Clerkenwell Explosion and the Battle of Ballycohey

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900
CHAPTER XC. (continued)

The last, and perhaps most serious occurrence, in connection with Fenianism—as it was attended with heavy loss of life and other fatalities—happened at this period, and is known as the "Clerkenwell Explosion." It excited the indignation of the English people, and the reprobation of every right-thinking person. Captain Richard Burke was at the time a political convict confined in Clerkenwell Prison, London, and the design was formed by Fenian sympathizers in the metropolis to effect his release by making a breach in the outer wall of the prison by means of gunpowder at an hour of the day when he was supposed to be exercising in the yard inside of this wall; so as he might "bolt" directly after an aperture had been effected by the explosion. In pursuance of this plan, a barrel of gunpowder was placed against the wall on the 13th of December, 1867, and at the appointed hour was exploded by means of a fuse. The effect was fearful: one hundred and fifty feet of the wall was blown in, and a dozen tenement houses oh the opposite side of the street were laid in ruins. There were twelve persons killed, and more than one hundred wounded in these houses. The report of the explosion was heard all over the metropolis, and brought crowds to the scene of the disaster. Utter ignorance of the nature and potency of explosives, in the minds of some man or men of the laboring class, who had executed this reckless business, is assigned as the true cause of this calamity.

One other event of this time also attended with fatalities, has a special interest, as it is said to have been the immediate cause—the motive power—which had moved the Gladstone Cabinet to the passing of the Land Act. This tragic affair is known as the "Battle of Ballycohey," and such it really was, on a small scale. It arose out of the difficulty existing between a landlord—William Scully, and his tenants, occupying holdings on the townland of Ballycohey, distant about three miles from the town of Tipperary. It well illustrates the arbitrary power possessed by landlords at this period, and the capricious methods in which these petty despots exercised it. The property in question was formerly owned by an old Catholic family of the same name, but of better principles than the present owner. It came into his possession not by descent, but by purchase.

William Scully owned other property in the country, and a vast estate in the State of Illinois, America. He was known to be an avaricious man; exacting in his demands, and unsparing where his edicts were not complied with; and so the sequel will go to prove. His fame had preceded him, and the people of Ballycohey had gloomy apprehensions that his advent boded them no good. The character of the Ballycohey tenantry has been described as peaceful, industrious, and prompt to pay their rents; and at the time they were not in arrears for the same. The old leases having expired, a new lease was drawn up, and in the framing of this document, Mr. Scully showed the perversion of landlord ingenuity by trammeling his tenants with conditions abhorrent to any honest mind, and especially distasteful to the independent spirit which these humble but upright people endeavored to preserve.

The tenants were required to pay rent quarterly; to surrender on twenty-one days notice at the end of any quarter; to forego all claims to their own crops that might be in the soil; to pay all rates and taxes; and always to have a half-year's rent paid in advance. Refusing compliance with these enactments, they must quit. Mr. Scully was warned of the danger of attempting to carry out this programme, but in vain. He obtained a police guard to attend him, and went forth himself armed cap-a-pie, or almost so, as he is supposed to have worn armor under his clothing. In the summer of 1868, he notified his tenants to meet him personally at Dobbyns' Hotel in Tipperary, and there to pay him the May rent. Only four tenants responded—the others sending their rents by deputy. This riled Mr. Scully considerably, as the personal attendance was for an important purpose—to obtain their signatures to the lease, or in the event of refusal, to serve them with notice to quit. Mr. Scully now took out ejectment processes, which require to be served personally, or left with some member of the tenant's household at the house. Despite all expostulation he determined on "crossing the Rubicon," so to speak, and at the head of a small army of police and bailiffs, set out to serve the notices on Tuesday the 11th of August. The signal that the invading force was approaching was passed from house to house, and every dwelling was quickly abandoned. Very soon an angry, excited crowd had surrounded the Scully party, cursing and threatening the latter vehemently.

By the advice of the police officer in command, Mr. Scully abandoned the service of the notices for that day, and retreated ignominiously to his hotel in Tipperary. On the following Friday Mr. Scully and his party set out again on the same mission, and were equally unsuccessful in accomplishing its object. The attitude of the mob, increased in number, and incensed to the highest pitch, menaced the life of Scully, and the police had much difficulty in guarding him on his second retreat toward the railway station. On the way thither they passed close by the house of one of the tenants, named John Dwyer, and Scully, undeterred by his recent experience, resolved on renewing the experiment at this point. A farmyard, flanked with out-offices, faced the byroad which led to the house, and through this farmyard, four of the party, viz., a policeman named Morrow, two of Scully's bailiffs—Gorman and Maher, and Scully himself, approached the door of the house and entered. Immediately a volley fired from within the house, and also from the out-offices, greeted their entrance. Morrow and Gorman were shot dead, and Scully and his bailiff Maher were both severely wounded. Scully, undaunted by this bold show of resistance, and unmindful of his wounds, withdrew a few paces and fired with his breech-loader and revolver at the house, and the police at the same time poured a volley into the dwelling and out-offices; but no response came from within; and a search soon revealed the fact that the occupants had effected a retreat through apertures made in the roofs of the houses at the rear.

The news of the dreadful affair at Ballycohey spread rapidly throughout the kingdom, and an outcry was raised against Scully, not only in the Irish but in the English press, which furnished the needful impulse—more potent than any amount of argument—to the passing of the Gladstone Land Act of 1870.