User Home Page Book: Places & People Book: Merton Hall
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Merton HallExtracts from "The Great Famine in Nenagh Poor Law Union" by Daniel Grace, published in 2000 by Relay Press.
Conacre;was the system whereby poor people rented land from large farmers to sow a crop of potatoes.This land was commonly called 'quarter-ground' in our part of Tipperary as it was usually let in units of a quarter of an acre.
Burning:The practice of 'skinning and burning' land was a practice intimately associated with the conacre system.When a large farmer had a lea or grass field he wished to return to tillage he often rented it for a year to poor people for potato ground.In early spring the sod or scraw was lifted with spade or plough and left to dry in the field.During the month of May the dried scraws were gathered into heaps and burned, apparently ignited with turf.A burning field was colloquially known as a 'bating' - a word derived from the Irish, 'beitin'/burned grass or surface soil'.As the ash was often the only fertiliser spread on the potato ground, progressive agriculturalists and 'imporving' landlords condemned burning land as detrimental to good farming.They believed that it drained the soil of its fertility, even though it tended to produce a large crop initially.Burning land without the permission of the landlord was an offence in law.
The Murder of Robert Hall
A dispute over burning land was the main motive for the murder of Robert Hall at Uskane near Borrisokane on 19 May 1841, although there were other factors involved in making him 'exceedingly unpopular and obnoxious to the peasantry'.These included his prosecution of a number of men transported for robbing his house and his alleged attempt to force his tenants to swear a promise similar to the Fr Mathew pledge not to sell turf from the bog of Uskane.Robert Hall made his money as a merchant in Dublin and in 1828 purchased the large property between Cloughjordan and Borrisokane, which he renamed Merton Hall.Shortly afterwards he added to his estate by purchasing a second property at Uskane, a portion of which he let to a substantial tenant, William Kent.
Robert Hall was an 'improving' landlord, strongly committed to introducing modern methods of farming to his new estate.The Nenagh Guardian of 23 March 1842 put it as follows:'Mr Hall was a gentleman possessing an income of £5,000 a year and there were no improvements on his estate which he did not devise for the benefit of his tenantry'.He paid premiums to tenants who ploughed their land before Christmas, sowed turnips and other green crops, or laid down good quality grasses and clovers.He brought down best quality seeds from Dublin and sold them to his tenantry at cost price.He built comfortable houses for his labourers and 'gave constant employment to a great number of persons'.A local Catholic landowner, Arthur French of Carney Castle, conceded to the Devon Commission in 1844 that Mr Hall was 'a good kind of man', but pointed out that 'he had habits to which the people were not accustomed, and he brought his customs upon them rather too suddenly'.It was Hall's determination to stamp out the ancient practice of skinning and burning that led to his violent death 'upon the very ground going to be burnt'.
On the morning of 19 May 1841 Robert Hall travelled to Uskane on the Birr side of Borrisokane to investigate a report that land was burning on William Kent's farm.It seems that the report of the burning had been deliberately brought to Merton Hall to lure the landlord to his death.William Kent, who was described as 'a man in a rather better situation in life', had already been warned by Hall not to burn his land, but seems to have been under pressure from the neighbouring poor to do so for potato ground.As the seventy-year-old Hall entered the 'bating' field he was stalked and shot dead by two assassins, one of whome, Patrick Byrne, was subsequently hanged for the crime at Clonmel prison on 16 July 1842.Byrne was convicted largely on the evidence of the other assailant, Timothy Horan, who had turned queen's evidence.One account suggested that the pair were paid £5 and £3 respectively by William Kent 'to rid the country of such a tyrant'.Local tradition claims that Byrne came from a place called the Corrigeens, a little over a mile across the bog near the village of Aglish.According to the sworn evidence of an informer named John Dooley, Byrne and Horan were both members of the Ribbon Society lodge of the nearby village of Ballingarry.
A number of sources confirm the antipathy of the peasantry towards Robert Hall.William Steuart Trench of Sopwell Hall near Ballingarry, who happened on the scene of the murder on his way to the petty sessions at Borrisokane, recalled afterwards his impressions of the occasion:
There lay the body of a murdered gentleman with whom I had been on terms of friendly intercourse, shot on his ownestate and in his own field, in the noonday, whilst on the faces of the peasantry could be plainly seen an expression oftriumphant satisfaction.
Shortly after the murder upwards of two hundred people 'from miles around' collected at Uskane to till and sow the potato ground of the men held in custody for the outrage.Henry Owen Saunders, JP, of Greyford, Borrisokane, reported to the authorities on 8 July 1842 that 'the sympathy exhibited by the multitude for the convicted murderer (Byrne) is extraordinary'.William Kent was charged with conspiracy to murder but was acquitted at the assizes due to lack of evidence.However, the Borrisokane police subsequently reported that 'people believe he was the principal and have an ill feeling towards all his connections.
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