One of the towering figures of the War of Independence was Tom Maguire of Cross, commandant of the South Mayo Flying Column. A man whose granite-like adherence to his Sinn Féin principles would mark him out as someone special.
However, it was for the part he played in a nonmilitary incident that secured Maguire’s place as the most admired and revered of the Republican hierarchy, an acknowledged father figure of the national cause.
By way of context, 1919 had seen the first Dáil Éireann assume power on the basis of the previous month’s election results. Concurrently, however, the west of Ireland was ablaze with agrarian, rather than political, unrest. Small holders were uniting to force large ranchers off their holdings, cattle drives were commonplace, graziers and landowners were subject to violence and intimidation.
Back in Dublin, the provisional government quickly realised that if things were to continue, the country would be in a state of anarchy. Reports from the west suggested that agrarian violence was like a prairie fire which would soon be out of control. And so, in order to restore stability while still recognising the legitimate demands of the landless for land reform, the order came from Sinn Féin that cattle drives and agrarian violence were to cease. Instead, local arbitration courts would be set up to settle local land disputes; they would be set up on a voluntary basis, but their findings would be binding.
And so the first ever public arbitration court in Ireland under the auspices of Dáil Éireann was held at Ballinrobe Town Hall on May 17, 1920. Sinn Féin assigned two arbitrators – Art O’Connor, the acting Minister for Agriculture, and Kevin O’Sheil – to preside.
The central case concerned a claim by nine local smallholders to continue to occupy the 250 acre Fountainhill Farm at Kilmaine, of which two local farmers, Murphy and Hyland, had become lessees. Before the case started, both sides gave written undertakings to abide by the court’s decision and not to appeal further to ‘any alien court’. When counsel for Murphy and Hyland withdrew at the last moment, it was agreed that Fr Martin Healy, PP of Kilmaine, would act as advocate for the two.
The authorities did not interfere with the hearing, claiming that the process, as a land court, was not a direct challenge to the King’s writ. Additionally, the RIC was conscious that the process would have a calming effect on land violence, something which the Crown authorities were finding ever more difficult.
The judgement, when it was delivered, caused a sensation. The bench ruled in favour of Murphy and Hyland and the protesting small holders were ordered to vacate the land. The immediate reaction of the small holders was to refuse to accept the ruling, and to insist that they would continue their illegal occupation.
This was now a direct challenge to the new state, and Sinn Féin had no option but to meet the resistance head on. Cathal Brugha, Minister for Defence, ordered the local IRA Brigade, under Tom Maguire, to implement the court’s decision. Maguire, who was utterly sympathetic to the cause of the claimants, who were his friends and neighbours and trusted allies, was left with an unenviable choice.
It was a seminal moment, but Maguire choose to put respect for the authority of the State and for the government he had sworn allegiance to, before all else.
His solution was to have three sons of the leading protestors taken into custody and banished to an island in Lough Corrib. After a week, the protestors had agreed to abandon their action, to vacate the disputed land, upon which the three captives were returned home unharmed.