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