The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine and Emigration, Robert J. Scally (Oxford University Press, £21.50)

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 1995), Reviews, The Famine, Volume 3

Ralahine, Prosperous, Kingwilliamstown, Dolly’s Brae, Ceim an Fhia, Carrickshock: small, insignificant places, yet places with strong resonances in Irish history. Is Ballykilcline, an obscure Roscommon townland containing fewer than five hundred souls on the eve of the Famine, now about to join them? Probably not, for a few reasons. Part of the problem is that too much about the ‘rebellion’ of Ballykilcline, the main focus of Bob Scally’s thoughtful and important book, has been lost. Scally has dug deep and long and done a fine job of teasing a narrative out of rather slender evidence. But his account of the long drawn-out battle between the tenants of a tiny Crown estate and its owners has to rely mainly on patchy material from the Quit Rent Office. Little concrete is known about the rebel leaders—’the most lawless and violent set of people in the County Roscommon’ according to the Crown’s agent—beyond their names and the sizes of their holdings. Folk memory offers little help; in 1954 an eighty-six-year-old woman living in one of the three remaining houses in Ballykilcline stated, accurately enough, that before the Famine ‘there were eighty families and most of them were evicted’, but she left it at that. Again, although much of his book is about Ballykilcline, Scally presents its story as a parable for what might have happened in many other small places. This explains the book’s title, dustjacket, and illustrations. The illustrations describe places ranging from Kerry to Antrim, and a group photograph of people living in Gaoth Dobhair in the 1870s graces the cover. So for Scally Ballykilcline is not just Ballykilcline: it is also a kind of pre-Famine ‘Ballybeg’ or ‘Inishkillane’.
The outlines of what happened in Ballykilcline are clear enough. The townland was Crown property, but had been leased for several decades to the Mahons of nearby Strokestown House. In 1834, the incumbent of Strokestown, Lord Hartland, went mad. Almost simultaneously—and the timing was crucial—the Mahon lease on the property expired. As various Mahons disputed the ownership of Strokestown in the courts, the Crown’s officers waited, presumably intent on re-leasing the land to the new owner. In the meantime the Ballykilcline tenants stopped paying rent. By October 1841 their arrears had mounted to a whopping £3,000. Some of the ringleaders were evicted in 1844, but they soon re-possessed their cabins and lands. Charged with forcible entry, they were acquitted by what the agent dubbed ‘a set of the lowest and most ignorant men that could be impannelled’. The dispute continued. An exasperated lord lieutenant declared the property ‘for years past the most mismanaged in Ireland’. After further negotiations and threats and petitions, the Crown finally decided on a radical plan in late 1846. Ballykilcline would be cleared and converted into viable holdings, and its recalcitrant tenants emigrated to America at public expense. The first batch of Ballykilcline tenants headed for Dublin by cart in September 1847. Others followed, more reluctantly, in the following months. The estate, valued at nearly £10,000, was sold for only £5,500 in 1849. Scally’s gentle and sympathetic account thus revolves around two of the most important features of Irish nineteenth-century rural life, land and emigration.
Ballykilcline contains less than a square mile of relatively poor land, not much for nearly five hundred people. Yet though its tenants were poor, they were by no means equally poor. The more prosperous among them led the rent-strike. When the Crown sought to assert its property rights, those same tenants used toughness, legal wiles, and dubious petitions to confound and mollify them. On Scally’s telling, the ‘rebellion’ both evokes and anticipates the kind of collective action that would capture the headlines throughout Ireland in the 1880s. That the tenants’ world did not fall in when they found themselves without a landlord reflects the essentially parasitic character of landlords like the Mahons. However, the episode also shows the Crown as landlord in a humane light. Instead of leaving the evicted tenants to fend for themselves, the Crown chose instead to carry the heavy cost of emigrating about four hundred people, ‘rebels’ included, from Roscommon to Manhattan. Of course, as Stephen de Vere noted, the public sector could afford what was ‘far beyond the means of mere individuals’.
Bob Scally is an acknowledged expert on the tough conditions faced by Famine emigrants in Liverpool and on the Atlantic passage and his depiction of them makes harrowing reading. However, the final sections of his book might also be read as an unwitting reminder of how much more might have been achieved during the Famine by the expeditious emigration of more of the poor, particularly the landless poor. Because the Ballykilcline tenantry and their families were shipped out in good ships bound for the United States most of them survived the Famine. Only the healthy travelled, however; several tenants unwilling to desert elderly parents or handicapped siblings stayed on. So did the landless poor who had been living in the townland on the goodwill of their neighbours. They were dispossessed, leaving no trace.
Though there is no evidence that the rebels of Ballykilcline were parties to the famous conspiracy to murder Major Denis Mahon, the new owner of the Strokestown estate, there is an important connection between events in both places. The smallholders and farmers of Strokestown had quickly learned the trick of holding onto their rent money from their Ballykilcline neighbours, and by the time Strokestown House finally fell into the hands of Denis Mahon, he was owed £13,000 in rent.
The Ballykilcline emigrants disappear without trace once they disembark from the Roscius, the Channing, the Metoka, and the Progress in New York. It would be nice to know whether the communality which was damaged by the Famine was restored in the New World. That is a topic for further study, but it should not be so difficult to find an answer. Thanks to the industry of the Church of Latter Day Saints, in recent times the names of everybody enumerated in the United States censuses of 1850 and 1860 have been entered into massive computers in Salt Lake City. Some careful digging in the Mormon files should resurrect some of Bob Scally’s Padians, Reynolds, and Narys, who had shown such pluck and guile in faraway Ballykilcline.

Cormac Ó Gráda

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