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CULTURE The terrible reign of two female landlords

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A painting by the late Bridie Geraghty of Harriet Gardiner and Susanna Pringle, who controlled the Belcarra Estate from 1883-1910. Both were regularly lampooned as alcoholics in reports of the time.Pic: courtesy of the Geraghty family
?A painting by the late Bridie Geraghty of Harriet Gardiner and Susanna Pringle, who controlled the Belcarra Estate from 1883-1910. Both were regularly lampooned as alcoholics in reports of the time.?Pic: courtesy of the Geraghty family

Vivid insight into Land War in Belcarra

Edwin McGreal

The Land War was a hugely important period in Irish history and few places demonstrated the sulphurous tensions between the landlord elite and the tenants campaigning for greater rights than the Land War on the Belcarra Estate of Harriet Gardiner and Susanna Pringle.
The horrible period of time had been virtually eradicated from oral history locally until brothers Michael and James O’Connor, both natives of Tully, Belcarra, undertook to shine on a light on dark period in the area’s history.
Their work, When Crowbar and Bayonet Ruled: The Land War on the Belcarra Estate of Harriet Gardiner and Susanna Pringle 1879-1910 is an incredibly well researched publication and is a fascinating social history of events on the lands of Gardiner and Pringle.
That Gardiner and Pringle are, as the O’Connors say, ‘two of the most abhorrent figures in the history of Irish landlordism’, is why this particular case study will arouse the interest of so many. Had they been benevolent in their treatment of their tenants, the period wouldn’t hold the same fascination.
The Connaught Telegraph was a wonderful resource for the authors as the paper, for whom James Daly, a champion of tenants’ rights, regularly told readers about events in Belcarra and what people thought of Garinder and Pringle.
Gardiner tried to clear her estate of as many tenants as possible. She took possession of the Belcarra Estate in 1883, inheriting it from her uncle, Colonel St George Cuffe. With her came a close acquaintance, Susanna Pringle, who would be left the estate when Gardiner eventually died in 1892. Pringle ran the estate until her own death in 1910. Born into a Scottish Presbyterian family in Bengal in the then British East Indies, it is unclear what brought Pringle to Mayo, although it appears possible she was on an evangelical mission.
Both women would have initially lived in the north Mayo area, where George Cuffe also lived. He was considered a relatively fair landlord, and he had allowed for a reduction in rents as economic conditions for farmers in the west of Ireland worsened. However, his niece was certainly not cut from the same cloth, and George's death signaled a new dark age for those on the Belcarra estate.
There are so many examples of these dark times cited in the book. We hear how a woman in her 80s, Biddy Cardy, was evicted on March 30, 1885 and was subsequently brought to court for re-entering her home to shelter from the wind and the rain. Several more women and children also went back to their evicted homes and were arrested for this. They would live in ditches during the day to avoid police and sleep there at night but that didn’t always mean they avoided capture.
Often the roofs on houses of evicted people were torn down to stop them coming back for shelter. It wasn’t, it would appear, an exercise in business but in cruelty. The eviction of the Dunne family was a vivid example of this, when Catherine Dunne, a mother of five, was ‘subjected to a violent assault’ by Billy Cuffe, Gardiner’s bailiff and an apparently illegitimate son of George Cuffe, including a kick to the abdomen area.
The Letters to the Editor of the Connacht Telegraph of that time often had contributions from an O’Beirne from Frenchill. The O’Connors suspect that this could have indeed been James Daly. Whoever the author, some of the contributions were very colourful. On September 5, 1885 we hear from O’Beirne about court proceedings against evicted women and children who had the temerity to return to their vacated houses for shelter.
“The Pringle hag kept, jack-in-the-box like, jumping up and down in her seat the whole time, grinning and working her worn out chops, much after the fashion of a Chesire cat mumbling at sour cheese. This whole time the Gardiner hag seemed to be just recovering from a fit of somnolence … perhaps she was suffering inwardly for the want of a ‘hair’ from ‘the dog’ that had bitten her late the previous night, or early that same morning’. Libel laws clearly weren’t too prevalent at the time as Gardiner and Pringle’s drinking and physical appearance are often the subject of ridicule.
The response to events on the estate was compelling too. Daly warned in March 1885 against what were commonly termed as land grabbers, those who would take possession of the holding of a family who had been evicted. Calling such people ‘traitors’, he said: ‘Such wretches are the greatest curses of Ireland and enemies of her people.’
Mass meetings and demonstrations, calls for the Land League and Parnell to intervene and talk of the Belcarra Estate and evictions in the House of Parliament in London showed just how prominent the issue of tenants of Gardiner and Pringle was.
The O’Connors finish the book by saying how, by 1920, the process of transferring what were once the lands of Gardiner and Pringle to the ownership of local tenants was largely complete. Their last line reads thus: “Harriet Gardiner and Susanna Pringle were consigned to history and quickly forgotten.” They would be if it wasn’t for the O’Connors excellent work. When Crowbar and Bayonet Ruled is a wonderful piece of insight into a fascinating period of Mayo history that few of us are aware of.
The book is on sale in the following outlets: Castle Street Book Shop, Castlebar; McLoughlin’s in Castlebar and Westport; Eason in Castlebar and Ballina; Seamus Duffy’s in Westport; Charlie Byrne’s in Galway and Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street, Dublin.