During the Great Famine and in its immediate aftermath, Irish landlords engaged in a campaign of mass evictions that was unprecedented in its extent and severity. These mass evictions are known as the famine clearances. One relatively moderate estimate puts the numbers permanently expelled from their homes at about half a million persons. This estimate refers to legally sanctioned evictions and does not take account of the countless informal ejections and so-called voluntary surrenders of land during the period.
Although few parts of rural Ireland escaped clearances altogether, as a rule they occurred most frequently in the more remote, poorer regions of the country, where subdivision of holdings had been carried on to its most extreme degree. Regions of the west and south of Ireland were therefore most affected by the clearances, with residents of counties such as Clare, Tipperary, and Mayo suffering more than others. The level of evictions in Tipperary was some twenty times that of Fermanagh, the county with the lowest incidence of clearance, and in Clare it has been calculated that one in every ten persons was permanently expelled from house and holding in the years between 1849 and 1854.
Before the famine evictions had been one of the great ills of the prevailing system of landholding in Ireland, prompted by many different circumstances, ranging from nonpayment of rent to the whim of the landlord. Mass clearance-evictions were rather infrequent, and occurred mainly where landlords sought to improve and modernize their properties by ridding them of the inefficiency of large numbers of smallholding occupiers. A clearance might occur in one great consolidation, with the ejection of very large numbers at once, or it might take place piecemeal wherever the surrender of middleman leases provided the opportunity of ejecting subtenants, with the landlord either taking the land into his own hands or redistributing it among a smaller number of occupiers. Famine-era clearances followed this basic pattern, but on a gigantic scale. Emerging with remarkable suddenness toward the end of 1847, the number of these clearances escalated over the next two years, peaking in 1850, after which the rate of eviction fell rapidly. By 1854 the clearances had come to an end in most parts of Ireland.
The sudden onset and exceptional severity of the famine clearances were the consequence of new government relief policies that added greatly to the economic troubles of landlords. A massive loss of rental income from successive years of crop failure and extreme deprivation, including actual starvation, together with encumbrances inherited from prefamine times, had already brought many landlords to the brink of insolvency. To these difficulties was added a hugely increased tax liability under the Poor Law Amendment Act of June 1847, which transferred the major responsibility for poor relief to Irish property owners. Most of them acted in the belief that the only way to avoid potentially ruinous liability was to eliminate their tax-bearing smallholdings altogether by the wholesale expulsion of the occupiers and the destruction of their dwellings. For the owners of large estates who were not in difficulties, the new pressures furnished a reason to finally resolve the problems of overcrowded properties and unprofitable holdings; for them the dislocation of the period presented a convenient opportunity to complete the estate consolidation begun before 1845.
Although many landlords carried out evictions directly, there was an increased demand for the services of land agents with specialized knowledge of cost-cutting legal procedures and the innumerable practical difficulties encountered at eviction sites. As well as ensuring that a professional job was done, the employment of an agent also enabled the landlord to distance himself from distressing aspects of the eviction process.
Clearances were greatly facilitated by the Gregory clause of the Poor Law Amendment Act, which landlords used to force tenants to part with their entire holding, and once begun, rapidly degenerated into a panicked scramble to clear properties before the new and higher tax rates began to bite. Behind the rush also lay the fear that the eviction option might soon be closed off forever in the event of the introduction of a tenant-right measure by government. Because of the frenzied manner of so many clearances, estates were voided of occupiers to an extent that went beyond what the landlords had originally intended, or what was economically wise for the owners. On many properties the number of tenants left behind after a series of evictions was insufficient for the redistribution of the land. Many cleared estates returned to untended wilderness and remained economically unproductive for several years. Rental income fell during this period, and land values dropped accordingly.
Resistance to evictions was a rare phenomenon in the famine clearances. By the time they began, the enormous wave of social protest and retaliatory crime that had characterized earlier phases of the Great Famine had faded away completely, and many participants and organizers were either in jail or dead of starvation or disease. Verging on disintegration after years of famine, rural communities were now leaderless, and few of those still surviving retained the physical or psychological strength to resist the so-called crowbar brigades, the demolition gangs deployed by landlords and agents at eviction sites. Indeed, the work of evictors was much eased by the fact that tenants destined for eviction were for the most part demoralized to the point of complete docility. In innumerable cases evictors took cynical advantage of this docility by inducing occupiers to destroy their own cabins in exchange for a small monetary consideration. The destruction of dwellings, either in this manner or by paid demolition gangs, was considered essential by evictors to prevent reoccupation by the former tenants. Where ejected families erected huts within or adjoining the ruins of their homes, pains were taken to level these also. Rather than face the horrors of the overcrowded workhouses, the majority of evicted families remained in the vicinity of their former dwellings. Some built crude shelters of branches and turf-sods called "scalpeens" on waste or boggy land nearby. Enormous numbers died of disease, exposure to the cold, or hunger in these hovels, and often it was only in the last stages of starvation or disease that evicted persons could bring themselves to approach the workhouses.
Not surprisingly, the famine clearances left behind many bitter memories in Irish rural communities. The cruelty of particular evicting landlords and agents was remembered sharply for generations, and general culpability was assigned to the British government for the Poor Law Amendment Act and its notorious Gregory clause. More than any other aspect of the Great Famine tragedy, the evictions provided ammunition for the nationalist belief that a genocidal intent lay behind British government famine policies. Transmitted memories of the clearances supplied much of the enraged energy behind the nationalist movements of the later nineteenth century, from physical-force separatism to constitutional demands for self-rule for Ireland and agitation for agrarian reform. There is little doubt, too, that in the long term, by engaging in clearances during the Great Famine, Irish landlords helped seal their own doom. At the end of the nineteenth century, a series of land-purchase acts, inspired by determined campaigning on the part of agrarian and constitutional nationalists, initiated the legal processes by which Irish landlordism would disappear within a generation.
SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1845 to 1921; Great Famine; Indian Corn or Maize; Land Questions; Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847 and the Gregory Clause; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Subdivision and Subletting of Holdings
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Ciarán Ó Murchadha