The Three Axeteers: Foundation of the Castleisland Moonlighters

by John Roche, Chairman of the Michael O’Donohoe Project


In his book, A Popular History of East Kerry, published in 1930, T M Donovan gave a first-hand account of the formation of the organisation known as the Castleisland Moonlighters.


Though born almost three generations apart from Donovan (he was born in the 1860s, and me in the 1930s), the oral history I learned as a young man from the older people is worth recording, as mine is the last generation to have heard of the events by the people who lived them and who were involved or on the fringes.


The period of the late 1870s to early 1880s was a cycle of very wet summers, disastrous for the type of farming then practised in Kerry and West Munster generally. I heard it referred to as ‘three wet years in a row, and nothing ripened the third year’. The mist rarely lifted from the hilltops of Kerry, and the mountains of Killarney were constantly obscured.


What was known as mixed farming, that is, rotation of corn, root crops and corn, was the system of ‘organic farming’ universally practised. In years where wet weather first hampered the sowing of the corn, thus allowing weeds to proliferate and smother the corn, the ripening and harvesting of the grain was seriously impeded. When this was followed by a wet autumn, the result was disastrous. This was common in the greater part of Kerry, and west of Ireland generally. The 1870s was part of a wet cycle and hence the ‘three wet years in a row’.


Saving hay for winter feed for stock was virtually impossible. One of the issues that brought things to a head, with people deciding enough was enough, was the landlord’s attitude – at least some landlords and their agents. Many of them had found their financial situation affected since the Great Famine of the 1840s, and their action now was to increase rents on a large scale.


The Land Grabbers


The main reason that unscrupulous landlords and their agents could get away with increasing rents to already overstretched tenants was because on evicting them, they had other farmers ready to move into the evicted farm and agree the increased rent.


These became known as ‘land grabbers’, and were very unpopular and partially shunned for a while by some, but were able to overcome these problems in time.


This practise was identified by the founders of the Castleisland Moonlighters as the battleground which had to be won, if the vicious circle of appalling rent hikes and follow-up evictions was to be ended.


When I was young I used to hear a phrase, ‘That’s what makes the land dear – when one moves out another moves in’. The Moonlighters resolved to prevent the ‘another’ from moving in.


Donovan described how the farmers were disunited and impoverished, bidding against each other for a living on the land and all the while, the absentee landlords demanding their rents.[1]  The first Moonlighters in Ireland – in Castleisland – stood behind the distracted farmer to give him ‘backbone, and put down land-grabbing for ever’.


Many confuse Moonlighting with the Land League but it is important to acknowledge that almost a year before the first Land League meeting was held on the 10 October 1880, the first of the Moonlighters were sworn in.


One evening in 1879, Bob Finn, a great young athlete, met two men of his own age, Batt O’Leary and Justin McCarthy, who asked him to form a secret society for the purpose of freeing Ireland from English rule and to help farmers put down land-grabbing.


Bob’s brother Mike, then in England, was a well-known Fenian and Bob’s political inclinations were more towards Fenianism than Agrarianism. However, as his trade as a cooper depended on the prosperity of farming, the troubles of farmers had his full sympathy. And so a few days later he consented to form the secret society.


The following night, the trio met at the Cahereens, south of the town, and then and there the foundation members of the first company of Moonlighters were sworn in.[2] Bob was made 1st captain of the infant organisation.


Donovan lived just across the street (now Church Street) from Bob Finn’s workshop and at this time was a 16-year-old student, who went on to be a teacher.  He had a lifelong admiration for Bob Finn, and there is no doubt that he had an intimate knowledge of the activities of the Moonlighters and Land Leaguers of the Castleisland area, known for generations afterwards as the ‘Home of the Moonlighters’.


We learn from Donovan that Bob’s next move was to procure arms.  Justin, like Bob, was a cooper and they borrowed their father’s axes. The adventurous three, thus armed, made their first raid for guns at Farranabrack (a police barrack on the Tralee road) not far from the town. In a week they were the proud possessors of eight shotguns and a bullet mould. They were known afterwards as The Three Axeteers.[3]


Under cover of darkness, the Moonlighters took action to put down land-grabbing


Next they addressed recruitment. When their comrades learned of their exploits and the eight guns, more than a score were sworn into the new society of Moonlighters.  It will be well here to give the names of the 1st company of Castleisland Moonlighters: Bob Finn, Captain; Batt O’Leary, Justin McCarthy, Ned Shanahan, Jack Deenihan, Mike Cottor, Bryan O’Connor, Churchtown, as the inner guard. These could be counted upon to discipline their comrades if needed. Tim and Mike McCarthy, Maurice Brosnan, Ned Barry and Con Casey, all from the New Line (Church Street).


Bill Hickey, Mundie Sullivan and Jack Flynn of Close. Ned Healy, Denny Shanahan and Jack Brosnan joined later. Many others joined as time passed but the above is a fairly full list of the original company.


Only a small number were farmer’s sons but the movement spread very quickly after the first actions were taken. It’s obvious that the mood was set, and young men everywhere were just crying out for leadership, as branches were formed in all surrounding villages and further afield in a short time.


One of the earliest forays the Castleisland Moonlighters undertook was to the home of a Mrs Horan and her family a few miles east of the town who had been evicted.


My father heard the story of the Horan eviction from William (Bill) Quinlan who was directly involved.  The Moonlighters arrived at the little farm on a bright moonlit night. The mother and children were squatting in a little ‘bothan’ with no fire or heat. Her husband had gone to America to earn money to pay the rent.


They pulled the staple and lock from the door of her home and installed her back in there, telling her not to leave again without a struggle – make them remove her forcibly. Word came that she had been evicted again, and not without tragedy. The evictors had come at night, and she refused to leave, so they first took out the children, including the infant son who was sleeping in his basket, and placed him on the dunghill outside. It was again a night with a bright moon shining down on the sleeping countryside. When they were dragging the mother out she grabbed the door-jamb and struggled against the bully-boys. In the commotion the child awoke, and seeing his mother being man-handled, went into convulsions, from which he later died.


The Moonlighters went over again the next night and reinstalled her in her home, then paid a visit to the neighbour who had agreed to take (grab) her farm.  They burst in the door and he was in a big timber settle-bed with his wife. They riddled the timber with buckshot, and let him know that it wouldn’t be just the bed next time.[4]


I don’t know what the long-term result of this was but I understood that the particular ‘grabber’ in question was cured of his ambitions after that night.


Land Agents and Emergency Men


According to Donovan, ‘land-grabbing was history in the Castleisland region within one year’. This, however, did not bring an end to evictions but meant that evicted farms took on a new dimension.


With no farmer prepared to risk the wrath of the Moonlighters association, the RIC were drafted in to protect what were known as ‘Emergency Men’ – individuals prepared to take the risk for money, as they ‘managed’ the farms for the landlord or his agent.


Samuel Murray Hussey was the leading landlord’s agent in the south west for a number of landlords – absentee or otherwise.  He lived in a ‘Great House’ – a mansion in those days – at Edenburn, Ballymacelligott.  He presided over a brutal regime and was regarded as fearsome and fearless.  In his memoir he writes of his contempt for the Moonlighters and their ilk.


Samuel Murray Hussey and his residence, Edenburn.  On the right, a police car in 1886


Donovan saw Hussey passing along the Tralee road with armed policemen balancing him on the opposite side of the car, and four policemen with rifles at the ready, on a sidecar behind him, ‘out of those deep-set eyes he looked at one like a hunted animal’.


On one occasion Hussey won a legal victory over the tenants of a North Kerry estate and one of his men was instructed to celebrate it.  He got a few locals to build a small bonfire near the fountain until instructions came from Bill Quinlan to make short work of ‘Sam’s bonfire’.  After kicking the bonfire around the street, an effigy of Sam Hussey was made and a great crowd marched up and down the street singing patriotic songs. Then at the fountain an inquest was held on the infamous land agent.  Mr Mahony of Dysart was appointed ‘Coroner’ and a verdict of ‘guilty of slaughtering the peasantry’ was brought in.  Sam’s alter ego was consigned to the flames and Mahony was afterwards known as ‘The Coroner’.


The role played by Sam Hussey in driving the tenants to make a stand cannot be underestimated. He was a man huge in stature and ability but a remorseless tyrant who prided himself in his personal toughness and contempt for the common man.  He had the confidence of a man who had the forces of the state at his disposal and zero respect for the ‘rabble’ whom he regarded as just livestock.


I believe he rather fancied himself as in the mould of an army general and society in general existed with his permission, and was disposable at his whim. He employed sub-agents to carry out his dirty work, many of them more despicable than the big man himself because they lacked his natural air of authority, and were just slippery curs corrupted by the power thrust upon them.


Sam Hussey and his acolytes had almost absolute power. They could just call on the police and army to enforce their rough justice without reference to any court of law. This they did with impunity, regardless of the prevailing weather or market conditions that so affected the farming income.


Another agent who was less fortunate than Hussey was Arthur Edward Herbert of Killeentierna.  On a bleak, cold March day in 1882 the much detested magistrate and landlord from Killeentierna refused police protection as he set out to walk home after his Petty Session in the Market House. He patted his right pocket where he kept his revolver, saying, ‘This is all the protection I need’.


As he reached the cross where he’d leave the Killarney road at Lisheenbawn, a shot rang out from inside the ditch of Quinlan’s farm, shattering his trusty right arm. He tried to run to the Currow road, where he’d have cover, but a second bullet in the chest killed him.


Marked Man: Arthur Edward Herbert and his residence, Killeentierna House


Police activity in the wake of this murder can be imagined and a number of ‘eligible’ young men from the area took the emigrant trail, many to Africa where they were very successful.


The police could not discover the perpetrator and another murder a few miles away some months later – unrelated to the moonlighter movement – was linked to the Herbert case by officials under pressure to resolve the crime.


A farmer named Thomas Browne was shot in his own field by hired assassins as he followed the plough.  A short while later two innocent men who had the misfortune to be in the area were arraigned as suspects, and charged. After a farce of a trial, with no hard evidence, the initial jury failed to bring a guilty verdict.


A second trial and a ‘packed’ jury instructed by the judge to bring in the proper verdict and to not ‘send the assassins back amid their people’ followed.  Both men were convicted and hanged the following month.  One, a young farmer named Sylvester Poff with a young family, had been evicted from the family farm 10 miles away, and was staying with his cousins the Barretts. The second, 23-year-old James Barrett, a neighbour of the murdered man, who swore during the trial that he had never fired a gun in his life.


Donovan described the affair:


I shall give a brief account of three murders that were committed in the days of the Land League in Kerry. Two were official murders by the British, and one by hired assassins. Someone arranged that Browne, a hardworking farmer – a finer man than Mr Browne I never knew – should be shot. Two desperados were hired to do the job, at a price I believe of £10 – but never paid. Two beautiful, innocent young men, Poff and Barrett, were hanged in Tralee for the murder of Browne. Thus the assassin’s bullets and the police lust for a victim caused the deaths of three fine Irishmen, and ruined more than one happy home.


I contend that Poff and Barrett were hanged to satisfy the lust for a victim for the murder of Arthur Edward Herbert. A full year after his murder, Lawrence Quinlan and another local, Dan Mahony, were arrested and questioned about it. Immediately after their release, they hot-footed it to Africa like their associates.  Nobody was ever charged for the murder of Arthur Edward Herbert.


A story I heard about Herbert was this.  He lived in Killeentierna House (now demolished) with his old widowed mother and sister. When the pall-bearers arrived at the house with the corpse, and were bringing the body into the house, his mother told them – ‘Put him there on the sofa and he’ll be alright when he sobers up’. Nobody had told the poor old woman that her son was actually dead.


Donovan recalled an eviction carried out by Herbert somewhere between Glountane and Knocknabowl:


All around were the wild moors with the round head of Mount Eagle in the distance. The little brown road followed the windings of the glen. Along the side of that road stood the soldiers with all the panoply of war. While at the other side were the serried ranks of the R I Constabulary with their swords drawn and rifles ready to disperse any of the mountaineers who would dare to interfere with the ‘majesty of the law’. There we saw British law at its worst – an army driving a poor Irish peasant from his homestead. The few pieces of furniture flung out, the hardworking parents and their children thrown on the roadside. Then the pathetic old grandfather who had made the land a farm, feebly following.


While the murder of Arthur Edward Herbert cannot be condoned, Donovan reasoned that ‘human nature has its limitations … people are sometimes forced to take the law into their own hands.’[5]


Multiply the above eviction scene in the Castleisland region and it can be understood why young men felt enough was enough.


Sounding the alarm for an eviction in Kerry: in the centre, gaining admission and right, police convert a cabin into a barracks


My own ancestors suffered at the hands of landlords and agents.  My great grandfather on my father’s side was evicted from the farm and home that the family had reclaimed – over a 250 year period – from wild bogland. This happened in the 1840s during the Great Famine.


The family was known to be very horse-proud and a member of the ruling class invoked a relic of the penal laws of the 18th century and offered him £5 for a ‘classy’ mare he had.  He refused the offer, was reported to the agent and was issued with an eviction order, resulting in his eviction along with his wife and nine children.  He appealed to the agent, citing the fact that they had been good tenants for such a long period. The answer he got was, ‘If you’re there that long it’s time to get out’.


He died of the famine fever on 23 December 1848. My grandfather – his youngest child – was then 4 years old.  The eldest was 19.


On the other side of the family tree, my mother’s great grandfather succumbed to the same famine fever in the same year.  Also two of his daughters died of the same fever which of course was the dreaded Typhus.


On the 1st November fair day in Castleisland, his widow (my great great grandmother) sold some in-calf heifers. As it was Gale Day she went to pay some of the rent at the market House. The agent demanded all of the money from the sale of the heifers ‘for Mr Hussey’.  She said “No, I’ll pay half – I need the rest to pay for the funerals”.  She was duly served notice and evicted.


An eviction took place across the bog from where I grew up, and still live. The ‘heavy gang’ arrived and evicted the farmer tenant and all those around him, but one old man named Micky Duggan lived alone in a little mud cabin at the edge of the bog. Micky was totally unaware of the traumatic events taking place up at the farm, and was sitting alone by his little fireside when one of the bailiffs stuck his head in over the half-door and beckoned him out. Micky grabbed his stick and hobbled out to see what the stranger wanted. When he was outside the ‘stranger’ drove a big staple in the door jamb and put on a padlock, leaving the poor old man outside in the elements. I believe he was later reinstated in his little hovel, but while he was away his pet cat found his way over the bog to our place.


Cabin of an evicted tenant in 1886 and (far right) a hut where an evicted couple spent 3 years.  In the centre, police disturb a Ladies Land League meeting in 1881


Those evictions were the order of, not only the day, but of the succeeding decades, as the gentry tried to recoup lost income after the famine by raising rents inexorably to those who were attempting to pay. They were able to do it because there was always another to take the place of the evicted tenants.


In hindsight, the ‘cure’ for the rack-renting seems so simple – and it was simple – if farmers could be persuaded to unite.[6]


Bob Finn and his cohorts took the action that probably others had talked about for decades.  It started with Mrs Horan.


When Sam Hussey saw ‘peasants’ being reinstated in their cabins, his authority challenged, his response was to level the little houses and make them uninhabitable. It was a form of ‘scorched earth’ policy.


The practice had been established that when a landholder was evicted, all the labourers and plot-holders on that farm were also expelled. This may have turned into a double-edged sword for Hussey as he found himself without labourers when he installed emergency men on farms where he couldn’t procure a ‘land grabber’.


Emergency men were men usually with families who were desperate enough to take the job of managing an evicted farm after the previous tenant and his sub-tenants were banished. These men were prepared to risk life, limb and honour to procure a roof over theirs and their families’ heads. They were brought from afar, with no local connection, but they experienced the second weapon of the Moonlighters and the Land League – the boycott.


The Powell Eviction and Boycott


Shun ‘em on the roads – shun ‘em in the market place 
– shun ’em even in your place of worship

– Parnell and Davitt


The boycott is a devastating weapon.  To protect the emergency man, Hussey and his ilk were able to demand that the authorities erect police huts on the farms and provide round-the-clock protection. It placed the RIC in an invidious position – young Irishmen – most of them farmer’s sons who had not joined a police force for this.  They found themselves isolated in a ramshackle hut both physically and socially.  They were also subjected to the boycott.


Perhaps the most high profile of the evictions in this part of Kerry was the Protestant Powell family, farming about 300 acres, much of it bog, stretching down to the town boundary on the Killarney road.  Considered big farmers by comparison with the average, the Powell family – originally of the ascendency – were ‘very well got’ in the area, and supported a large workforce on the farm.


The family lived at Clashganniv House, the standard ‘Great House,’ and the tenant’s homes were close by at the other side of the farmyard, by the side of ‘Powell’s Road’ where modern bungalows now stand.  I heard it said that the families on Powell’s farm could ‘put out’ their own football (Caid) team for local challenges on Sundays.


In my youth I was shown the briar covered mounds – all that was left of those little homes following Hussey’s intervention. My grandfather and his siblings grew up on the next farm and both families maintained a strong bond of friendship to the end. I heard many stories about the Powell family as told to my father by an ex Powell employee.


I had come to know and befriend the last of the Powells, Willie, and his two sisters at the end of their days. Beautiful people. The disastrous wet years of the late 1870s were a disaster also for this old family.


Liver Fluke was a monstrous problem in the wet lands of the west, particularly in a series of wet summers.[7]  I recall Thade Divane, an ex-workman of ours, tell how, ‘We hauled dead bullocks with a pair of horses into the quarry. We travelled to Newcastlewest with horses and cart, and bought hay at £8 a tonne, and brought it home. What we brought was only like a daisy in a bull’s mouth. The cows in spring lay down to calf, and a lot of them never got up’.


Hussey continued to increase the rent on those who were still paying. John Powell scraped together the rent for Gale day – November 1st. Anxious to keep up appearances, he dressed in his best, and saddled his choicest mare, to ride in Church Street to the Market House.


His tenants would have advised him if he asked to go in his worst rags, as most of the cute tenants did. The land agent, who was new to the area asked, ‘Who is this gentleman approaching?’ as he studied John Powell riding down the street. ‘Oh that’s Mr Powell’ the locals informed him. ‘That man is better off than myself’ he said.


The upshot of it – he raised the Powell’s rent by £300 next year and they couldn’t pay. I’m sure they tried to negotiate but increased costs and big losses left them with no money to bargain with.  I suspect Hussey was trying to show that he was being even-handed, so he’d evict the Protestant farmer as well as the others.


He also believed that the Moonlighters and Land League wouldn’t support the Powells, a big mistake on his part.


Following his ‘scorched earth policy,’ he had all the tenants’ little homes levelled and installed an emergency man in the Powell residence.


It is impossible to imagine the scene of utter devastation that reigned in the Powell homestead on that terrible day of the eviction. I could have counted the mounds – relics of the little homes – if I knew then what I know now.  I know there were at least six at that location, and there would have been more elsewhere. Probably sixty or seventy human souls in total and each family would have some small animals and poultry.


There would have been pigs, goats, dogs and cats as well as some hens, ducks and maybe a goose. When the plundering was over, the thatch roofs burned and the walls levelled, the poultry and animals were scattered to the four winds.


The evicted families moved to other areas, many into the town, destitute. The Powell family got a little house north of the town, where they were also destitute. There they would spend the next seven years, as the stand-off between the landlord and the league ran its course.  Their children were very young – in fact some of their children were born while they were there. There is a record of their old neighbours and members of the League petitioning the Board of Guardians for some financial support for the Powell family, as they did for other evicted families.[8]


Hussey was beaten from the word go but because of his arrogance and ignorance he was a slow learner.  He was used to winning all his ‘battles’, however one-sided these battles were, with the forces of the law at his beck and call.


His emergency man was immediately subjected to the boycott, and with no labourers to help, and just a policeman in a hut near the house, his situation was hopeless. Strangers were drafted in to fill the breach but my impression is that they were unfit and unsuitable for the job, and didn’t stay long.  Livestock mysteriously made its way onto cornfields or onto the public roads at night, and general mayhem presided.


At a big League rally in the town, one of the speakers, Fr William Casey from Abbeyfeale, known as ‘The Land League Priest,’ issued a strict edict.  ‘The Protestant farmer must be supported the same as his Catholic neighbour’. I know that Willie Powell appreciated this all his life.


The stage was now set for a stand-off that would play a big part in what would become a momentous event in Irish history – the right to ownership of homes, land and businesses of Ireland for the Irish people. The countdown to the Land Purchase Acts in the House of Parliament had begun.


In 1881, Minister Forster introduced the Coercion Bill in the House of Commons where it was quickly passed.  On the 14th March 1881, Castleisland became the first place that Great Britain imposed internment without trial.


In a dawn raid, 14 young men of the leading Moonlighters were arrested and taken to Limerick and Kilmainham prisons. As many more, including leader Bob Finn, immediately absconded to the far reaches of the world.


Dangerous Times – 16 years for Moonlighting offences – Sentences meted out in 1882 under the Prevention of Crime Act


They went to places as far apart as Queensland, USA and Africa.  Bob Finn, Denis Shanahan and Jack Deenihan went to Brisbane, but Bob returned a couple of years later. Many of the others were very successful in their new lands.


At home the numbers and leadership of the Moonlighters/Land League were decimated but still resolutely carried on the fight. The Powell boycott was going to be a big test. The Powells were large farmers. They were of the ‘other religion’. They were descendants of the aristocracy. But they were well regarded as members of the community.


To the eternal credit of the Castleisland Moonlighters/League, they rallied behind the family and when most of their leading members were jailed or emigrated, those left behind stood the test.


Emergency men came and went but the boycott went on. This was a terrible time in the whole Castleisland area and it became famous, or infamous, depending on the viewpoint.


In the wake of government action, Hussey was determined not to show the white flag. There had already been some humiliation for the authorities when local MP, Mr Healy, raised a matter in parliament. Three young brothers of the Quinlan family were arrested as part of the 14 interned, and two were under age. Lawrence, the youngest, was only 15, and Patrick was 18. Their release was ordered forthwith, leaving a little egg on a lot of faces.


This didn’t sit well with Hussey. His intransigence could be construed as the main cause of brutality, murder and mayhem in the locality in the ensuing years. While the original Moonlighters were determined to prevent a return of land-grabbing in the area, less scrupulous people were prepared to use the conflict as excuse for criminal and selfish acts of terrorism using Moonlighting as cover.  This brought the name of the Moonlighters into permanent disrepute. This distorted view survives in the written records of the police and authorities of the day.


Even when Donovan wrote his account of the original Moonlighters 50 years later, he gave as much space to condemning isolated criminal acts as he did to writing the history of the movement and its phenomenal achievements.


It is a great loss to the history of Moonlighting that there is an absence of proper record of its early years.  Donovan praised the movement as ‘originally pure, sincere, badly needed and truly patriotic’.


Donovan’s literature, insufficient as it stands, is as close as we come to having an authentic, true record of the actions and achievements of the oath-bound original Moonlighter movement in Castleisland:


The farmers of Kerry ought to remember with gratitude the men who struck the first really effective blow that shattered the chains from their father’s feet and won our land from an alien ownership.


The power of the empire was arraigned against the common man – the forces of law and order sided with the likes of Hussey.  Herbert was ready to act as judge and jury in his Market House court, jailing anybody on the word of a policeman. The Land League was proscribed, its local chairman, PD Kenny, in prison.  It was replaced by the National League; Maurice Quinlan became its chairman, and in the words of his son, he was also Captain Moonlight.  But he was also the high profile chairman of the Tralee Board of Guardians. To juggle those positions, to stay ahead of ‘Sam’s law’ was a feat of diplomacy and intrigue and a tribute to the integrity and honour of the original Moonlighters.  It could only be done successfully with the support and loyalty of the inside core of the founding fathers.


Major Hussey


A near neighbour of Quinlan, and also of Powell, was Edmund ‘The Major’ Hussey from Ballygree.  He was one of the original internees, Quinlan’s vice-captain, and the public face of the Moonlighters.


The Major’s farm was situated to the west between Powell’s and Quinlan’s. My grandfather Roche’s farm was bounding Powell’s to the east. The fact that all those neighbours were prepared to be upfront in the battle to prevent a new tenant take over Powell’s farm was testament to the good relations between men of different religions.


Donovan described The Major:


For many years the head centre of the movement was the ‘Major’ Hussey from Dysart. He was a special friend of Parnell in Kilmainham Prison. He was a fine character, blunt of speech, straight as a ramrod in stature and principle, most amusing in conversation and decisive in action. After Bob Finn and Jack Deenihan went to Australia, the Major who had come home from ‘down under’ took the reins of leadership into his own hands.


The Major had none of Bob Finn’s qualms of conscience, so he soon made his namesake, Samuel Hussey, and all the East Kerry landlords, sit up and take notice.  Donovan continued:


He was a huge bearded man, and when he was surrounded by his ‘armed guard’ from Dysart, he was a very formidable person to meet. The teeth chattered and the knees trembled of all bailiffs and young policemen when they met him, for his fierce gaze was enough to petrify the most audacious of his adversaries.


I recall hearing an incident about The Major. He was, as Donovan states, a big powerful man, and he was walking home from town one night when he was accosted by two young soldiers on the Killarney Road bridge.  As they were conducting their ‘interview’, Edmund grabbed them both by their tunics and flung one holus bolus in over the bridge. He was heard to cry out from the water, ‘Goodbye George – I won’t see you anymore.’  To which The Major replied – ‘And that’s a loss to George then’, as he relieved George of his weapon and gave him the boot up the transom, sending him on his way towards the town.


The river wasn’t in flood so the flying soldier was able to scramble out onto the riverbank.


Police patrols in Kerry in the 1880s.  The Major had no qualms about the ‘authority’ he encountered


As the remainder of the ‘inner cell’ of the founding fathers stood firm on the Powell boycott, the surrounding countryside was riven by outrages and tragedies that still resonate today.  Outrages in the true sense of the word, like the murder of Thomas Browne, continued throughout the area. They turned the tide of public opinion against the real Moonlighters such as those preventing land grabbers from taking over the Powell farm.


Still the boycott went on, and the leaders were encouraged that the Parnell Party were making a real impact in parliament. Those behind the Powell campaign, Edmund Hussey, the Quinlans, etc, were to the fore at every monster meeting that Parnell and his MPs attended in the region.


Talks of Land Purchase Acts were gaining momentum and the local members of the league were steadfast in their support for Charles Stuart Parnell and the Irish Party. By the mid-1880s, progress was slow but consistent, with land courts and rent appeals leading to rent strikes and rent reductions, and a general increase in tenants’ rights.


Landlord’s rights were being diluted and the message that they may be better getting out while they were in a position of some strength was getting across.


In the Powell saga, action became a bit more extreme as some bullocks were spirited through Hussey’s farm to Quinlan’s. At the far end of the farm near the Killarney road they were ‘hocked’, meaning the tendons were slashed, making it impossible to walk again.


The police came to Maurice Quinlan, as chairman of the Board of Guardians, seeking direction as to what should be done. The landlord owner was ‘washing his hands’ of them, and Maurice ordered that they be properly butchered and distributed amongst the very poor in the town.


One little anecdote from then was that the evicted workers’ families from Powell’s farm were among the semi-destitute now living in Pound Road and other areas in the town who benefited from a helping of good beef from the farm.


As the stand-off dragged into its seventh year, the Moonlighters weren’t the only section of the local population that had enough of Hussey’s law.  Even though he couldn’t get a replacement tenant for evicted farms, he still continued with wide scale evictions, and the levelling or torching of little homes.


The numbers of RIC and soldiers attached to the Castleisland region exploded during these years, with police numbers going from about ten to more than one hundred and fifty. Yet the Castleisland district was recognised as ‘the most disturbed area in Ireland’.


Many members of the RIC were sick tired of the type of policing they were expected to perform. Confined day and night to huts erected in remote isolated farms, protecting boycotted emergency men, and supervising evictions of pathetic families.


It was reported that constables were seen to cry at the callousness of the scenes they were presiding over.  During three days in April 1887 a total of thirteen young RIC officers publicly resigned from the force in the town, and created a sensation.


As Donovan recorded:


As a protest against the eviction campaign then in full blast, thirteen men of the Royal Irish Constabulary resigned in this district, and a monster meeting addressed from the balcony of the Crown Hotel, by Mr Crilly MP, was held to celebrate the event. An event by the way that caused consternation in Dublin Castle, and in the British House of Commons.


The Powell saga came to an end around this time and the family was returned to the home after nearly seven years in destitution.[9]


Their old neighbours petitioned the Board of Guardians for help on numerous occasions during the period. It was a bitter-sweet victory for the family as they hadn’t any money to restock the farm. They sold sections of it from time to time in a depressed market in order to pay rates etc, and survive. They lived their life in penury until the last passed away in the 1960s.[10]


Legacy of the Moonlighter Movement


I don’t know what historians regard as the trigger that brought about the series of Land Acts passed in the British Parliament that saw the Irish people purchase their properties at very reasonable terms over an extended period.


I don’t think the British government and the Anglo Irish landlords agreed to this out of the goodness of their hearts. Hussey was probably the strongest land agent in the country, representing a number of large landlords, and he lost his battle to the Castleisland Moonlighters.


For a period of seven years, he persuaded the authorities to pockmark the whole district with police barracks and isolated huts but the lawlessness and disorder only got worse. Even after his mansion was damaged by a bomb placed at the back wall, he presented the ‘No Surrender’ face to the authorities.


While he stood brutally on ceremony, displaying contempt for the Moonlighters and the League, land courts and no rent campaigns were picking away the power and income of the landlord. Parnell and his party were almost holding parliament to ransom and Gladstone was gradually yielding to their demands.


Arrests in Castleisland in 1886.  On the right, Firies Village, described as a Moonlighter district


Mr Jeremiah Nolan, one of Castleisland’s leading citizens in his day, was born about 1820. Donovan had discussions with him about the effects of the Land Movement, and his comments underline its defining importance in Irish history:


Mr Nolan knew all the living representatives of the Anglo Irish families who ruled the roost here in the Castleisland parishes from the time of Elizabeth to the revolutionary period of the land agitation of the 1880s. Then the English garrisons in Ireland got a blow from the Land Leaguers and Moonlighters from which they never recovered.


I submit that the formation of the oath-bound secret society in 1879, the Castleisland Moonlighters, consigning land grabbers to history, was the trigger that shot the Anglo Irish Landlord system in Ireland.


The Irish people were able to gain title to the properties they occupied at very reasonable annuities over set periods. We, the succeeding generations, are the beneficiaries.


We will always be in their debt.


[1] Donovan’s History gives an emotional description of walking behind the police and bailiffs to an eviction in a remote area of poor farming land in East Kerry.

[2] The area known as Cahereens was to the left of the town as you approach from Killarney, near Cahereenaird, in the neighbouring townland of Kealgorm. site of Kilfinnaun Church.

[3] ‘At Camp, only a mile and a half from Castleisland, in the usual lovely grove and surrounded by beautiful flower gardens, lived Mr Hewson.  I think a daughter of this House wrote a history of Kerry.  The present owner is Mr Con O’Connor, himself belonging to one of the oldest and best stock in Kerry.  Mr O’Connor and his brother, Patrick of Farranabrac are the present-day representatives of the old O’Connor family of East Kerry.  Mr Con, and my old school pupil, Pat, never boast of their long and honourable descent; but at one time the Farranabrac O’Connors owned all the lands from their old homestead at Farranabrac back to Ballymacelligott.  By the way, it was the O’Connors of Farranabrac that handed the first gun to the first Captain Moonlight and his two companions – The Three Axeteers.  One hundred years ago the then reigning O’Connor family in this historic homestead boasted of nine daughters who were admitted to be, by the gallants of Kerry, among the handsomest women in the county’ (‘English Settlers in East Kerry’ by T M Donovan, Kerryman, 11 October 1930).

[4] Further reference, ‘Too Honest for the Shoneens: Fr Murphy, RC Curate of Castleisland’ on the O’Donohoe website.

[5] ‘When later on in that Land War, I witnessed the police putting the dead body of Arthur, the last of the local Herberts, onto a common cart, I could not but think of that bleak day beyond Glountane, and the heartbreaking eviction scene of which he was the author’ – Donovan.

[6] Even 140 years later, this does not happen. 

[7] It was very much so in our area until the 1950s when dosing for Fluke became widespread.

[8]  At a meeting of the Tralee Board of Guardians in October 1882, it was remarked that ‘There was a respectable man named James Powell, thrown out, within half a mile of Castleisland, and Emergency men substituted’ (Kerry Evening Post, 28 October 1882).  In November 1882, Mr Hickey, Relieving Officer for the Castleisland district, had the name of John Powell on his book for outdoor relief (Irish Examiner, 16 November 1882).

[9] In February 1887, it was reported that a robbery had been committed at Clashganniv and Mrs Powell assaulted (Kerry Sentinel, 8 February 1887, ‘Daring Robbery and Assault’).  However, a report of same in the Kerry Evening Post (9 February 1887) stated the assault occurred at the residence of John F Powell, a respectable farmer, who lived ‘within a few hundred yards of Craig House, residence of M S Reidy, JP.’  This latter description relates to John F Powell of Riverstown (Ballynahown) in the townland of Dooneen, which adjoins Crag.  The Census of 1901 (and 1911) shows that widower John F Powell, aged 74, a member of the Church of Ireland, was in residence. In 1901 his widowed sister Frances Meredith and niece Lucinda Meredith were also in residence.

[10] See Clashganniv House