Valentine’s Night in Ballycar, 1887

There was no card, no bunch of roses, no box of chocolates nor dinner for two. Instead there was a dozen gunshots and they were heard around the world. For the one and only ever time, Ballycar was mentioned on the front page of the New York Times. The press in England gave the incident full coverage and it was even reported in New Zealand. The matter was brought up in the House of Commons. A man named John Byers had been shot dead and the circumstances were an outrage to the Establishment.

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Three months earlier, local farmers Thomas and Michael Lynch were evicted from their farm in Clenagh on the far side of Newmarket parish. The Ireland of that time was in the midst of the Land War, a prolonged period of civil unrest. On the surface it was a conflict between tenant farmers and absentee landlords over rent. Bubbling beneath was widespread poverty, grim memories of the recent Famine and seething resentment towards our colonisers. The farm was taken over by two Emergency Men, John Byers and James Hatfield, on behalf of a Dublin landlord. They had three police constables to protect them. In solidarity with the former tenants, these outsiders were completely boycotted. Nobody local would work for them, nor buy nor sell. When they needed a horse and cart, these had to be sent down from Dublin by train.

The horse and cart were due on the Friday evening, February 11th, so Byers along with two constables walked (about 6 miles) to Ballycar Station. Their delivery failed to arrive but was promised for tomorrow. They came to collect it again on Saturday and Sunday without avail. Then on Monday the 14th, the cart arrived. But no horse. That would definitely come tomorrow. They left the cart in the Station yard and headed up the hill for Clenagh once more.

At 8:15 pm, two hundred yards from the station, they came under fire from behind a stone wall on the left. All three were hit to some degree, Byers most seriously. They returned fire with rifle and revolvers but the night was dark and the target uncertain. There was a further volley of shots from behind the wall as they moved further up the road. Byers fell and crawled over to the wall for shelter. The other two ran all the way to Newmarket and raised the alarm.

Having heard the commotion, the stationmaster came with a lamp and discovered Byers, by now unconscious. He was carried back to the station on a luggage cart and was soon attended by a doctor from the village. There were 17 cartridge pellet wounds, many in the groin area, and a large loss of blood. He was removed to Ennis hospital in the morning, by which time several important people were on the scene. The District Inspector, the County Inspector and the Resident Magistrate. Nobody in the area had heard or seen anything. Nobody knew anything. They could find only one flimsy piece of evidence. Behind the wall there were some footprints.

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If you ramble over to Ballycar Cross today, 131 years later, you can survey the scene much as those detectives did. The station house still exists, now a private dwelling. Comparing old maps against modern satellite images, three of the roads leading away are almost identical. To the Crabtree Tavern, to Sixmilebridge and over the humpback bridge towards Quin and Kilkishen. It is on the one leading uphill towards Newmarket that the shooting took place. The corner, once a sharp angle, has a softer curve and there are several houses on the right where none existed in 1887. The left hand side, from whence the gunfire came, is still farmland however and the stone wall remains, though covered with vegetation. Trees, bushes, grass and ivy. If you measure two hundred yards from the railway station, it leads to an ordinary place on the tarmac. It is driven over by several hundred cars and trucks every day.

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John Byers was a native of county Cavan. Going by his employment as an ‘Emergency Man’, it’s safe to infer that he was a Unionist. At a time when the Union in question was that of Great Britain with the entire island of Ireland. Two days after the attack in Ballycar, he was dead but the boycott continued. No coffin could be procured for him in county Clare, it had to be ordered from Dublin. His widow came to Ennis and could get no lodgings there. She was given financial aid by the Inchiquins of Dromoland. The Land War continued in this parish and all over Ireland. It eventually prompted various reforms, culminating in a 1903 Act of Parliament which devolved the ownership of farms to tenants. The era of vast estates and absentee landlords gradually came to an end over the following two decades.

For a few months after John Byer’s murder, there was a heavy police presence in Ballycar. Their investigation came to nothing and no arrests were ever made.

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