Royal Irish Academy

A Revolution in Profiles - Co. Offaly

In association with The Royal Irish Academy

Sylvester Rait Kerr 1849-1922

Sylvester Rait Kerr was born in 1849 at Monifieth, Dundee. He inherited Rathmoyle House, Rhode following the death of his relation Sylvester Rait. His uncle David Kerr operated another farm nearby at Coolin.

In 1882 during the Land War, Rhode was the site of a labourer’s strike. As part of the dispute, David Kerr evicted several strikers’ and their families. The eviction of the Kavanagh family, the subsequent death of 13-month-old Joseph Kavanagh from measles and the role local magistrates, including Sylvester Rait Kerr played in preventing the erection of Land League cabins to house those evicted, gained widespread attention in the nationalist press.

Rathmoyle specialized in cattle and horse breeding and Rait Kerr was a member of the Kings County Farmers Association. He served as High Sherriff in 1907 and was Deputy Lieutenant for the county at the time of his death.

His sons, Captains William and S.R Kerr were killed on the Western Front in 1914 and 1915 while serving with the Royal Field Artillery. Another son Colonel Rowan Rait Kerr served in the Royal Engineers and was awarded the Military Cross and a DSO. A noted cricketer, Rowan was the foremost authority on the laws of the game, publishing extensively on the subject. He went on to play a prominent role in the Marylebone C.C.

In the later stages of the Great War, trade unionism expanded across Ireland. Initially the Land and Labour Association reformed branches across Kings County. Later industrial and agricultural workers from these chapters were subsumed into the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.  

During 1919, there were strikes at Clara’s Jute Factories, Birr Laundries and Portarlington’s timber yards. Although conditions in Ireland were different than elsewhere these conflicts mirrored a wave of industrial unrest in the United States, the UK and France immediately after the war.

Farm workers who had not benefited to the same extent as tenant farmers from the Wyndham Land Act or rising agricultural prices, but who had faced a climb in the cost of living, also began to agitate for better wages and a series of strikes broke out across Leinster. As early as May 1918 there had been a strike of labourers on the Charleville estate outside Tullamore.

In the spring of 1919, a strike involving over 100 labourers occurred at farms in Rhode including Rait-Kerr’s. The dispute was eventually resolved that Summer.

Agitation calling for land division also occurred in the parish, in particular at the domain lands of Beaumont Nessbit’s Tubberdaly House and on a large grazing farm at Ballywilliam. 

In 1920, Rait-Kerr claimed compensation when the Rhode RIC barracks which Kerr owned was burned by the IRA. In July 1921 the amount of compensation to RIC constable John Doherty for wounds received in the Mount Lucas ambush were reduced from £1,750 to £1,511 after Kerr in his role as a rate payer appealed the award.

Rathmoyle House was raided for firearms in the early Summer of 1922, while he was away in Dublin.

In late July 1922, Sylvester Kerr’s body was discovered on the lawn of Rathmoyle with one self-inflicted head wound. Notes found on his person referred to the fact that:

‘He suffered great persecution, both himself and his servants; that people wanted to put him out of his land and residence; that he would not submit to tyranny and chose the short way’ (1)

Nine months later in March 1923, nearby country houses at Tubberdaly and Ballyburley were burned.  Rathmoyle however survived the Civil War, continuing to function as a stud farm after its purchase by Edenderry auctioneer F.B.O’Toole. Its most famous progeny, ‘Knight of the Grail’  won the 1927 Irish Derby.

 Commenting on Kerr’s death the Offaly Independent stated …

‘He was extremely popular in the district, and was tolerant in his views, whether political or religious. As matter of fact, he was never known to have identified himself with any political party, his sole interest was in the welfare of the country, no matter by whom-it was governed.’ (1)

In line with instructions that he had left before his death, Sylvester Rait Kerr was to be buried on his lands at Rathmoyle.

 

Sources:

Terence Dooley ‘Burning the Big House’ (Dublin) 1922.

Ciaran Reilly. Edenderry 1916 and the revolutionary era. (Edenderry) 2016.

Imperial War Museum. Lives of the First World War. Online at https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/lifestory/2238047

1901 and 1911 Census online at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/

Belfast Newsletter. 22 May 1915.

Daily Mirror. 25 June 1927.

Freemans Journal. 19 May 1919. 17 September 1919.

Leinster Leader. 29 April 1882. 1 July 1882.

Leinster Reporter. 25 May 1918. 3 May 1919. 19 July 1919. 23 October 1920. 5 August 1922.

Liverpool Echo. 3 April 1961.

Nenagh Guardian. 9 July 1921.

Offaly Independent. 5 August 1922. 20 January 1975.

Westmeath Independent. 12 July 1919. 5 August 1922.

(1) Offaly Independent 5 August 1922.

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