Wednesday 5 June 2024

A journalist in Arran in 1893.


Although Robert John  Buckley was born in Monaghan he was raised in England where he  spent most of his  life. A staunch Unionist, he was regarded as one of the most colourful and entertaining newspaper contributors of his times.

His interests were wide and he was regarded as an authority on many things, including music, religion, chess and politics.

While Robert was flippant and  ruthless in his reflections on Ireland and the push for Home Rule, it must be conceded that he highlighted how some far fetched claims were being presented and a few unrealistic promises given .

His article gives some background on the establishing by the CDB of  a new fishing experiment on the Arran islands. 

Like many journalists, he could at times add a few lines, designed to amuse or outage the reader, depending on their politics.

(Robert’s article is in a different font to our comments)


The Aran Islanders seem to have passed most of their time in a state of chronic starvation. Tland seems to grow little but rock, and the burning of seaweed, the kelp trade, does not seem to have helped them much. True, the Atlantic was all before them, where to choose, but what Father Mahony would call the teeming treasures of the deep were practically left untouched. If we accept the plain meaning of the good priest's speech, we must believe that the Aran Islanders and Irish fishermen generally preferred to starve rather than to catch fish, unless an Irish Parliament were fixed on College Green.

The SS Duras on which Robert Buckley travelled when visiting the islands in 1893. 

 They had no objection to accept charitable aid, no matter from what quarter it came, and the Araners required assistance every other year. They were not unwilling to catch fish, but they had nothing to catch them with; and, strange as it may seem, these islanders, who could scarcely move five yards in any direction without falling into the sea, these amphibious Irishmen, did not know the art of catching fish! They tinkered and slopped around the shoals in the vicinity of the island, but they were never able to catch enough fish to keep themselves from starvation, much less to supply the Dublin and London markets. 

Their boats were the most primitive affairs imaginable, and showed the Irish spirit of conservatism to perfection. These coraghs are practically the same boat as the Welsh coracle, but much larger. Those I examined were from ten to fifteen feet long and three feet wide. Oak ribs, over which are nailed laths of white deal, two inches wide and half an inch thick. Cover this slight skeleton with tarred canvas, and the ship is nearly complete. It only needs two pairs of wooden thole-pins, and two pairs of oars, long, light, and thin, coming nearly to a point at the water-end, having a perforated block which works on the thole-pins before-mentioned.

The Aran  currach, which Robert Buckley disparaged and ridiculed in his1893 report. 

He went on to make a dubious claim that the Master of the SS Duras, Neal Delargey, had similar views on both currachs and Home Rule.

 You want no keel, no helm, no mast. Stay! You need a board or two for seats for the oarsmen. With these frail cockleshells the Araners adventure themselves twelve miles on the Atlantic, and mostly come home again. These makeshift canoes are almost useless for catching fish. Having no helm, it is hard to keep them straight; having no keel, it is needful to sit still, or at any rate to maintain a perfect balance, or over you go. A gust of wind spins the canoe round like a top. These primeval boats are [157]made on the island, thrown together out of fifteen-pennyworth of wood, a few yards of canvas, and a pitch-pot. 

They have some virtues. They are cheap, and they will not sink. The coraghs always come back, even if bottom up. And when they reach the shore the two occupants (if any) invert the ship, stick a head in the stem and another in the stern, and carry her home to tea. This process is apt to puzzle the uninformed visitor, who sees a strange and fearful animal, like a huge black-beetle, crawling up the cliffs. He begins to think of "antres huge and deserts vast, and anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders." He hesitates about landing, but if he be on the Duras, Captain Neal Delargy, who equally scoffs at big beetles and Home Rule, will explain, and will accompany him to the tavern on the cliff side, where they charge ordinary prices for beer and give you bread-and-cheese for nothing. And yet the Araners profess to be civilised.

The journalist who wrote about the islands in 1893.

In pursuance of his policy of helping the people to help themselves, Mr. Balfour determined to educate the Araners, and to give them sufficient help in the matter of boats and tackle to make their education of some avail. It was useless to give them boats and nets, for they knew not how to use them, and it is certain that any boat club on the Birmingham Reservoir, or any tripper who has gone mackerel fishing in Douglas Bay, could have given these fishermen much valuable information and instruction. 

Having once determined to attempt on a tolerably large scale the establishment of a fresh mackerel and fresh herring trade with England, Mr. Balfour set about the gigantic and discouraging task of endeavouring nothing less than the creation of the local industry.

Arthur Balfour (1848-1930)
Chef Secretary for Ireland between 1887 and 1891.
Robert Buckley had a very high opinion of Arthur and never missed a chance to praise him. 

Balfour had given Anti Home Rules speeches in Dublin and Belfast jut weeks before Buckley arriving in Aran. 

While Balfour is remembered for his ruthless determination to restore order after the Land Wars, he is also credited  with introducing many reforms and the establishment of the Congested  Districts Board in 1891. 

He and the Tories were no longer in power in 1893 as the Liberal PM Gladstone had taken office.

 But how were the people to be taught the management of large boats, and the kind of nets that were used? After much inquiry, it was decided to subsidise trained crews from other parts of Ireland to show the local fishermen what earnings might be theirs, and at the same time to impart needful instruction to the Connemara and Aran people.

 It was also arranged to make loans for the purchase of boats and tackle to such persons as might prove likely to benefit by them. Accordingly arrangements were made with the crews of seven Arklow boats to proceed to the Aran Islands, and in order to indemnify them for the risk of working on an untried fishing ground, each crew received a bounty of £40 from the Congested Districts Board. But there was no use in catching fish unless it could be quickly put on the market, and again the necessary plant proved a matter involving considerable expenditure. 

A derelict Norwegian ship, which two or three years ago had been discovered at sea and towed into Queenstown Harbour, was purchased from the salvors, and anchored in Killeany Bay, outside the harbour of Kilronan, the capital city of the biggest Aran, as an ice-hulk. The Board then entered into an agreement with Mr. W.W. Harvey, of Cork, to market the mackerel at a fixed rate of commission, it being also arranged that he should pay the fishermen the English [158]market price less by a deduction of 7s. a box to cover the cost of ice-packing, carriage, and English salesman's commission. 

This Robert Welsh photo from round those times shows the ice hulk anchored in the bay.
An English fishing company arrived with a second ice hulk in later years as they had moved
some of their fleet to the west of Ireland after the success of the Aran experiment in 1892.

The ice-hulk and boxes were provided by the Board, but Mr. Harvey was to purchase the ice and defray all the cost of labour except the salary of a manager.

In addition to the seven Arklow crews two boats were fitted out by Miss Mansfield for training crews from the parish of Carna, in Connemara; and Miss Skerritt also placed two English-built boats at the Board's disposal for the training of crews from the pretty watering place of Clifden, also in Connemara. An Aran hooker, belonging to Innishmore, joined the little fishing fleet, bringing up the number to exactly a dozen boats. 

Maude read an appeal for help in 1890 by the industrious Fr Tom Flannery. She was a really remarkable and extraordinary woman who, after visiting Tom, threw her energy and resources into helping the fishing industry in Cárna. 

She had two boats built, hired east coast “old salts” to provide training and in 1892 the ‘FATHER TOM’and the ‘FISHER LAD’ joined the Arklow boats for the Spring fishing off Aran. 

She herself would spend years on the west coast but after her cousin, fisherman John O’Kelly,  was drowned  in Kilkerrin Bay, while supporting her cause, moved from Cárna to Clifden in 1893.

Maude was from Kildare and had a great love for the outdoors. She was a regular sight in those years, darting about in her little canoe and in all types of weather.

Her time in the West of Ireland  is believed to have contributed to very painful and crippling arthritis and Maude died in Dublin in 1921at the age of 70


The two Clifden boats, MARIA DELIA and EIRINE, which joined the Arklow fleet in 1892 were built by an Englishwoman who had read of fishermen being lost from a currach. 
Miss Sherritt presented them to  the parish of Clifden where they were used to train numerous young men.

She is believed to have never visited Ireland which makes her contribution all the more remarkable. 

Miss Skerritt and Miss Mansfield were truly heroic and their contribution deserves  to be remembered.
Named after  Fr Tom Flannery who was tireless in promoting the welfare of his Connemara parish of Cárna., This boat was one of  four Connemara boats which were critical to the success of the fishery as it could only justify its existance if it had a critical mass of  fish being landed. 

Sadly, Tom Flannery had caught typhus while ministering to his parish and died in 1891 at the young age of 38.
This boat belonged at first to Maude Mansfield but she later arranged for her two boats to be locally owned and worked.
Maude had continued to help the parish after Tom dying and being replaced by Fr Michael McHugh.

The Rev. W.S. Green, a Protestant parson, who is said to have first discovered these fishing grounds, and who threw himself into the work with wonderful enthusiasm, superintended the experiment in the steamer Fingal, which was specially chartered for the purpose. 

William was a loyal and faithful friend to Irish fishermen, especially on the islands and the Atlantic seaboard.

While Robert Buckley was ruthless in describing the backwardness of the Aran fishermen, he conviently avoided mentioning just how advanced the fishing fleet was before the Great Hunger of the 1840s as this was not conducive to the biased narrative he was advancing.

 Previous to the famine there had been 120,00 employed in Irish fishing industry. By 1866 this had fallen to 40,000 and by 1877 had fallen to 22,000.

According to Tim Robinson, in 1820 the islands fleet consisted of about 40 hookers and over 200 currachs. The islnads had seen a number of famines before the 1840s with a particularly bad one in 1822 which was accompanied by fever.


Mr. Green as a skilled Fisheries Inspector, knew what he was about, and he was empowered to lend nets, where advisable, to the Aran beginners. Away they went to sea, to start with a fortnight's heart-breaking luck. The water in those regions was cold, and the fish were amusing themselves elsewhere. The ice-hulk with its two hundred tons of Norwegian ice was waiting, and its staff of packers might cool their ardour in the hold. The mackerel would not come to be packed, and the dozen boats, with their master and apprentice crews, cruised up and down on the deep blue sea, with the blue sky overhead, and hope, like Bob Acres' valour, gradually oozing out of their finger-ends. The Arklow men began to talk of going home again. Altogether it was a blue look-out.

At last the luck turned. On April 6th, 1892, six thousand mackerel were despatched to the English market. The weather during much of the season was stormy and unfavourable, but on May 18th, seventy-three thousand three hundred and fifty mackerel were sent to Galway, thirty miles away by sea, and were forwarded thence by two special trains. 

From here the fish was sent to Dublin by train


The Midland and Western Railway, under the management of Mr. Joseph Tatlow, has been prompt, plucky, and obliging, and runs the fish to Dublin as fast as they arrive in Galway. During the season of ten weeks the experienced Arklow crews made on an average £316 per boat, and the greenhorns who were learning the business earned about £70 per boat, although they could not fish at all at the beginning of the season. The total number of mackerel packed on the ice-hulk amounted to the respectable total of two hundred and ninety-nine thousand four hundred and eighty. The "teeming treasures of the deep" were not left untouched on this occasion, though, doubtless, "still the Irish peasant mourns, still groans beneath the cruel English yoke."

Mr. Balfour's benefactions have not been confined to the Aran Islands. Every available fishing place from top to bottom of the whole west coast has been similarly aided, and the value of their produce has increased from next to nothing to something like [159]fifty thousand pounds per month. This on the authority of Father P.J. McPhilpin, parish priest of Kilronane, Innishmore, who said:—

"We never had a Chief Secretary who so quickly grasped the position, who so rapidly saw what was the right thing to do, and who did it so thoroughly and so promptly. Strange to say the Liberals are always the most illiberal. When we get anything for Ireland it somehow always seems to come from the Tories."

Less than a year after Buckley's visit, Peter McPhilpin would be dead at the age of  forty five.

 He had good reason to admire Balfour as his Congested Districts Board was beginning to transform the West of Ireland.

 Peter had been on a mission to seek help for tenants who were being evicted, when he died at his brother John's house in Tuam.

Peter was a colourful character and like his curate John Flatley, was at times a thorn in the side of both civil and church authorities. 
He is buried in his native Castlebar but is still remembered on the islands. 


Having been carried from Galway to the ice-hulk in Killeany Bay, and having been duly put ashore in a boat, one of the first persons I saw was Father Thomas Flatley, coadjutor of Father McPhilpin, an earnest Home Ruler, like his superior, and like him a great admirer of Mr. Balfour.

Fr John Flatley (Buckley called him Tom) was a native of Tuam and well equipped to play word games with the visiting journalist who appears to have warmed to him. 

In his day he entertained many dignitaries and our photo from Sir Henry Robinson’s book, shows him on the left in the company of Walter Long and  John Atkinson. 

The photo is from a few years later when he served as curate at Leenane.

He arrived  in Arran  from Clifden in February 1893 and left the following July for Killeen (An Cheathrú Rua) 

His outspokenness resulted in him being moved about frequently and he remained a curate until the age of sixty four  

In his memoir, Sir Henry Robinson (not to be confused with the Digby land agent of the same name) recalled how  the Attorney General for Ireland, John Atkinson,  jokingly or possibly mockingly, asked John if he could calm the sea on a stormy day. 
Seems Atkinson was a very bad sailor and was dreading going aboard ship. 

John famously informed him “ The power of the Church does not extend below High Water mark”

He was a great man to write a letter , without fear or favour, highlighting injustices, incompetence and malpractice.  Not surprising that he was confident, he being the son of a blacksmith. 

He is remembered in Connemara for his fearless and relentless highlighting of the practise of “Gombeenism”.  

This involved local shopkeepers charging exorbitant prices because they gave credit as they amassed money and land from their neighbours. 
John Flatley died at Aghagower in 1929, a parish he had served for many years

 Father Flatley wore a yachting cap, or I might have sheered off under all sail—the biretta inspires me with affright—but his nautical rig reassured me, and yawing a little from my course, I put up my helm and boarded him. Too late I saw the black flag—I mean the white choker—but there was nothing of the pirate about Father Tom. He was kindly, courteous, earnest, humorous, hospitable, and full of Latin quotations. Before our acquaintance was two minutes old he invited me to dinner. Then I ran aground on an Arklow boatman, James Doyle by name, a smart tweed-suited sailor, bright and gay. 

Some of our older followers may remember James Doyle’s son Josie who lived on the Old Pier. 
He can be seen here on the left with his neighbour Mac Eddie Costello beside him as Fr Moran said a few prayers. 

James Doyle and Henry Lynch were two Arklow fishermen who married on the island. Both surnames have since died out. 

Josie served for many years on the local Lifeboat and was decorated for heroism during a famous rescue of a Welsh trawler at Straw Island,  in 1938

The Post Office was near, and the letters were being given out. Three deliveries a week, weather permitting. The parish priest was there, grave, refined, slightly ascetic, with the azure blue eyes so common in Connaught, never seen in England, although frequently met with in Norway and North Germany.

 The waiting-women were barefoot, but all the men were shod. The Araners have a speciality in shoes—pampooties, to wit. These are made of raw hide, hair outwards, the toe-piece drawn in, and the whole tied on with string or sinew. The cottages are better built than many on the mainland. Otherwise the winter gales would blow them into the Atlantic main. 

Two great examples of the type of cottage Robert Buckley described in 1893.

The thatch is pegged down firmly, and then tied on with a close network of ropes. The people are clean, smart, and good-looking. 

Miss Margaret Flanagan, who escorted me in my search after pampooties, would pass for a pretty girl anywhere, and the Aran Irish flowed from her lips like a rivulet of cream. She spoke English too. An accomplished young lady, Miss Margaret Kilmartin, aged nineteen, said her father had been wrongfully imprisoned for two and a half years for shooting a bailiff.

 (You can read that story HERE)

We wrote in detail some years ago about the wrongful imprisonment of Bryan in 1882. 
Margaret Kilmartin was Bryan’s daughter and the other young woman Buckley met, Margaret Flanagan, was the daughter of the former island shoemaker Michael Flanagan and his wife Mary McDonagh from Gort na gCapall. 
Michael Flanagan had died in 1880. 

Buckley’s description of the shooting of a bailiff as being Ireland’s “National Sport” is most revealing of his attitude. 

 The national sports are therefore not altogether unknown in the Arans. Miss Kilmartin was en route for America, per Teutonic, first to New York, and then a thousand miles by rail, alone, and without a bonnet. She had never been off the island. This little run would be her first flutter from the paternal nest.

The White Star Line’s S.S Teutonic on which Margaret Kilmartin was booked to travel to America in 1893

The Araners know little of politics, save that the Balfour Government lifted them out of the horrible pit and the miry clay, and set their feet upon a rock and established their goings. The Balfour boats are there, the Balfour nets are full of fish, the Balfour [160]boys are learning a useful occupation, and earning money meanwhile. If there is anything in the Aran cupboards, the Araners know who enabled them to put it there. If the young ladies have new shoes, new shawls, new brooches; if the Aran belles make money by mending nets; if the men sometimes see beef; if they compass the thick twist; if they manage without the everlasting hat going round, they have Mr. Balfour to thank, and they know it. They own it, not grudgingly or of necessity, but cheerfully. 

Four time Prime Minister Gladstone was a primary target for Robert Buckley. He wasted no opportunity to belittle both Gladstone and his Secretary for Ireland, Robert Morley .(1838-1923)

It’s likely that the articles were intended to amuse and entertain English gentlemen who most likely had their morning paper ironed by staff before being presented to their employer.  

One battered old wreck raised his hat at every mention of the name. I saw no Morley boats. I saw no Gladstone nets. I saw no Home Rule fish. The Araners do not care for the Grand Old Mendacium. Perhaps they lack patriotism. It may be that they do not share what Mr. Gladstone calls the Aspirations of a people. So far as I could judge, their principal aspiration is to get something to eat. A pampootied native who has often visited the main-land, and is evidently looked upon as a mountain of sagacity and superior wisdom, said to me—

"Not a bit they care but to look afther the wife and childher an' pray to God for good takes o' fish. An' small blame to thim. Before Balfour the people were starvin', an' ivery other year Father Davis that's dead this six months would go round beggin' an' prayin' for a thrifle to kape life in thim. The hardships and the misery the poor folks had, God alone knows. An' would ye say to thim, 'tis Home Rule ye want?

"There was a young fellow fishin' here from Dublin. He went out in the hookers an' injoyed himself all to pieces, a dacent sthrip of a boy, but wid no more brains than a scalpeen (pickled mackerel). He got me to be interpreter to an owld man that would spake wid him over on Innishmair, an' the owld chap wos tellin' his throubles. So afther a bit, the young fellow says, says he,

"''Tis Home Rule ye want,' says he.

"'No,' says the owld chap, shakin' his head, 'tis my dinner I want,' says he.

"An' that young fellow was mad whin I thranslated it. But 'twas thrue, ivery word iv it. 'Ah! the ignorance, the ignorance,' says he. But then he was spakin' on a full stomach, an' 'tis ill arguin' betwixt a full man and a fastin'.

"I wouldn't say but they'd take more notice afther a while. But they're not used to bein' prosperous, an' they don't know themselves at all. Ye can't cultivate politics on low feed. 'Tis the high livin' that makes the Parliamint men that can talk for twenty-four hours at a sthretch. An' these chaps is gettin' their backs up. In twelve months' time they'll be gettin' consated. 'Tis Balfour that's feedin' thim into condition. Vote against him? Av coorse they will, ivery man o' thim. Sure they'll be towld to vote for a man, an' they'll do it. How would they ondhersthand at all? Av 'twas Misther Balfour himself that wanted their vote he'd get it fast enough. But 'tisn't. An' they'll vote agin' him without knowin' what they're doin'."

Father McPhilpin said, "It is very hard to get them to move. [161]The Irish people are the most conservative in the world. They will not stir for telling, and they will not stir when you take them by the collar and haul them along. They are wedded to the customs of their ancestors; and yet, when once they see the advantage to be obtained by any given change, no people are so quick to follow it up. The difficulty is to start them. The Araners had actually less knowledge of the sea, of boats, nets, and fishing, than people coming here from an inland place. Surprising, but quite true."

James Murray’s boat SHAMROCK which came to Arran in the 1890s.
We are reminded of a conversation we once had in the 1970s with the daughter of an Arklow fisherman who had married her mother and settled on the island. 

In a hushed voice she had confided “My father came to this island to teach them how to fish……but I can’t say that around here. 

Speaking on the general question of Home Rule, I asked Father McPhilpin if the people of Ireland would be loyal.

"Loyal to what?" said the Father, replying quickly.

"Loyal to England, to the Crown, to Queen Victoria."

"The Irish people have always been loyal—much more loyal than the English people. You have only to look at English history. How far shall I go back, Father Tom?" said my genial host to the coadjutor, who just then entered the room. "Shall we go back to Henry II.? Where shall we begin, Father Tom?"

"Well," said Father Tom, "I'd not be for going back quite so far. I think if we began with Charles I.——"

"Very good. Now, were not the Irish loyal when the English people disloyally favoured their Oliver Cromwell and their William the Third?"

Not wanting to delve too far back in history, John Flatley and Peter McPhilpin decided to limit it to the reign and execution of Charles the First in 1649. 

The same year that Cromwell arrived in Ireland. 

I proceeded with the imbibition of Father McPhilpin's excellent tea. The answer was obvious, but Father Tom clearly believed that his senior had me on the hip, and good-naturedly came in with a Latin quotation or two. Both clerics were deeply interested in the condition of the poor in their charge, and indeed all over Ireland, and their profound belief that a Home Rule Bill would benefit the poorer classes, by changing the conditions affecting the tenure or ownership of land, was apparently their chief reason for advocating a College Green Parliament. Father McPhilpin holds some honorary official position in connection with the Aran fisheries, and from him I derived most of my information. Another authority assured me that the Araners were not grateful to England nor to Mr. Balfour, and spoke of the viper that somebody warmed in his bosom with disagreeable results. But, as Father Tom would say, Omnis comparatio claudicat, and all my experience points to a proper appreciation of the great ex-Secretary's desire to do the country good. 

The people know how thoroughly he examined the subject; how he spent weeks in the Congested Districts; how he saw the parish priests, the head men of the districts, the cotters themselves. Every Irishman, whatever his politics, will readily agree that Mr. Balfour knows more about Ireland than any Englishman living, and most of them credit him with more knowledge of the subject than any Irishman. My thorough-going friend, Mr. McCoy, of Galway, hater of England, avowed Separatist, longing to wallow in the brutal Saxon's gore, thinks Mr. Balfour the best friend that Ireland ever had. "I'd agree with you there," said Mr. McCoy. "I don't agree with charity, but I agree with putting people in a [162]way to do things for themselves, which is what Mr. Balfour has done."

Back on the ice-hulk by favour of Thomas Joyce, of Kilronane, skipper and owner of a fishing smack. Mr. William Fitzgerald showed the factory, the great hold with the ice, the windmill which pumps the hulk, the mountains of boxes for fish, the mackerel in process of packing, sixty in a box, most of them very large fish. An unhappy halibut, which had come to an untimely end, stood on his tail in a narrow basket, his mouth wide open, looking like a Home Rule orator descanting on the woes of Ireland. He was slapped into a box and instantly nailed down, which summary process suggested an obvious wish.

We must be grateful to Robert Buckley for providing us with some inside information on the ice hulk. 
More information can be found in Pat Mullen’s book , MAN OF ARAN. 

Before heading to America in 1905, Pat worked as a teenager on the ice hulk anchored in the bay. 

Mr. Fitzgerald said: "The fisheries have been a great success, and have done much good. The spring fishery paid well on account of the great price we got for the mackerel. It is not customary to catch fish so early, but when you can do it it pays splendidly. Just now the price is not up to the mark, but we hope for better times. The Arklow men are not subsidised this year. They didn't need it. The ground proved productive, and they were glad to come on their own hook. If they had required a second subsidy they would not have got it."

"Why not?"

"I'm no politician," said Mr. Fitzgerald. "The Araners are so strong and hardy that they would surprise you. They will stand all day on the ice, with nothing on but those pampooties, and you would think they'd need iron soles, instead of a bit of skin. They work hard, and come regularly and give no trouble. No, I could not find any fault with them. They mostly speak Irish among themselves. It's Greek to me, but I can make out that they think a great deal of Mr. Balfour."

His 1893 visit to the islands over, Robert Buckley headed back to Galway on the S.S. Duras. 
While  his report on the islands could be described as condescending, nobody could ever accuse him of being inconsistent. 

His next report on Galway and Salthill showed that he was as ruthless with one part of the West as with another. 

A week on the hulk would be refreshing, for on one side there is no land nearer than America. However, I have to go, for the Duras is getting uneasy, so I leave the hulk, the mackerel, the big sea trout which are caught with the mackerel, and steam back to Galway. A splendid fellow in the cabin discloses his views. "We must have complete independence. We shall start with 120,000 men for the Army of Independence. That will be only a nucleus. We shall attract all the brave, chivalrous, adventurous spirits of America.

 England has India to draw from. Trot your niggers over, we'll make short work of them. We draw from America, Australia, every part of the world. We draw from 24,000,000 of Irishmen all willing to fight for nothing, and even to pay money to be allowed to fight against England. An Irish Republic, under the protection of America. That's the idea. It's the natural thing. Work the two countries together and England may slide. We'll have an Independent Irish Republic in four years; perhaps in three years. Rubbish about pledges of loyalty.

 The people must be loyal to themselves, not to England. Our members will do what the people want, or they will be replaced by men who will. We [163]have the sentiments of the people, backed by the influence of religion, all tending to complete independence. Who's going to prevent it? We'll have a Declaration of Independence on Saint Patrick's Day, 1897, at latest. Who'll stop it? Mr. Gladstone? Why long before that time we'll convert him, and ten to one he'll draw up the document. What'll you bet that he doesn't come over to Dublin and read it in The House?"

Galway, May 20th.1893 

Michael Muldoon June 2024

Monday 20 May 2024

Land courts in Cill Rónáin in the 1880s

 In May 1878, the famous antiquarian, folklorist and archaeologist, Thomas J Westropp,(1860-1922) visited all thee islands. In the course of his report he wondered how nobody had thought about refusing to pay rent for “these desolate fields”.

This was just a year before the founding of the Land League by Mayomen James Daly, Michael Davitt and others. This was the start of a determined campaign to address the extortionate rents landowners, many of them absentees living in England,  were extracting from very poor tenants. 

A bizarre part of the initial Mayo protest in Janurary 1879 was that it involved an estate in Irishtown which was threatening evictions.

The Landlords were the family of a Catholic priest, Canon Geoffrey Bourke. The protests were successful. As well as cancelling the threatened evictions the Bourkes were forced to reduce rents substantially. 

This was proof that the best defence against exploitation for tenants and indeed workers in industry, was to organise and work together. 

A mixture of tenant violence, mass meetings, state reprisals, political blackmail, boycott and a government coercion bill would culminate with the introduction of a radical Irish Land Act at Westminster in 1881. 

Set up to examine the workings of the
1870 act, the Committee recommended the
Introduction of the famous three Fs.

This followed the report of the 1880 Royal commission, chaired by Lord Bessborough, which recommended the famous thee Fs. 

Fair Rents

Fixture of tenancy 

Free Sale. 

Gladstone had introduced a Landlord and Tenant bill in 1870 but the terms were so strict that only a small number of tenants could buy their holdings. These were mainly in Ulster and mainly Protestant. There would be four more Land Acts between 1870 and 1909. 

Gladstone lost power in 1874 but was once again PM in 1880 with the return of the Liberals to power. 

His shame at the state of Ireland made him determined to make some improvements. 

One of the main features of Gladstone’s 1881 Act was the establishing of the Irish Land Commission. 

This body was mandated to set up Land Courts where tenants could apply to have their rents assessed with regard to “fairness”

The judgement of this court would fix a “fair” rent which would apply for fifteen years. The landlords/landladies could appeal this decision, the final verdict being binding on both parties. 

Gladstone also introduced an Act which cancelled rent arrears for those holding a property worth less than £30 per annum. 

He also gave women the right to own property in their own name.

These new acts would have radical consequences on the three Aran islands. 

The islands were owned at the time by descendants of the Rev Simon Digby (1668-1720) of County Kildare. Simon was Bishop of Elphin when he bought a half share in the islands in 1713. He acquired the other half from the Fitzpatricks in 1744.

Bishop Simon Digby,
who bought a half share in the islands in 1713
Simon and his wife Elizabeth had 8 sons and 
8 daughters and had many, many descendants. 

With the death of John William Digby of Landenstown in 1846, the islands passed to his two sisters, Elizabeth Francis Digby (1803-1896) and Henrietta Anne Digby Barfoot (1795-1875)

John William had inherited from his father, Rev John Digby,  after his  brother/uncle? was killed in Spain fighting Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Corunna in 1809. 

Henrietta Anne Digby Barfoot died in 1875 and her interest in the Digby estate passed to her only child, Henrietta Elizabeth Barfoot (1830-1884) 

Henrietta Digby Barfoot St Lawrence,
Countess of Howth. 

Howth Castle in the 1860s.
Home of Henrietta Elizabeth Digby Barfoot St Lawrence.

Henrietta Elizabeth married in 1851, Thomas St Lawrence, 3rd Earl of Howth. The ownership of the Aran islands around the time of the first Land Court in Cill Rónáin in 1884 was shared between the elderly, unmarried Elizabeth Digby (1803-1896) and two of her Grandnieces, the St Lawrence daughters, Geraldine (1852-1936)and Henrietta Eliza (1851-1935)

(The Digbys seem to have had a great attachment to the names ‘Henrietta and John’ , which can be confusing at times)

The Guinness family are often mentioned in connection with the ownership of the Aran islands. 


This is because Henrietta Eliza St Lawrence married Benjamin Lee Guinness jnr in 1881. Benjamin was the brother of Lord Ardilaun, a.k.a, Arthur Guinness of Ashford Castle. 

1880 was marked on the islands by a concerted effort at relieving distress. This resulted from the almost complete failure of the potato crop in 1879 & 1880. 

So great was the distress that relief came from all over Ireland and abroad with the leading agency being the Dublin based Mansion House committee. 

So this is the background of years of distress as the Land court held its sittings in Cill Rónáin courthouse in 1884, 85 and 86. 

The Digby owners  had for decades given a free hand to their land agent to manage the islands as he saw fit. Firstly to George Thompson and then to his son Thomas. 

In order to avoid expense and stress, the islanders in 1882 had requested that the land agent, Thomas Thompson of Clonskeagh castle in Dublin, enter into a voluntary agreement with the islanders which could then be registered with the court. 

Thompson rejected this offer, possibly convinced that the islanders would be reluctant to apply to the new Land court and if they did, the rents would not be reduced substantially. He may have not understood the radical implications nationwide, of the recent Land Act. 

This was a serious miscalculation on his part. 

As well as rejecting appeals for rent reductions, Thompson pushed ahead with evictions in June 1882 as the following report indicates. 

A report on evictions in 1882 compiled by
Anna Parnell’s Ladies Land League.
(We suspect that most if not all were readmitted.) 

In Mayo in 1882, some tenants were warned that if they used the Land Courts they would be immediately sued for arrears. This tactic may also have been employed on the islands. 

While the Digby/Barfoot/Guinness owners appear to have had very little direct involvement in Island life, this was not the case with the Thompsons. 

Thomas was grandmaster of the Trinity College Orange Order and one of the most strident and bigoted anti Catholic voices in Dublin. 

To make matters worse, he was also a fervent believer in God, and felt he had a duty to convert the Roman Catholic islanders to the right path to salvation. Another example of the ugly combination of politics and religion in Ireland, down through the ages. 

Thompson’s reluctance to engage with the islanders may also have been a reaction to the many agrarian incidents on the islands in those years. 

The arrival as curate in November 1879 of Fr David Fahey from Ballyconneely soon saw a branch of the Land League established. 

David had inspired his flock in Ballyconneely and they objected strongly to him being moved to Arran, after less than two years in the parish. 

David’s involvement in rent agitation in Connemara most likely caused his hasty transfer.

There had been a number of incidents on the islands. 

Disputes over seaweed rights had in November 1880, led to thirty policemen being brought to the island on the HMS Goshawk after fears were expressed that the islanders were going to occupy some shores. The show of force was effective but the police had to remain on until a case against a local man was heard in the island courthouse. 

The thatched courthouse in Kilronan. 

Seems a man named Bryan McDonagh, who had recently returned from America, was charged with knocking some walls of the Protestant minister, William Kilbride. 

Before magistrates Benjamin Hill and James O’Flaherty, McDonagh was convicted and fined £5 with £1 compensation or two months in prison. 

He had also been charged with following the local bailiff Bart Hernon and threatening to take his life. This charge was dismissed but the threat would be attempted by others on two occasions in 1882. 

After a collection from those present, the fine was paid and McDonagh left the court to loud and sustained cheering. (£6 was a lot of money in 1880)

It’s quite possible that as McDonagh had refused to pay the fine, the prospect of him being a martyr in jail, inflaming tensions even further, may have induced those in authority to contribute. This may even have included some of the policemen, the magistrates and perhaps Rev Kilbride himself. 

Knowing what their neighbours in North West Connemara had done previously to livestock on the Blake estate, in January 1881, more than twenty cattle belonging to the islands biggest Catholic tenant and middleman, James O’Flaherty JP had been deliberately herded off the high cliffs west of Dún Aengus. The main organisers of this cruel atrocity were the father and uncle of the famous writers, Liam and Tom O’Flaherty. 

The high cliffs west of Dún Aengus, over which
James O’Flaherty’s cattle were tumbled to their deaths in January 1881

The year previous to this a local Protestant shopkeeper and farmer had nine sheep and eight lambs driven over a 100ft cliff. His horse had suffered the same fate previously he claimed.  

Thompson must have realised that his grip on the islands was weakening and this may have made him determined to resist any rent compromises. 

Thompson’s bailiff Bart Hernon, would suffer two assassination attempts. He was unharmed after the first but the second, on the night of April 5th 1882, resulted in a bullet from a revolver striking Bart on the cheekbone. 

The injury was not too serious but the incident would see a young Cill Rónáin man, Bryan Kilmartin unjustly convicted. We wrote about this case previously. Bryan Kilmartin imprisoned in 1882

Between 1882 and 1884, relief employment was
given to locals, during the repairing of Dún Aengus. 

And so in April 1884 one hundred and twenty cases came before the Land Court in Kilronan. 

Some were withdrawn and some fell on a technicality but the outcome was that Thompson later appealed seventy eight cases at the weeklong land court in Galway in October of the same year. It seems the April court had reduced rents by between 30% and 40%. A massive cut. 

In September 1884,  the sub commissioners had visited the islands amid claims that the land agent was actively obstructing the whole process. 

While some other landlords who appealed at the Galway sitting, had their cases dismissed as they had failed to pay the stamp duty due, Thompson avoided this as he had asked for an adjournment in order to address issues over seaweed and shore rights. 

There was also some confusion over rents due as previous to this the agents office at the courthouse had been broken into and the rent books in a locked metal box, stolen. 

An island trawler, possibly passing over the spot where 
Pat Ganly dumped the metal box containing the rent books.

It is claimed that the the box was dramatically dumped in Cill Éinne bay near to the lighthouse on Oileán an Tuí (Straw Island). The culprit was allegedly Pat Ganly, whose brother Tom was chief suspect in the attempted assassination of the bailiff in 1882. Its unlikely that either Tom or Pat acted alone. 

In October 1884, twelve island tenants had come to town in a hooker and they pointed out how they should be compensated for a wasted Journey as Thompson’s appeals would not be heard. 

Judge John O’Hagan (1825-1890) said he would consider the matter and having done so, found in favour of the twelve who had been present on day one. 

The Jesuit educated, former Young Irelander,
 John O’Hagan, who heard the appeals in 
Galway in October 1884. 
His life was documented in 2022
by Fr Thomas J Morrissey SJ.
ISBN  9781788125963

We are sure more than one glass was raised in Delargy’s and other pubs around Galway docks, to the health of Judge O’Hagan.

 The publican Neal Delargy from Cushendall, was captain of the paddle steamer, SS Citie of the Tribes and was a regular visitor to the islands. 

SS Citie of the Tribes, which plyed in those days between the many ports on Galway Bay. 
Followed by the SS Duras which was built in 1892.
Photo National Library of Ireland.

However, word of the prospect of winning expenses from Thompson prompted some islanders who happened to be in town on what was claimed to be other business but who were not present on day one, to make a similar claim for compensation. 

Judge O’Hagan was not impressed. 

If Thomas Thompson can be described as a fervent Protestant then it must be recorded that he was pleading before an equally fervent Roman Catholic. 

When he died in 1890, Judge O’Hagan directed that his cliff side property ‘Glenaveena House’ in Howth be left to the Sisters of Charity on condition that the Blessed Sacrament be retained there. The nuns ran a retreat centre there for over a hundred years but sold it in 2019 for almost €2 million. 

                         BACK AGAIN IN 1885

The Land Court sat again in Kilronan in June 1885. With the prospect of substantial cuts to their rent, ninety five cases were listed. Some were withdrawn and some fell on a technicality but of the fifty nine cases heard, all had their rents reduced by between 35% and 40%.

Here is a list of those who had their rents reduced with both the old and new rents recorded. 

This is not a full list of tenants from the three islands as some had their cases heard in 1884 and more would get relief at the 1886 sitting. 

The islands at this time were making national and international headlines as hunger and distress was once again a serious issue after a poor harvest, the collapse of kelp prices and a decline in fishing. 

The never ending story of distress. 


Assisted the Islands in1885 

Without proper ocean going boats, the islanders were never going to catch the abundant fish which foreign boats were scooping up. 

It was at this time that Fr O’Donahoe and the islanders had seen some vast catches in the holds of foreign trawlers that called to Kilronan and the idea of jumpstarting a local fishing revival began. 

This would be realised a few years later when the Congested Districts Board helped with new boats and some women benefactors did likewise. The board also contracted some Arklow fishermen to fish out of Aran for a time, to help get things going. 

The three sub commissioners who sat in 1885 were Michael Joseph Crean from Tipperary, Professor Thomas Baldwin from Waterford and James Grene Barry from Limerick. 

Crean was a barrister, Baldwin an agricultural scientist and Barry was a Justice of the Peace as well as being a landlord and land agent.  

James Green Barry was also a well known antiquarian and archaeologist and he used his time on the islands to inspect, not just the holdings but also the many antiquities, writing and  giving lectures about them at a later time. 

The three judges were accompanied  by the barrister Oliver J Burke (1825-1889) from Headford, a knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great. Oliver was the official Registrar. 

The writer and barrister Oliver J Burke used his time as registrar to the Land Court
to compile material for his 1897 book
The South Isles of Arran

The general distress on the islands in 1885, made it inevitable that the judges would reduce rents. 

Reductions in rent were inevitable,
 given the widespread distress

In 1887 Oliver would publish his book, ‘The South Isles of Aran’ after gathering information during his visits. 

Thomas Thompson must have been stunned at how sympathetic the judges were but between the abject poverty of many islanders and the determination of the commissioners to honour the commitment to the famous three Fs, it was inevitable that rents would be greatly reduced.

A call for compensation for the overpayments
of previous rents. Also pointing out that the

new rents were “judicial” rather than “fair”. 

There was shock in some quarters at the huge reductions and the land agent Thomas Thompson was the likely author of a piece in the ascendency newspaper, the Dublin Daily Express, which presented the islands as being a modern version of Tir na nÓg or Nirvana. 

Negative reaction
to rent reductions. 

Our suspicions that Thompson wrote or dictated the piece is that the newspaper was owned at the time by the brother-in law of one of the owners. This was Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun of Ashford Castle, whose brother Benjamin was married to Henrietta Digby, Barfoot, St Lawrence, countess of Howth. 

In fairness, the Guinness family had a long history of civic generosity but it’s likely they had little knowledge or interest in the islands and left matters to the land agent. 

In his book on the islands, Oliver J Burke gives a great account of the day in Kilronan courthouse. It includes some humorous exchanges and presents Thomas Thompson as he took the stand. Because of advancing years, Thomson had delegated some of his agent duties to Henry Robinson of Roundstone. Thomas would not live to attend the 1886 court. 

                       BACK ONCE AGAIN IN 1886

The Land Court sat again in Kilronan in 1886 where once again rents were reduced substantially. With food relief landing on the islands at the same time, the outcome could hardly have been different. 

Aid for the islanders was arriving at the
same time as the court was sitting. 
Sir Thomas F Brady, inspector of fisheries, 
was a heroic figure to people on the west coast. 

Oliver J Burke gives a vivid description of the 1886 trip. On the morning of July 20th a British navy gunboat  left Galway docks for Arran. Burke was accompanied by three sub commissioners, Crean, Bayley and Rice. They battled a gale all the way to Kilronan and then found the islands cut off for a week. This was before the telegraph cable was laid in 1892. 

The harshness of living on the islands was evident to the judges and was reflected once again in the substantial reduction in rents. Just a few months earlier the same gunboat had delivered food aid and seed potatoes and three men from Inis Meáin had been lost while trying to rescue a crew from an upturned currach, returning home with seed potatoes. We wrote about this a few years ago. Death and hunger in 1886

Fifty four cases were before the court. Two were dismissed on a technicality but the remaining cases saw a huge reduction in rent from between 35% and 40%

Although these sittings and rulings between 1884 and 1886 would substantially ease tensions on the islands, the agitation would continue and culminate in a famous pitched battle with police in 1887 and many evictions during the 1890s. 

We wrote about that 1887  battle some years ago.

However, the various Land Acts would eventually lead to a huge transfer of land from landlords to their former tenants. This only applied to Ireland and today, the vast majority of land in the U.K. is still owned by a tiny few. 

The Land Act of 1881 and others which followed, coincided with a huge change in political power in Ireland. Previous to this the landlords and ascendency could more or less choose the majority of MPs. 

This would all change with first the introduction of secret ballots in the Ballot Act of 1872 and the enlarging of those eligible to vote from 224,000 to 700,38 after Gladstone’s  Representation of the People Act of 1884. (This of course did not apply to women, who would have to wait until 1918)

Under the reformed system, the body in Ireland with the most power to influence candidate selection and election, was the Roman Catholic Hierarchy. Parnell would be both a beneficiary and a victim of the new reality. 

Land ownership on the islands today is still greatly influenced by the various Land Acts and those Land Commission sittings in the 1880s, marked the beginning of the end, of the old order. 

It should also be noted that the islands had quite a number of landless inhabitants to whom the rent reductions meant very little. This was particularly true of the fishing village of Cill Éinne.

We wrote before about a particularly harrowing visit to Árainn in 1888 by Michael Davitt and an American journalist. The situation in Cill Éinne was documented in pitiful detail. Be warned. 

You can read about it in two parts. 

Part one

Part two

More than 140 years have passed since the first sitting of the Land Court in Cill Rónáin and the generations over those years had their lives greatly influenced by the judgements handed down. 

The realisation that things had changed must have been an important inducement to many of the Landlord class all over Ireland, to accept state offers for their estates which would be distributed to their former tenants. 

Michael Muldoon

May 2024