Sligo, Cliffoney, Davitt and the Land League
‘If Athens shall appear great to you,’ said Pericles, ‘consider then that her glories were purchased by valiant men, and by men who learned their duty.’
Just recently I passed by one of the many building sites, at Cliffoney Co. Sligo, that have sprung up in recent times all over a brash new affluent Ireland. How great it is to see homes being built by and for our young people who just a few years ago would have had to emigrate to make a living. The new houses show the promise of a wonderful future for Ireland.
As I looked at the new bungalows and uprooted mountains of earth I stopped to ponder: ‘Have the new generation ever paused to think for a moment of the sacrifices made by their ancestors in these same fields, now building sites, of not so very long ago?’ Have they stopped to reflect for a moment on the men and women whose life’s blood and sweat, indeed their very spirit, intermingles with the clay that is now so indifferently heaved up by great earth moving monsters? Shall their memories be entombed without a thought, without a prayer? What do they, or we, know of the Cliffoney Land Fight ?
No! Concrete and steel shall not bury, cannot extinguish, the deeds of these noble ancestors. Their memory will live in the hearts of a grateful few. We owe these selfless people a great debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, that should never be forgotten. Here then is their story:
The Cliffoney Land Fight: A background
By the late 1800s the Irish people, defeated in countless rebellions, were impoverished and debased. Their desire for freedom was, to all human appearances, dead and buried at last. The English rulers had finally subjected a pauperised people; they need never again fear the uprising of a hostile Irish nation.
So it appeared! But men pass through terror into courage. Their bodies may have been ground down but their spirit was irrepressible; the quarry at bay forgets fear and fights for his life. Michael Davitt’s name is well known to history and needs no elaboration here. He formed the Land league in 1879 at Castlebar, Co. Mayo.
Advocating civil resistance on a massive scale he inspired and instilled pride at mass meetings in Co. Sligo and all over Ireland . It was time to rid our nation once and for all of the evils of landlordism and rackrenting, he declared. At a great meeting at Gurteen Co. Sligo on November 2nd he was arrested by the R.I.C. for sedition and immediately lodged in Sligo jail. The high profile trial that followed made a mockery of what passed for law in Ireland and gained national and international support for the Land League.
In villages all over Ireland, in Cliffoney and Grange, Ballintrillick or Mullaghmore, people watched and were infused with a new determination. The agitations on Captain Boycott’s estates gave a new word to the English language. Landlords were ostracized and ‘boycotted’ up and down the land.
‘Hold the rents and hold the crops, boys
Pass the word from town to town
Pull away the props, boys
And we’ll pull coercion down…’
Passive resistance met with a measure of success. The literary renaissance of the late 19th century instilled a new pride. All were streams that joined, swelled, and burst forth in an unstoppable flood with the Easter Rebellion of 1916. In 1918 the people of Cliffoney and Mullaghmore were a part of that mass movement. They engaged in struggle on all fronts both militant and passive. One of these incidents became known as the Cliffoney Land Fight.
In Spring 1918 a party of local people, under the leadership of the local Sinn Fein committee, decided to take over a section of Lord Ashley’s land, known as ‘The Farm’, near Cliffoney village. They ploughed and cultivated the land by day. When the soldiers and R.I.C. came they returned at night and worked by light of moon and lamp. Sometimes, when horses weren’t available, they attached ropes and pulled the ploughs by the strength of their backs and legs.
Following one incident of open defiance, five men: Patrick McHugh, Creevymore; Peter 'John Bán' Gilmartin, Creevykeel; Charlie McGarrigle, D.C.; Andrew Conway, and Owen Leonard, all of Cliffoney, were prosecuted at Grange District Court at the instigation of Robert Bracken, Lord Ashley’s agent. They were charged with unlawful assembly. Sgt. Perry (see note 1 below) and Constable Casey of the R.I.C. gave evidence against the men.
‘We take over this land in the name of the Irish Republic ’
Classiebawn Castle, Mullaghmore: Lord Ashley's residence
The men had the full support of the locality. On the morning they were being brought to court the road to Grange, a distance of four miles, was strewn with broken bottles and barbed wire. Sgt. Perry took the witness box and gave evidence that on the date in question: ‘there was about eighty people opposite the Sinn Féin Hall with spades and ploughs, approximately five ploughs and ten horses. The crowd, headed by the Bunduff Band marched on to the public road, on to Col. Ashley’s farm and went in there. One of the crowd cried “Halt!”
This man then said:
‘Now men, we take over this land in the name of the Irish Republic from W.W. Ashley at £1.0.0 per acre or five shillings per rood.”
The crowd cheered and then witness spoke to the crowd telling then that they were breaking the law and advising them to clear out. A man in the crowd whom witness recognised said they did not recognise the authority of the law and the crowd then proceeded to dig and plough the farm’
After the court hearing a mass meeting was held at the Fr. O’Flanagan Hall in Cliffoney protesting the arrest of the five men and demanding that they be released. It was decided to hold a fund-raising dance in the Hall. Admissions were fixed at one shilling and sixpence for the men and one shilling for the ladies.
‘I refuse to Recognise the Court’
When the case came to Court again Andrew Conway as spokesman refused to give evidence saying: ‘As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I refuse to recognise the court.’ The judge said the men would have to be punished and handed down a sentence of two months at hard labour to Mc Hugh and Conway.
Blazing tar barrels lined the route and a huge crowd greeted the men’s return from Sligo jail some months later. ‘The Farm’ was eventually divided among local people. And so ends the story of ‘The Cliffoney Land Fight’. This is only one of many, many similar incidents that happened, not alone in North Sligo , but all over Ireland triggered by men and women prepared to risk all in defence of their rights.
Lest we forget!
Should we now choose to forget the deeds of these brave men, and those who rallied to their cause? Shall we, in these comfortable times bought for us by their deeds, ignore our moral obligation to save their memories from obliteration? Is there a man, or a woman, left now in Cliffoney who cares enough to help raise a monument or mark to those heroes of dogged determination and indomitable spirit; they who pulled the heavy iron ploughs with calloused hands and strong backs at dead of night so that you and I could live free in our own land!
Until that day comes this page is dedicated to the heroes of the "Cliffoney Land Fight" until, by a better deed, a more fitting memorial is raised in their honour.
(Note 1: Sgt. Perry, along with eight other R.I.C. men, was shot dead in the ‘Moneygold Ambush’, near Grange village, on the 25th October 1920.)
From 'In the Shadow of Benbulben' ©Joe Mc Gowan January 28 th 2007