The Derryveagh Evictions 1861
Approximately 20 km to the west of Letterkenny, in August 1857, a land speculator from Queen’s County, John George Adair made his first purchase of land on the Derryveagh Estate, having fallen in love with the scenery on a previous visit. Over the next couple of years, he acquired more and more land in the area, and, about a year after purchasing this first portion of the land, while hunting for wild fowl, twelve local tenants beat the bushes and spoiled his day’s hunting. As he marched indignantly away he promised them that one day they would pay dearly for this outrage. In 1859, having finally acquired the title to all of the estate of Derryveagh, Adair was now in a position to make good on his threat.
However, he could not just throw his tenants off the land without just cause. His ‘justifiable reason’ duly arrived with the murder of his Scottish land steward in November 1860. Adair had imported Scottish sheep to his estate and hired Scottish shepherds James Murray, Dugald Rankin and Adam Grierson, to look after them. In November 1860, Murray’s body was found on the mountains with his skull fractured by a large stone and the coroner returned a verdict of murder.
As the police could identify no single person as the murderer, on St. Patrick’s Day 1861 Adair obtained a Writ of “Habere Facias Possessionem”, an obscure Norman law that gave him the right to hold the entire community guilty when one culprit could not be identified and he duly took possession of the land and houses in Derryveagh.
Adair gathered together a ‘Crowbar Brigade’ from County Tyrone to carry out the deed and a large police force from Roscommon and Leitrim were drafted in to protect them under the command of sub-inspectors William Henry from Ballyshannon, John Corr from Letterkenny and Robert Griffin from Carndonagh. This large force of over 200 men stayed in Letterkenny the day before the evictions. On the morning of Monday 8th April 1861, they left Letterkenny and proceeded towards Loughbarragh, at the extreme boundary of Derryveagh. Upon reaching the house of the 60 year old widow Mrs. McAward, who lived with her six daughters and one son, the sheriff entered the house, removed the tenants and instructed the ‘Crowbar Brigade’ of six men to level the house to the ground.
“The scene then became indescribable. The bereaved widow and her daughters were frantic with despair. Throwing themselves on the ground, they became almost insensible, and bursting out in the old Irish wail – then heard by many for the first time – their terrifying cries resounded along the mountains for many miles. They had been deprived of their only shelter – the little spot made dear to them by association of the past – and with bleak poverty before them and with only the blue sky to shelter them, naturally they lost all hope and those who witnessed their agony will never forget the sight”
Over the next two days, the evictions continued unabated. The report of another evictee informs us that:
“one old man, near the “four score years and ten,” on leaving his home for the last time, reverently kissed the door posts, with all the impassioned tenderness of an emigrant leaving his native land. His wife and children followed his example, ere those familiar old walls gave way before the crowbars, and in agonised silence, the afflicted family stood by and watched the destruction of their dwelling.“
By two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, Adair’s work had been completed and a deathly silence had descended over the whole district. The official Derryveagh Eviction Report tells us that there were 47 families from 46 houses evicted. Of the 244 people evicted, 159 were children while 28 homes were unroofed or leveled and 11,602 acres of land was seized. On the following Friday, 43 heads of the evicted families applied for admission to the Workhouse in Letterkenny.
Funds were collected to assist the homeless in starting a new life in Australia with the Donegal Relief Committee paying their passage and purchasing small farms for them. In January of 1862, many took advantage of this offer and departed for Australia, travelling first by train to Dublin accompanied by Father James McFadden, the parish priest in Falcarragh who gave a moving farewell address at a dinner arranged for them in a Dublin Hotel. 143 persons from Derryveagh, now joined by 130 Gweedore residents, boarded the ship to Australia, never to return to Ireland again.
The tragedy of the Derryveagh evictions lies in the simple fact that most likely the tenants on the estate were not hiding the culprit; they were entirely innocent of the crime. It was thought by many at the time that Dugald Rankin, another Scots shepherd on the estate, was having an affair with Murray’s wife and killed her husband on the mountains of Derryveagh. In the House of Commons on 24 June 1861, J. F. Maguire, the MP for Dungarvan, claimed that:
“there was one man in Donegal who was openly suspected of the crime. Whether he was guilty or not was a matter between God and himself, but it was a curious fact that this man wore the dead man’s clothes at his funeral, that he was extremely intimate with the dead man’s wife.”