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January 11, 2024

Portrait of the O’Halloran Sisters Who Fended Off the Officers Evicting Their Family During the Irish Land War in 1887

The Irish Land War was a conflict between the farmer tenants and their landlords that started in 1879. The two girls to the right are twins, the girl next to them is their sister, and the leftmost woman is their mother Harriet. The sisters were named Annie, Honoria and Sarah.

Female members of the O’Halloran family from Bodyke. Photo taken June 1887.

A widely publicized eviction took place on June 10, 1887 near Bodyke in east Clare. The farm in question was held by John O’Halloran. Women played an important defensive role in evictions during the Land Wars, and the O’Halloran sisters – Honoria, Annie and Sarah – and their mother, Harriet, were by no means unique in their fierce resistance during the siege on their homestead. The family held out for hours against an armed invading force, which according to the Freeman’s Journal (June 11, 1887) numbered 400 men.

The O’Halloran holding in the townland of Lisbareen, southwest of Bodyke village, consisted of about 18 acres rented from Colonel O’Callaghan at an annual cost of £23 10s, with an additional drainage charge of £2 10s. Some years previous, the rent had been raised to £33 but was subsequently reduced when the tenants took the case to the Land Court. Despite this reduction, the O’Hallorans owed two years’ rent in large part due to the construction of a new two-storey slated house and outhouses; reports differ but the building work seemed to have cost between £176 and £220, which the O’Halloran family had in part borrowed from the Board of Works (Irish Times, June 15, 1887; Cork Examiner, June 11, 1887).

In the weeks leading up to the eviction, the family made the necessary defensive adjustments to the house: constructing earthworks in the vicinity of the house, digging a trench around its perimeter, barricading the windows and doors, and making small apertures at strategic points in the walls like loopholes. They also stockpiled pitchforks, wooden poles and sandbags.

On the day of the eviction, present in the house were the three O’Halloran sisters, two of their brothers – Frank and Patrick – and their mother Harriet, while the Freemans Journal (June 21, 1887) reported that a young girl of only eight or nine years was also present and took part in the resistance, but whether or not she was another of Harriet’s daughters is unclear. Outside the farmhouse, Michael Davitt – founder of the Irish National Land League – was in attendance; prior to the siege, he attempted to dissuade the family from the use of pitchforks. Also in attendance in support of the family were a number of local clergymen and MP Joseph Richard Cox.
Armed with rifles, bayonets, picks, axes, huge iron crowbars and shields, the bailiffs, RIC and soldiers led by Colonel Turner arrived at the farmstead at about 10.30 am, as a large crowd of tenants were gathering. Also present were the agents for the property (Hosford and Delmege) and Sheriff Croker. The family busied themselves boiling a mixture of dirty water and meal, and when the bailiffs cautiously approached the house, the O’Halloran sisters threw the boiling substance at them through the loopholes. The police threatened to shoot but the family remained defiant to the enthusiasm of the spectators. The magistrate present, a Mr Crotty, instructed the women that if they continued to break the law, they would be sent to jail but they took no notice of such threats. Subsequently, the ‘Emergency men’ advanced under the protection of shields and umbrellas, and began to use crowbars on the gable wall. In response, Frank started firing slates down upon them, to a chorus of “Don’t, don’t,” while one of the O’Halloran girls courageously challenged the troops shouting, “Come now, if you dare.”

Eventually, the police managed to prop a scaling ladder against the house. About half a dozen policemen attempted to climb the ladder but were forcibly pushed off it by Frank using a long wooden pole, including District Inspector Hill who hurt his arm in the fall. After several attempts Constable Naughton (reported as Norton in some newspapers), managed to enter through an upstairs window. Once the policeman was inside, Honoria caught the long blade of his bayonet with her bare hands, at which point Frank overpowered Naughton to prevent any injury to her hands. Honoria – then armed with the bayonet – ran to the window and dispersed the gathering policeman using her newly acquired weapon. Immediately, Fr Hannon entered the building via the ladder. While the family intended to throw Naughton out the window, the priest convinced them to reconsider knowing that the police would surely fire on them if they did so. By this time, more policemen had managed to enter the house. As Fr Hannon held Frank to prevent further conflict, one of the policemen confronted Harriet who had been showering sand and stones from a back window on the authorities below. The priest let go of Frank so he could go to his mother’s aid but by this time the O’Halloran family could hold out no longer. All of the O’Halloran family members were taken into custody having been charged with assaulting District Inspector Hill and Constable Naughton, and while most of them were immediately released, some were brought to Limerick Jail to await the trial.
As events unfolded inside the O’Halloran family home, a number of shocking incidents took place outside. The Cork Examiner (June 11, 1887) reported that members of the Constabulary knocked a man of seventy years to the ground, and every time he attempted to stand, he was pushed over again and again until Fr Glynn interceded on his behalf, while a young man was also brutally attacked by the policemen, after the eviction had come to an end, for jeering at the authorities as they left the scene. 

In the days following the eviction, the event garnered much media attention with detailed accounts appearing in all the national and regional newspapers relaying the “exciting” and “extraordinary” scenes. The pluckiness, daring and defiance shown that day was commented upon in many publications, with the Cork Examiner (June 11, 1887) referring to the resisting party as “the indomitable O’Halloran family.”  In the aftermath of the eviction, a public meeting was held locally by Davitt and Cox where they commended the strength of the O’Halloran family, and in particular Harriet’s heroic defense of her home.  

The case was heard in Ennis Courthouse on June 20, 1887. The presiding magistrates were Cecil Roche and J. M. Kilkelly. At the opening of the case, a circus band started playing outside and Roche declared angrily – to the amusement of all present – that he would hold the musicians in contempt of court if they did not desist. ​

Following statements by the plaintiffs and witnesses, Frank and Patrick were sentenced to three months imprisonment and hard labor, while Honoria and Annie received a sentence of one-month imprisonment with hard labor; Sarah and Harriet were not sentenced. In a lengthy speech, Judge Roche declared the sentence a miscarriage of justice and that he wholly disagreed with his colleague Kilkelly believing he was far too lenient on the O’Halloran family. He stated that the attack on Naughton was “brutal and savage” and described the conduct of the sisters as “extremely violent” (Cork Examiner, June 21, 1887). After a recess, Kilkelly addressed the court saying that he did not deserve the observations made by Roche and that he was trying to do his duty impartially and fairly. While he stated that he would not continue on the bench that day and would retire immediately, no other magistrate was available to take his place and so he continued on the bench in Ennis Courthouse to hear the remaining cases. It is heartening to note that by the time of the 1901 and 1911 censuses, some members of the O’Halloran family were still residing in Lisbareen, including Harriet who was then the landowner.

(This original article was published on Herstoric Ireland)


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