Living Among The Dead

“You evicted me from my house in the land of the living, and now I live in the land of the dead”.

The plight of the poor people of Ireland in the mid-1800s is well known and documented. One of the major causes of their misery in pre-famine Ireland was what became known as “The Clearing System”. Tenant farmers had no security of tenure and in many cases were ejected from their holdings with scant regard for their well-being. Their homes were then levelled and their holdings, and those of their neighbours, given over to the more profitable enterprise of sheep and cattle farming by their wealthy landlords. One such poor tenant who fell foul of the clearing system was Michael Brady from Moyagher, about 3 miles from Athboy.

Michael Brady and His family took up residence in this graveyard in 1840s.
Michael Brady and His family took up residence in this graveyard in 1840s.


Having been evicted from his rented farm in 1841, Michael Brady, his wife and their five children had no where to go. They lived rough in the field ditches of Moyagher for some time before they took up residence in a hole in the ground in Moyagher Graveyard. Michael was then summonsed to Athboy Petty Sessions Court for making an illegal dwelling and was fined an extraordinary amount of money. With no means of paying he was further summonsed to appear at the next highest Court, The Quarter Sessions at Trim, where he was ordered to be evicted from his illegal dwelling.

However the law, in the end, did show a little pity for Michael and his family. His case came to the attention of the national press and the following story appeared in The Cork Examiner on 11th February 1842:

Results Of The Clearing System

When our readers shall have read the following statement of the results of the depopulating which has been going on now for some years in Ireland, they must tremble for the fate of those “who lay field to field to the end of the place.”. But to our simple narrative, the evidence of which will be found in the records of the quarter sessions court, of the County of Meath, at the last Hilary Trim sessions:

On the conclusion of the registry and the commencement of the crown business, Mr. Despard, R.M., said that, by direction of the petty sessions bench of Athboy, he was desired to bring a case of nuisance under the consideration of the court of quarter sessions, in order to obtain an order to have the nuisance abated by the police. The case was a simple one :- An individual had built a house within thirty feet of the centre of the road, at Moyagher, in this County, and the law made such an erection a nuisance. The party had been fined ten pounds by the magistrates at petty sessions, but had no goods out of which the amount could be levied, and the only way in which the nuisance could be got rid of was by order from the quarter sessions bench to the police. The court had jurisdiction under the grand jury act. Mr. Hinds, one of the practitioners of the court, desired to know if the erection he alluded to was built in what was known as the church-yard and was the application for the purpose of removing one of those unfortunate wretches who, guilty of no crime, was turned adrift on the world under the present clearing-out system, and who might have taken up abode among the graves of the church-yard?. Captain Despard said that he was prepared to prove the case that he had laid before the bench and proceeded to examine Chief Constable of Police Greaves, who said that he had measured from the centre of the road to the erection, and there was not thirty feet to the wood supporting the entrance; it came within the thirty feet by two or three inches. Mr. Ford desired to know from Mr. Greaves, was not what he was describing as a building, within thirty feet of the centre of the road, a hole dug through the road ditch into the church-yard, in which the poor man and his family lived?. And was not what he described as a door, a piece of a torn sack, hanging down in front of the hole?. Mr. Greaves replied that he, Mr. Ford, if he pleased, might call it a hole in the ditch.

Mr. Ford then stated he was agent to the man who held the lands at Moyagher from the Provost, and begged to interfere in this matter, lest it might be thought for a moment that either he or his principal had any connection whatsoever with the present proceeding. He himself had passed the place about three weeks ago and what was called an erection was literally what he had described: it was a hole dug through the ditch into the church-yard, and in that wretched place was this miserable habitation for a fellow creature. The act referred to by Capt. Despard was the grand jury act: now that was a very recent statute, and Mr.. Ford submitted, that it should appear to the court that the erection complained of was made since the passing of the act. The Hon. Mr. Plunket, the Assistant Barrister, after reading the section, agreed whereupon Mr. Despard directed the crier to call Michael Brady – he was the man himself; he might not have done so, but he thought that, although the act did not direct it, that notice should be given to him, and he had accordingly caused notice to be served upon him; and thereupon Michael Brady, who appeared to be an able-bodied man, and about forty five years of age, came on the table. He was asked when did he build the cabin in the church-yard?. “It is no cabin at all, your Worships – it is only a hole in the church-yard” was his reply. “I’ll tell your Worships all about it. On the 8th of May last I was turned out of my cabin by a decree. I was an under tenant only: and myself, my wife and our five children were left without a house over our heads, and I could not get a house from anyone – because it is now very hard for a poor man, when he is turned out, to get a house, from anyone, for the people won’t let them in; and after lying out nine nights in the ditches, I did not know what to do, and as no one dare take pity on me, and as the children would be perished if they lived out any longer, I dug the hole in the church-yard, seeing that another person like me had gone there to live before me, and we have lived there ever since, and I do not know what to do if Your Honours turn me out of that”. The order of the court was that the nuisance should be abated by the police, but the order should not issue until the workhouse in Kells Union, in which district the place is situate, shall be opened.

So, at least, Michael Brady and his family were allowed to stay in their miserable habitation for a little longer. The new Kells Union workhouse building, which could accommodate 600 inmates, was commenced in 1840 and declared fit for the reception of paupers on 25th April 1842. It received its first admissions on 22rd May. The minute books and the records of the meetings of the Board of Guardians of the workhouse survive to this day but unfortunately no records of admissions survive. It is, therefore, unknown if Michael Brady and his family ever made it into the relative sanctuary of the Kells Union Workhouse.

An interesting addendum to this story comes from the records of Dr. Beryl F. E. Moore, a noted local historian. Dr. Moore recorded the gravestone transcriptions in many Meath Cemeteries in the 1960s and 1970s. Her transcription of “The Graveyard and Tombstones At Moyagher, County Meath” was published in The Irish Ancestor magazine in 1976 (Vol VII, No 1, ). In her introduction to this article Dr. Moore writes:

Moyagher Graveyard, in Rathmore parish, is roughly 30 x 50 yards, the east and west sides being the shorter. The gate used to be near the SE corner but a few years ago was changed to the NE corner because of traffic congestion at this three road junction. This new entrance obliterates the cave excavated by Sunter Brady for himself, his wife and family on eviction from his nearby farm and house. In court he said “You evicted me from my house in the land of the living, and now I live in the land of the dead”. According to this story the Brady tombs were in the NE corner of the graveyard, but the only Brady stone we found was in the nave of the Church ruins.

Moyagher graveyard still stands to this day and is still in regular use for burials. It is lovingly cared for by those who have family burial plots there. It is a quiet contemplative place in a rural setting. But its peace and solitude belies the hardships which were endured there by Michael Brady and his family

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