A Thief to Catch a Thief
Through the autumn of 1848, as the condition of the populace deteriorated and the daily count of deaths in the fever hospitals and the workhouse increased, I deliberated about the wisdom of enlisting the help of a local land agent in the task of drawing up maps showing the ownership of properties on which the ejection of tenants and squatters had taken place.
I sent regular reports of the number and location of evictions to the Commissioners but they were increasingly demanding evidence.
I am, of course, an accomplished reader of maps, a skill essential in an officer of Her Majesty's army. When it comes to the making of maps, however, that is something I always left to others. In any case, my duties in the Union made it impossible for me to dedicate the necessary amount of time to properly complete what I recognised was a major undertaking. No, I needed someone with considerable talents of a specialised nature, accompanied by an intimate knowledge of the district.
Dr Foley had used the analogy of setting a thief to catch a thief when making his suggestion, although he did not venture any specific person by name. Many of the owners of land in the district utilised the services of one Marcus Keane. Keane, himself an owner of land in the vicinity of Ennis, had earned a reputation for his ability to extract rents from his own tenants and, building upon that reputation, had rented his services to many another land owner, especially those who chose not to reside upon their Irish holdings, preferring the comfort of their English country estates.
There was certainly no diminution of the practice of brutal ejection of families and tumbling of their ever so humble dwellings. I had already noted the apparent lack of compassion exhibited by the teams of young men employed by the likes of Keane. These men were frequently rewarded for their efforts by the donation of copious amounts of alcoholic liquor; thus they were, as often as not, in a mood that might generously be described as boysterous. In such a frame of mind they took evident pleasure in the destruction of buildings; the pushing over of walls, the pulling down, by means of a rope, of the principal beams of an in any case flimsy supporting structure, then setting fire to said timber making it impossible for the unfortunate occupier to re-erect it.
The same men were as often engaged to forcibly remove cattle from the farms of tenants who owed rent. Frequently led, or supervised, by an equally inebriated young fellow who, I had it on the best authority, was the younger brother of the same Marcus Keane. In defence of these men I will say only two things for, in truth, their actions are indefensible except on the pretext often used by land-owners and their agents, that the land was over-crowded, unable to support the numbers of people dwelling upon it without substantial improvement. But the drunkenness of those undertaking the dismal task was necessary to numb the mind and cause the perpetrator to lose all empathy for his victims. Furthermore, it has to be stated that these young men had no other way in which to support themselves except by the paltry amounts paid to them by Marcus on behalf of the land-owners he served.
No amount of sympathy for the difficult position these scoundrels found themselves in can alter the fact that their actions had a profound effect upon their victims. I have described elsewhere the terrible conditions which evictees were forced to endure before, as a last resort, turning to the Union and eventual incarceration in the workhouse. All too often the deadly combination of fever and hunger took them before they came to the attention of the vice-guardians.
Keane, however, was but one of several men operating as agents for land owners in the district, albeit the one with the largest and most illustrious client list. If I had an ideal in mind it would be someone relatively young, someone whose reputation was growing, whose list of clients was small enough that he would have the time needed to devote to the task I had in mind.
* * *
Meanwhile, Georgina had returned safely, having been met by my half-brothers, Freddie and Hugh, the former accompanying Arty to Cultra and thence to Edinburgh, the latter remaining with Georgina until she was safely aboard the Kilrush bound steamer in Limerick. My delight at her safe return was greatly enhanced by the news she brought with her; she was with child! I had no desire to emulate my father who had single-handedly increased the population of Ireland by no fewer than 18 souls. But the notion of a third child, even in the desperate circumstances in which the island presently found itself, could not but give me hope for the future.
Being aware of my dilemma, Georgina began taking notice of conversations with the various gentlewomen with whom she was in regular contact in hope of picking up some reference to such an individual.
“I met a lady today who informed me that her son is an accomplished drafte...