Lisa Maguire Fiction

The Caseys of Killeen (pt 1)

Posted on | July 6, 2013 | No Comments

My great-great grandfather, Patrick Casey, was born in 1845, the first year the potato crop failed. Summer was always the hungry time, when people had eaten all of the potatoes from the previous autumn, and lived on foraged roots and nettles waiting for the new potatoes, which were dug up in August. The new potatoes came up plentiful that year, but in the days before the bigger October harvest a foul stench wafted over the countryside- the potatoes were rotting in the ground. Whatever could be dug up was black and putrid. Farmers went to look at the remaining new potatoes in their store houses, only to discover that these were now rotting as well. The disaster would repeat itself for the next five years, during which time one quarter of the population of Ireland died or emigrated. We will never know the extent of the suffering of the Caseys, nor that of their neighbors, but we know they were not evicted from their home, and we can assume that they did not starve. The family continued to grow through the years of famine. Patrick was joined by his brother Thomas, born in 1846, and little sisters Honora, born 1848, and Mary, born in 1851.

Patrick’s father, Michael Casey, was a tenant farmer in Pollagh, in the parish of Killevane, in what is now part of County Limerick. The townland was about a forty minute walk from the main street of the nearest town, Newport, in County Tipperary. Michael Casey, like other Catholics, owned no land of his own, but worked 20 acres scattered around the townland in partnership with two brothers (or a father and son) named Cosgrave. The system of working land in common was an Irish tradition predating the Normans, and was known as rundale, a cooperative system, opaque to the landlord, in which tenants leased the land together and shared in both the crop and the rent owed.

The covert economy of rundale was a source of frustration to Anglo landowners, who could never be certain of who their tenants were. In some cases, a landlord would evict a tenant only to discover that he had subleased a different piece of his land down the road from a relative or neighbor. Partnership farming could take many forms, but always consisted of pooling all land in common so that the partners shared in the crop from a large parcel that could have both poor and high quality soil within it. Contracting land agreements between tenants were not measured in area but in use. For example, agreements could be made in ‘sums’ or ‘collops’ which constituted the grazing area required to support a cow, or two yearling calves, or six sheep. Naturally these informal divisions had no demarcating fences. Landholding in this way formed a patchwork of fields and pastures, whose logic was unclear to anyone but the tenants themselves. Michael not only shared in the Cosgrave’s lease but in turn subleased one acre to a man named Michael Hickey. Completely encircling one of Michael’s shared land parcels was another good sized plot (15 acres) leased to a family named Coffey.

Ashroe - limerick

Ashroe, Limerick, a few minutes’ walk from the Caseys’ land

Rundale was of a piece with the clandestine world of the Irish townland. Long before the Conquest, Irish peasants lived in bailia, settlements without legal standing, or even an identifiable village organized around a church steeple, main street, or village green. Instead, the townland was a cluster of families in an area bounded by hedges, woodland, or rivers. The townland did not reflect any claim to rights or civic identity on the part of its occupants. Its social hierarchy and fluid landholding was invisible to outsiders, as it was based on relationships, its contracts and accounting unwritten. After the Conquest, the opacity of the townland would become a tool of passive resistance for native Irish against Anglo Protestant authority.

Like the townland, rundale landholding formed a moral economy not captured in any landowner’s survey. The ambiguities of rundale may have been to Michael’s advantage when (not) paying his taxes. We know that the land that Michael Casey and the Cosgroves worked was crop land, not grazing land, as the latter did not attract tithes paid to the Church of Ireland. The Catholic occupier of the land, not the Protestant landlord, paid this tax. Not surprisingly, this was a source of great resentment to the tithed. Both Michael Casey and the Cosgraves were on record as taxpayers to the Church of Ireland in the Tithe Applotment books. It is not clear from official land surveys post-famine whether or not Michael Casey was a junior partner of the Cosgraves; as their sublessee, he had a bigger share of the land they rented in common (at least, his portion of the land was assessed as more valuable). But according to the Tithe Applotment books, Michael was the official holder of a mere nine roods (a rood was ~¼ of an acre), which would have designated him as a ‘laborer’ as opposed to the land he held in common with the Cosgraves, which at 20 acres between them would have designated all as ‘farmers.’

The ultimate lessor of all of this land was a Mrs. Rebecca Benn, widow of John Benn Esq, who owned a large chunk of the parish of Killevane. It appears that Michael also rented his home from Mrs. Benn; the house sat on a piece of sublet land located next to the grounds of Dromore House, so he probably worked in some capacity on her property.

The Caseys and the Cosgraves were fortunate in that Mrs. Benn was a member of the local gentry, not an absentee aristocrat living in London and leaving his land in the hands of middlemen who squeezed Irish tenants unmercifully, often tripling the rent above what was received by the ultimate landowner sitting in his townhouse in Belgravia. Having a small local landowner was not always an advantage, however; the Caseys were lucky compared to many neighbors who were evicted even before the famine. North Tipperary gentry may not have been uncaring absentee landlords, but they were people of moderate means with small estates, and many were forced for economic survival into converting arable acreage to more profitable grazing land for cattle in the 1840s, even before the Poor Law rates and unpaid rents of the famine years drove them to throw their tenants off the land.

Dromore House, home of the Benns (

Cereal cultivation had come with the arrival of the Protestant landowners to North Tipperary after the Conquest, and by the 1840s local farmers were growing barley, oats and wheat. A poor cottier living on less than an acre was however entirely dependent on the potato along with the pig he raised to sell (known as ‘the rent’)–who also lived on potatoes. The Caseys of Pollagh, sharing in 20 acres, grew something other than potatoes, even if it were grown to sell and pay the rent.

If the Caseys had no potatoes to eat, and could not sell as much of their crop as in years past, we can assume that Mrs. Benn was willing to forgo some or all of the rent payment, as she did not take part in the widescale evictions of tenant farmers that occurred in the famine years. At the height of the famine, the eviction rate in Tipperary was the highest in Ireland. Maybe Mr. Benn had left his widow well provided for, or maybe Mrs. Benn did not want to evict the young family living next door on her property, whom she had perhaps come to know…


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