Sammon of wisdom – Áine Ryan on the heroic struggles of the Widow Sammon

An Irishwoman’s Diary

As bullets tore through her thatch on a summer's day in June 1921, she sat by her open fire smoking her clay pipe, unscathed and unconcerned about theWar of Independence battle happening outside her cottage. Known as the Carrowkennedy Ambush, it was between an RIC patrol and members of the IRA's West Mayo Brigade. You see, in so many ways, this ageing woman knew more about guerrilla warfare tactics than any of the men outside.

Well, by then it was over a quarter of a century since the Widow Sammon had begun her heroic battle to regain her right to the two-acre holding and the small cottage in which she had borne eight children between 1881 and 1894 to her late husband, John Sammon.

Since 1896 the diminutive and stooped widow had challenged the rights of the bailiffs and their battering rams again and again when she and her children – the eldest Sarah just 14, the youngest Hubert, two years old – were evicted from their tiny holding for rent arrears after all her meagre resources were depleted during her husband’s illness.

Bridget Conway married John Sammon of Carrowkennedy on February 26th, 1881, in her local church, St Patrick's, Aughagower, a village near Westport.

Records from the Marquess of Sligo's estate show that the holding she moved to at Carrowkennedy Grove had first been put in the Sammon name in 1786 for an annual rent of £3.

However, John Sammon’s health failed in the years after his marriage and despite constant care by his wife, he died in 1894.

In a desperate effort to pay the arrears of rent two years after her husband’s death, the Widow Sammon sold their only cow for £7 but the debt was £14, double the amount she could raise, and the land-agent refused to accept the amount, evicting her and her children during Christmas 1896.

It transpired one of the gamekeepers employed on the Marquess of Sligo's vast estate, Peter Scahill happened to have a farm the bailiff fancied, so he was given the Widow's holding in recompense.

Fortunately, the family was saved from Westport's Workhouse by the kindness of a neighbour, John Feeney, who provided them with temporary shelter before they moved to a room in the nearby national school, intended for the schoolmistress who preferred to live at home.

In so many cases the demoralisation and privations impacting on the morale of the poor in Co Mayo left them with no fight, but not so with the fiery Widow Sammon.

As the late Jarlath Duffy writes in Cathair na Mart, Westport Historical Journal (Volume 7, 1987): "Again and again she is before the Petty Sessions for abusive language and injury to property now in the possession of Scahill. After the court case in December 1897 at which she was reported to be in prison five times, she was fined. But further help was on her side in the persons of William O'Brien and Mr Harrington MP and a great demonstration took place in Westport. Scahill was hooted through the streets and had to have police protection."

Land reform activist and MP William O'Brien had lived in Westport for a while and he had co-founded the United Irish League, a radical movement for tenants' rights, in the west Mayo town with Michael Davitt in January 1898. The previous year William O'Brien, who had begun his professional life as a journalist, had championed the Widow's cause in the Freeman's Journal. Financial support was subsequently sent to her from as far away as Australia, with the Archbishop of Cashel sending a cheque for £5 and a note deploring "the ignoble trade of the landgrabber".

Over the next two decades the Widow Sammon’s plight would become a cause célèbre as she was repeatedly jailed for knocking walls, pulling up potato stalks, regularly hailing a litany of colourful abuse on the Scahills. At one court sitting, the local sergeant claimed she had called Scahills “landgrabbers, sheep stealers, black-legs and other improper names”.

After her release from Castlebar Jail on October 22nd, 1898, she was accompanied by the townspeople and the local band to the railway station. Unsurprisingly, the tenacious Widow was back again in jail the following month for breaking one of Scahill's windows. Meanwhile, he enjoyed the protection of the local constabulary who established a watch-hut near the property to monitor her actions.

Ultimately, the Widow was reinstated in her house in April 1920 after the Congested Districts Board purchased the Sligo lands. By then most of her children had emigrated, but the youngest, Hubie, was still there at her side.

Indeed, he was alongside a group of masked IRA men who visited the Scahills in the dead of night just to be sure they moved on expeditiously.

At last the diminutive woman now known nationally and internationally as the Widow Sammon could stop her campaign. She passed away peacefully in 1929.