It is often said that everyone is well thought off when they die, but there is one man with links to Gweedore of whom that can never be said, that was Landlord ‘Black’ Jack Adair, the mastermind of the infamous Derryveagh Evictions.

Landlord ‘Black’ Jack Adair's early life

John George Adair was born on March 3, 1823, to landed gentry in modern-day County Laois, which was then known as Queens County. The Adair’s were a wealthy family, loyal to the crown and with a long tradition of serving the British in Ireland and abroad.

They had been landlords in Ireland since the 16th century when John’s ancestor Robert Adair had been rewarded by King William for his help at the Battle of the Boyne. Robert Adair raised and led a regiment at the Boyne and had been given a knighthood and large tracts of land in Queens County. The Adair’s also had a cousin who was a Baronet and a member of parliament.

Young Adair’s family had land and money, his father had inherited sugar plantations in the West Indies, which funded a comfortable lifestyle.

Read more: Irish Famine artifacts sought for 175th anniversary Dublin exhibition

The infant Adair known to his family and friends as Jack, had his career mapped out for him by his parents, who decided he too would serve the crown. So after attending Trinity College Dublin, Adair entered the British diplomatic service.

Those that knew Jack Adair thought this was a strange career choice, given his short temper and aloof personality. Many that met the young Adair, often commented that he did not hide his confidence or sense of self-importance. Whilst this was not uncommon in the scions of the Anglo Irish landed gentry, it was hardly the smooth temperament required for international diplomacy.

Despite these reservations, Adair was posted to Florence. It was here he would develop a love for Italian architecture and garden design that would have a major influence over him in later life.

A young Adair enjoyed the social life that the cosmopolitan city of Florence offered a young diplomat. He was soon mentored by a British financier living in the city called John Leland Maquay. It was rumored and circumstantial evidence exists, that Adair repaid Maquay’s kindness by having an affair with his wife and even fathering a child with her.

It is unclear whether Maquay knew or even approved of this liaison but the child William was raised by John Maquay as his own son.

While enjoying the delights of Florence, Adair’s fiery temper did not make diplomacy an enjoyable career and he decided to leave the diplomatic service and try his hand at finance.

Encouraged by Maquay, Adair made for America in the 1850s settling in New York.

He founded a brokerage firm and soon made a fortune speculating inland. Adair would later expand his business with offices in Denver Colorado, because of his interest in buffalo hunting and the opportunities offered by the ever-expanding American west.

Now a wealthy young man, he returned to Ireland to set up another business venture. He decided to invest some of his profits in Donegal, where he began to buy up smaller holdings of land around the Derryveagh Mountains and Gartan to create a single large estate of 28,000 acres (110 km2). This was named Glenveagh, after the local name for the general area, which translates as “glen of the birches”. It was here, in 1861, that he would carve his name into infamy with what became known as the Derryveagh evictions.

The Derryveagh Evictions

Adair’s relationship with his tenants did not start well, in 1860 he began hunting on land he had rented to tenants, in violation of the rental agreements.

When the tenants quite rightly objected, an arrogant and angry Adair threatened them with eviction.

Adair had a vision for Glenveagh and this was based on his admiration for the Balmoral estate of Queen Victoria and the gardens he had seen in Florence. He wished to build a palatial castle, ornamental gardens, introduce deer hunting and establish a working estate based on deer and sheep and not tenant farmers.

Adair began to import sheep and employed two shepherds, Rankin and Murray, from Scotland.

Understandably neither shepherd was popular with the local tenants, who had seen their land turned over to sheep farming. It was no surprise that dead sheep began to appear throughout the estate.

Murray was particularly disliked and was constantly bickering with the locals and had a number of drunken fights with them in local drinking dens.

In November 1860, Murray was reported missing by his pregnant wife. It was not long until his lifeless beaten and broken body was found in a remote ditch.

It was clear that he had been murdered and local farmers were suspected. Rumors quickly began to spread that Murray had been murdered by his fellow shepherd Rankin. Locals alleged that Rankin was having an affair with Murray’s wife and that he moved into her bed on Murray’s death.

This was to prove unfounded as she was heavily pregnant at the time of Murray's disappearance and soon left for Scotland once her child was born, without Rankin.

Another rumor was that Adair had ordered Rankin to kill Murray, to allow him to blame the locals, again unfounded.

Rankin was presumed innocent and was placed under police protection.

No matter the rumors, two things were soon clear. One, the local police had no idea who had murdered Murray the shepherd and two, relations with landlord and tenants were now at a low point.

Sources are available that claim Adair who was a justice of the peace at the time of the murder was unhelpful to the Police, who complained of the poor support they received from Adair. One is quoted as saying in a letter:

“I spoke to Mr Adair on the 20th of November to provide us with fuel and light, which he declined to give us. He also refused to allow us to cut timber. We have to patrol the mountains during the day and return at night to a damp cold house, with our clothing wet, ourselves fatigued from cold and want of food, having no fire to cook our victuals or dry our clothing.”

Despite the investigation, no one was ever found guilty of the murder and the unrest between landlord and his tenants continued to ferment, while Adair secretly began the plans to finally implement his grand vision for his Glenveagh estate.

On St Patrick’s Day (17th March) 1861 Adair obtained a writ of Habere facias possessionem.

This document granted him the legal, if not the moral right to evict his tenants and take back possession of his land.

He now began to gather a group of policemen and thugs termed as ‘Crowbar men’, with experience in evictions. Their job was to demolish the dwelling place once the inhabitants had been evicted. This ensured no one could return to the property.

On 3 April 1861, a force of 200 police, three sub-officers, the resident magistrate and the sub-sheriff left from Letterkenny to undertake their legal duties. They met with the ‘Crowbar men’ at Glenveagh.

The evictions began at Lough Barra, where a widow, Mrs. Hanna McAward and her six daughters and one son were the first to suffer. The family was evicted from the house, and with them removed, the crowbar men made short work of demolishing it.

The newspaper reports of the time detailed a harrowing scene in which 'the bereaved widow’ and her family were frantic with despair.

“Throwing themselves on the ground, they became almost insensible, and bursting out in the old Irish wail”.

The frightening convoy then went from house to house over the next 3 days through Magerashangan, Staghall, Claggan, Ardator, and Castletown among other townlands. 28 houses were leveled to the ground by the ‘crowbar men’.

When the evictions were over, 44 families were impacted making a total of 244 people left homeless including 159 children. All too clear 11,600 acres on mountain and valley land.

In the aftermath of what would be called the Derryveagh evictions, 42 of those evicted ended up in the workhouse the terrible last resort of the desperate and destitute.

The press coverage of the suffering of those evicted ensured that their story was heard by Irishmen and women across the world. Money was raised to help them in Dublin and France.

The Australian Donegal Relief Committee was established to assist the emigration of the Glenveagh people to Australia. This was a charity organized in Sydney by a Donegal migrant named Michael O’Grady. He arranged for fares to be paid for anyone wishing to emigrate and for land to be purchased for them in Australia.

Over half of those evicted would eventually decide to immigrate to Australia.

On 18 January 1862, the Glenveagh families left Donegal to begin their journey.  

A dinner was held in their honor in Dublin and it was said of the Glenveagh emigrants that:

'A finer body of men and women never left any country'.

Once settled in Australia they established successful new lives for themselves and their descendants who continue to thrive in Australia.

The story of the evictions has been passed down the generations and they remember their ancestors who suffered one of the most infamous evictions in Irish history.

One which made the name of “Black Jack” Adair, forever a curse in the county of Donegal.

Read more: Invaluable Irish archives burnt during 1922 civil war retrieved

This article was submitted to the IrishCentral contributors network by a member of the global Irish community. To become an IrishCentral contributor click here.