John Edward Joyce of Birchgrove Athenry in 1868 to 1921

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A Victim of the Irish Land War?

John Edward Joyce bought the Birchgrove Farm in townland of Pollnagroagh, Athenry, Co Galway.

His neighbouring landowners were Tom Curran, cattle dealer and butcher who lived in Athenry and who owned the farm next to him in Pollnagroagh and Captain Tom Lambert who owned the huge Castle Lambert Mansion and an estate of circa 5,000 acres of land and later Frank Shawe Taylor who lived in the big house of Moorpark.

John Edward is recorded in both the census of 1901 and 1911 as living in Pollnagroagh as a single man and going by his age in the census he was born in 1868. By the time of his death in 1921 he was married with three children.

He could not have been in Pollnagroagh at a worse time. There was a lot of agrarian agitation and violence from 1899 onwards in County Galway and because east Galway was so restless there were more Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), per capita, stationed here than in any other county in Ireland.

In the Hansard reports of the House of Commons 1803 -2005 Mr Augustine Birrell states that in 1906 there were 15 police stationed in Athenry and in 1910 there were 31 and according to Mr William Duffy on 21 November 1912 – “it is proposed to build an additional police barrack at New Town, Ballinloughaun, Deer Park, Athenry”; this was in the Castle Lambert area of Athenry and in fact because of all the agrarian violence other police huts were built in Ballygurrane and in Cashla also – all within a radius of 2 miles from Castle Lambert.

And in November 1912 Mr Augustine Birrell, again on the topic of agrarian violence in the Athenry area, states in the House of Commons that “In the Constabulary district of Athenry there are twelve police barracks, including huts and protection posts”.

Later in 1921 Earl Curzon of Kedleston speaking of “Outrages in Ireland 1919 – 1920” in the Commons says… “… this is revolution by murder. It is an attempt to paralyse the Government, to destroy the agents of law and order in this country, and to bring the British Empire … Let the House apprehend clearly what it is that these persons have done…. I give the outrages of which they have been guilty from January 1, 1919, to October 18, 1920; that is one year and three-quarters (in Ireland) —

Courthouses destroyed, 64

Royal Irish, Constabulary vacated barracks destroyed, 492

Similar barracks damaged, 114

Royal Irish Constabulary occupied barracks destroyed, 21

Similar barracks damaged, 48

Raids on mails, 741

Raids on coastguard stations and lighthouses, 40

Raids for arms, 2,876

Policemen killed. 117

Policemen wounded, 185

Military killed, 23

Policemen wounded, 71

Civilians killed, 32

Civilians wounded 83

Private residences of loyal citizens destroyed, 148

In the census of 1912 there are also 6 policemen in Castle Lambert House and a further 14 in Moorpark. From questions asked in the House of Commons we also know that John Edwards neighbour, Tom Curran, had a police escort for a number of years up to 1921. Many of the local landowners had escorts including Col. Lopdell of Raheen House in Athenry who was the land agent who was the agent for the sale of the “encumbered” Castle Lambert Estate in 1892.

What was the reason for all this agrarian violence in the west of Ireland?

John Millington Synge in a series of articles for the “Manchester Guardian” gives a very sympathetic understanding of the lives of the smallholders in the west of Ireland and their poverty and attracted a great deal of public attention in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Royal Commissions were held to investigate and land legislation was passed in an attempt to solve the problems but by the end of the century there was widespread agreement that the only real solution was a policy of land distribution. For the vast majority of the inhabitants of the region their rented landholdings were too small and the quality of the land was too poor to provide them with good standard of living. There was a huge amount of untenanted land occupied by large farmers or “graziers” and the distribution of this land was viewed as a solution to the problem. While royal Commissions played an important role in publicizing the problems of the west they did not improve the living conditions of the people in the west.

Fergus Campbell in his book “Land and Revolution” 2005 suggests “that the most the most powerful force for change in the west of Ireland was provided by the people themselves”.  In the 1870s the land of County Galway was owned by 200 landlords some of whom had extensive estates. (Lord Ashtown 23.000 acres, Clanricarde 52,000 acres, Clonbrock 28,000 and Dunsandle 37,000 in East Galway and the Berridge estate in Connemara was 171,000 acres)

Between 1891 and 1921 the agitation for land reform was largely channelled through two popular nationalist movements – The United Irish League (1898 – 1919) and Sinn Féin (1905 -1921)

Reform did not come quickly enough for some and while a lot of land was redistributed people felt things were moving too slowly so by the time Sinn Féin was formed some were ready to take the law into their own hands. The two most prominent officers of Sinn Féin / IRA in the Athenry Area were Larry Lardner and Stephen Jordan and while there was little or no violence in the town of Athenry they rallied the countryside to commit many atrocities on the “Landed Gentry”. At one time the Castle Lambert / Lisheenkyle men, envious that the tenants in Athenry had been given land since 1908, were getting such hardship from the “Tans” and horse soldiers while nothing was happening in the town of Athenry that they decided to burn the Cricket Pavilion in Athenry to take some of the “heat” off the country lads.

Local committees, under the “command” of the Sinn Féin leaders IRA, were formed to oversee to distribution of the land and in some cases people deserving of land did not get any. (There was definitely no land for anyone who served in the RIC or in the British Army during the Great War)

By 1908 the Ormsby and Caheroyan Estates in Athenry had been divided and most of the tenants in the town had some land of their own and this made the people of the Castle Lambert Estate area more determined to have the land in this vicinity divided also and they were eager to tackle the problem themselves and were willing to join any organization who would help them get possession of the land in their area.

As the years went by the agrarian agitation got worse as the people took the law into their own hands against the big land owners or “Graziers” as they were called and County Galway was soon a hot bed of violence the police were not able to contain the rebels and law and order was breaking down.

The stories in “The Castle Lambert Tapes” – “The Road to Mass”, “The Land” and “The Assassination of Shawe Taylor” on this website, showed a little of what the tenants were capable of – “left Lambert’s bull out on the road” etc ….”. Fences were knocked, cattle driven miles away and often “houghed” so that they could not be driven home. In “The Land” Paddy Kelly says “My father joined the I.R.B. and they were kinda boycotting Shawe-Taylor” – and the great Lambert mansion was set on fire.  (Tom Kelly was the fourth herdsman who came to work for Shawe Taylor – “All the rest of them was hunted. Larkin, Lindsay and Madden had to go! They were threatened and they went but Tom (Kelly) came”

Stephen Jordan and the local IRA orchestrated many of the acts against the landowners. He once brought a brass band from Galway city to march around the Castle Ellen estate to frighten off the cattle and sheep and cause mayhem and confusion through the area.

By 1920 Lambert had left Castle Lambert and the home farm and Moorpark was held by Frank Shawe Taylor of Moorpark who had come from Ardrahan in south County Galway. Shawe Taylor had a lot of trouble with the locals. He evicted some former tenants of the estate and that did not endear him to the local people. The district was lawless despite a very strong RIC presence in the Athenry area. There were three RIC huts in the area -one in Ballygurrane, another in Coshla and one in Ballinloughaun (Newtown) while the Taylors of Moorpark had a 7 policeman assigned to them. In Newfort, Athenry a troop of horse were always on the ready.

On the 4th March 1920, Shawe Taylor was murdered near Egan’s Pub in Coshla, on his way to the fair in Galway. John Edward Joyce was the foreman of the jury at the inquest into his death and the report in the local paper tells us that “Mr John Edward Joyce, foreman of the jury, described the murder as cowardly and dastardly and declared that the like of it would never happen in the heart of Africa”.

After Shawe Taylor’s murder “Threatening letters were sent to other graziers warning them that if they did not give up their land they would suffer the same fate as Shawe Taylor” and many did.

We do not know whether John Edward Joyce got threatening letters or not but having spoken out in public against the murderers he had “nailed his colours to the mast” and as he owned 230 acres of the best land in the area it is highly likely that he was singled out for anything the other “Graziers” got.

By November the publican Tom Egan was murdered by the local police as a reprisal for the death of Shawe Taylor and the “Tans” harassed the known Sinn Fein members and the horse soldiers were “up and down the road at all hours”.

This and the many other reprisal incidents gave rise to huge numbers of the RIC retired early from the force! Peter O’Regan the RIC Sergeant in Athenry who had control over Athenry Barracks and all of the sub stations in the Athenry Area retired early (after the murder of Shawe Taylor) because as a nationalist he did not want to be ordered to carry out the terrible reprisals his fellow officers committed later. For many years afterwards he was armed with a loaded revolver, not only for fear of the IRA but also from his fellow die hard officers in the force who stayed on to extract revenge on the “rebels who had murdered many of their friends”. He had sent a colleague, who was still in the force, to warn Egan that he was in danger but the publican decided to stay at home rather than join others who were “on the run”.

There were many other atrocities committed on both sides during this period in County Galway and while the period was called the “War of Independence” evidence shows that in County Galway especially the main reason people joined in the mayhem was land –

“Twas all about land” – Micky Tannian, Colemanstown tells Fergus Campbell in an interview about an ambush in Killaclogher, near Skehana carried out by members of the Cussaun, Menlough, Monivea and Skehana IRA Companies where four policemen were killed while they escorted a local landowner James Hutcheson and his two daughters to church in Monivea on the 24th June 1920.

“Twas all about the land” and after more than 20 years in Birchgrove trouble came to John Edward Joyce’s door.  On the 20.06.1921 John Edward died in very mysterious circumstances!

Apart from the 1901 and 1911 census and the report of the inquest in the local paper we have little written records of John Edward.

The newspaper reported: “An inquest was held by Dr. Crowley, Coroner for South County Galway upon the body of Mr John Edward Joyce, Birchgrove, Athenry, on Monday last. Evidence was given at the inquest that the deceased about 7.30 a. m. told his wife that he was getting up to make tea for her. After some time, on his not returning, his wife went to the kitchen where she found a pool of blood. Proceeding to the yard the horrified found the deceased lying covered with blood, his throat having being cut. The jury returned a verdict “of suicide while temporarily insane”.

On the day before his death it was said by a neighbour that “Joyce was out picking stones with a horse trap”.

All that land is light limestone rocky land and stones needed to be picked every year, after ploughing and harrowing, a task which was carried out on all local farms into the 1960s.

Why was John Edward using a light horse trap for this heavy work? A trap would probably be the only vehicle of transport for the family and reserved for special occasions like for church on a Sunday, visiting a neighbour or for going into Athenry (4 miles) or Galway (11 miles) for light goods. A strong cart was used for heavy work. Why didn’t he use his cart? Was it out of action? Where were the farm hands? If he did not have farm hands where were his neighbours? It seems that none of the neighbours were helping him – because if there were, one of them would surely have brought a horse cart or a slide to do the work. A trap is a very fragile vehicle for that rough work. John Edward, who, according to the census reports, spoke both Irish and English and was like the majority of people in Ireland a Roman Catholic, was on his own, had no farmhands and did not have the usual Irish “meitheal” of neighbours to help him with his crop which was very late by any standards! And the 20th of June was late in the year for a farmer to be sowing a normal crop.

This was a farm that the neighbours, who were tenants of the local estates and farms, would like to see divided amongst them and they did not like to see a “grazier” there. They had joined the IRB and Sinn Fein with the divide of the land by “hook or by crook” being the priority and later joined the IRA who were more violent.

In his Witness Statement – 1950 Patrick (the Hare) Callanan states “I joined the Clarinbridge Circle of the IRB in April 1905. I was sworn in by Thomas Kelly who was Centre. Meetings were held regularly every three weeks; occasionally weekly meetings were held. The principal matters discussed at the meetings were, land division, methods to be adopted to compel the landlords to sell holdings to tenant farmers, which included cattle driving, breaking walls, firing into the houses of landlords and their supporters. Also at the meetings the suitability of persons proposed for membership was examined.

The older members were in the organisation solely for the purpose of obtaining land and had no national outlook.

They were agitating for the Government to divide the land between them – 5,000 acres in the Lambert of Castle Lambert estate of which 500 acres was leased by Shawe Taylor in Moorpark and Birchgrove farm had 230 of the 355 acres in the townland of Pollnagroagh (Tom Curran from Athenry, regarded as a grazier, who also got his share of intimidation, owned the rest of the townland. Hence the police escort!

One of the Castle Lamberts tenants who was working land next to him in Corranduff had “piles of stones all along the méarann (boundary wall) between them, “for (throwing at) Curran when he was herding his cattle, – we were trying to get him to give up the land”.

And in those troubled times if the neighbours were not with you they were against you!

After his death Pollnagroagh was now a dangerous place for John Edward’s widow, Anastasia O’Brien, who left Birchgrove with their three children and settled in Newhall House, Ennis, Co. Clare.

The farm was sold and the auctioneer by coincidence, Larry Lardner, was the leader of the IRA for the district. This man was responsible for ordering much of the aggression carried out in the Castle Lambert area and had threatened Frank Shawe Taylor and others.

The new owner was John Connolly a neighbour from Coshla. He had been to America and according to reports “had been lucky at cards and is said to have paid £1,200 for Birchgrove”.

Connolly did not have an easy time in Birchgrove either, agitation in the area continued for some time and it is said that he was raided also.

If Connolly, now a landowner and one of their own, was raided a few times even though he was a local from the neighbouring townland of Coshla one can safely say that John Edward Joyce, a “bualadh isteach” from Maam was raided as well. If the neighbours were “kinda boycotting Shawe Taylor” one can be sure they were “kinda boycotting” his friend Joyce as well. That he served on the jury and was the foreman at the inquest into to death of Shawe Taylor showed what side he was on and made him fair gain to the land hungry raiders. That there had to be three policeman’s huts within a half mile of one another, with thirty eight policemen recorded in them in the 1911 census and that a troop of horse soldiers were on call from Newford, Athenry shows how dangerous a place the Castle Lambert area was at that time.  Men with a good acreage of land were branded as “graziers” and it was the policy of Sinn Fein to get the land divided amongst the tenant farmers of Ireland.

By 1921 the country was in an extremely dangerous state. The law of the land and the courts were breaking down. Witnesses for juries were intimidated and often did not turn up in court. The Sinn Féin party had started to govern the country and had established its own courts.

By 1921 the tide was turning – even the man, who owned the land next to Birchgrove – Tom Curran, a butcher and cattle dealer who lived in Athenry, who had had police protection for years before now was, because of the change in the political climate, was hinting that he did not need the police near him anymore.

When the Irish Free State came into being and the policemen no longer were billeted in Moorpark Mrs Shawe Taylor did not feel safe in her house and asked some of the locals to come to watch her house.  Ironically the people who came to guard Shawe Taylor’s widow were involved in one way or another in the harassing of her husband and well may have had a hand in her husband’s murder!

After the death of Frank Shawe Taylor John Edward Joyce was left to work the farm on his own and had no help from neighbours. He left with nothing “to gather the stones of the tillage except a horse trap”. With hostile neighbours who ran riot in the district it was no wonder that the story ended in tragedy.

At the inquest the jury returned a verdict of “suicide while temporarily insane”. If he were harassed and intimidated by the local IRA whose aim it was to get the land for the tenants, if his farm hands were too afraid to come to work for him and he could get no help to farm the land and if the raiders left him without the proper implements to work his farm it is no wonder that he may have “driven demented”.

Suicide by cutting one’s own throat was an extremely difficult method of taking his life and is rarely used by people intent on committing suicide.

Since 1920 the tide was turning in favour of the agitators. Sinn Féin had its own courts and the British courts in Ireland were breaking down and many jurors were afraid to attend and others were threatened. Magistrates knew that there were changes to come and some were making plans for their future with an Free State Government – Tom Curran, John Edward’s neighbour, who had had a police escort for a number of years now “did not need an escort any more” and was now “great friends” with the local committee – and one could wonder did John Edward’s family really get a proper hearing. It could be argued that if this inquest came before a modern day court the verdict of the jury may be a very different one.

One thing is for certain – whether the jury at the inquest had their verdict right or wrong it can be said that “T’was all about Land” played its own role in the death of John Edward Joyce of Birchgrove.

Finbarr O’Regan, Athenry – 26.11.2013


Land and Revolution, Nationalist Politics in the West of Ireland 1891 – 1921 by Fergus Campbell, 2005, is published by Oxford Press

“Aughrim Park /Castle Lambert – Martin T. Kelly” and “the Castle Lambert Tapes” can be seen on in the Lamberts of Athenry

“The Black and Tans” by D. M. Leeson, Oxford Press, 2011

Bureau of Military History, Cathal Brugha Barracks – Witness Statements

O’Regan, Athenry, Family Archives

Local Athenry Folklore

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About this record

Written by Finbarr O'Regan

Published here 08 Feb 2021 and originally published 2013

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