A Christmas Eve Eviction

Published in Personal History

The village of Lisaniska, in which I was born lies six miles east of Castlebar. Shaped roughly like a horse-shoe, it was created or rather re-created at the beginning of the 20th C by the Congested Districts Board on land purchased from Lord Lucan. Each of ten families, migrants from the Pontoon area, received a parcel of arable land with a slated cottage, outhouses and a shelter belt of evergreens. Some had apple orchards. In addition there was an individual allotment of rushy scrubland at the eastern boundary of the village, capable of supporting limited grazing.
As a child, I was occasionally asked by elderly parishioners where I was from. When I told them, the reply was sometimes “ Oh, you’re from the farm”, which puzzled me until I discovered that, about a hundred years earlier, what was then a village had become one farm, created by Lord Lucan after the eviction of its tenant-occupants
That eviction from Lisaniska happened sometime during the Famine decade, though there is, as far as my research went, no record of it. It meant the eviction of a whole village – a population of two hundred and thirty four people from thirty two houses, on a Christmas Eve. They were there in the census of 1841, hearsay is that they had carried stones to help in the construction of a new church in their parish, Keelogues, which opened in 1841 and is still there today. A decade later, in the census of 1851, they had gone, the population reduced to six people – a tenant retained as herdsman and his family.
The back story to this event, according to parish lore, was a poker-game in the house of Fitzgerald of Turlough Park, a local landlord. (This house is now the Museum of Country Life, the fourth house of the National Museum of Ireland). Fitzgerald, losing heavily to Lord Lucan of Castlebar at poker, in a last attempt to reverse his fortunes, gambled the village of Lisaniska – and lost.
It seems that the local paper, the Connaught Ranger did not consider the event newsworthy, presumably because evictions were so commonplace – it is estimated that on Lucan’s orders, as many as two thousand people were evicted and three hundred cabins levelled in the Ballinrobe area between 1846 and 1849 –preferring to give space to accounts of Hunt Balls or levees or even a dreadful poem on the birth of a son to the English royal family – “Proclaim, proclaim/ a prince has burst the womb”! Neither did the large carefully scripted tomes of Land Registry hold any record of the transfer of ownership from Fitzgerald to Lucan while Maps in Bishop St confirmed that the name of the village hadn’t changed, at least since 1839. The evicted people are reputed to have lingered on the outskirts of two neighbouring villages. Fitzgerald, conscious of the fact that he was responsible for their plight, tried to resettle them in the villages in question. The predominant name in Lisaniska before the eviction was Dempsey, although nobody of that name lived in close proximity to the repopulated village of my youth.
Lucan had made no secret of his belief that cattle rearing was more profitable than having tenants; the objective of his successful efforts in the House of Lords to have the railway line extended to the west was to facilitate the export of cattle to Britain. This latter ambition was never realised, due to competition from Argentina.
Nonetheless his agricultural improvements, subsequent to his numerous evictions, were much admired by the Victorian philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who toured Ireland accompanied by the Nationalist, Charles Gavin Duffy, in the aftermath of the Great Famine. There were a few sideways references to the human cost of the dispossession of vast numbers of tenants but Carlyle’s admiration for Lucan’s achievements outweighed all non-agricultural considerations. It is hard to reconcile the idea that Carlyle was a respected philosopher with his observation on young men aimlessly shovelling small amounts of clay outside Westport’s poorhouse “ In face of all the twaddle of the earth, shoot a man rather than train him to be a deceptive human swine”
Occasionally, when ploughing, my father would uncover broken crockery, a piece of a plate or of a china cup. He estimated that an average field probably held as many as four houses. Today, of the ten farms created in 1907, only three have unbroken occupancy while five are uninhabited. The land belonging to the latter is either bought or rented by locals while two of the cottages have been re-built.
What must have seemed like undreamed of economic progress to the migrants to Lisaniska in 1907 was regarded, over time, as mere subsistence farming. That would be the economic explanation for its second, less dramatic population decline.
Cecilia McGovern
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