Home Guard – Frank McNally on the Bodyke Evictions of 1887
An Irishman’s Diary
A sketch of the Bodyke Evictions from the United Ireland newspaper of June 18th, 1887. Courtesy of Clare County Library
In the fight against the Bodyke Evictions, a cause célèbre of 1880s Clare, women played a leading role. This reflects in part the domestic nature of weapons deployed against the “crowbar men”, which included boiling water, vitriol, and even projectile cow-dung. At subsequent court hearings, 22 out of 26 people charged with assault of bailiffs and police were female.
One judge lamented that they had behaved in such an “unwomanly manner”. But Michael Davitt, who supported the defenders in person and later returned to Bodyke to present medals to the veterans, disagreed.
“The smallest of birds – the wren – will hiss and fight to do its little best to repel whatever enemy intrudes upon its young,” he said [to shouts of “hear, hear”, as reported by The Nation] in 1887. “Surely women are never more true to the instincts of [their] sex than when they stand up in defence of the homestead […].”
The saga at Bodyke had begun in 1879, a year of near famine in Ireland, when many tenants fell into rent arrears. Col John O’Callaghan opposed substantial reductions at his 5,000-acre Clare estate, which in 1881 led to the first “Battle of Bodyke”. After that, an uneasy peace reigned until 1887 when evictions resumed.
Tenants were well warned and, from late May, had been barricading themselves into their homes. By the time the massed forces of law arrived on June 2nd, the local and international press had assembled. So had a crowd of 8,000, ready to cheer the resistance if not join it.
One of the defending tenants was Frank O’Halloran, a young man newly returned from the US, who – as quoted in this newspaper – described their strategy.
Having first made the ground floor of the house as inaccessible as possible, to the point where the family themselves came and went via an upstairs window, with a plank, they then removed some floorboards, “in order that we could scald the bailiffs” if they broke in below.
Families also deployed poles and pitchforks, to deter ladder-based invasion, until Davitt – fearing bloodshed – confiscated the forks. Here too, women were in the thick of it. When an armed policeman forced his way through an upstairs window, O’Halloran’s sister Honoria grabbed his rifle by the bayonet.
Worried the officer would yank it violently away and “cut her fingers off”, O’Halloran sent him sprawling with a punch, leaving Honoria in possession of the gun, which she used “to scatter” other invaders, non-fatally. The captive policeman might then have been thrown out the window by male members of the family had not another force for moderation – “Father Hannon”, who was inside with them – intervened, worried it would be signal for police to start shooting.
To the consternation of Col O’Callaghan, press coverage was mostly sympathetic to the tenants. The police too were severely criticised. The Pall Mall Gazette, from London, reported that “the conduct of the constabulary has gone from bad to worse until it has reached a stage of brutality quite incredible”.
By the end of the week, 28 tenants had been evicted, but it was an empty legal victory. In most cases they simple reoccupied the houses that night. Even so, land agitation in Boydyke continued for years after. Only when the Land Commission compulsorily acquired O’Callaghan’s local holdings in 1909 was the problem finally resolved.
Speaking of constabulary, there was another, quirkier sequel to the evictions, involving a later generation.
I learned of it from reader Jim Driscoll, whose grandmother Bridget McNamara, then only 14, and her younger sister Ann, were among the defenders, along with their brother Francis.
Jim didn’t know this until he went digging through archives last year and was delighted to discover their politico-criminal record: “Frank I am so proud of my grandmother’s involvement in the event as it was never mentioned by my father or any other member of his family. If you write about this, would it be possible to mention my grandmother’s and Ann’s marriage names?”.
It would, Jim. Bridget married an O’Driscoll from Drimeen, Ann a Fahy from Scariff. Their brother Francis married too, meanwhile, which is where the quirky part arises. In due course, this defier of the constabulary acquired five sons, born between 1896 and 1905, all of whom grew up to become Garda officers in the Free State.
Jim even includes copies of their service records. From which I note with interest bordering on suspicion that four of the brothers – John, Joseph, Francis, and Michael – were each exactly 5 feet 9-and-a-half, just over the minimum requirement then.
But any suspected shortfalls must have compensated for by the fifth and youngest, Thomas. He came in at 6ft 1, greatly improving the average.