Adair, John George (1823–85), land speculator and evicting landlord, was born 3 March 1823 at Bellegrove, near Monasterevan, Co. Kildare, son of George Adair, landowner and agricultural improver, and his wife, Elizabeth Trench, sister of Richard (William) Steuart Trench (qv). Elizabeth Adair died three weeks after her son's birth, and Adair may have been partly brought up by his Trench relations; he retained close connections with them and echoed their attitudes to estate management (including arrogant authoritarianism and obsession with Ribbon conspiracies).
Adair was educated privately and at TCD (1839–43). From 1852 he engaged in extensive and successful land speculation in Tipperary, Kilkenny, and Queen's Co., and he was a JP in all of these places. As a landlord his principal tactic was rent-raising, but in 1853 he evicted twenty-five families from his Tipperary estate. Adair acquired three estates, comprising 28,000 acres, in the Gartan region of north Donegal in 1857 and 1858. He antagonised tenants in the Derryveagh area in disputes over shooting rights, the erection of a police barracks and a pound to hold straying animals until redeemed (since the mountains were unfenced, tenants could not keep animals off Adair's land), and extensive sheep-farming overseen by imported Scottish shepherds. A similar enterprise on the Gweedore estate of Lord George Hill (qv) produced the Gweedore ‘sheep war’ of 1856–8. In many respects, events in Gweedore conditioned Adair's responses to subsequent actions, but the speculator Adair proved a more attractive target for tenant advocates than Hill, a genuine, albeit high-handed, improver. Adair abused his authority as a Donegal JP by arresting alleged sheep-stealers when, in fact, the missing sheep had apparently either died from natural causes or were stolen by the Scots. A fire at a rectory while Adair was visiting, probably accidental, encouraged his belief that there was a widespread conspiracy against him.
Adair's steward, James Murray, was beaten to death on 13 November 1860 and it was assumed Ribbonmen killed him. It was later alleged, plausibly, that another Scot, his wife's lover, murdered him. Adair, who had already issued notices to quit to rearrange landholdings, declared the tenants collectively responsible for shielding murderers and decreed they should be evicted, despite numerous appeals, one signed jointly by the catholic parish priest and the Church of Ireland rector, Henry Maturin (1805–80). The authorities, who disliked Adair because of his arrogant behaviour, troublemaking, and self-serving lies, sought excuses to refuse police protection for the evictions but found Adair was within his legal rights. Other local landlords, one of whom sold Derryveagh to Adair and allegedly stirred up the tenants against him, publicly dissociated themselves from Adair.
Forty-seven families, comprising 244 persons, were evicted from the Derryveagh estate between 8 and 10 April 1861: 59 were reinstated as caretakers or temporary tenants but most of these were evicted later. Twenty-eight out of 46 houses were levelled and 11,602 acres cleared of human habitation. There was no resistance to the evictions and thirteen families entered the workhouse. Adair refused to observe the Ulster custom of purchasing their tenant right, and their meagre finances were further reduced because the evictions were announced soon after the annual rent payment day.
The evictions gave rise to considerable controversy in the press and parliament. Nationalists and pro-tenant right liberals, such as James MacKnight (qv), demanded unsuccessfully that Adair should be removed from the Donegal magistracy, while conservatives, including the Donegal MP, Thomas Conolly (1823–76), accepted Adair's tales of Ribbon conspiracy and defended his exercise of his authority. (Lord Naas (qv) maladroitly cited the Sutherland clearances as evidence that Adair's actions were not unprecedented.) The catholic clergy of Raphoe and in particular the young Fr James MacFadden (qv) organised a subscription for the evicted tenants, with which Rev. Henry R. Maturin and the presbyterian minister, Sampson Jack, were also associated. In January 1862, 143 Derryveagh evictees left for Australia as part of a wider scheme of Gweedore emigration sponsored by Charles Gavan Duffy (qv). Their sponsors claimed they were notably law-abiding in their new home and that this disproved Adair's accusations.
Adair's Donegal land purchases were partly motivated by his fondness for the scenery. Between 1867 and 1870, he built Glenveagh Castle, a granite mansion in the Scottish baronial style. Derryveagh became a deerpark and, in the late twentieth century, one of Ireland's first national parks. Adair was high sheriff of Queen's Co. (Laois) (1867–8) and Co. Donegal (1873–4), becoming a deputy lieutenant of both counties. When Charles Gavan Duffy returned to Ireland, Adair called on him and said he was as good a patriot as ever, and invited him to Donegal. Duffy said he deserved to be shot if he accepted the invitation. Between 1861 and 1870, Adair bought 9,000 acres in Queen's Co. and after 1870 he sold his Kildare, Tipperary and Kilkenny lands to consolidate his Queen's Co. holdings.
On 29 May 1867 Adair married Cornelia Ritchie (formerly Post), daughter of the American civil war union general, James S. Wadsworth (1807–64). This brought additional wealth and turned Adair's attention to the USA, where he was involved in land speculation in the 1870s with considerable success. He did not engage in large-scale evictions after 1861, and enjoyed relatively quiet relations with his remaining tenants. At the outset of the land war he refused rent reductions, but escaped major land agitation.
Adair died in St Louis, Missouri, 14 May 1885. He was childless and his property passed to his widow, who acquired a reputation for benevolence in Donegal. The Derryveagh evictions are commemorated in several local ballads and in the vitriolic novel Glenveigh, or the victims of vengeance (1870) by the Donegal-American, P. S. Cassidy. They also provided the model for the eviction scene in the narrative poem by William Allingham (qv), Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland (1869). W. E. Vaughan argues that the evictions were atypical, but illustrate how far a landlord in mid-Victorian Ireland could legally exert arbitrary authority.