HISTORY: Crime in Leitrim after the Famine

Fiona Slevin

Reporter:

Fiona Slevin

HISTORY: Crime in Leitrim after the Famine

Mohill Courthouse in 1889. Photograph by Leland Duncan Lewis © Irish Picture Library, Davison & Associates

150 years ago, Ireland had emerged from the Great Famine and was the seventh richest country in the world. Mohill was thriving and confidence amongst tenant farmers and landholders was growing. This short series looks at how Leitrim and Mohill emerged from the famine, what life was like in 1870, and what changed economically and socially to enable Mohill, Leitrim and Ireland to transition towards independence.

Through the 1840s and 1850s, tensions and unrest over land, tenancy and employment made Leitrim 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.
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’.
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.)
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.
For anyone interested in finding out if one of their ancestors came before the petty sessions, you can search these and other records at www.findmypast.ie The site is currently offering a free two week trial.

Fiona Slevin grew up and went to school in Mohill and currently lives in Dublin. She recently published a new, expanded edition of her book, ‘By Hereditary Virtues: A history of Lough Rynn’, described by Brendan Kennelly as ‘a well-researched and beautifully written book; a marvellous read’, and by Prof. Michael L. O'Rourke, TCD as ‘the classic local history’. See www.loughrynn.net.