Friday, February 15, 2013

The Land League Hut at Shortstone

The text in the photo says: For taking this photograph J.M. Johnson, Ex-Suspect and Amateur Photographer was convicted under  the Statute Edward III AD 1341 at Dundalk Petty Sessions 2nd June 1887 and underwent one months imprisonment in Dundalk Jail.
Land League Hut, Shortstone, Co. Louth. ....
Sketch taken from photograph by Mr. J.M. Johnston
 I first saw this picture in the study of Willie Tracey, an elderly farmer who lives and farms at Shortstone, Co. Louth. He has the hands of a hard-working man, a man who never hesitates to muck right in and put things to rights no matter how recalcitrant the machinery or the livestock or whatever. Salt of the earth is a phrase that comes to mind. Gentleman is another.

In a piece that he wrote with Brendan McArdle and Niall Carven, he tells the story behind the hut that is featured in this sketch:

Inscribed on a fine headstone in Bridge a Crinn churchyard is the name of a widowed woman evicted from her holding in 1882. After the eviction, members of the local Land League with a 20 strong cavalcade of farm carts headed for Barrack St. Railway Station.  Here they loaded up with sufficient sleepers and materials to erect a wooden hut on a small plot of ground made available by the Coulters of Shortstone. After the woman had taken up residence in the hut, a young neighbouring lad named Peter McArdle used visit her daily with a navvy can of milk.

On arriving one bitterly cold February morning in 1903 when a fierce gale had uprooted trees and caused widespread damage during the night, but worse for the unfortunate woman, had blown in the window of the hut. Not being able to close it properly she suffered severe hypothermia and despite the best efforts of young Peter who secured the window and summoned help she died shortly afterwards at the cruel hands, it could be said of landlordism.

Part of this sad tale has its roots in the mid-1800s agrarian unrest in Co. Louth. To better understand it, it is worth going back to February 21, 1849, when Samuel Coulter, a farmer in the townland of Shortstone, was ambushed. The gunman had fired at short range. There were powder burns on the back of Coulter’s coat. One of the five balls that had penetrated his clothing had lodged in the small of his back.

Bear in mind that this attack happened just before the second growing season after the calamitous potato blight of 1847. The after-effects of a famine are often just as bad if not worse than the famine itself. Many of the people in the region were beyond desperate. Another factor in this assault is that Coulter was not only a successful farmer, but also acted as a bailiff on behalf of a neighbouring landlord. He would have been involved in some ejections. Middle-men like him were more likely to be the victims of agrarian unrest than the landlords they served under. After all, they were the local boots on the ground.

A reward of £80 was offered to anyone who could give evidence that could help to convict the assailants. Within days, a letter which included the drawing beneath was posted above a proclamation of the reward:

SOURCE: The Select Committee on Outrages : The drawing was part of a threatening letter.

The message to the community could not have been clearer.

Two years later, Coulter was ambushed again, and by three o’clock in the afternoon of May 2, 1851, he was dead. A newspaper report on the post mortem reported eighteen wounds on the head and one on the neck, making in all nineteen; there were also some contusions on the knees; the skull was fractured, and driven in about half an inch on the brain, and those two wounds were, of themselves, sufficient to have caused death; the wounds were inflicted with a blunt instrument; found no traces of a gunshot wound. A copy of this warning letter, posted above the earlier reward, was found in Coulter’s possessions after his death.

The attackers in 1849 hid in the gap in the hedge known as Sammy’s Gap.

What were the immediate consequences? Six men were charged, but the evidence didn’t stick. Too much of it was circumstantial and could not be corroborated. A year later, the suspects emigrated to America. No surprise. Given the social climate at this time, there was rarely success in prosecuting such murders. It could be worth your life to either testify or convict.

At the time of his death, Coulter and his wife, Mary Bailie, had two young sons: John Bailie Coulter, the eldest, was a month shy of turning three years old, and his younger brother Samuel was still an infant. By 1887, when this sketch was completed, both of them were bachelor farmers in their late thirties living and farming on their late father’s property at Shortstone.  They were also supporters of the Land League and Parnell. The hill where they offered the land for this hut is still known today as Hut Hill.  The full name of the widow, which can be seen on a grave marker at Bridge-a-Crinn, was Jane Wiseman.

WISEMAN, John, Shortstone. John Wiseman died 28th July 1912 aged 60 years, his mother Jane died 27th Feb. 1903, his wife Elizabeth died 14th Oct. 1933. Sons Jack, Joe and Tommy, daughters Sally, Jessy and Mary, Baby Brendan, son of Pat and Theresa, Annie, wife of Jack, died 6th Nov. 1985, their nephew Alec McNeill died 29 July 2001. L I 21-23 SOURCE: Bridge-a-Crin Inscriptions.

I found the name of the photographer, J.M. Johnston of Dundalk, in a Police Blotter listing Fenian suspects in 1890. It is probable that he was the Joseph M. Johnson, a merchant age 46 living at House #11in Clanbrassil Street in the 1901 Census. This J.M. Johnson, the only one residing in Dundalk, was Roman Catholic, and spoke both English and Irish. Even more interesting, because this was rare for this time and place, his wife spoke English, Irish, French and German and was a tea, wine, spirit and commission agent. Another corroborating fact that this was our J.M. Johnson was that a Joseph M. Johnson attended a Crossmaglen meeting of the Irish National League in 1886 (SOURCE: The Dundalk Democrat and People’s Journal, December 11, 1886.)

Just as fascinating is a news report from the New Zealand Tablet in 1887:

A public demonstration was held on July 10 at Shortstone under the auspices of the Faughart Branch of the I.N.L. for the purpose of condemning the action of certain properties in grazing their cattle on the farms at Kane and Shortstone from which Patrick Callan and Mrs. Wiseman had been evicted. There was a large attendance. The road from Dundalk to the place of meeting was spanned at intervals with arches. There was a strong force of police present under District-Inspector Supple and Head-Constable Ballantine, and they had with them a Government reporter.

Perhaps the eviction date given as 1882 should be 1887. It would be a common transcription error – one that I am often guilty of myself. There were also evictions in 1882, so the first date may still be correct.

This is where arcane documents such as the cancellation books for West Shortstone become useful. It is likely that the section of Shortstone townland where the evictions occurred were owned by Representatives of Robert Ellis Baillie. He had died about 1866, and his son, Robert Baillie (1809-1895) seems to have taken over the land.

There are other family connections to Shortstone that are also worth noting here. The Peter McArdle, mentioned as the young lad who tried to help the elderly widow Wiseman, was likely related to the Thomas McArdle who leased land from John Baillie Coulter in 1890. He was also probably the same man mentioned in the threatening letter posted after the first attack on Coulter. In the letter, a Thomas McAide, of Roach was accused of having taken lands and later in the text the anonymous letter writer claims: McAidle is woss than any of them. It is possible that there are some ironic twists of fate in all this.

Another connection is that Mary Baillie, the wife of Samuel Coulter and mother of John Baillie Coulter, was related to the Baillie family who probably precipitated the evictions that included the poor widow Wiseman.

 October 2011. Willie Tracey at Shortstone.
Is there a Tracey family connection to this story? I don’t know. According to the Griffiths valuations of 1856, the Traceys farmed at Carrickistuck, but not at Shortstone at that time. 1925 is the first time that a Tracy, James Tracey, was recorded in the Cancellation Books as being at Shortstone. There are several links between the Tracey and the Coulter families that predate this. A court case in September 16, 1880 shows that a Henry Coulter held a 999 year lease from the Tracey family in Carrickistuck. Based on a death certificate for John Charles Coulter in 1919 and a trustee relationship in 1851, it seems that the Traceys and the Coulters had intermarried at some point. This was likely what was called back then: a mixed marriage – Catholic/Protestant.

 J.M. Johnson may also have been connected in some way with either Shortstone or the Tracey family. The clue here is that a Michael Johnson was a sponsor at the baptism in 1877 of Joseph Tracey, son of John Tracey and Margaret Hegarty. Obviously, there is still more to tease out in this story if we want to better understand both motivations and interconnections.

One thing that surprised me as I dug into this story was how many Protestant farmers were initially involved in the early days of the Land League and other meetings such as the one held June 18, 1836. Not that they all stayed so committed. A Dr. M’Keown, a protestant who was present at the first Land League Meeting in Ulster, later evicted eight impoverished families from his land in May 1882, including the infirm, old, and helpless young of both sexes. They would have died had their neighbours not given them temporary shelter.

The question is why did M’Keown, and others like him, stop advocating for justice? Was he up past his nose in mortgages and intergenerational bequests and entailments and unable to meet his obligations? Many such men in his time faced this conundrum. Had he been raised in the lap of relative luxury only to discover that the lap was made of clay and crumbling fast? This kind of gap between expectation and reality put many men at this time between a rock and a hard place as they tried to cling on to their inherited place in society. As for M’Keown, and others like him, I can only speculate about his particular fears, and rationalizations.

History tells us that an imbalance of power, especially in a time of upheaval, often acts like an accelerant that flares up when thrown onto the embers of resentment. Those who have a caring streak are often catalysed into compassionate activism, while those who are cruel tend to act even more brutally. Self interest is the most frequent trump card when it comes to being blind to common decency. In Creggan Parish in the mid-1800s, one can also add the heat of several long time feuds, some of which were land based, and had lasted for generations between individual relations and neighbours. Obviously, there was no shortage of either fuel or matches in this situation, and conditions meant that tempers were tinder dry.

Widow Wiseman and Samuel Coulter both came from decidedly different backgrounds with respect to opportunity and fortune, but their deaths resulted from the same unjust and unstable land laws of the 1800s. Ironically, both these deaths, and many more like them, were part of the reason that the land laws eventually changed, and some sort of peace became possible. Perhaps, in some way, we owe both of them our thanks.

Agrarian Disturbances around Crossmaglen, 1835-1855: Part VI Kevin McMahon and Rory Kieran Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1987), pp. 194-250
Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, May 11, 1851; Issue 442. Atrocious Murder Of An Irish Farmer
The Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Ireland), Wednesday, June 4, 1851; Issue 11782. The Murder At Shortstone
Freeman's Journal And Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin, Ireland), Friday, May 9, 1851. Assassination Of Mr. Samuel Coulter
1881 Mar 12 Cullyhanna Land League article. This article mentions several County Armagh men who were both Orangemen and members of the Land League. Of particular interest to me, is the mention of David JACKSON of Urker near Crossmaglen in South Armagh. He was not only my great-great-grandfather, but also the father of Sir Thomas JACKSON, the focal point of my research.
September 8, 1870 I would be interested to learn more about the printer John MATTHEWS. The Peace Preservation Act in Ireland. Tuapeka Times.


  1. You are the best detective on the planet. Amazing trails...

  2. I have met Willie Treacy several times. He took me to the cottage in Tievecrom where my grandfather, Peter McCann, was born and to the farm he owned at Slieve. Willie is the greatest, the most helpful, the most knowledgable man I have met. I have a copy of The Football Feats Of Faughart in which he was heavily involved, a treasure trove of local history for that area. God Bless you Willie! You made me very happy.

  3. There is a photocopy of the reward notice for information leading to the capture of the murderers of Coulter in the County Louth library in Dundalk ..