The ‘Other’ War of Independence – Land Appropriation during the Anglo-Irish War – Part 3 – Enabling the Black Hand Gang

(The third part of this blog deals with the tensions and violence caused by the ‘eleven month’ system of land tenure and the lead-up to the 1920 murder of IRA Volunteer, Mark Clinton, by members of a gang in north Meath with an apparently unfettered ability to seize good farming land for their own use – one of the stories to be told in Four Killings, to be published by Head of Zeus in 2021).

The north Meath field where IRA Volunteer Mark Clinton was murdered in May 1920 by members of the ‘Cormeen Gang’ in a land dispute.

County Meath certainly had no shortage of productive land. Most of the fields of the county had a rateable valuation from ten shillings – to a pound per acre. The average value was just over eighteen shillings an acre. By way of contrast, no county west of the River Shannon boasted an average of more than ten shillings an acre.[i] Simply owning even a modest farm in Meath almost invariably represented victory in the battle against indigence. First, however, you had to acquire that farm, and therein lay the difficulty.

            For a start there was the problem of the nature of agricultural activity in Meath. It was, by the second decade of the twentieth century, overwhelmingly pastoral. The humble potato or the more aristocratic carrot, by the early twentieth century, were largely absent, grown by ‘the little people’ of the county, the relatively small number of subsistence farmers, cursed with the ‘pastures poor and greedy weeds’ of the Meath poet Francis Ledwidge.[ii] Prosperous Meath farmers didn’t grow vegetables, they fattened livestock. In 1911 the three Irish Poor Law Unions with the greatest proportion of their agricultural land under grass were Dunshaughlin (80.6%), Navan (71.4%)  and Kells (70.4%). A fourth Union, Trim had dropped out of top five in 1901.[iii] In the words of travel writer William Bulfin in his Rambles in Eirinn— a work based on a bicycle ride through the country in 1902/03—Meath was a  ‘fertile desert’ ‘… from which man had banished himself and into which he had sent the beasts to take his place.’[iv]

            Bulfin’s description is echoed in the analysis of the German economist Moritz Bonn—a long-time Irish resident—in his 1906 volume Modern Ireland and her agrarian problem he wrote that: 

‘Many parts of the country, especially in the Counties Kildare, Meath and Dublin, are nothing but grassy deserts … There is scarcely a human being to be seen, for the cattle graze without a herdsman in the hedged-in fields … Hundreds and thousands of ruined cottages are scattered about, dwellings in which human beings formerly dwelt. It is these wide ‘grazing ranches’ which have made Ireland into a land of great silence.’[v]

Meath belonged to the ‘rancher’. There were around one hundred and thirty affluent farmers at the turn of the century who owned thousands of acres of Meath land. They lived in sequestered grandeur. According to local historian, James Gilligan: 

‘The physical isolation of their homes may have reflected their isolation in the community, or in the case of non-resident graziers their absence … They were for many identified with the landlords to whom they were a godsend ….’[vi]  

They were a ‘godsend’ to the early twentieth-century relics of the aristocracy (‘the auld dacency’) because, in many cases, their wealth was based on a willingness to rent land on a short-term basis, rather than enter into extended leasing arrangements with the county’s landlords, men like the Marquis of Headfort, whose own elegant private demesne, hidden behind high stone walls, swept down to the Blackwater River a mile outside the town of Kells. 

            Many of the county’s well-heeled graziers were ‘eleven month’ men, reviled by the hundreds of small farmers anxious to extend their holdings, or by landless labourers eager to acquire modest farms of their own. The ‘eleven month’ system was either a) a convenient mechanism to reduce the cattle dealer’s exposure to unpredictable markets or b) an egregiously injurious tenurial system which was inhibiting the drive to re-allocate unproductive surplus land held under anachronistic structures. Attitudes to the practice generally depended on your social status and/or available cash reserves. 

            The ‘eleven month’ system was, in essence, a convenient arrangement between ‘gombeen’ capitalists and anachronistic ‘feudal’ landlords. Under its aegis many graziers rented land outside their own ‘home farm’ on the ‘eleven month system’. In so doing they obligingly protected the landlord from the malign attentions of the Land Commission and the compulsory purchase clauses built into the remedial legislation introduced by the Irish Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell in 1909.[vii]

            To circumvent this legislation landlords went to auction with a parcel of untenanted land and often got a truer ‘market’ value for the land than what otherwise might have been available. Farms rented via longer leases were not as lucrative and were subject to the  provisions of a raft of inhibiting Land Acts passed since 1881. Under the terms of the auction contract on the ‘eleven month’ system the renter was obliged to vacate after eleven months.   In practice most graziers would vacate and then ‘roll over’ the contract by agreeing to resume tenancy—after an interval of one month—on the same, or enhanced (for the landlord) terms. They were not even, in reality, often obliged to ‘vacate’ as the fallow month would fall outside the normal grazing season, in November or December, when the renting grazier was likely to have disposed of the cattle or sheep being fattened. The system allowed the grazier to vary his land usage depending on the state of the livestock trade. It also allowed professional or business people to dip their toes in the livestock market without the necessity of assuming responsibility for anything as awkward and messy as an actual home farm. They were referred to by one contemporary observer as ‘Irish Kulaks’[viii]. In the absence of a genocidal Irish Stalin, however, their ubiquity went largely unchallenged. 

            For the small farmer, one actually committed to working the soil rather than operating as a cattle ‘jobber’, the ‘eleven month’ system had the effect of shutting him out. He could not compete with the short term rental rates the ‘dealer’ or the dilettante were prepared to pay when parcels of land came up for auction. Neither could he prevail on the property-owner to let the land to him for the customary leasing period of thirty years. The Midland Tribune, situated in the trenches of the Ranch War, in King’s County (Offaly), was scathing when it came to the societal impact of the ‘eleven month’ system. ‘[It] ruined families, decimated homesteads, retarded agricultural progress, filled the emigrant’s ship and populated the workhouses.’[ix]

But the Tribune, in common with most provincial newspapers, made its own unique contribution to the problem. On the page facing the excoriating editorial the newspaper ran three advertisements for the auctioning of grazing lands on ‘eleven month’ terms.[x]

County Meath was hardly exceptional when it came to the erosion of its population after the Great Famine. Between 1841-1851 almost a quarter (23.4%) of the county’s population disappeared, mild by comparison with the worst affected counties. However, that decline was not arrested in the second half of the nineteenth century. Between 1851 and 1901 more than half the population of Meath (52%) was lost to internal migration or emigration.[xi]    Consolidation of farms had begun in the decade immediately after the famine, with more than a thousand evictions taking place between 1851-1861. North Meath MP, Patrick White, reckoned that population density in the county was around one person for every ten acres, and for every human being there were ten bullocks.[xii]  Nationalist MP, John Nugent, addressing a Meath county convention of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, pointed out that the neighbouring county of Louth had a population density of thirty-two per acre—although the presence of two large towns, Drogheda and Dundalk, meant that invidious statistic was somewhat misleading. Nugent, however, reckoned that one fifth of the acreage of Meath was let under the ‘eleven month’ system and what he described, with some hyperbole, as ‘those derelict lands’ would, if given over to tillage, have been capable of supporting almost five thousand families, or around twenty-five thousand people.[xiii]

            Few doubted that it was this consolidation of agricultural holdings that accounted for the flight from the land. This served to exacerbate the hostility towards the county’s graziers, widely seen as catalysts for depopulation.  So, one might have expected that the hierarchy of the Irish nationalist movement, in particular the leadership of the United Irish League and their fellow travellers in the pietistic Ancient Order of Hibernians,  would inveigh against graziers and would support any activities that might lead to their ultimate extirpation.          However, this is where reality—in the form of the almost mandatory conflict of interest, and the rigidity of sagart aroon—intervened to frustrate dissent. James Gilligan convincingly asserts that:

‘The combination of lack of support for the UIL from the national leadership, and the involvement of many members of publicly elected bodies in grazing meant that support for cattle driving was far from unanimous. A further brake on the activities of the more radical elements in the UIL was provided by Catholic priests at local level.’[xiv]

Indeed, in the Archdiocese of Tuam, home to many enthusiastic cattle drivers, the practice became a reserved sin of the Roman Catholic church.[xv]

            The trouble was that many of the graziers had, like the merchants and shopkeepers of the Land League era, assumed leadership positions in the Land League’s infant grandson, the United Irish League. Some had done so with the clear intention of influencing UIL policy towards graziers. A number even established largely bogus UIL branches which would then issue statements condemning the practice of cattle driving.[xvi] Their own ‘anti-social’ economic activities, the renting of large swathes of land for grazing livestock, were trumped by their contributions (personal and financial) to the parent organisation of the Irish Parliamentary party. 

            This was even recognised by the normally relentless contrarian Laurence Ginnell. In a speech in 1907 to the Navan Board of Guardians the ‘King of the Drivers’ told the assembled guardians that ‘11-month men’ were supplying the role once occupied by the landlords ‘… a delicate thing to say, because I know some of those men are excellent nationalists.’[xvii]  

            In fact graziers dominated the local government of County Meath. Two-thirds of the twenty-one member County Council, established in 1899, were substantial farmers or graziers. In the first months of 1920 the impoverished inheritors of the ‘drives’ of the 1900s, whether or not they had consciously taken this lesson on board, would display a similar disregard for the credentials of the ‘excellent nationalists’ of Sinn Fein—at least at a national level—as their predecessors had for the local grandees of the United Irish League. The official position of the governing revolutionaries differed in accordance with the square of the distance from the problem but, as far as the national leadership was concerned:

‘While in principle committing itself to land redistribution in favour of uneconomic smallholders and landless men, central Sinn Fein’s position came to reject any suggestion that land agitation in the circumstances of 1920 might contribute positively to the nationalist revolution.’[xviii]

This was the backdrop to the emergence of localised anarchy in north Meath, an anomaly in the smooth narrative of honour and altruistic self-sacrifice that, purportedly, flourished in the Anglo -Irish War. A cohort of belligerents began operating under their own set of rules. A private army emerged intent on settling old scores, terrorising their neighbours, and enriching themselves in the process. Rural families, many of them often not overly endowed with land themselves, were terrorised by a well-organised and well-armed gang into handing over parcels of property. If they failed to do so expeditiously they were subjected to intimidation or outright violence. It wasn’t long before the ‘Cormeen Gang’ of north-west Meath resorted to murder to achieve their ends, emulating similar groups in other parts of the west and north-midlands of Ireland. After months of coercion and extortion, which included blowing up a property on the land of a farmer who opposed them, they overreached themselves by killing IRA Volunteer, Mark Clinton, who opposed their threat to seize land from his cousins, the Smith family. The brutal murder of one of their own finally prompted the IRA to take action. The measures they chose to take were drastic.

            The middle section, or ‘development’ of the fugue that was the War of Independence was an atonal passage whose dissonance took its audience by surprise. In east Cavan and north Meath the first half of 1920 was the time of the Black Hand Gang. The retaliatory action of the IRA ensured that there was no ‘second half’.   

[i] Jim Gilligan – ‘A lovely wilderness of grass: the graziers of rural Meath before the Great War’ in Arlene Crampsie and Francis Ludlow, Meath: History and Society (Dublin, 2015), 606. Gilligan’s essay offers an excellent account of the changed nature of agricultural practice in the county of Meath prior to the outbreak of the Great War.

[ii] Francis Ledwidge, ‘Lament for Thomas McDonagh’ in Complete Poems, (London 1919), 210.

[iii] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 605.

[iv] William Bulfin, Rambles in Eirinn (Dublin 1907), 89 (in Gilligan, Meath: History and Society, 603).

[v] Moritz Bonn, Modern Ireland and her agrarian problem, (Dublin, 1906), 35-36.

[vi] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 624 &  628. 

[vii] An element of compulsory purchase had been introduced earlier with the Evicted Tenants Act (1907). All told, by 1921, under a variety of purchase schemes forty seven thousand square kilometres of Irish land was transferred from landlords to over three hundred thousand tenants, representing almost sixty percent of the total Irish landmass.

[viii] Kevin O’Shiel, Bureau of Military History Witness Statement #1770, 929.

[ix] Midland Tribune, 25 May 1907 

[x] John Noel McEvoy, ‘A Study of the United Irish League in the Kings’s County 1899-1918’, 60 –  Masters Thesis, NUI Maynooth – accessed online, 1 October 2019 –

[xi] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 603.

[xii] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 618.

[xiii] Coogan, Politics and War in Meath, 23.

[xiv] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 622.

[xv] Tony Varley, ‘A Region of Sturdy Smallholders? Western Nationalists and Agrarian Politics during the First World War’, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. 55 (2003), 130. The same diocese, in 1879, with the nationalist cleric John MacHale as Archbishop, had hosted the alleged apparition of the Virgin Mary at Knock, in Co. Mayo. UC Berkeley scholar, Robert Tracy has a theory that the Roman Catholic Church’s rapid acceptance of the authenticity of the apparition was a conscious attempt to deflect local attention from agrarian agitation. 

[xvi] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 621.

[xvii] Gilligan in Meath: History and Society, 618.

[xviii] Tony Varley, ‘Gaining Ground and Losing Ground’, in Fergus Campbell & Tony Varley (eds) Land Questions in Modern Ireland (Manchester, 2013), 31.