The Belmullet Affray (1881)

Siobhan McAndrew
7 min readFeb 14, 2024

The Freeman’s Journal, 1 November 1881, p. 5.

(From a Correspondent.)

THE STATE OF IRELAND: THE AFFRAY AT BELMULLET, COUNTY MAYO. Aloysius O’Kelly, The Illustrated London News, 12 November 1881, p. 468.

I visited yesterday the Glenco of Ireland — Grawkill. It is a small, poor, shabby village, perched upon the side of a mountain, seven miles from Belmullet. The approaches to it for a mile or two on either side are varied and picturesque. Its elevated position commands some of the finest scenery in Ireland; the entrance to Broadhaven and Blindharbour, the bold cliffs of Erris Head, in the distance Eagle Island, and far beyond the great Atlantic. It consists of about a dozen houses. But such houses! Unfit not only for human beings but for moderately-cared cattle. There is no chimney, no plaster, no whitewash, scarcely any bedding, a few bits of furniture. Black with age and crumbling to pieces. Glenco — for by such name may it be known in the future — has been for ages in the possession of the ancestors of its present occupiers. Here they were born, here they lived, here they died; and a more primitive people than these that now hold it has never been my pleasure to meet. Irish is their language, very few understanding or speaking English. They never see a newspaper, know nothing of politics, are ignorant of such things as proclamations prohibiting public assemblies, and never heard of the Land Act till I told them of it. They do not trouble themselves about other people’s business but simply mind their own. And they are happy to be at peace with themselves and those around them. To so primitive a people seventy policemen, armed to the teeth with rifles, swords, and forty rounds of ammunition, all which they used with terrible effect, was, of course, a grand sight. Well, such a sight presented itself on the afternoon on Thursday on the high road which runs between the village and the sea. The duty of the police on this, as on the preceding day, was to escort a poor-rate collector and summons-server, and see that no injury should befall them, and here their duty ended. No sooner do the police appear in view than all the villagers, like the citizens of Dublin, but with no hostile intentions, are out to see them. And while they stand admiring this fine body of men, they are terror-stricken at seeing the column wheel to the left off the high road and wind the way up the mountain path which leads to the village. The wildest excitement seized them. “In eight minutes the police would be upon them and what is to happen us?” Some more thoughtful than the rest, judging that it could be no worse than a process for rent or a summons for poor-rate, said, “Well they cannot kill us anyhow, so let us come down and be civil with them”. Down they came, met the police a short distance from the village, and if they did not greet them cordially, they certainly did not receive them badly. They then accompanied the police towards the village — the police on the mountain path, the villagers in a field separated by a low sod ditch over which a man might easily step. When they had proceeded a short distance a villager asked a policeman what their business was up here, to which the answer was, “Go and ask the d — -l.” This was far from tending to calm excitement. Just then, most unfortunately, a half-simpleton, half-lunatic, rushed in front of the police, and with the most menacing jestures threatened what he would not do the whole lot of them. Him they took into custody. His brother, a young lad still in his teens, attempted a rescue. This caused a bit of a row, during which the police fixed swords, dashed into the people, striking in all directions and wounding many. During the charge one policeman is said to have hurt his ancle, another to have broken his sword against the wall of a house, failing to bury it in the body of a flying villager. The broken part rebounded striking the policeman on the face and leaving a scratch. This is the only wound the police received during the whole affray. The villagers took to stone-throwing, but how feeble must have been their display of resistance when they tried to inflict a wound upon their enemies. It could not indeed be otherwise, their numbers were too few, not more than two hundred and fifty men, women, and children, and stones too scarce, yet such as it was it was an insult not to be borne. The police take up a good position. The villagers, a confused mass, are but fifty yards in front of them. The word fire is given. It is obeyed, one, two, three, and even four rounds are discharged — and, oh! The carnage — sixty persons are wounded, two mortally, two dead, seventeen are arrested, and are hurried off in the darkness of night to the county prison, Castlebar, forty miles off, their wounds unattended to, and bail refused. This it is hoped will satisfy the wishes of those who desire blood; no good can ever come of it. Landlords will not get their rents an hour sooner. They all regret it I have been told, but have not seen that quite a number of black bottles, emptied of mysterious contents, have been found in the wake of the police. In the history of the Barony of Erris no such scene is recorded as that of Thursday, though there have been some trying occasions — occasions when the police had to seek the protection of their barracks, and when everything frail about their buildings was shattered to pieces. I write in no spirit of hostility, but a more wanton act of cruelty than this I have never known.

TO THE EDITOR OF THE FREEMAN.

Belmullet, 29th October.

DEAR SIR — I trust you will excuse my writing to you under the circumstances I shall try to briefly state, and that you will not deem the request with which I shall conclude unreasonable under these circumstances. A number of tenants whose poor-law valuation is under £4, were some time ago summoned to the Petty Sessions Court here by the poor-rate collector, and decrees obtained against hem for the amount of rate due on their several holdings. I believe legal advice was sought by others similarly rated, and they were informed that it was illegal to proceed against them; that the immediate lessor is the party primarily liable, and that until certain legal preliminaries has been complied with the tenants could not be proceeded against for the recovery of the rate. Emboldened, however, by his former success in obtaining decrees at petty sessions, the rate-collector ordered a batch of summonses to be issued against a number of thee tenants; and, imagining that they could not be served except under police protection, a body of police, numbering about sixty or seventy, proceeded on Thursday last week with the summons-server Barrett, and the rate collector, O’Malley to the several townlands on which those tenants resided. Their day’s work was brought to a close by a scene of savage butchery, the details of which are simply sickening. Rifle butts, swords, bullets, and buckshot were freely sued by the police. The number of the wounded cannot be at present ascertained, as the people fear that if they declare themselves to have been wounded, they would forthwith be arrested and lodged in jail, as have those of their number who on that eventful evening admitted to the police, after all was over, that they had received wounds. At present I know of more than a dozen cases besides the wounded sent to jail who are all more or less severely wounded. An old woman, Mrs Deane, whose age is over 60 and whose three sons — one of them a confirmed lunatic — have been sent to jail, received a gunshot wound in the throat, from which she is not expected to recover. A girl named McDonagh, was shot in the abdomen, and I have heard of her death since I commenced to write those lines. Another girl received a charge of buckshot in the legs, but is trying to keep it secret. A young man received a gunshot wound in the back under the right shoulder, and the missile, whether bullet or buckshot, remains in the wound. Another was shot in the arm, and the bullet remains there. A small boy was shot through the left hand, the buckshot passing quite through. A man received a sword thrust in the abdomen and his bowels are protruding. And so on with quite a number of others. I feel quite satisfied that it is only after their deaths shall have ensued in consequence of wounds received by them that we shall learn the fact of many others have been wounded.

A word as to the attention paid to the wounded. They tell us the dispensary doctor saw some of them again. In fact, sir, up to last evening the people say that nothing was done for them; and it is a fact up to then those of the wounded who were unable to leave their beds, as well as those who are able to move about, had the clothes they wore at the time of their being wounded still saturated with blood, and their wounds still undressed, unprobed, and unattended to. Our isolated position here sees to give a licence to those in power, and who are disposed to abuse that power, to act as they please, in the security of a hope that their misdeeds will never come to the knowledge of the outer world.

Now, sir, the request I make is this — that you, as the proprietor of the only daily Irish journal that takes a deep interest in the well-being of the people, will depute a member of your staff to visit this wild district, and, as an independent witness, report on what I cannot help calling this measure, the causes that led to it, and all the brutal circumstances attending it. No chapter in the sad history of recent events in Ireland has been written to show in so clear a light the utter disregard not alone of law and order on the part of those who ought to be the guardians of law and order, but even of the ordinary instincts of our common humanity, as would be the account of recent events here given truthfully and unbiasedly by such a person. — I remain, dear sir, faithfully yours,

HENRY HEWSON, P.P., V.F., Belmullet.

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Siobhan McAndrew

I research in the social science of culture and religion, moral communities and civic engagement. PPE, University of Sheffield