leading Tenant Right campaigners of the Letterkenny area were Edward Gallagher, Ned McFadden, Father McGroarty, Robert Ramsay and his son Robert Ramsay but there is no doubting the most prominent of all the local supporters of Tenant Rights was Rev. John Kinnear.A prominent and highly respected man of the 19thCentury, his tireless efforts to raise the rights of tenant farmers of all religious denominations appears to be largely forgotten today.

Rev. John Kinnear was born in 1823 near Dungannon, County Tyrone and was ordained to the charge of First Letterkenny Presbyterian Church on 27 December 1848 where he served as minister for fifty years until his retirement in 1889. He had three children from his marriage to Margaret Fanny Alexander but they all died of consumption. Margaret herself died in 1863, thirteen years after they were married.

Since his arrival in the town of Letterkenny, Dr. Kinnear had supported Tenant Rights on public platforms and his oratorical skills and public persona were greatly admired by all. Canon Edward Maguire, noted Letterkenny historian said of his contemporary:

At all times extremely popular, he was welcomed with enthusiastic acclaim whenever he appeared on a public platform; for though he was by no means revolutionary, he was a born demagogue, and his refined oratory was attuned to the ear of the multitude.

On February 3rd 1870, over ten thousand people were packed into the Market Square in Letterkenny for one of the largest Tenants Rights meetings ever recorded in Ulster. Kinnear spoke at this large meeting in which the grievances of tenants against their landlords were debated. The demands at this meeting were simple:

“We want capricious evictions to cease, capricious and arbitrary rent raising to be abolished, irresponsible power swept away from the landocracy of this country, and we want the free and unfettered liberty to exercise the franchise, unmolested by the mandate of the bailiff, or the nod of the agent, or the tyrannical power of the landlord”

On the 27th March 1880, Dr. Kinnear decided to stand as a last minute Liberal candidate for Co. Donegal in the United Kingdom Parliament elections. In his mandate to his voters he proclaimed:

Should you return me to Parliament, I shall esteem it to be the proudest era of my life, and my loyalty to the land and to liberty, and my fealty to the memories of the men associated with me thirty years ago in our first Tenant-right campaign will stimulate my efforts to close down, as they and I resolved, another chapter in the history of oppression, and register on the statutes of the realm a new act of Emancipation for the enslaved peasantry of the land.

Kinnear was running with another Liberal candidate, Thomas Lea against the Tory Marquis of Hamilton. As two candidates were to be returned, the two Liberals united in their campaign with both men appearing at a large rally in the Market Square on Friday April 2nd1880 just days before the voting began.

The election took place on Wednesday April 7th and Dr. Kinnear was triumphantly elected with 2,015 votes, defeating the Marquis of Hamilton who had received 1,954 votes, a mere sixty-one votes difference. Thomas Lea topped the poll with 2,274 votes. Dr. Kinnear now had the honour of being the first clergyman in charge of a congregation to sit in the House of Commons.

Great rejoicing took place throughout the county at the election of Dr. Kinnear. The Derry Journal reported that large crowds were cheering in Letterkenny and tar barrels burning when the results were read out. The day after the elections, Kinnear returned to his adopted hometown amidst great celebrations:

“…the town was the scene of unbounded joy. Words fail to express the feelings of the Liberals, when they were informed that their townsman, Dr. Kinnear, was returned M.P…At eight o’clock, the town presented a gay appearance. The houses were illuminated, and the Tyrconnell Flute Band, headed by tar-barrels, and followed by about three thousand people, paraded the street. In the midst of the excitement, Dr. Kinnear and party arrived from Lifford and proceeded to Hegarty’s Hotel, receiving such a reception as may be better imagined than expressed.”

A large banner reading “Long live Lea and Kinnear” was carried by torchlight before the wagonette that contained Kinnear and his closest supporters which was drawn by several young men of the town. The procession paraded from the Port Bridge to the Market Square amidst great cheering and excitement. When they arrived at the Square, Dr. Kinnear took to the stand and informed his fellow townspeople:

“We have now done what, thirty years ago, a small band of men in Letterkenny resolved to do, to close down another chapter in the history of oppression…I shall enter the Senate House of the Empire determined to continue my advocacy of these principles I have espoused during all my public life and I hope soon to see them immovably registered on the statutes.”

The land question in Donegal and Ireland was eventually defused by a series of Land Acts, which culminated in the 1903 Wyndham Land Purchase Act. Thankfully, Dr. Kinnear lived long enough to see these changes in land ownership at the turn of the century. He died on 8thJuly 1909 and was buried in the graveyard of Conwal Parish Church where his gravestone can be seen to this day. Canon Maguire, who witnessed these significant events first hand, wrote of the importance of these monster meetings that took place in Letterkenny in these turbulent years:

“…outside the Letterkenny district, the county appeared to be asleep during that campaign, but Letterkenny, to its eternal honour, carried the Tenant Right banner to victory.”