Derryveagh evictions, 150 years on

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Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of one of the darkest days in the history of the north west, the Derryveagh evictions.

In April 1861 47 families were evicted from their homes on the Glenveagh Estate by the landlord, John George Adair. It was the culmination of dispute between the tenants and the new landowner.

More than 240 people were forced from their cottages by police and bailiffs, acting on the orders of Adair. Many later emigrated to Austalia while others found shelter in the nearby workhouse or with other families in the area. Their descendents can now be found in Australia, New Zealand, America, as well as Derry and Donegal.

The evictions have lived on in the folk memory of people in the north west and the landlord is still known by many as ‘Black’ Jack Adair.

The dispute began shortly after Adair, a large landowner from Laois with property in Texas, bought the Glenveagh estate and began building his famous castle. The land speculator first visited the area in 1857 and said he was “enchanted by the surpassing beauty of the scenery”. He returned the following year and bought 28,000 acres in the Gartan, Glenveagh, and Derryveagh areas. Over the next year he continued buying up land in the area, increasing the size of his estate. It was intention to build a hunting lodge on the estate to be used for shooting parties.

He also acquired the ‘fee-farm’ rights to the land at Derryveagh, which allowed him to receive rents from the tenants, but not the ownership of the land or the ‘sporting rights’, which would allow him to shoot over the land.

A year later an incident took place when Adair went out fowling on the Derryveagh land, which angered the tenants who regarded it as a violation of the tenant/landlord agreement.

The tenants beat the bushes in the area to spoil his shoot and formed a large circle around him wherever he went. Adair threatened the tenants with his gun and, ominously, told the tenants they “would pay dearly.

By 1859 he had acquired the title to all the land at Glenveagh, which meant he was in a position to evict the tenants if he wished.

In 1860 the heads of the Derryveagh families met with Adair to raise their concerns and at the meeting the landowner told the tenants he was planning to “rearrange the farm boundaries”.

In that same year an event took place which strengthened Adair’s resolve to evict the residents. The bloody body of his land steward, James Murray, was found on the mountain and, although his killer was never identified, Adair believed one of the tenants was responsible.

He applied for a special force of more than 200 police constables, including a detachment from Derry, to protect himself and his staff. It was these officers, accompanied by soldiers, a sheriff, and a ten-man ‘crowbar brigade’ hired from Tyrone, who carried out the evictions in 1861.

An eyewitness to the evictions wrote an account which was published by a Derry newspaper. It read; “The family of the Widow Mc Award was the first to face the terror of the Crowbar Brigade. The Sheriff, accompanied by Adair’s new Estate Manager, approached the house where the poor sixty year old woman lived with her six daughters and one son and long before the house was reached, loud cries were heard, piercing the air and soon the figures of the poor widow and her daughters were observed outside the house where they gave vent to their grief in strains of touching agony. Forced to discharge an unpleasant duty, the sheriff entered the house and delivered up possession to Mr Adair’s steward, whereupon a Crowbar Brigade of six men who had been brought from distance immediately fell to with right good will to level the house to the ground. The scene became indescribable.”

The ruins of the cottages from which the families were evicted can still be seen in Glenveagh National Park.