If the story of the Widow Sammon’s eviction from her smallholding at Carrowkennedy was not unusual for its time, the story of the feisty widow’s battle with authority certainly was.
Bridget Sammon’s husband died in 1894, leaving her to care for eight small children, from age 14 down. By the time he died, all of their meagre resources had been spent on his illness, meaning that the annual rent had gone unpaid. That rent amounted to £3 a year for the two acres of bog and mountain, payable to the landlord, the Marquess of Sligo. Although the neighbours joined together to subscribe some of the arrears, the widow was evicted from the small plot where the Sammon family had lived for over 100 years.
Mrs Sammon was replaced in the holding by Peter Scahill, who worked as a herdsman for the landlord. At Christmas, 1896, the widow was evicted, her furniture, such as it was, and other effects scattered on the roadway. The family were saved from the workhouse only by the kindness of a neighbour, John Feeney, who provided temporary shelter, and they later took refuge in a room intended for the school mistress, who preferred to live at home with her own family, leaving the school room empty.
But if the authorities thought that it was the end of their engagement with Widow Sammon, they were badly mistaken. Mrs Sammon resolved that the usurpers would not have a minute’s peace as long as they occupied her property.
Time and again, she was brought before the Petty Sessions for abusive conduct, injury and damage to the Scahills. By December 1897, she had been to prison five times, and following yet another trial, she was hailed as a heroine by the public. The Newport Brass and Reed Band and the Kilmaclasser Fife and Drum Band, led her in parade through the streets of Westport where a huge demonstration took place, and the hapless Scahill was jeered and hooted under police protection.
By this time, as the late Jarlath Duffy recounted in his history of the event, land agitation was reaching a climax. Widow Sammon proved the inspiration for William O’Brien of Mallow Cottage, whose United Irish League was becoming the dominant force for tenant rights across the country. O’Brien championed her cause, pleading her case in the Freeman’s Journal and evoking huge public sympathy. The Archbishop of Cashel sent a cheque for £5, detesting ‘the ignoble trade of the landgrabber’. Subscriptions flowed in from Britain, the US and Australia. On being released from Castlebar gaol after a ninth term, she found that her house now contained two beds, and in a field rented from a neighbour, there grazed a cow.
Now a national figure, Mrs Sammon continued to break the law, each time being sent to jail for her running battle with the Scahills. But public sympathy was on her side, and it soon became clear that the Scahill family had had enough.
On an April night in 1920, a group of 20 masked and armed men arrived at the Scahill house with the intention of evicting them and returning the house to the widow. A compromise was reached, the Scahills agreed to move out the next day, and a short time later Widow Sammon received official notification from the Congested Districts Board of her immediate reinstatement.
Mrs Sammon lived out the rest of her life in the old homestead. She died in 1929, and is buried beside Cushlough Church, her grave a reminder of those stirring times when a spirited widow stood her ground against the might of the landlord and British law.