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The changing ruling class in Sixmilebridge and the impact they left on the community, 1650-1900 by Jayme Keogh

An election massacre: the roots and consequences

As the nineteenth century went on there was a shift in power within Sixmilebridge, which was mirrored throughout the country, as the influence of the landlords begun to weaken this power in turn started to shift towards the Catholic Church and local priests took some of the power left void by the growing number of absentee landlords. The beginning of this in Sixmilebridge was seen with the influence Father Cornelius Clune had in the early part of the century with his very active role in the Daniel O’Connell movement and his replacement Fr. Michael Clune would take every bit of an active role in the coming years. The power held by the Catholic Church in politics was well recognised by the landlord class by the middle of the nineteenth century, so much so that landlord candidates were often forced to re-think local issues to be on good terms with the Catholic Church.[72] So just as families were moving away from the influence of the landlord class they were becoming under the influence of another higher class. Both the Catholic Church and the landlord class were an elite minority who tried to use their power and influence on political matters as ‘members of this better class saw themselves as both socially and politically distinct from poorer farmers’.[73]] However at times people were caught in the middle and torn between the Catholic Church and their landlord but ultimately had to go with their landlord or face eviction and the greatest example of this was seen in Sixmilebridge during the 1852 elections in an event known as the Sixmilebridge Massacre. The background the massacre begins when the Conservative government calls for a general election in early summer 1852 and were eventually planned to take place on July 22nd in the Clare area there were three candidates for the two seats, Sir John Fitzgerald, Mr Cornelius O’Brien, both of whom were Liberals, and Colonel Vandeleur who has been described as ‘violently Tory’.[74]

Vandeleur from his strong Tory stance was a not popular man in the election and when tied with his evictions of tenants during the famine on his estates near Kilrush, he himself knew that some of his voters could be easily be persuaded to vote Liberal on the day due to the fact that voting was carried out in public during this time so this is why he decided to seek a military escort for the tenants from the lands of the Marquis of Conyingham and Col. Wyndham.[75] However while Col. Vandeleur was making provisions to secure his vote the clergy in Ireland was also throwing their weight around to build support for the Liberal candidates and this was no more evident than in County Clare where the Bishop of the Killaloe Diocese, Bishop Vaughan asked people to vote for ‘candidates who would be advocates of religious and civil liberty and tenant right’.[76] Trouble seemed to be brewing from the very beginning of the day because on the morning of the voting, when four of Col. Vandeleur supporters arrived with two tenants, who intended to vote for Vandeleur, were swept away by locals.

Later that day when the main eighteen voters entered the village, with a military guard, before they even came to the court house they were met by a local catholic priest, Rev. Mr Burke, who confronted them with a whip and yelled at the military guard as described by Captain Robert Eager in the Coroner’s Inquest.[77] From here they proceed past Rev. Burke and towards the court house which was only a few hundred yards away and on this short walk they were met with further abuse from locals when women working in a nearby potato field began to hurl rocks at the voters and their guard. However this was to only be the tip of the iceberg as they got closer to the courthouse they were met with a large mob, led by Fr. Clune, that had gathered around the polling station and here the guard came under fierce attack from the mob with some soldiers getting injured. This was a common site for the 1852 election in Clare as Liberal supporters were encouraged to ‘strike them, and knock them down as fast as ever they could..... and kick them for falling, too when they saw any men that would interfere for Vandeleur’.[78] During this confrontation with the mob shots eventually broke out which resulted in seven people being killed and a further six injured but the most hotly debated point to this day is whether or not the shots were authorised. Some claims have been made by historians that Mr Delrage, a Limerick Magistrate, ordered them while in the Coroner’s Inquest it is not mentioned by Captain Robert Eager if they were ordered to fight as he just remembers the shots going off.[79]

The Inquest began on Tuesday 3rd of August and lasted for a full two weeks and despite Mr Delrage being up in court, for giving the call to the soldiers to open fire on the mob of people, he was never asked up by the jury to give evidence during to proceedings. However Mr Delrage, along with eight of the soldiers were charged with a verdict of ‘Wilful Murder’ from the jury and following this Mr Delrage was arrested following the issue of a warrant.[80] But despite a jury finding them all guilty of wilful murder they were all granted bail within ten days of the verdict being passed. Even after all of the convicted men were released on bail there was still an outrage within the Tory ruling elite of Clare and Limerick and they would soon impose their power on the law and force change. This influence did not take long to work because by the 10th November the Court of the Queen’s Bench had found that there was not enough substantial evidence from the Sixmilebridge Inquest and over turned the verdict.[81] In early 1853 at the Clare Assizes, the Grand jury cleared Delrage and announced that he had no case to answer to. It was also ruled that the soldiers were to be acquitted since it would be near impossible to find out who fired the fatal shots. After the dust was beginning to settle from the massacre and the following trials Vandeleur was still very much displeased with the outcome of the election, which still went ahead despite all the events in Sixmilebridge, because he failed to win either of the two seats in county Clare.

Enraged by the loss but confident after the recent overturn of the convictions and the later clearing of Delrage and co. Vandeleur travelled to London, from his home in Kilrush, to seek re-election from the Select Committee of the House of Commons in June 1853. The Committee ruled as follows:

‘That Sir John F. Fitzgerald and Cornelius O’Brien were not duly elected - that the election was void – That Rev. Mr Bourke excited the people, took part in the riot himself, at Sixmilebridge – That no general undue interference was used by the priests during the election – That Sir John Fitzgerald and Cornelius O’ Brien were not parties to the obstruction voters proceeding to the polls’

And after this announcement the Select Committee of the House of Commons duly granted a writ for a re-run election on the 9th June.[82] This is another great example of the power landlords and the elite class still held in Ireland at the time when they could actually get an election over turned and show up the corruption in the so called democracy system in Ireland and Britain, however this corruption still did not pay off for Col. Vandeleur as he once again lost the election in July 1853. This corruption was very widespread and Hoppen writes that in 1859 ‘at least twenty-seven of the thirty-three boroughs were significantly corrupt’.[83] Corruption was quite evident during this election in Clare and quite particularly in Sixmilebridge, the corruption was not just from the Tory/Landlord side but the Liberal/Catholic Church also, but for now we shall look at the corruption on the Tory side. As was pointed out earlier the Conservative voters that were being escorted in by the military on the 22nd July were tenants of both Marquis of Conyingham and Col. Wyndham whose agents were Mr Crowe and Mr Keane. It has been claimed ‘Examiner’ that each of these tenants received threats of eviction, from their agents, if they did not vote for Col. Vandeleur and it even goes as far to say that Mr Crowe had a long tradition of intimidation for the provision of political favours as Mr Haugh has written.[84]

However early on that day the two voters that were escorted into the village by supporters of Vandeleur and got taken by locals were later released due to the Liberal candidates wishes but these voters still preceded to vote Conservative which does show that there could have been a general support for Col. Vandeleur. Not all landlords were for the Conservative Party at this time and in fact even in Sixmilebridge there was a local landlord David John Wilson, with land in Belvoir, who ever gave evidence in court against Mr Delrage saying he did order the shooting on the 22nd July. But this has to be taken into account with caution because on the 21st July when the nominations for were being announced for Clare, outside Ennis Courthouse, Wilson along with Rev. Quaid stood up and openly told people not to vote Conservative and vote Liberal for their religion.[85]

During this time in Ireland it must be noted also that there was a total different attitude and feelings towards politics which allowed for this corruption to grow and even made the landlords believe that they had a right to tell their tenants how or who to vote for. This attitude of the period can be explained simply as what was correct in social relationships was correct in politics also, so landlords held rights over tenants in each sense.[86] Not every landlord held this attitude, which was mostly held by the very big and strongly Protestant landlords while the smaller landlords both Catholic and Protestant who were more in contact with their tenants tended to be more liberal and gave their tenants freedom to vote and in fact smaller landlords would actually get quite ‘touchy if tenants were canvassed by their richer colleagues’.[87] The actions of David John Wilson earlier during the court case was an example of this attitude of smaller landlords and then other landlords in the area held silence as they knew the consequences of getting involved in these politics which could be seen as a reason that Ievers and D’Esterre were both very quiet politically at this time. However, popular Irish history at times tends to forget incidents like this in favour of the traditional view that most landlords were bad and always tried to force their politics on tenants. Even without any influence from the landlords some tenants in Clare remarked ‘any man must obey his landlord when he has a good landlord’ as a mark of respect towards the good work done by the landlord.[88]

The bitterness between landlords went so far that after Mr Delrage was eventually found not guilty of any charges and he in turn tried to bring Mr Wilson to court for the evidence he gave during Mr Delrage’s trail. Delrage claimed that Mr Wilson tried to portray him as a murderer and mislead people on his character during the trial. The court case eventually took place in July 1853 and Delrage ended winning the court case with damages of £100 plus expenses, this money was so high that Mr Wilson had to set up a subscription to pay it off which in the end amounted to a total of £285.[89] A very bad picture now has been drawn of the Conservative’s during this time in Sixmilebridge but it was not just a case of the Catholic supported Liberals being walked all over in Sixmilebridge and the whole country in general. Intimidation and corruption was rampant through the Catholic Church and they too engaged greatly in intimidation and bribery throughout Ireland and Sixmilebridge was no different, an example of this corruption is ‘anonymous priests handing out pound notes from behind shuttered windows at Longford’.[90] Priests in Ireland at this time were an elite class on their own and believed that they had a right to be above the people at this was at its strongest during the 1850’s to 1880’s, which is right through the time of the massacre. As we have seen earlier from Bishop Vaughan telling people who to vote for this is only a mirror image of other Bishops and Deans in Ireland and this is seen in Mayo when Dean Bourke of Tuam referred to himself as Mayo’s political godfather on regular occasions.[91]

Even when we go back to the account of the massacre we can see how Rev. Mr Bourke confronted the military escort with a whip in hand and had no problems talking down to the army and spoke abusively making remarks to try an intimidate voters and spoke in a tone as if he was in charge of the voters as Mr Coffey describes it during his account in the Coroner’s Inquest.[92] Even after the massacre at the election of 1852 it was claimed by Vandeleur that his voters did not get the protection needed against ‘intimidation carried on to a frightful extent by the Roman Catholic clergy’, but one should be careful when taking the strength and reliability of this statement as it was directly after the incident and could be bias but once taken with caution it can act to show the clergy’s stance at the time.[93] The power and the status of the Priests in Ireland extended even further than just the circles of politics and into the realms of the police force and were in fact quite similar to the landlords in that they were in certain cases above the law and in fact part of the elite class. This fearlessness of the police force was seen in the example up from Mr Coffey when the Rev. Bourke had no problem in facing down the military guard. Further after the Coroner’s Inquest when all people who were seen to take part in the protest on the famous day in Sixmilebridge all got sentences between six to twelve months, however neither Rev. Bourke nor Rev. Clune were charged. This is a good insight as to how the Catholic Clergy were above the law because both of the priests were in the thick of the action and in fact one of the priests Rev. Clune even had the lucky escape of having a bullet go through his hat.[94] From the evidence seen of how the priests did not face any charges for their part in the events it can be understood why the three decades after 1850 were known as the ‘heyday’ for the political and status power of the clergy.[95]

While everything so far has mostly been concerned with the impact of the massacre in the immediate area of Clare and the surrounding area and how the situation in Ireland at the time made this all possible now it will look at how the events at Sixmilebridge in July 1852 had quite a big impact in Ireland and was reported around the world in various different circles with lasting effects. The different papers that reported the massacre is quite astounding the Belfast News-Letter led an article with the headline ‘The Affray in Sixmilebridge’,[96] the Freeman’s Journal used the headline ‘Slaughter of Unoffending Men at Sixmilebridge’[97] and even the Times writes an article on the inquisition titled ‘the Sixmilebridge Prosecutions’.[98] But the most striking place that the events turned up was in the writings of the famous Karl Marx in his article, Corruptions at Elections, which was published in the New York Daily Tribune. In his article he writes
‘We actually hear of soldiers with loaded guns, and bayonets fixed, taking Liberal electors by force, dragging them under the landlord’s eyes to vote against their own consciences, and these soldiers, shooting with deliberate aim the people who dared to sympathize with the captive electors. and committing wholesale murder on the unresisting, people.’[99]

To actually see that one of the top writers on political movements at the time write about these events and post them in one of the leading newspapers at the time in the United States of America shows how the shockwaves of the massacre had fair and wide reaching consequences. The title of the article Marx had it written in shows how people from outside Ireland were looking on these events as a clear corruption and break down of democracy in Ireland and not alone were the people of Ireland calling out for the change but also now they had a strong international voice calling for a change to secret ballot. However these calls for reform of the voting system did get the ball rolling on the issue, it was sadly another twenty years in 1872 before the Ballot Act was finally passed but only after the ‘diminution in the influence of the Catholic Clergy which had seen so powerful’ up until then.[100] However contrary to thoughts that this act would now mean a greater number of votes for Liberal and Home Rule candidates, the first election held after its introduction in Ireland was won by a Conservative candidate in a by-election in Londonderry and this was mainly down to the left vote being split between Home Rule and Liberal votes.[101]

Despite the very bad picture being painted by the Conservative supporters and landlords during this period of political unrest in Sixmilebridge and the around the country some issues need to be put into perspective for example the knowledge the people, who were voting, had on the candidates who were running in the election. During an inquiry into the Clare Election of 1852 a committee examined enfranchised farmers on their knowledge of Col. Vandeleur and to their amazement both men did not know of him let alone that he was a Conservative candidate and one man did not even have knowledge of the other candidates who were both Liberal.[102] Seeing this lack of knowledge among the voters along with the view that a voter should vote ‘with his landlord who butters his bread’ begins to show how the influence of the Church had a big part in trying to persuade the voters.[103] One of the landlords whose tenants were brought into Sixmilebridge to vote, Col. Wyndham, was seen to be an overpowering landlord and got a bad reputation for this despite the large scale work he did as a pro-active landlord who offered assisted migration to Canada or Australia to struggling tenants during the Famine.[104] As the largest landowner in the county by 1876 there was without any doubt a high number of evictions from his estate, which by now was known as the Leconfield’s Estate, and this only added to his unpopularity within the county despite the huge work he did on his estates after the Famine which will be looked at more in the next chapter.

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