Rows in country parishes can last generations. A row between two churches in the North had begun over someone borrowing a ladder and someone else making an accusation over dishonesty. The active antagonism lessened to no more than a persistent antipathy, but persistent it was.
If rows in parishes are bitter, they are gentlemanly affairs compared with rows between individuals, and no row is more bitter than a row over land. The relationship with the land is powerful, the attachment to particular places something that cannot be fully articulated. John B Keane’s 1965 play The Field explores some of the depths of that attachment, it is a play that has corresponded with sad realities in countless parishes. Yet in the behaviour of Bull McCabe’s, the main protagonist of the play, there is at least an element of rational thought. More often the bitter disputes that arose lacked the intensity of McCabe’s conflict, but lasted years and benefited no-one but lawyers.
Going back over old documents on an October bank holiday Monday, there is a letter in which even the solicitor in south Co Down is driven to exasperation by a family dispute that had lasted for years:
I acted as solicitor for the McCullough family for a great number of years and prepared different Wills. I also advanced money and fought a Probate Action, which was successful, for my client.
A Mortgage was given to me in respect of debts due and it was only given after the debt was going out-of-date.
I took Chancery proceedings and have again and again allowed the matter to be adjourned, with the object of having a settlement between Mr W.J. McCullough on the one side and his sister, Miss Annie McCullough and his brother Mr James McCullough on the other side
I have had numerous interviews; provisional agreements have been arrived at and clearly Miss Annie McCullough and her brother, Mr James McCullough have certainly some interest or rights in the property. Provisional agreements have been arranged between the present Plaintiff and Defendants, but the stumbling-block is the wife of the Plaintiff.
Their clergyman , the Rev. Mr. Slipper has assisted in every possible way. I have had interviews with the respective Solicitors. Finally, on to-day, I am satisfied that Mr. W.J. McCullough cannot agree owing to the attitude of his wife. I have accordingly told them that I will take an Order in the Chancery Division on the 25th day of this month and will take up possession of all the lands, ejecting everybody on them, including the present Plaintiff and Defendant.
I very respectfully say that it would be most harsh, oppressing and inequitable to put Miss McCullough and her brother James out. I have told them if the case is adjourned to the next Assizes I will again do my best to have an amicable settlement arrived at, and as far as I am concerned, give time to pay any money due to me.
I most respectfully urge therefore that the Appeal should be adjourned to the next Assizes and I promise, with the assistance of Mr. Slipper to do my best in the meantime.
All the parties know that I wish to help them in every possible way.
Every bit of the land is long gone and none of the family remain. There are solicitors’ letters telling of disputes and debts stretching over decades; the land that might have been a blessing became a curse. Is there any other place in the world with such a propensity for rows?