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The Milk House: High noon at a farm eviction

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2019

Four burned-out vehicles. Three men hospitalized. Bats and axe handles lying in the mud. A dead dog.

The aftermath looked apocalyptic at Anthony McGann’s farm in rural Ireland. Or the stuff of old westerns.

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McGann’s unresolved debt related to his farm traces back a decade, the circumstances leading to it unknown. McGann’s brother and sister, reportedly in their 50s and 60s, also lived on the property. Several months ago, Belgium-owned KBC Bank Ireland, with whom the debt is registered, sent a group of guards dressed in black to physically evict the McGanns from the house.

Video footage showed the siblings being dragged from the property and pinned to the ground while neighbors looked on and shouted at the hired heavies. One neighbor, a retired policeman, was said to have received between 20 and 30 punches when he tried to intervene. A bank’s guard tried to step in front of the person filming to block the footage. “How could you do this to one of your own?” the bystanders yelled. The guard made the mistake of saying he was English.

To prevent the McGanns from returning to their home, KBC Bank installed eight private security guards in the house. Several nights later, the house was visited by a group of 30 vigilantes. They severely beat the guards and set their vehicles on fire. The McGanns moved back in a few days later.

The reaction of the Irish public was mixed, and the incident was quickly eclipsed by larger agendas. Some heralded it as an act of community unity and a warning to vulture banks attempting to dispossess citizens from their homes. Others pointed out violence shouldn’t be condoned under any circumstances. (A dog had to be put down after being injured in the melee.) Reports soon surfaced suggesting both a local criminal gang and anti-English republican dissidents remaining from Ireland’s civil war had joined the vigilantes.

The gardai – the Irish police force – worry the criminal gang will now seek to “tax” other farmers in exchange for the same type of “protection” offered to the McGanns. The republicans were said to be there to exploit the local anger and gain support for their cause. Protest rallies against forced eviction were held in several locations around the country, although some locals quietly noted it is a person’s responsibility to pay his or her debts. The divide in opinion over the event even reached the Irish government, with representatives from different parties devolving into shouting matches during a session of the Dáil (the Irish parliament).

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The Irish themselves often state they have an unusual obsession with land, owing to their unfortunate history. Ending only in 1921, the Irish had been under English control for 1,100 years, during which they were not permitted to own property. Most of the island was controlled by wealthy English landlords (many of whom allowed the Irish to starve during the Great Famine of the 1840s). When one first comes to the island, they will notice most houses have little stone fences around them, a phenomenon, it was explained to me, owing to the Irish psyche of protecting their property now that they finally get to have it.

It is not surprising the parallels to English occupation were quickly drawn after the incident at the McGann farm – even before a guard was recorded saying he was British. A colonized country doesn’t forget its past, especially one so recent. It is easy to frame KBC Bank as an outside predatory force coming in to again force people off their land. Once the video footage of the eviction was posted on Youtube, it was followed by a long list of anti-English sentiment, some of it violent in content. Within two days of the evictions, three KBC branches in Ireland were attacked, and many of its employees were threatened.

Leaving aside the historical past, the McGann case poses important questions regarding the intersection of personal finance and human rights. Surely, if enough people refuse to pay their debts, a society will eventually collapse or at least subsist under a weakened and ineffective government. It’s not fair to other citizens who have made sacrifices to remain fiscally responsible. On the other hand, protection from the elements and the basic means to live are amenities offered to even the most heinous criminals in prison.

One commenter pointed out there are already 10,000 homeless individuals on the small island, far exceeding available homeless shelters, and 29,000 homes deeply “in arrears” – meaning they missed at least two years of mortgage payments. Further eviction from vulture banks can lead to a crisis that changes the fabric of Irish society. One can’t help but recall the worldwide economic crash in 2008, which was largely – particularly in Ireland – caused by unsound financial practices by the banks. While Iceland threw their bankers in jail, the government of Ireland was forced to save Irish banks (without penalty) in order to protect the country’s financial structure. Few bankers lost their jobs – and certainly not their homes. Farming, particularly in the crash, was a much harder and riskier venture than banking.

It is difficult to say what will result from the anger created from the McGann eviction. KBC Bank is reviewing its security protocols to try to protect its employees, while some political parties are calling for an end to home evictions. Tension everywhere is still high. The McGanns are unsure of their fate. In the meantime, agriculture itself hasn’t gotten any easier, with many farmers struggling to stay afloat. There is a sense the world is watching, and everyone is waiting for someone to make a move.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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