Lord Leitrim’s Hearse Attacked by Mob in Church Street, 1878

From the Irishman, 13 April 1878:


The remains of the late Earl of Leitrim arrived at St Michan’s Cemetery, Church Street, Dublin, about half-past two o’clock.  When the remains came into Church-Street the hearse was surrounded by two or three hundred persons, mostly comprised of the middle and lower classes.  On the funeral cortege coming to a halt a scene of great disorder was witnessed, popular feeling being strongly manifested by the crowd, who pushed, shoved, shouted and hissed around the hearse. The most violent section of the mob broke the line with a rush, and forced their way to the hearse.  Curses, derisive cheers, and groans made the scene a horrible one. 

A reinforcement of thirty more men of the D Division hurried up at the moment and recaptured the hearse.  Under their convoy it was piloted to one of the entrance gates, and it was evidently intended to bring it through the gate to the church door.  No sooner was the gate unfastened, however, than the mob burst through the cordon of police and was almost pouring in when the gate was forced out in their faces.  Over a quarter of an hour elapsed before the coffin could be finally removed.  In the meantime, the mob hooted and groaned, and voices came from the worst of them saying, “Out with the ould b___,” “Lug him out,” “Dance on him.”  

With the utmost difficulty, by the aid of a double line of policemen, the mob was held in check while the coffin was unhearsed.  A great yell of execration was raised as the coffin passed in.  Then came another rush, in which the chief mourners were rudely jostled against the railings.  The new Lord Leitrim, who was not recognised, was separated from his friends, hustled and crushed severely, before he could get inside the gate. 

At last the funeral procession was safe within, and the organ of St Michan’s played the Dead March in Saul as the coffin was borne to a place opposite the lectern.  The service of the dead was then performed.  The last prayers being over, the coffin was born through the southern door, towards the vaults.  Immediately on the bare-headed mourners being sighted by the mob outside the railings, a new howl of execration went up, and amid hisses, cheers and indecent jests, the coffin of the unfortunate nobleman was hurried to its last resting place.”  

High drama around the corner from the Four Courts – and not just for the Leitrim family! On reading the above report, the Commissioner for Police in Ireland sent the following telegram to Lord Cairns, the Lord Chancellor, which was read in the House of Lords the following Friday.

“I have read the account of Lord Leitrim’s funeral.  It is a great exaggeration, and the writer must have drawn largely upon his imagination, as hardly one fact, except that there is a crowd, is stated accurately.  Further details will be sent by post.”

The Dublin Daily Express, on the other hand, supported the accuracy of the Irishman’s account, describing the event as ‘a brutal gloating’ and blamed the police for failing to take adequate precautions against any unseemly conduct.

What had the 3rd Earl of Leitrim – assassinated in Donegal earlier the same month – done to provoke such ire among people who did not even know him? Not only, it seems, had he been over-zealous in evicting his tenants, but had also insisted that their pretty daughters work for him as servants and otherwise, sending them off to America (if fortunate) when he was tired of them.  Some even compared his behaviour to that of a medieval seigneur exercising the right of jus primae noctis. His body, presumably preserved ‘as sound and sweet as a nut’ in St Michan’s vaults, remains in situ to this day. 

Another funeral of note which took place at St Michan’s was that of Charles Stuart Parnell in 1891, though Parnell’s body was subsequently taken elsewhere to be buried.  The quays outside the Four Courts were thronged with onlookers – no brutal gloating this time, but genuinely heartfelt grief.

Why do we find members of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy holding their funerals at St Michan’s?  The answer lies in the changing nature of the parish, parts of which – like Henrietta Street – were very wealthy areas in the 18th century.  Its decline was a gradual one, with many prosperous inhabitants up to the time of the Famine, and even a few thereafter.  The connexions of the Parnell and Leitrim families with St Michan’s Church date from this early period of prosperity.

St Michan’s Parish is also an area with a tradition of rebellion and – like other Dublin parishes – had missed out on the prosperity enjoyed by similar urban areas in England, something which the Express suggested might have created sympathy in these townsfolk for their evicted agrarian brothers. 

Perhaps, too, the ladies of Bull Lane had some sympathy for their mistreated country cousins. In fairness to Lord Leitrim, he did leave his female servants – and only his female servants – a legacy apiece. Not all of them, however, may have felt that what they had had to do to receive it was worth it.  Click here for a most illuminating and comprehensive article on other Irish landlords rumoured to have similar tendencies – reputed offenders even included an ancestor of the infamous Lord Lucan.

Just one of many riots which took place in Church Street over the years!

Image Credits: (1 – Illustrated Police News, 13 April 1878) (2) (3) (4)

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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