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Leitrim 1870: a society in transition (Parts 3 & 4 - Crime)

Through the 1840s, Leitrim was one of the most ‘disturbed’ counties in Ireland. Although the years after the Famine were marked by increasing prosperity, the unrest over land did not disappear. New tensions emerged over land, rent, unemployment and wages, and farmers were the target for over 60% of all crime and 27% of homicides. Dispossessed labourers were in conflict with their former landlords, and the new, smallholding tenants were in conflict with their new landlords. Such was the level of disturbance in Leitrim that it was one of the few counties to produce ‘intense sectarian convulsions’ in 1852.

Coercion, crime and sectarian convulsions

As the land clearances gained pace, evictions increased and those who took over the homes and lands of evicted tenants were often subject to abuse, their new homes burned or wrecked. Some were murdered. In 1851, two threatening letters were found in the house of Obadia Mee in Mohill directing him to ‘clear out of that country’ or to ‘expect the same death as Brooks, a farmer who had been brutally murdered. The notices also threatened landowner William Lawder and the bailiff, Henry Huston, with similar treatment, for ‘presuming to stock the country with Co. Cavan Protestants’. Apparently a number of those who took over lands of evicted tenants were from Co. Cavan and were ‘now daily suffering injuries’ from their new neighbours.

Mohill Courthouse
Sometimes labourers were targeted and threatened to get at the landholders. In one instance, workers on their way to Francis Nisbett’s farm in Gubadoriss were warned by a gang, armed and firing shots, not to work for under a shilling a day or to ‘mark the consequences’. These aggressions were usually carried out by organised Secret Societies and gangs like the Molly Maguires. According to the court there was ‘a gang of able-bodied robbers committing outrages every night in the town and neighbourhood who carry out their depredations without the least fear of molestation’. After two particularly brutal murders, the priest in Mohill pronounced a curse for five years on all those who joined these groups. In 1853, a conspiracy to murder Lord Clements was uncovered. In November, The Boyle Gazette reported that ‘private information’ had led to a warrant being issued against a Hugo Reynolds of Gortletteragh, as the person who had offered £5 to a certain person to commit the murder. But Reynolds ‘was so effectually secreted’, that it took three months for him to be found and committed to the county prison in Carrick-on-Shannon.

However, by 1860, the increased prosperity of the area was matched by a reduction in crime. In 1861, Thomas Larcom safely asserted that ‘the County has largely shared in that general decrease of crime which has, for years past, been taking place throughout the country’. In February 1870, Judge Keogh opened the Leitrim Assizes in Carrick-on-Shannon by telling the Grand Jury that, ‘I am happy to inform you that your duties on this occasion will be very light . . . It is very satisfactory that your county is entirely free from the crimes of a seditious or treasonous character’.

The murder of William O’Brien

This was not entirely true. Only months earlier, a murder widely accepted as an agrarian crime, occurred on the evening of 29th October 1869. William O’Brien, a local landowner, left Mohill at 11:00pm and was within sight of his home his home on the hill of Drumdoo when he was brutally murdered. O’Brien owned 90 acres, had 300 head of cattle and held a healthy balance of £1,000 cash in the bank. The Irish Times connected his murder with a ‘misunderstanding’ over property in Sligo for which he acted as agent, and it was certainly known that O’Brien had won ejectments against two or three families at the recent Quarter Sessions at Ballinamore. The Express newspaper reported that O’Brien was found in a ditch within forty perches of his own house, having apparently been killed from a gunshot wound in his neck, ‘but the head presented such a mangled and shapeless mass that no distinct wound could be traced’. O’Brien’s body was not found until the Friday morning. It had been cast face downwards and concealed under a bramble hedge. The search party of more than twenty policemen failed to find the body for nearly a full day, and only came across it when O’Brien’s dog was heard howling and found lying across its master’s body.

The Irish Times reported that the murder had created a ‘profound sensation here’, and went on: ‘The circumstances of atrocity attending it are so un-Irish and so seldom to be found in connection with even the worst agrarian crimes that one is perfectly appalled at their recital’. The paper named the accused parties as ‘four McLaughlins, two Reynoldses, two Flynns, Michael Kavanagh and James Mullany’. It reported that the ten men were being held in Carrick-on-Shannon, since there was such a ‘scene of excitement’ in Mohill when the prisoners were brought into town that the magistrates were ‘dreading an attempt at rescue’.

A disturbed county

Through the 1840s and 1850s, tensions and unrest over land, tenancy and employment made Leitrim was one of the most ‘disturbed’ counties in Ireland. As the Famine abated and prosperity increased, new disputes emerged over land, with dispossessed labourers desperately resisting eviction and emigration and new classes of landlord farmers and smallholders seeking greater security of tenure and ownership. These grievances underpinned a general sense of lawlessness that pervaded through the 1850s. 
In the 1850s, notwithstanding the unrest over land and tenancy issues, Mohill was a fairly lively spot, particularly on Fair Day, when riots and fights would break out, and people had to watch out for gangs of petty thieves and pickpockets roaming the streets. The local constabulary were only partly successful imposing the rule of law: on one occasion, two constables who tried to break up a riot were assaulted and beaten ‘in a most savage manner’. In 1853, in an effort to return the town to some semblance of Christian order, shops were banned from opening on Sundays. 

Mohill Petty Sessions

As well as being drunk and disorderly, and rioting and fighting, Mohill Petty Sessions recorded a catalogue of offences that included shots being fired, windows broken and arson attacks on houses, as well as burglaries, robberies, poisoning, infanticide and cattle-stealing. Mrs Little’s hotel was burgled, and even the Church in Mohill was robbed, the thieves making away with chalices, surplices and pew candles. Every week, there were cases of farmers suing each other over cattle and asses trespassing on neighbours’ property.
Individuals resorted to the law to right injustices. In one session, a woman won a case against her employer for his failure to pay her a quarter’s wages. A new bride, four months into her marriage, sued her husband for beating her and making her life miserable. Some tenants resorted to entreating Lord Clements to right wrongs perpetrated by their own family. One letter from a Mrs McKeon beseeched Clements to intervene to return land and a cabin to her which her son and daughter-in-law had ‘cruelly’ taken over.
Most petty crimes were dealt with by a fine. Sometimes the offenders got gaol sentences, like the vagrant found begging, or John Clyne who hit John Hunt with a horsewhip on Fair Day: both found themselves serving two weeks in gaol. Robbery was treated more seriously, with the standard sentence being transportation. At one court, a woman was convicted for stealing linen and a twelve-year old boy was found guilty of stealing bread and clothes: both got ten years transportation. Some offences were dealt with pragmatically: when fourteen men were brought into Mohill gaol for drinking during unlicensed hours, the Governor ‘cut their hair close-crop and gave each a cold shower or bath, twenty-four hours in solitary, and then sent them home’. 

'Neglect and bad laws'

The 2nd Earl of Leitrim blamed the government for the ‘neglect and bad laws’, writing that they had inflicted such misery that the people were reduced to desperation and recklessness. ‘Such things do not exist when the people are prosperous and contented’, he wrote. He may have been right. By 1860, increased prosperity in Leitrim had been matched by a reduction in crime across the county. The murder near Mohill of William O’Brien in 1869, gained headlines worldwide but was unusual in its seriousness and viciousness. (Unlike in Donegal, where the 3rd Earl was in a constant, and increasingly violent, battle with tenants.) 

Crime 1870

In February 1870, Leitrim was declared to be ‘entirely free from the crimes of a seditious or treasonous character’ and crime, for the most part, was limited to petty thieving and poaching. The Leitrim Journal & Carrick-on-Shannon Advertiser reported some of the cases, like that of James Kane and James Bohan who were found guilty of assaulting Kate Kilroy to prevent her giving evidence against the brother of one of them. Kate was milking her mother’s cow in a field when the assailants ‘came behind her, knocked her down, and kicked her’. The men were found guilty of common assault and each sentenced to six months in prison with hard labour. 
In a rather sad case, Rose Keany was charged with killing and murdering a female infant whose body had been found in the woman’s potato garden. Infanticide was not unusual and the women accused of it were treated harshly, not just in sentencing but by the judicial system in general. In Rose’s case, the Leitrim Journal’s report was not written to evoke empathy: it describes her as a ‘repulsive looking woman, apparently about 45 years of age,’ and notes that she was a widow and the child was illegitimate. Much of the evidence against her was based on interviews with her two sons, aged eight and ten. The judge determined that she could not be charged with murder but she was found guilty of concealing a birth and sentenced to 12 months in prison with hard labour. 
Other cases were more prosaic. Patrick Reilly reported that his ass had been stolen, and had traced the theft to Patrick Maguire, who, he alleged, had sold the ass at Arvagh fair. The court was not satisfied with the evidence and Maguire was acquitted. In another case, a group of poachers were found by a number of water-bailiffs, one of whom shot at and wounded one of the poachers, Terence McGrath. The McGrath party retaliated by attacking the bailiffs with stones. Terence was fined £5; Thomas McGrath was fined 10 shillings. 
The Petty Sessions Order Books record a range of minor offences each month: February was relatively quiet with 16 cases; a total of 30 were heard in March, and 37 in May. Common offences were being drunk and disorderly, allowing an ass or horse to wander on a public road, allowing a cart to remain on the public road, fighting in town, driving furiously through the town, and having a dog without a licence. Most of these carried fines ranging from 6 pence to 6 shillings, and were usually paid up in court. More serious crimes like assault or ‘insubordination in the workhouse’, could carry a short term in gaol.