James Eagan (1795-1880)

Thomas Eagan, USA

My earliest known Eagan (Egan) ancestor was James Eagan, born December 11, 1795 in the Parish of Killenaule, Barony of Slieveardagh, County Tipperary, Ireland about 84 miles southwest of Dublin on the road from Callan in County Kilkenny to Cashel in County Tipperary.

In 1800, ninety percent of Ireland’s fourteen million acres of farmland was owned by about five thousand men. These landlords leased their land to tenants who farmed it. There were two types of tenant farmers: ‘strong’ farmers who leased thirty or more acres and hired laborers to help work the land, and small farmers who leased between five and thirty acres, worked the land with the help of their family members, grew potatoes, and kept a cow to feed the family. The tenants had to build their own houses and make their own drains and fences without help from the landlord. Most landlords refused to recognize a right of their tenants to remain on the land as long as they paid a fair rent. As a result, a tenant who improved his acreage could face the choice of paying a higher rent or losing the acreage to someone else who would pay more.

The most numerous group in Ireland was the cottiers, men who were farm laborers or whose farms were so small that they had to supplement their income by part-time work. Their houses were typically one-roomed mud cabins without windows or chimneys, and potatoes were almost their only food. In an attempt to force fair rents, wages, and treatment of local farmers and laborers, secret societies were formed to redress their grievances by threats and violence up to and including murder. The government’s response was to hang many of those caught and transport thousands to penal colonies in Australia. In 1813, the Irish Constabulary, nicknamed the ‘peelers’ in honor of Sir. Robert Peel, the Chief Secretary of Ireland who founded the organization, was formed to assist the local magistrates. They were armed and mounted and by 1828 numbered almost 6,000 spread throughout every county.

A major grievance of Irish farmers was that they were required to pay a tax, called a tithe, to support the local Church of Ireland clergyman regardless of their own religious affiliation. In 1830, a peaceful movement to refuse to pay the tithes spread across the country but, unfortunately, the secret societies became involved and beatings, house burnings, and murders soon followed. As a result, the government sent in troops and police to try to collect the tithes. A Coercion Act was passed which ordered the arrest and transportation of anyone in the disturbed areas found outside his house after dark. In 1838, the government reduced the tithe by twenty five percent and included it in the tenants’ rent, quieting the agitation for a time.

On 1 May 1828, James Eagan was recorded as occupying a little over one acre of first quality land in the townland of Garryricken in the Parish of Killamery, Barony of Kells, County Kilkenny, where a residence of the Marquis of Ormond, homes for the estates’ employees, and a public school were located. On 28 February 1834, he was recorded as occupying eleven acres of seventh quality land in the townland of Poulacapple East in the Parish of Kilvemnon, Barony of Slieveardagh, County Tipperary. James Eagan occupied those properties as a tenant of the Marquis whose estate included 11,960 acres in County Kilkenny and 15,765 acres in County Tipperary. In addition to being a farmer, James Eagan was a carpenter.

Poulacapple East is near the town of Mullinahone where the closest Catholic chapel was located. About 3,000 people attended church there. A dispensary in the town served a district containing 6,000 people. In 1841, Mullinahone had 223 houses with a population of 1,306. It is located 5 ¾ miles southwest of Callan, the closest city, and 7 ¼ miles southeast of Killenaule. In the town were the ruins of a monastery and close by was Killaghy Castle. 595 houses were scattered throughout the rest of the parish.

A fair was held in Mullinahone every May 1st, the first Thursday of July, September 14th, and the first Thursday of December.. Fairs were raucous occasions for dancing, drinking, sport, and fierce faction fights between rival parties. In County Tipperary, the factions were the Shanavests and the Caravats. There were faction schools where one could learn the techniques of thrusting, parrying, and striking with a blackthorn.

The baptismal records of the Catholic Church at Mullinahone show that James Eagan and his wife, Bridget Wallace (1801-1877), had eight children baptized there between 1827 and 1845. During the years 1827 to 1835, Humphrey O’Sullivan, a schoolmaster and merchant in Callan, noted in his diary that on:

  • 12 April 1827, three hundred families in Callan were starving.
  • 10 May 1827, a crowd of hungry poor people tried to take meal from boats transporting it from Clonmel to Carrick-on-Suir, but the peelers fired on them from the boats killing three and seriously wounding six others.
  • 9 October 1827, rent, taxes, tithes, county rates, and church rates were all too high.
  • 10 July 1828, St. John’s Fair Day, the peelers beat a lot of innocent people and beat two merchants in their own homes.
  • 18 December 1828, there was not a house or cabin left in Moat Lane because Lord Cliften’s rent collector had leveled them all and sent the cabin-dwellers wandering the roads.
  • 12 April 1830, Easter Monday was no longer a holiday because the Protestant Bishops had decided that holidays were harmful in a heretical country like Ireland.
  • 25 June 1830, it was the small farmers who, almost on their own, fed the poor of Ireland. The poor got little food from the gentry. The Irish tenants were being crushed in the grips of poverty by the gentry and their rent collectors.
  • 6 January 1831, hundreds of people were in Callan seeking exemption from tithes or a reduction in them from the Protestant minister, but there were peelers and soldiers there to keep the tithe collector firm in his demands.
  • 4 May 1832, soldiers were in Callan waiting to collect tithes that would come due under a law not yet enacted.
  • 20 June 1832, sixty peelers passed through Callan on their way from Counties Tipperary, Cork, and Kerry to collect tithes in County Wicklow.
  • 25 March 1833, eighteen members of the ‘Whitefeet’ passed through Callan on their way to Botany Bay (Australia).
  • 15 April 1833, martial law had been declared for the purpose of getting the tithes collected.
  • 11 January 1834, every Sunday and holiday night crowds of Shanavests and Caravats were on opposite sides of the King’s River throwing stones at each other.
  • 26 March 1834, a large number of people were in Callan meeting about the tithes. It almost came to a fight between them and the peelers.
  • 8 May 1834, the Ballingarry Shanavests came to Callan and were attacked by the Callan Caravats with one from each side badly injured.
  • 20 August 1834, there was a fight between the Caravats and Shanavests. The peelers fired on them killing two.
  • 27 December 1834, a local widow was arrested for debt and sent to prison in Kilkenny.

During the year 1834, Henry Inglis, a Scottish travel author, visited Callan and found it to be in wretched condition. Although a toll producing up to £12,000 per year was levied on every item of consumption entering the city, nothing was spent by its owner, Lord Clifden, for its upkeep or improvement. Out of the four to five thousand inhabitants at that time, at least one thousand were without regular employment, six or seven hundred were entirely destitute, and as many as two hundred were incapable of work, but Lord Clifden provided nothing for their assistance or support.

Fortunately for my family, although Inglis found the country around Callan to be ‘rack-rented,’ he found the general opinion to be that the Marquis of Ormond was a landlord who was anxious to do the right thing. In 1844, testimony was given before a Royal Commission, established to investigate the occupation of land in Ireland, that Lord Ormond treated all his tenants extremely well, encouraged them to improve their holdings by land drainage, and provided slates and timber for new buildings. Another witness at the hearing described the general laboring population in the district of Mullinahone as “wretched beyond all description.”

By 1841, the potato was both a blessing and a curse to the Irish small farmers and laborers. Potatoes grew well in the Irish climate, possessed high nutritional value, and provided a high yield per acre. They became the daily food of millions, encouraged tenants to subdivide their holdings among their sons,

and encouraged early marriages. The result was that between 1800 and 1841 the population doubled, over 300,000 families lived on farms of less than five acres, and another 130,000 families lived on plots of land of less than an acre. This was a recipe for disaster.

The summer of 1845 was unusually warm and damp, conditions under which a fungus that attacks potatoes thrives. There had been many potato failures before with only about a third of the crop lost, so there was little concern even though this failure, unlike others, had been nationwide. In 1846, however, humid conditions prevailed again and over two-thirds the total crop failed. To make matters worse, the following winter was one of the coldest and wettest of the nineteenth century. Although the 1847 crop was blight free, it was smaller than usual because of the shortage of seed potatoes resulting from the previous two years’ failures. The summer and winter of 1848 were a repeat of 1846. There were also partial failures in 1849 and 1851 by which time over a million people had died and another million had emigrated.

Again, my family was blessed in that the Marquis of Ormond was one of a number of landlords who reduced or waved their rents during the crisis. On the other hand, in February, 1847, the Chairman of the Mullinahone Relief Committee wrote that pleas for assistance to several absentee landlords in the area had been ignored. At the same time, landholders’ family members were taking employment on the public works to the exclusion of those who were truly destitute.

In July, 1847, several members of the Callan Relief Committee resigned in protest when the Finance Committee decided that meal stores, to be provided at three additional locations, were not necessary. The Finance Committee was made up of the Agent of an absentee landlord and the sons of two resident landlords. In agreement with the Finance Committee, the Protestant Rector of Callan declared that “a long walk [is] the test of destitution”.

In August, 1847, the Boards of Guardians were informed by the newly elected British Government that, from then on, the responsibility for relieving the poor in Ireland was solely theirs to be funded solely by poor rates levied on the Irish landowners. As a result, the electoral divisions having the greatest number of poor had to levy the highest rates on their landowners.

Able-bodied laborers were given relief only in the form of cooked food in return for eight hours of stone breaking. If a laborer’s output did not meet the quota set, his rations were reduced accordingly. In late 1847, a law was passed which provided that no one who occupied more than ¼ of an acre of land could be considered a destitute person entitled to relief. This gave landlords the opportunity to clear their estates of tenants occupying more than ¼ acre of land who could not pay their rent and could not qualify for relief without giving up their holdings. An informal exception was made in the case of those who suffered from fevers, such as typhus. The rationale being that what starts with the poorer classes invariably visits “…highly valuable members of society, among the upper classes…”

The worst effects of the famine in the Callan Poor Law Union occurred in the Ballingarry, Mullinahone, and Callan Districts where destitution was already widespread before the famine. During the worst of the crisis, over half of the population of the Mullinahone District relied on rations provided by the Relief Committee. In 1851, the population of the Mullinahone District was twenty-eight percent less than it had been in 1841. The population of Ireland continued to decline an additional seventeen percent between 1851 and 1881.

By 1850, James Eagan leased a little over three acres of land and a house in the townland of Poulacapple East from the Marquis of Ormond.

During the next twenty years, life improved for the Irish farmers. As wages rose for the industrial workers in Britain, they could afford to buy more expensive food like meat and butter. Irish farmers supplied their demands and enjoyed rapidly rising prices for their commodities. As a result, their standard of living improved. By 1861, James Eagan jointly leased an additional 13 acres of land from the Marquis together with another tenant in the area.

In 1868, the Liberal Party took office in Britain and the new Prime Minister attempted to pass land reform for Ireland, but all he was able to accomplish was to provide compensation for tenants who were unjustly evicted by their landlords. But since tenants who were evicted for failing to pay their rents were not entitled to compensation, all a landlord had to do was to raise the rent higher than a tenant could afford to pay.

After 1876, the prices of farm commodities began to fall and, to make matters worse, the years 1877 through 1879 were so wet and cold that many crops failed. In the wake of these events, the Irish Land League was formed to attempt to prevent evictions and to push for land reform that would allow tenants to purchase their lease-holdings through government loans. Unfortunately, James Eagan, who died at Garryricken on 24 February 1880, did not live to see this reform.

James’ son, John, emigrated to the United States in 1848 where he pursued a career as a police, railroad, and Secret Service detective. In 1851, James’ son, Thomas, was convicted of cow stealing in County Kilkenny and sentenced to transportation for 10 years. In 1853, Thomas sailed aboard the Phoebe Dunbar, the last convict ship to leave Ireland, bound for the Swan River Colony in Western Australia where he married an aboriginal woman and lived out his days as a herdsman. In 1863, my grandfather, Michael, emigrated to the United States where he learned the trade of boilermaker. In 1906, James’ son, Patrick, a gamekeeper and tenant-farmer on the Ormond estate, purchased approximately seven acres of land in Poulacapple East from the estate for £60, fulfilling what must have been his father’s dream of land ownership.

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