When a dour, austere Scottish grazier took up residence in Tiernaur, Newport, a century and a half ago, little did he realise that it was akin to signing his own death warrant.
James Hunter had taken the lease of 4,300 acres of Tiernaur from one Henry Smith, and set up home in Newfield with his wife, Helen, where soon after his daughter Joanna and son, Simon, were born.
The vast tract of land was one-third arable; much of the rest was leased to impoverished tenants, whose rents would provide Hunter with a steady income. However, the lease had omitted to mention that the same tenants had turbary rights – the right to harvest and save turf – on Hunter’s bogland, free of charge, a concession going back many years. Hunter was unhappy with this so the owner, Smith, agreed to pay him a small rebate, on behalf of the tenants, in return for the turbary rights.
Come 1861, and the land leased to Hunter was sold on to Rev Dr Richard Gibbings, a Fellow of Dublin University. An impasse soon developed when Hunter now demanded a higher rebate than he had been getting from Smith, and Gibbings flatly refused.
This prompted Hunter to start putting pressure on the tenants, charging them with trespass on his bog. He took as his specific target John O’Neil, a neighbour, one of the more prosperous of his tenants. He sued him for trespass, believing that the other tenants would soon fall into line.
In pursuing this course, Hunter was too stubborn to realise the dangerous path he was embarking on.
Agrarian unrest was becoming widespread; hostility towards graziers on the part of subsistence tenants was on the increase; bitterness between Protestant and Catholic clergy was reaching a new low. There was huge resentment against the landlord class. Hunter had already been warned by many of his peers that he was putting himself in grave danger with his harsh treatment of his tenants.
When the case came before the County Assizes in 1869, Hunter was awarded five shillings damages against John O’Neil. But worse still was that £48 in legal costs – a fortune at the time – was charged against O’Neil, who was neither able nor willing to pay. The unrelenting Hunter returned to court to get an Ejectment Order against the tenant, and a distress warrant allowing him to seize O’Neil’s hard-won autumn crop.
He was to pay a high price for his victory. On the following Sunday, he chose to keep watch over the seized crops rather than attend church in Newport. His wife and son travelled by sidecar driven by Thady Kean, but the car broke down on the return journey to Newfield. Kean rode on ahead to the house to get a replacement car, and Hunter insisted on returning with him to where his wife and son were waiting at the roadside. Hunter drove the car back, but as he slowed to enter the byroad to his home, a shot rang out and he fell dead into his wife’s arms.
Up to fourteen suspects were arrested in the aftermath of the murder, but the authorities were up against a wall of silence. A reward of £700 for information went unclaimed. When finally five defendants went on trial at Newport Petty Sessions, the Crown offered no further evidence. They were all discharged.
Sitting in support in the crowded courtroom were Fr Richard Prendergast, PP, and Fr John Concannon, who – to the annoyance of Lord Sligo on the bench – broke into applause as the verdict was announced.