The Ballycohey Ambush (1868): Landlordism and Anglo-Irish relations

Peter O’Grady gave an exhaustively-researched talk in Thurles on 15 February last which dealt with the Ballycohey Ambush. This was a violent protest against William Scully and his methods by tenants which took place on 14 August 1868 in the vicinity of Shronell in the parish of Lattin-Cullen, some four miles outside Tipperary town. [1] Covered in extensive detail by the newspapers of the time, it is almost forgotten by modern historians outside of Tipperary in spite of having had a significant impact on Irish and British politics, according to O’Grady. It created a revulsion against landlordism that helped Gladstone pass the 1870 Land Act, a piece of legislation important both in Ireland and in Britain. The talk, held in Thurles library, had an impressive number attendees from the Lattin/Shronell area, some of whom were descended from participants in the events. (NB: It may be easier to follow this blog post by identifying Ballycohey on a map (“Ballycohy” on Google Maps) and noting its position relative to Tipperary town, Limerick Junction, Shronell and Lattin.)

In all of West Tipperary’s eventful history, there are some landlords of special notoriety.  John Sadlier M.P., ‘Prince of Swindlers’, who would have been notorious for breaking rank with the Independent irish Party with his friend William Keogh even had he not collapsed the Tipperary Bank (and a few others), or the proverbially wealthy John Damer, the descendant of a Cromwellian officer who was famously cursed by Liam Dall Ó hIfearnáin, whose ancestors had been disposessed by the Damers. Perhaps no name is so now reviled in that part of the world as that of William Scully. The son of Denis Scully, a loyalist Catholic and critic of the Penal Laws and an associate of O’Connell, Scully became a landlord of great wealth and property in Ireland and the largest private landowner in the United States. U.S. By 1900, he owned 225,000 acres of prime agricultural land in the U.S., farmed by 1500 tenants, and 2,500 acres in Ireland. It was later written of Scully’s bad character in the U.S. that

[n]o frontier landlord in the entire country caused as much unrest among his tenants and was the object of as much ill-feeling and political agitation as William Scully. [2]

O’Grady talked first of the impact of landlordism in Ireland, an imposed system which set planter perpetually against native. Landlordism was inevitably connected with colonialism (Cromwell’s solution to the Irish problem being, in effect, to impose landlordism) and the struggle against it started a progress of events which eventually led to the national struggle. The Scullys benefited from the relaxation of the Penal laws in the 1770s and leased the lands of Ballycohey and Shronell from the Damers. They also benefitted from the widespread sale of lands during the Famine. West Tipperary and its vicinity saw large Famine clearances, such as Knockorden in Lattin and Castletown near Oola, where 1,000 people were evicted. The republicanism that inspired the Fenian movement started during this time. Paul Bew, possibly one of the historians criticised by Peter O’Grady for imposing an illusion of democracy on nineteenth century Ireland, believes that tenant complaints were exaggerated (“As The Nation acknowledged in 1870, it was a matter of ‘extremes’ of legal tyranny rather than actual practice”), and that their real grievance was in being subject to an alien race and religion. [3] Without entering into too detailed a discussion on the landlord system in Ireland, its injustices were thrown into relief when exported. William Scully, who acquired much of his 220,000 acre U.S. holdings from the government at $1.25 or less per acre,

… rented this huge acreage to twelve hundred tenants under a modification of the Irish land system, which required that the tenants make all improvements and pay both the taxes and a cash rent. These requirements kept the tenants in poverty and their improvements substandard while limiting the social amenities of the Scully districts. [4]

In June 1868, William Scully’s Ballycohey tenants  took issue with his announcement of changes to the leases including a provision that they had no rights to the crops they planted on the rented land. The tenants refused to sign, offering to pay an increased rent instead. Scully retaliated by preparing notices to quit. Scully himself had police protection as a result of death threats. His elder brother was shot in 1842, which may have shaped his attitude towards his tenants. Scully was charged but not convicted of shooting a son of a tenant whose holding he wished to appropriate. He was also sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour for inflicting a serious head wound on the wife of a tenant, but never served his sentence. Hassled by a hostile crowd, Scully failed to serve notice on Ballycohey tenants on 11 August as planned. As he decided to return three days later, against the advice of the police, an ambush was planned by the tenants with the aid of an informer in the R.I.C. This was assisted in its logistics by the Fenians, though O’Grady stressed that this was not a Fenian operation. Nevertheless, events would show that it was expertly planned and carried out.

Scully and his police escort went by train to Limerick Junction from Tipperary town and then walked a distance of about half a mile over the train tracks to avoid being confronted on the road. The ambush party, having expected to attack on the road, simply switched to Plan B. A huge crowd gathered outside the Ryans’ house and intimidated Scully and his bailiff Gorman, though not the police. Scully’s escort advised him to go home, but together with Gorman and Maher, another bailiff, and a policeman named Morrow, he went into Dwyer’s house. They were met with a volley of gunfire from the loft of the house and from the outhouse. Gorman was mortally wounded and Scully, in spite of being hit, fired back. Morrow, who was still outside, was hit and died. Maher was seriously wounded. The police outside gave chase, but the ambush party had already escaped and were subsequently helped out of the area by locals. Some returned to live in Ballycohey after several years had passed.

In spite of the several deaths and injuries – and there was no question of self-defence being a factor – Scully’s reputation influenced public opinion against him. The incident, which was instantly a cause célèbre, seemed to crystallise the issue of landlord-tenant relations. E.D. Steele noted that Britain’s Conservatice government “conspiculously failed” to bring the perpetrators of the killings to justice, partly because the local community refused to give evidence, “and partly because the moral and political position of the attackers was a very strong one.” [5] Scully responded to the widespread condemnation of his conduct as landlord by asserting that the tenants could have gone to the law if they had felt hard done by. He wished to fight back against the tenants, but Charles Moore of the Moore family of County Antrim, a member of parliament for Tippeary who had purchased the nearby Mooresfort estate in 1854 [6], defused the situation by purchasing the Ballycohey land at an inflated price.

William Gladstone (who was “profoundly moved” by the incident)  promised to pacify Ireland, and in an election speech of October 1868 he stated his position on the Irish land question. Though Scully’s actions had been legal, it was possible, if not to excuse, to understand “this deep and sullen feeling of… passive estrangement, sometimes arising into active and burning hatred” which were the result of “unjust laws regulating the tenure of land.” [7] Gladstone became influenced by George Campbell, an administrator and judge in India, who visited Ireland and made comparisons with Indian customary tenures. He was under pressure from assorted interested parties in England and Ireland who were alarmed by his election promises and by the increase in agrarian crime that followed the incident at Ballycohey, and unsettled by the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, feared that Gladstone intended to legislate for fixity of tenure (which was already customary in Ulster only). In the event, the expectations that Gladstone had inevitably raised in Ireland were not met by the Land Act of 1870, which offered a limited protection to evicted tenants and legalised the Ulster Custom where it could be shown to exist. However, ED Steele argues, not only that Gladstone had tried to persuade his cabinet to enforce tenant right, but that the Act constituted an enormous development of state intervention in private property and freedom of contract. [8] Gladstone’s approach was more long-sighted than his opponents gave him credit for. His statement on introducing the bill, that “the stability of the Empire” depended on it, reflected his belief in the political threat behind the land issue, and the threat of Fenianism to the very viability of the British Empire.



[2] Paul W. Gates, Frontier Landlords and Pioneer Tenants (1945), p. 34, quoted in Homer E. Socolofsky, ‘William Scully: Ireland and America, 1840-1900’, Agricultural History , Vol. 48, No. 1, Jan., 1974, p. 155

[3] Paul Bew, The Politics of Enmity, p. 274


[5] E.D. Steele, Irish land and British politics: tenant-right and nationality 1865-1870, Cambridge University Press (1974), p. 72. Steele calls the Ballycohey ambush “one of the most fateful incidents in nineteenth century Irish, and Anglo-Irish, history.” (p. 71)


[7] Steele , p. 73.

[8] Ibid., p. 298

More about the Ballycohey Ambush:

Gerard Moran, William Scully and Ballycohey: a Fresh Look (Tipperary Historical Journal, 1992) You will need Adobe Acrobat or an equivalent programme to read this file.

Extract from A.M. Sullivan’s ‘The Story of Ireland’ (1900)
Extract from Sir Michael O’Dwyer’s ‘The O’Dwyers of Kilnamanagh’ (1933)

Some biographical information about William Scully

Ballycohey memorial, Shronell


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