The shooting of Meredith Chambre, 20th January 1852
Towards the end of the Great Hunger there were attacks on numerous landlords’ agents in Monaghan, Louth and South Armagh. Only one landlord was shot – Meredith Chambre of Hawthorn Hill. He survived, but one man was hanged and over 80 families evicted.
The best that could be said about 1851 was that it had been better than the years before. The famine wasn‘t quite over, but the blight was definitely gone. There had been two years of decent potato crops despite shortages of seed, and the main crop in October 1851 had been exceptionally good. But nearly everyone was behind with the rent and landlords were not showing much mercy – they were gripping cattle and threatening eviction, known as “sherrifing out”. In September, Meredith Chambre had sent the bailiffs in to seize an animal belonging to Frank Berry of Adavoyle. It was taken to the pound near Meigh which was operated by a man called Owen Mallon. There it would be held for sale on the next fair day in Forkhill or Camlough. Gripped animals were good value: a landlord owed 20 shillings of rent might let a 30-shilling animal go at that price. But it would be bought by a travelling cattle jobber. No Dromintee man would touch that animal, not so much on moral grounds, more from the certainty of a knock on the door near midnight.
The events we will relate all took place within a kilometer or so of the Slieve Gullion Courtyard on Hawthorn Hill, the home of Meredith Chambre, magistrate. He was born in 1814, the year before Wellington’s great victory at Waterloo and he was a lifelong admirer of the Iron Duke to whom he claimed to be distantly related. On the slopes above his house he planted a whole wood of beech trees in the formation of Wellington’s troops at the battle; until the conifer plantations came up in the 1970s their shape was clearly visible from Meigh Cross.
- In 1850 Just 3% of Irish land was freehold in the hands of those who worked it – 97% held by landlords
- 302 landlords held one-third of all the land in the country
- Virtually all the land in what is now Dromintee parish was in the hands of just five men.
The local landlords
Meredith Chambre – 1600 acres
John Foxall, Killeavy Castle – 1000 acres
Thomas Jones, Jonesborough – 3000 acres
Thomas Johnson, Carrickbroad – 1600 acres
Henry Alexander, Forkill – 8300 acres
Lord Clermont, Ravensdale – 23,000 acres
Chambre owned about half of Adavoyle townland, a bit of Dromintee and all of Annahaia: 1280 acres in all. His neighbour and distant relative, John Foxall who lived in a big house that he had recently started to call Killeavy Castle, had nearly a thousand acres in the other half of Adavoyle and in Clonlum. They were minor league, like James Johnston in Carrickbroad who had 1640 acres: over in Forkhill Henry Alexander was sitting on the rents of 8300 acres; Chambre’s brother-in-law Thomas Jones owned all from Dromintee back to Jonesborough and beyond, more than 3000 acres, while the Fortescues in Ravensdale Park had 23,000 acres in Co. Louth alone.
Yet these two smaller landlords had a very particular social life because, unlike the others, they lived in a little island of co-religionists. Around Hawthorn Hill and Killeavy Castle was clustered a little community of Protestant tenant farmers and tradesmen who dominated the local economy, on the Adavoyle and Dernaroy roads and on Barrawully. There were only two Catholic families on the Station Road in Adavoyle: Crillys and McComishes. The Protestant family names stand out on the Griffiths Valuation Register of 1864:
Alexander, Armstrong, Barclay, Burns, Campbell, Cole, Copeland, Crawford, Devenport, Fleming, Forde, Frizell, Fuller, Garriston, Harper, Kerr, Lockhart, Lowry, Marks, Maxwell, McCulloch, Morrow, Paul, Reid, Scott, Thornton, Turner.
Most of these names are English rather than Scottish. Only the Campbells were Presbyterian: they had to go to Forkill or Flurrybridge for worship. The others were all Church of Ireland and at the heart of their community was St Luke’s church in the townland of Meigh, dedicated in 1831. A later generation of the same families would gather at the church on 28th September 1912 to sign the Ulster Covenant.
Nearby, in the angle of the main road and Clonlum road was the little Church of Ireland school, endowed by the Chambre family; the master was Thomas Forde.
Land had also been set aside by Chambre for a manse when they could get their own minister, and it was subsequently built. Facing it was the Constabulary Barracks: beside that was the new dispensary set up by the local Poor Law Guardians to provide medical assistance to those who could not afford a private doctor.
The church provided one nucleus of this little community: another was the Orange Lodge on the Dernaroy road, which was looked after by Joseph Rainey and Chambre’s gatekeeper, Moses Lowry
At speeches on the 12th of July the Orange Order liked to refer to the Adavoyle Lodge as “the most southerly in Ulster”.
The Worshipful Master was Meredith’s younger brother Hunt, a barrister, who had recently begun building a large new house on a site beside the lodge (where Declan Kearney now lives).
Chambre and Foxall had inherited their land from a Plantation land grant to their common ancestor, Sir Marmaduke Whitechurch, who had been a young captain in the English army that got soundly defeated by Hugh O’Neill at the Yellow Ford in 1596. After a couple of centuries these families and their other relatives, the Seavers at Heath Hall near Cloghogue, believed they had every right to their property and things would never change. But all was not well.
According to evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Outrages of 1852, Chambre charged the highest rent per acre in Co. Armagh. It is pretty obvious that he didn’t have the best land in Co. Armagh. In fact, at least half of his estate was cutaway, the local term for reclaimed bog which had been drained and 1-2 meters of turf taken off for fuel. (You can tell the cutaway still: the road is higher than the fields.) This work had been done by the tenants, so they were paying rent on land they had effectively created. The Ulster Tenant Right which had come in with the Plantation of Ulster did not prevail on his lands. This meant that if you improved your farm, drained and ditched it and limed and manured it, or built a house, there was nothing to stop Chambre evicting you and charging an incoming tenant a higher rent. He was even known to see a good crop in a field and immediately increase the rent on it.
In the 1930s Mary Nugent gave an account of precisely that in an interview with Michael J. Murphy in the 1930s. It concerned a man her parents knew, Barney Ryan in Dernaroy, of whom we shall hear more. Barney was tending his spuds when Chambre’s coach stopped on the road. “And Chambre was watching him and he had a great field of drills, and he (Chambre) happened to eye him (Ryan), and he lay down in the drills and the divil a see of him did he (Chambre) do. He missed him, but he knew he was jooking (dodging, hiding), so he put up the rent on him.”
There were many grievances: landlords had traditionally supplied seed oats for repayment when the crop came, but as all corn prices rose during the Famine they stopped doing it, and were slow to reinstitute the practice. There was continual pressure on tenants to build or straighten ditches or consolidate the land they had held under the looser rundale system into more coherent holdings. All this ‘squaring of the farms’, so costly in labour time, had to be done without compensation.
Fr Michael Lennon of Crossmaglen told the Select Committee about Chambre: “…the result of my inquiry is that he did evict a great number of people, that he charged a very high rent and took very sharp proceedings for its recovery and there was not a good feeling towards him in that part of the country on that account.”
- Recent research TCD: A quarter of a million people were evicted in 1849-54: Perhaps as many as 350,000 in 1846-53
- John Mitchel: 50,000 families in1849 alone
- Michael Davitt: 200,000 homes were pulled down by bailiffs in the reign of Queen Victoria
- Irish Constabulary: 184,000 people evicted 1849-51
- Irish Constabulary: 49,000 families evicted 1849-54
- Figures based on court cases do not take account of voluntary ejectments (Gregory Clause)
Things had been quiet enough in South Armagh during the Famine, but now the Ribbon Association was flexing its muscles again. There had been a number of agrarian killings and attempted murders around Crossmaglen and in adjoining areas of Louth and Monaghan since 1849 and there were a lot more to come.
Ardle Clarke, land steward, near Crossmaglen, April 1849.
James Clarke, land steward, near Crossmaglen, April 1849.
Lindsay Mauleverer, land agent, near Crossmaglen, May 1850
Samuel Coulter, farmer, near Dundalk, May 1851.
Bernard McEnteggart, farmer, near Dundalk, June 1851
Thomas Bateson, land agent, Castleblaney, December 1851
From 1840 to 1848 there had been only one agrarian murder in this area
As Christmas approached, we can be pretty sure the Chambre family was looking forward to roast goose, probably stuffed with oatmeal. Every tenant had to fatten a goose every year for the landlord. The Chambres may have been receiving Christmas cards, a recent invention made possible by the Penny Post. They may have had a Christmas tree, a new fashion brought from Germany and popularised by the husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
The post was brought up the driveway by a man called McCann, who came from the sub-post office in Meigh. He had a letter for Mr Chambre.
“Jonesboro’, Dec’ 12, 1851: I am giving you timely warning, all Tyrants and oppressors of the Poor. Its like the Thief of the Gallows; its over you particular landlords, particularly in the seed time, if they don’t give their tenants Seed Oats to put in their land, and lower their rent, it will be measured with their corpse. And there is Mr. Chambre, a Beggarman, he better keep close, for, if he does not, he may keep his coffin ready; but we will bury him when he will neither have coffin or shroud around him, for its too Good for an Oppressor of the Poor, for an idle-hearted rascal; besides, who prides in the downfall of his country men; we need not wonder; (he is no Irishman)….”
Chambre may not have regarded the threat as altogether personal, since the letter signed “General Vengeance” also had a go at his neighbouring landlord, Thomas Jones and his agent named Hill:
“… and there is Bumper Squire Jones, he would not be so bad, was it not for his land rascal of an agent, Johny Hill, the House Racker; but between Hill and Hell there is but one letter; if Hill was in Hell Jonesboro’ would be much better.”
General Vengeance thought more highly of Thomas Fortescue of Ravensdale Park (shortly to be elevated to Lord Clermont) but reckoned he could still do with a bit of encouragement: “Mr. Fortescue is a good man, but there is room for improvement.”
After the shooting on 20th January, McCann was evicted. It took at least some evidence to hang a man but not to throw him and his family on the side of the road. Chambre operated what was known as the “Hanging Gale”. Although everyone on his land was a tenant at will, under Common Law they could not be easily evicted if their rent was paid up to date. Rent was paid twice a year on the Gale Days, 1st May and 1st November, but a landlord who only accepted rent six months in arrears – a fully legal practice – was free to evict at will.
There was also a schoolteacher called Harte evicted. General Avenger seemed to spell rather well and be fond of literary flourishes. In a largely illiterate society landlords and authorities were highly suspicious of teachers whom they suspected of writing the often elaborate threatening letters which the Ribbonmen usually sent ahead of an attack, and the odd deliberate spelling errors did not throw them off.
Harte may have run a so-called hedge school because according to folklorist Michael J. Murphy, an official local National School first opened in 1860, in the corner of the graveyard at Dromintee church. and his brother Hunt were always armed when they left the house. They were generally accompanied by a manservant and coachman called David Cole who was also armed. They would each have had pairs of single-shot, muzzle-loaded pistols fired by percussion caps. Judging by the size of his coach-house and his stable yard (the actual Courtyard) and the fact that he is known to have owned 42 horses at one point, Chambre probably had more than one coach.
For day-to-day use the Brougham one-horse coach was a particular favourite of minor Irish landlords.
On the morning of 20th January 1852 Chambre, his brother Hunt and coachman David Cole set out to Forkill courthouse for the Petty Sessions in the magistrate’s court. According to an account told to me by Peter Nugent about 60 years ago, around lunchtime Barney Ryan of Dernaroy came to Hawthorn Hill seeking to pay an instalment of rent personally to the landlord. Mrs Chambre told Ryan that Mr Chambre was in court all day, but Ryan said he would wait, and sat on a ditch within sight of the house.
After the Sessions another magistrate, Captain Warburton, told Chambre the police had brought in two lads who said their father had been beaten coming home from Camlough fair the evening before. They waited for witnesses of the beating to take depositions, but none appeared and towards 5PM Chambre headed home. Warburton later told the Parliamentary Select Committee on Outrages he believed the delay had been contrived to leave Chambre heading home in darkness. Chambre sat inside the carriage with his back to the horse, with Hunt facing him.
In trial evidence Warburton said: “Within half an hour after Mr Chambre had left, his confidential servant (David Cole) rushed into my room covered with blood and a case of pistols in his hands telling his master had been shot. With as much speed as possible the few policemen who were in the (Forkhill) barracks turned out. I procured a car and proceeded to where he was in a wretched cabin having sent off messengers in all directions for doctors. A mounted policeman who had been sent with some letters for Newry was fortunately here and procured the attendance of a doctor. Mr Chambre’s brother was sitting on the lower side of the car. He states having seen about five heads over the ditch or wall at the side of the road. The man-servant was sitting at the off-side of the car driving. The first shot knocked off Mr Chambre’s hat. There was a second shot. Mr Chambre got off the car and his brother was just going to get over the ditch when he observed his brother stagger bleeding to him when he fell dreadfully wounded in the head. On examination of the hat it was found 15 bullets or slugs passed through it and entered into his head and neck. The one which the doctors pronounced most dangerous was the one which entered his left eye.”
Peter Nugent told Michael J. Murphy: “So this fellow from over the country had a pistol in he’s pocket – mind you, Chambree was game; he hopped out with a darlin’ pistol himself – an’ your man pinks him in the eye, an’ he fell, an’ they thought he was dead. An’ Cole the coachman followed them, so your man turns ‘ an puts up the pistol an’ asked him was he comin’ any further – an’ it was empty but Cole didn’t know that – so he went back. He didn’t see the others for they run, an’ he didn’t know the stranger.”
The shooting took place near the top of the hill above the Three Steps pub. As an ambush spot it had the advantage that the lights of the coach could be seen at some distance, and of necessity the horse would be walking as it approached the hilltop.
The Dundalk Democrat wrote: “They passed Dromintee Bog and were approaching higher ground …when two shots were fired at him and he received seven or eight heavy slugs in the face, head and neck. The unfortunate gentleman, with a loaded pistol in his hand, jumped off the car but immediately fell on the road. His brother and the servant ran to the ditch from whence the shots had proceeded and, in the darkness, saw five persons, who immediately fled…”
It also wrote: “At the same time, the horse, a young and spirited animal, having been wounded by a slug, dashed off at full speed towards Hawthorn Hill and drew up at the stable, at the rear of Mr Chambre’s house. This circumstance at once created alarm and Mrs. Chambre, accompanied by a maid-servant, and followed by some of the other servants, ran towards the direction from which the horse and car had come and, after proceeding more than a mile from the house, they came to a cabin into which Mr Chambre had been carried.”
It later emerged that Hunt Chambre had gone to a local house for assistance but had been refused. He was only able to gain admittance and bring Meredith Chambre inside by putting a gun to the head of a family member. It is believed this family were called McNamara: they were later evicted. Warburton believed local people were in sympathy with the perpetrators.
The Dundalk Democrat wrote: “The bleeding and mangled sufferer was taken to his home on a door and a messenger dispatched for medical assistance.” That was the door of McNamara’s house and a number of men in neighbouring houses had been pressganged by police and forced to carry the door in relays the mile or so to Hawthorn Hill. According to local lore, as they carried him people came out of houses along the road and asked, out of hearing of the police: “Is that oul’ hoor dead yet?” “Dead as a doornail”, replied one of the carriers and everyone thought that was a good one given Chambre’s method of transport. That was perhaps a reasonable assumption given that he was bleeding profusely from the head, but in fact he was listening and noting voices and they were all evicted within days. At Hawthorn Hill he was taken care of by the doctor from Adavoyle Dispensary, but other doctors soon arrived.
A brass blunderbuss, loaded with pellets but not discharged was found at the spot with some oats, bread and carrots nearby, showing that the shooters had been lying in wait for some time. A second one which had been fired was later found stuck in a ditch.
The blunderbuss is an up-close and personal weapon with an effective range of not much more than 30 meters, less than half that of a shotgun. Now we have an interesting technical question: was Chambre hit by a blunderbuss as the evidence of pellets would suggest? Or was he shot with a pistol firing a ball by the ‘fella from over the country’ as Peter Nugent believed? Or maybe the pistol was also loaded with pellets: Ribbonmen were known to do that. Sometimes for punishment shootings they just loaded the pistol with powder and a dessert spoon of rock salt. Perhaps on a fair day they would come up behind you and shoot you in the arse. The rock salt would penetrate the cloth of your trousers and then your skin. That was for first offences.
Muzzle-loading weapons were fairly simple technologically and the Ribbonmen were capable of making their own. This little pistol which was probably made in a local forge, was found buried in the wall of a house in Carrickbracken, Camlough.
In a short time the police began arresting what Warburton called “… great numbers of people”, probably anyone observed in the company of known Ribbonmen. In Adavoyle, Frank Berry was taken from his house that evening.
In testimony he said: “When I was going home I met Paddy McCreish on the road who said there were 9 or 10 policemen going down the Bog road so I went then home and went into my house [slide 28]. My mother said there was a policeman here this minute and put a coal upon his pipe. She said she also heard like a great number of them outside talking on the road and she wondered I did not meet them and asked me where I was. I then went to my bed and was there till I was taken out of it.”
A search turned up a small quantity of gunpower and some percussions caps hidden in the thatch. A police report found that Berry’s face had been scratched as if by briars and the knees of his trousers muddied. His boots were taken and matched with prints found at the scene. One of them had a distinctive patch on the sole which Berry said had been done earlier that day by Thomas Murphy, the cobbler beside Dromintee chapel.
Berry was held that night in the cell of Adavoyle barracks, but with evidence being gathered he was removed next day, 21st January, to the Bridewell in Kilmorey Street, Newry. On 22nd January Warburton wrote to Dublin Castle: “I think we have a very good case against one of the prisoners, Francis Berry. In addition to the evidence mentioned yesterday of the footsteps the following evidence has been had – his sister came to him with some provisions and gave a policeman a piece of an old newspaper containing some cold beef part of which he ate and was putting the remainder in the same paper…when Sub-Constable Addis observed that a paper having been found where the party who fired the shots were and said paper had marks of gunpowder and in the possession of Mr Sub Inspector – very properly seized the said paper which on comparing with that taken up by Mr Sub-Inspector Holmes proves to be the same paper.”
The place where Chambre had been shot was on the Jones estate, and now Johny Hill the famous ‘house racker’ joined in the chase. Warburton continued: “ I have further to report that Mr Holmes and Mr Hill, the agent of the estate, was out at (a) very early hour searching about the place and found another brass blunderbuss hid in the ditch close by and which had been discharged. This will I hope lead to further discovery. Several persons have been committed for further enquiry until Saturday next when further evidence it is hoped will be had. Mr Crawford, Sub-Inspector, was out last night and arrested a suspicious character and has also searched the house of the Widow Berry and found some of the newspaper which completes the identification of the papers.”
By 24th January 13 people were in custody, including two girls. One was McNamara from the family with the missing front door. The other was O’Hare from a neighbouring family. On the basis of mounting evidence, Berry was removed to Armagh gaol.
There, for reasons and in circumstances that are unknown, he made a confession on 25th January.
“Well I’ll tell you the truth whether I shall die or not. I was one of the men myself that was at the gathering, and two men from Cross or Glassdrummond . The two men asked me to show them the mark and I replied I would but I would not go near hand for this man, Mr.Chambre would know me. They said, very well, we will do what we can. I met them on the road between Peter Mc Guills and the top of the hill at Paddy Hearty’s. This was about 10.00 in the morning. I went into Thomas Murphy’s to get a piece on my shoe We then went into an empty house, me thinks, Johnny Callaghan’s . In the evening I went and got in Tom Mc Ilevey’s pub at Drumintee chapel from himself. I give him six pence for it and I got a pint of whiskey and ate the bread in the empty house. This I suppose was between three and four o’clock. We heard the car coming and I said this is it. The men took their places. I then made the best of my speed home. I went the better of two fields when I heard two shots fired from that place. The men had two blunderbusses. When I got home, I did not know if the man was killed or not.”
Eighty years later, Mary Nugent and her son Peter reckoned this had the ring of truth. “The way it was Berry was in it, though he says he had neither act nor part in it. …… It was plotted I heard them say, but it doesn’t do to be talkin’, down in Ryans’ in Dernaroy. It was Barney Ryan was in it, an’ indeed he was at the plottin”.
At this point we may be getting the impression that as a conspirator, young Berry wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. On his way home from the ambush, curiosity got the better of him and he headed for the one house in the parish he should have steered clear of. In his confession he said:
“I went down the road to a neighbour’s house, Barney’s Ryan’s house. John Turner, John Campbell, James Campbell, and Harry Jordan were in the house and I wanted to go to Paddy O’Hanlons to play cards. Ryan came home from Mr Chambre’s after being waiting to settle rent with him and he had the news that the car went home (with out him, sic Chambre). Ryan thought that he was dead and this was the first I heard that he was shot. Ryan told every man to be off out of that and for every man to go to his own house.”
Ryan was publicly identified with the Ribbon Association, which no doubt explains his elaborate alibi. According to the Nugents: “An’ the day of the shootin’, Barney Ryan went up to Chambre’s to pay the rent. An’ he was there when the coach an’ horses came home theirselves, an’ the mistress run out an’ when she seen them she says’ “Aw, the master’s done”. An’ Barney knew then they’d shot him. Jerry Cole was the coachman, an’ he drove Chambre home, an’ the first word Chambre said was “Blood for blood”. They only shot the eye out of him.”
Other accounts say that Cole pointed directly at Ryan and said: “It was you that did this, you and your party.” It is important to point out that the Ribbon Association was not actually illegal. People were charged with possessing its passwords but not with membership. It was both an open public parading organisation on the line of the AOH or Orange Order, and the umbrella organisation for acts of violence up to and including murder in support of the tenant cause. There was an outer semi-political circle and an inner one which took care of more difficult chores, shall we say.
Time for a bit of guesswork. Let us suppose for a moment, as the police did and the Chambre household certainly did, that Ryan was the head of the local Ribbon Assocation chapter for Dromintee. Most of the Ribbonmen would have been mainly involved in a bit of low-level intimidation to keep greedy tenant farmers in line. There had been no local Ribbon murders since 1836, probably before Ryan’s time, when a tithe collector called James Morris was killed by a group of men wielding spades on the Rock in Faughiletra. A lot of Ribbon members were more focused on the big parade to Killeavy Old Church on the “Pattern” or patron day of St Moninna at the beginning of August, as well as parades on 15th August which were later taken over by the Hibernians, a direct organisational descendant of the Ribbonmen. In mixed areas Ribbonmen were the muscle in turf wars with the Orangemen.
Let’s say the Dromintee chapter decided something had to be done about Chambre for whatever reasons. Shooting a landlord was a very big deal, nothing for amateurs, so they needed a couple of outside hitmen who would not be known locally, cool heads with a bit of experience under their belts. The Ribbonmen had a cellular structure with strong password protection for their inner circles, so Ryan could pass a request through one other chapter head known to him, and through a couple more, until someone tuned up the sort of personnel that was needed. Somewhere along the line, money had to change hands.
The hitmen had to walk to Dromintee. The Nugents said a shooter came from “over the country”, an expression that generally points towards Crossmaglen. Berry said they were from ‘Cross or Glasdrumman’ although doubtless they were less than specific themselves. Other things point fairly directly towards Cullyhanna and Silverbridge or Carnally.
The shooters needed to lie up in a safe house, meet the local man who would point out the ‘mark’ or target, pick their ambush spot and then check out their getaway route. It would be up to the local area to secure the weapons. Berry said he met them in the morning between ‘Peter McGuill’s’ – which is the Three Steps pub – and the top of the hill where they picked the ambush spot. They were planning it for edge of dark so the shooters probably settled themselves in the derelict house nearby and told Frank to come back around 4pm or so. Each way he would have used the ‘Bog Road’, the Pad which skirted Flurry’s Bog below the church, crossed the Old Road, headed down through the middle of Dernaroy bog and crossed the Adavoyle bog to his house via a series of stepping stones.
On the way back to Dromintee to meet the hitmen , Berry needed a bit of Dutch courage so he went into McAleavey’s public house at the crossroads beside Dromintee church for whiskey – which later cost McAleavey his licence.
According to several local accounts he then went just a few yards down the hill and met the shooters again in the cobbler’s (what we remember as Paddy Nicholas’s shop) which had a shebeen in the back room.
They had two brass blunderbusses with them, already loaded, and at some point someone spilt póitín on the firing mechanism of one of them. That is why it failed to fire, why Chambre survived, “because the bleddy paper was wet,” as Peter Nugent said.
The one which failed to fire was traced to a man called John McGuinness who lived on Sturgan Bray at the corner of the Ballinaleck road; the house is still there, the family had a shop and travelling shop until the 1970s. McGuinness was related to Berry whose people came from Ballinaleck. When questioned he “admitted it to be his and his excuse is that on the night of the 1st or morning of 2nd January 1852 his house was attacked and his blunderbuss taken and when asked why he did not report it to the police replied he was afraid.” In fact he had reported it to the barracks in Camlough but that was after the shooting. He was charged as an accessory to attempted murder but the case later collapsed.
The case attracted a lot of press attention. In a speech from the throne in February 1852, Queen Victoria proclaimed: ‘It is with much regret I that I have to inform you that certain counties, Armagh, Monaghan and Louth have been marked by the commission of outrages of the most serious kind. The powers of the law have been exerted for the repression of crime and violence’.
Berry was charged with conspiracy to murder and his trial was set for 14th July 1852. He pleaded not guilty, and there is nothing in the public record that discusses the anomaly of the plea and the confession. He was defended by Mr Joy, Q.C. and Mr Harrison. The judge was the Right Hon. Baron Green. Over twenty Crown witnesses were called to give evidence.
The Newry Telegraph described Berry as: “a man about twenty-seven years of age, middle size and dressed in a decent tweed frock coat and dark trousers.” Chambre was among the first witnesses: “…I reside at Hawthorn Hill in this county and have landed property there. I am a magistrate and have acted as such in the discharge of my public duty. I know a person named Francis Berry (identifies him). He was a tenant of mine. He knew my person and I knew his. He resides about a mile from my house. I recollect, in September last, having been obliged to seize his goods for arrears of rent due to me…I recollect the 20th January last…I was fired at…I received a shot in the face.. I was insensible for three days. Three or four pellets were taken out of my face. I have lost the sight of my left eye and also some of my teeth, by a pellet passing through my lip.”
George Scott, a shopkeeper from North St in Newry, testified: ‘I kept shot and powder for sale; I can recollect on the 27th December last , seeing the prisoner at my shop with another person. It was between 11.00 and 12.00 o’clock. I was along when the parties came in and the prisoner asked had I any big shot slugs and I said that I had. When I asked him his name he said I am Frank Berry from Adavoyle, one of Mr.Chambre’s tenants. I wrote the name in a book. Here is the entry I made.”
Berry’s confession was read and the jury retired; it was back in 25 minutes with a Guilty verdict. Much was made in Dromintee at the time – and since – that a quick glance at the list of jurors shows they were Protestant to a man, and Protestant juries rarely acquitted suspected Ribbonmen. However, an uncontested confession tells its own story.
Berry was hanged at noon on 7th August, in public on a scaffold erected in front of the entrance to Armagh Gaol. His body was taken down after 42 minutes and life declared extinct.
It was placed in a coffin and turned over to his waiting family. His mother and a few relatives walked after the hearse followed by a crowd of people. The proceedings were marshalled by a detachment of soldiers of the 46th infantry and about fifty policemen but somehow that did not stop a loyalist mob stoning the cortege on the outskirts of Armagh.
He could not be waked in the family home in Adavoyle since his family had already been evicted. They had been given refuge by a family called Gallagher on a Foxall tenancy (now the home of Patsy ‘Roger’ Morgan on Finnegans Road in Adavoyle) so his body was taken to the house of a relative, thought to be McDonnell in Ballintemple. He was buried in an unmarked grave along the north wall of Killeavy burying ground, close to St Moninna, on Sunday 8th August 1852.
It was at this point that Chambre began seriously ‘sheriffing them out of it’ as Peter Nugent expressed it. Local accounts say the evictions, by Chambre or by other sympathetic landlords, ran to about 80 in all. Seven Berry households were evicted as a direct consequence. Chambre demonstrated the true power of Irish landlordism by dictating that no tenant of his or member of a tenant’s family should attend the funeral, on pain of eviction. Just two defied him and were duly evicted.
In the case of Joe ‘Parramore’ Murphy Chambre must have relented at some point because by the Griffiths Valuation of 1864 the Parramores were back in their farm near the end of the Adavoyle road.
The other one was Neal Grogan, a blacksmith who lived near the Protestant Schoolhouse at the junction of the Forkhill and Adavoyle roads in what used to be known as George Wilson’s. Grogan was close to Ryan, whose family had also been blacksmiths. According to local lore, Grogan’s people had come out of Wexford in a hurry when a relative was hanged in 1798, and there are reasons for thinking Ryan had a very similar background.
The story of the blacksmith was a great favourite when we were growing up in the fifties and sixties. He was evicted, we were never told why, and he had just shod Chambre’s horses, but Chambre refused to pay him. So he went up in the night, into all those lovely little stables in the Courtyard, and he took all the shoes off all the horses and neighbours came with a horse and cart to help him take them away. Some said there were 42 horses in all.
This is where there comes a strange twist in the tale. When we come across someone evicted by Chambre in this case, mostly in the northern half of Adavoyle townland, he has a tendency to pop up in the southern half in a Foxall holding. There is a strong suggestion that Foxall detested Chambre and provided refuge to some of his victims; there was a limit to landlord solidarity.
In the 1864 Griffiths Valuation there is Neal Grogan in a new forge on a three-acre Foxall holding, no. 113 at the junction of Finnegans and Dernaroy roads.
A few hundred yards to the north in Dernaroy, there is Barney Ryan inFoxall holding no. 89, now married to Rose Kearney from the holding next door. A descendant of the Kearney family now lives on the site. Unfortunately we don’t know where the Chambre holding was that Ryan was evicted from. Life was probably difficult for Ryan, a marked man on a 4-acre holding, half of it really bog. We now know that at some point after 1864 he moved with his family to Scotland, quite possibly with Ribbon Association assistance; testimony to the Select Committee showed that they had support networks reaching deep into all the big industrial cities of Britain where money could be raised and accommodation provided for anyone under pressure from the authorities in Ireland.
Barney Ryan was killed in an accident in a Scottish mine in 1877. Meredith Chambre died in his bed in 1879 and is buried in the family plot at St Luke’s, as is his brother Hunt who was the local Worshipful Master of the Adavoyle Lodge into the 1890s.
In 1903 ownership of all their land except their home farm passed to the sitting tenants under the Wyndham Land Act, in return for 69 annual ground-rent payments. In the words of the Land League, “they took the land with the sword but we had to buy it back”. In the early 1970s the Chambre family sold the land they had retained to the Forestry Service and moved to Hillsborough; one descendant is involved in public affairs PR, another has written for the Newsletter.
By 1900 Neal Grogan’s son was hosting meetings of the local branch of the Irish parliamentary party, the United Ireland League, in the forge at Dernaroy cross. His grandson Owney was awarded a Military Pension for his activities with the Old IRA in the 1920s. It is quite striking how the Protestant community of Adavoyle – all those family names listed above – simply evaporated in the first decades of the 20th century. Brutal events of 1920-22 such as the Altnaveigh Massacre, the burning of McGuill’s pub and the Orange Lodge clearly played a major part. Hawthorn Hill itself was burnt in retaliation for the burning of McGuill’s, which was an official government reprisal. However, few of those Protestant families were significant farmers and insofar as they were in business or trade, they were largely dependent on the custom of the local landlords. Ultimately, the loss of land and the power of patronage and political control probably did more than anything else to dissipate the Protestant community. St Luke’s church was deconsecrated in 1972 and is now a roofless ruin. The Presbyterian Campbells, who lived close to the Orange Lodge, were the last Protestant family in the area; a descendant is now principal of Dromintee school.
There is a memorial to Frank Berry outside the old walls of his family home in Adavoyle. Apart from his gravestone there is nothing to commemorate Meredith Chambre. Insofar as he is remembered, it is as a harsh and unrelenting master of those over whom he exercised power. Stories are told of him allowing the Quakers to operate a soup kitchen in his stables but then abusing the persons and religion of those who came for help. If anyone fainted from hunger or illness in the food queue, he prodded the next person with his stick and shouted: “Step over, step over.”
There is no reason to doubt Frank Berry: he was the lookout man, he identified Chambre but he did not shoot him. So who did? The prime suspect has to be Neale Quinn of Annamar, Cullyhanna who was an accomplished assassin. He was almost certainly the “fella from over the country” who went after Chambre with a pistol when the blunderbuss failed. Quinn was hanged in Monaghan in 1853 for the killing of Thomas Bateson, a landlord’s agent. The second shooter was probably Ownie Murphy of Carnally. On his deathbed in the 1890s he confessed to involvement in the shooting of 24 landlords and agents, nine of them in Co Mayo.
The shooting of a landlord was so unusual – only a handful were killed in all of Ireland in the 19th century – that it is unlikely Barney Ryan would have made a move without an overwhelming case. The Ribbonmen were extremely vulnerable to informers but they do not appear to have played any role in this case. They were curiously open in their planning: it was not unknown for them to take up a collection among the tenants of an estate explicitly to cover the costs of shooting an agent, for example. We cannot rule out the idea that Barney tramped around Adavoyle and Annahaia knocking on doors and saying: “We want a shilling for the shooting of Meredith”.
According to local storytellers, Chambre refused to pass along the roadway where he was shot, taking detours until he was able to get a new piece of road built – the New Line, which bypasses the ambush spot by skirting east of Dromintee church.
A lady whose family worked and lived on the Chambre estate in the mid-20th century told me that as children they were afraid of the ghost carriage – an empty coach drawn by a loudly neighing runaway horse which careered up the long driveway about midnight but disappeared before it reached the stableyard.
Did it all do any good? They say things eventually got better – quite possibly because other landlords put pressure on Chambre to go easier. The Ribbonmen never really went away. They were essentially the crude spearhead of resistance against a cruel landholding system which had just killed more than a million of our people and exiled at least as many. But as our society advanced and democratic politics grew, new and better methods of resistance gradually replaced the blunderbuss. There was a mini-famine caused by bad weather in 1879, but by then people were no longer reliant on the grace and favour of an unsympathetic government in London. Shipments of American and Canadian grain were organised by the Irish Land League which would soon virtually run the country; food aid was distributed in Jonesborough by the local branch of the League which later brought Michael Davitt to speak to a crowd of more than 1000 in a field at Finnegans Cross.
Some of the Ribbonmen joined the Fenian Brotherhood; rather more got involved in the semi-political factions which generally disgraced themselves by stupid violence, particularly in the aftermath of the great Parnell split of 1891. As a movement they were gradually transmuted into what we later called the Hibs – the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Agrarian Disturbances around Crossmaglen – Part X The Shooting of Meredith Chambre
Author(s): Thomas McKeown and Kevin McMahon
Source: Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society , 2003,
Vol. 19, No. 2, Golden Jubilee Issue (2003), pp. 206-224
Published by: Cumann Seanchais Ard Mhacha/Armagh Diocesan Historical Society
Report of the Select Committee on Outrages 1852
House of Commons. Select Committee on Outrages (Ireland);
This 700-page report was compiled following hearings in the spring and early summer of 1852. Meredith Chambre and many of the leading police and magistrates in the investigation gave evidence