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One of the most famous evictions and resistance movements during the Land War took place in July 1888 on the Vandeleur Estate near Kilrush, County Clare. The Vandeleur evictions are still remembered locally as one of the darkest periods in the area's history. Spectators to these evictions numbered in the hundreds, and there was even a sizeable press corps to document the events.

Evictions on the Vandeleur Estate, Kilrush, July, 1888 by Ed O’Shaughnessy

Major E. J. O'Shaughnessy, a visiting Irish-American activist, his wife Margaretta Dunn O'Shaughnessy, and her sister Ellen Dunn, were among the witnesses to the evictions, and Major O'Shaughnessy subsequently wrote extensively about his experiences. Major O'Shaughnessy's greatgrandson, Ed O'Shaughnessy, has spent over six years studying the many photographs taken during the evictions and the photographers who took them. He has the wonderful advantage of access to family archives and memories handed down since 1888. You can read Mr. O'Shaughnessy original article here.

Written and shared by Mr. Ed O'Shaughnessy:

Ireland has a long history of Ascendancy landlords evicting their tenants.  During the Great Hunger period of the 1840s eviction often meant death or emigration.  Faced with such a stark choice, it was during those years that emigration peaked.  Wholesale evictions returned in the 1880s, largely a consequence of a decade-long depression in crop prices.  When the tenant farmer could not earn a sufficient income from the sale of his crops, he could not pay his rent.  Ireland was largely an agrarian economy, and, for many, there was no alternative employment to farming.  When unpaid rent accumulated, callous landlords chose eviction over any other recourse.  Though not on the same scale as during the 1840s, evictions in the 1880s also prompted the decision to emigrate.  

Descendants of evicted tenants, three to four generations removed, vaguely aware of family history, may seek greater understanding of their ancestors’ plight.  That is often difficult to achieve.  The feeling is that more is known about the landlord class than is known about the tenants.  This holds true, with the exception of one remarkable historical episode.  

Evictions from the Vandeleur Estate 1888

The eviction of twenty-five tenant farming families from the Vandeleur estate in July 1888 was robustly documented, in print and in photographs.  We know the names of the families who were evicted, and, in many cases, we can follow their story post-eviction.  This is especially so, when descendants can be identified.  
From research recently conducted, we have learned that descendants of those present at the Vandeleur estate evictions; descendants of tenant farmers, of agents of the National League, of agents of the Crown, and of the observers; are found today in the UK, Canada, the US and Australia.  Adding their family memories and photographs to primary source documentation can be a very satisfying experience.

The Vandeleur estate, the largest landed estate in county Clare, was centered on the market town of Kilrush.  At the time of the July 1888 evictions, the estate was home to several thousand tenant farming families.  The landlord, Captain Hector S. Vandeleur, epitomized the term ‘merciless landlord’.  Inheriting the estate in 1881, the landlord and his lady quickly tired of the Irish country life and returned to the urbane life of London, leaving management of the estate in the hands of a land agent.  In a callous expression of colonialism, this absentee landlord extracted rack rents from his estate with little investment his estate or concern to improve his tenants’ environment. 

1888 - Spectators Observe The Eviction Of The Bermingham Family From Their Cottage On The Vandeleur Estate In Kilrush, Co. Clare.

Image: 1888 - Spectators Observe The Eviction Of The Bermingham Family From Their Cottage On The Vandeleur Estate In Kilrush, Co. Clare. | Source: County Clare Library

When unpaid rents had accumulated for several years, and after unsuccessful negotiations between the tenants and the landlord’s agent, the landlord called upon the Crown’s administration to enforce his will to evict.  Twenty-five families were chosen by the land agent for the first series of evictions.  To comply with the law, the eviction list was provided to the authorities and publicly posted with the courts that had legal jurisdiction.  These tenants knew they were to be evicted, and they prepared.
 Keen to reinforce the landlord, the Crown’s administration deployed a formidable eviction force, consisting of one hundred twenty British soldiers, one hundred twenty Royal Irish Constabulary, armed with batons, pistols, rifles and bayonets, and approved the procurement of a battering ram.  In addition to this array of power, was an uncompromising Sheriff, six Crown-appointed magistrates, one dozen bailiffs, and several royalist politicians. 

The tenants did not face this threat singly or unaided.  They had agreed to adopt the National League’s Plan of Campaign.  An integral aspect of the plan was the decision to present a united front.  All the tenants pledged to resist their eviction, rather than passively accept it.  The National League provided legal support, financial support and community support.  Nationalist Members of Parliament were present as advocates for the tenants, as were the local clergy and the majority of the observers.  It has been argued that a photographer, present each day of the evictions, was a National League man himself, intent on capturing on film the harsh actions of the eviction party, and the heroism of the tenants.

Plan of Campaign

The evictions began on July 18 and they ended on July 31.  Because all tenants had pledged to the Plan of Campaign, all but one, were present when the eviction force arrived at their homes, and, in most cases, resisted their eviction.  The level of resistance varied, from minimal to a stubborn defense where blood was shed.  In those latter cases, after the eviction was completed, the home was destroyed by the battering ram.  

Evictions from the Vandeleur Estate in 1888

As these evictions had been long anticipated, there was great interest in the outcome.  The Crown had a vested interest in supporting the landlord and the outcome was pre-determined.  But the sentiment eventually went against the actions of the landlord and the Crown’s agents.  Press correspondents flooded syndicated news channels with detailed accounts, which were, by and large, sympathetic to the tenant.  Nationalist Members of Parliament, present at the evictions, challenged the reports of Royalist Members of Parliament in debates in the House of Commons.  Shocking eviction photographs were widely circulated, and in several cases projected onto large screens in public meetings in England.  Witnesses communicated their observations and thoughts to friends and colleagues, and in letters to newspaper editors.
Within several months influential people in England had come to believe that some remediation was in order.  The landlord was cajoled into accepting the judgement of an independent arbiter.  Though it took about a year to reach a satisfactory conclusion, Captain Vandeleur was forced to agree to terms suggested by the negotiators before the evictions were implemented.  Rents were forgiven and reduced.  Rents paid were applied to repairing the homes destroyed by the battering ram.  All the tenants who wished to be so were reinstated to their homes.  

But the process of remediation, rebuilding and reinstatement was not a straight forward pursuit.  The landlord sought opportunities to back slide.  While awaiting a favorable outcome, the tenants were not unhoused nor unsubsidized.  Many were offered temporary housing in so-called “National League huts”, cleverly designed wooden buildings that could be quickly assembled, disassembled when no longer needed, and transported to other locations as needed.  Other tenants accepted living arrangements with family and neighbors.  The tenant indemnity fund, managed by the National League, provided funds for essential needs.  Farmers were allowed to return to work their fields.  

Still, some members of the larger families, concluding that the land would not support them, emigrated.  

This lecture below was given by Ed O’Shaugnessy to the Kilrush and District Historical Society via Zoom on Tuesday 15 June 2021 at 8pm Irish Summer Time.

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Evictions from the Vandeleur Estate in 1888

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