A country farmhouse in County Roscommon became a battle zone last week after a brutal and illegal eviction of a farming family by hired loyalist mercenaries was dramatically overturned by a “flying column” of anti-eviction activists. The perpetrators were beaten or put to flight, and their vehicles torched.
The trouble began on Tuesday of last week. In scenes reminiscent of the 19th century, a pro-British eviction gang brutally assaulted a family in the west of Ireland while members of the 26 County Garda police looked on, without intervening.
The home of two brothers and one sister -- Anthony McGann, in his 50s and his brother David and sister Geraldine, both in their 60s -- had been in their family for three generations.
Armed with clubs and attack dogs, the loyalists dragged out the farmers and threw them outside. Two uniformed Gardai who were present in support of the gang treated the attacks with callous disregard, including the severe beating of a retired Garda who was assisting the family.
Some of the fighting was captured on handheld mobile phones. As one of the eviction gang attempted to grave one phone, he was asked if he was ‘proud to be Irish’. He replied in a northern accent, “I’m British”.
Later identification found two of the men to be former member of the British Army’s murderous Ulster Defence Regiment, locally recruited loyalists in the north of Ireland. The “security firm” they work for is said to have links to paramilitaries, specifically the highly violent south-east Antrim UDA.
‘Black and Tan’ eviction gangs -- so called because of the parallel to the paramilitary British irregular police which fought the IRA and abused the citizenry in the War of Independence -- have become an increasing feature of Irish life. They have the support of the Gardai and have been employed regularly by the Belgian-owned KBC bank, which has been carrying out some of the most reviled evictions in Ireland in over a hundred years.
The loyalist gangs have no specific permission to carry out violent evictions in the 26 Counties and are known to use untrained attack dogs. On Saturday night, the brigade of thugs believed they had vanquished the family and their neighbours.
But centuries of Irish history were against them. As news of the eviction emerged over the weekend, anger grew to outrage and disbelief, and in the early hours of Sunday morning, a large number of anti-eviction activists, through to have numbered at last 50 and “from all four provinces of Ireland”, bravely took them on in direct physical combat. The property was stormed from the front and back, via doors and windows.
According to the Roscommon-based Democrat news service, some of the gang escaped up fields at the back of the property, while others were told in no uncertain terms of the consequences for themselves if they continued their trade in eviction misery.
Numbers vary, but at least three members of the gang were injured and four of their vehicles were burned, while two attack dogs had to be put down by a local vet.
Public anger turned to joy for the liberation of the family home, and the McGann family have since returned. However, it is difficult to overstate the repercussions of an event with such historic resonances. The incident dominated mainstream and socia media commentary in Ireland for the past week.
Predictably, the mainstream media disgraced itself once again. Rather than condemn a brutal and illegal raid that sought to throw Irish citizens out in the cold on the eve of Christmas, the establishment news services slammed the family’s defenders with the meaningless catch-all pejorative of “dissidents”.
But the family’s support has only grown. Hundreds have now helped to defend the homestead, and the family have increasing political support.
In a statement, the McGann family thanked their neighbours and friends “who have greatly helped us during a very traumatic time”. They said the eviction had left them “shocked by unforeseen events that were thrust upon us” and that the ordeal had been further compounded by “inaccurate and ill-informed media coverage”.
They said they were particularly disappointed at comments made by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Dublin parliament on Tuesday, describing them as “a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from some of the very serious issues relating to our eviction”.
In a dismal exchange in the Dail, Mr Varadkar had a go at Sinn Fein deputy leader Pearse Doherty about condemnations of violence. Varadkar told Mr Doherty: “When it comes to Sinn Fein and the rule of law and public order and condemning violence, it doesn’t take very long for your balaclava to slip”.
But the family noted the failure of Varadkar and his cohort to condemn the violence of the illegal eviction gang.
It also said it was upset about the lack of coverage of the injuries that David McGann, one of the elderly farmer brothers who suffers from chronic illness, and retired gardai Kevin Taylor, who was badly beaten at the hands of the gang.
According to close family friend and citizen journalist Anna Kavanagh, Geraldine McGann is also “deeply distressed” about the treatment of her late mother’s “sacred space” in the family home. In an Irish tradition, when someone within the family dies, their bedroom is locked and the key hidden. When the McGann’s returned to the home this week, the door to the siblings’ late mother’s bedroom, which had been locked since 2015, had been smashed.
Despite placing themselves at the heart of what amounts to a new civil conflict, the 26 County Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan and the new Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, have maintained a low profile. But their support for criminal loyalist eviction gangs has resulted in one of the most incendiary episodes the west of Ireland has seen in decades. The loyalist sympathies of Harris, a former assistant chief of the RUC/PSNI police and a ‘dirty war’ operative in the Six Counties, are already well known.
Incredibly, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has decided to blame the internet for the trouble. He said social media companies should have blocked the video of the eviction and the subsequent angry comments, which he said were “an incitement to hatred” against the eviction gangs and the banks who employ them.
The Taoiseach said newspapers and broadcasters “wouldn’t be allowed to promote that kind of stuff” and “would be held accountable” if they did so. He said work was ongoing on the creation of a “digital safety commissioner”.
The 26 County state has a history of official censorship, and republican viewpoints were banned from the airwaves until 1994. It remains to be seen if the reactionary elements of Irish society will attempt that route once again.