On This Day – 20 October 1881 The Land League is outlawed


It began with a renewed threat of famine in the west of Ireland in 1879, and ended when the Irish National Land League proved so successful and annoying, that it was banned by the British government.

The 1870s, like their twentieth century namesake, the 1970s, was not a good decade. It was marked by a financial panic in 1873, followed by a long economic depression. Add to that, three consecutive years of heavy summer rainfall in Ireland, from 1876, and the country’s tenant farmers, especially those in Connaught, were at the end of their tether. Many were staring starvation in the face. Enter Michael Davitt, who, with some help from an aspiring nationalist politician, Charles Stewart Parnell, formed the Land League in October 1879, and began the fightback which became known as the Irish Land War.

This was fought against the ten thousand-strong Irish landlord class, using innovative and legitimate tactics, such as the ‘boycott’, as well as other, less wholesome responses, involving the use of boiling water against bailiffs and policemen coming to evict, or guns against landlords and their agents threatening dispossession. For two years, the country was in a state of uproar, where something that looked very like martial law was in force.

It would be incorrect to see the Land League purely as a widespread rebellion of small tenant farmers, determined to throw off the yoke of quasi-feudalism once and for all. That was only part of the truth. If you look closely at the organisation you will find within its ranks a number of members of the secret and conspiratorial Irish Republican Brotherhood, which had its own separatist agenda. Although the Fenian aristocracy, men like Charles Kickham, saw the Land League as an irritating distraction from revolutionary nationalism, many rank-and-file Fenians were tired of waiting for the Holy Grail of a nationalist uprising, and were happy to be ‘distracted’ by the Land War, even as a hobby. If they couldn’t shoot British soldiers, they could keep their hands in by shooting landlords and their agents. They were, after all, in a phrase popular at the time, the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle.

Then there was Davitt himself, the ex-Fenian, who generally carried a gun, against the day that some of the more doctrinaire of his former comrades, might decide to shoot him. He gave them even more reasons for doing so when he began to espouse land nationalisation, taking rather too literally for most, the slogan of the agrarian movement ‘the land for the people’. Davitt, a committed socialist, chose to interpret the phrase as meaning that, after the landlords were dispossessed, the land of Ireland would belong to ALL the people, not just those currently working it as tenant farmers.

At the other extreme were the Land League supporters, many in executive positions at local level, who had never walked behind a plough or a cow in their lives. These were the shopkeepers and merchants of rural Ireland, based in the towns and villages. They tended to be supportive of the notion of rent strikes. This was because, given the inadequate resources of the average tenant farmer, especially in the straitened times of the 1870s, he would be unable to pay his bill at the local store and his landlord as well. So, the shopkeepers had a simple solution. Forget about paying rent to the landlord, pay for the goods you’ve been buying on tick from us instead.

Half way through the Land War, the Tory government of Benjamin Disraeli had been replaced by a Liberal administration led by William Gladstone. Gladstone had done his best to placate Irish tenants by disestablishing the Church of Ireland (a major landlord in its own right) and passing a major Land Act in 1870. But his best wasn’t good enough for Parnell, Davitt and the Land League. Eventually, in October 1881, a totally fed-up Gladstone brought in new legislation that allowed him to arrest the leaders of the agrarian agitation, and throw them in jail, without the formality of a trial. This he duly did, after first banning the Land League. Before his arrest Parnell had made a prediction, that, if he was incarcerated, his place at the helm of proceedings would be taken by someone he called, graphically, ‘Captain Moonlight’. There was, of course, no such person. It was a euphemism for the violence wrought by rural secret societies, many of them armed by sympathetic Fenians.

Parnell proved to be right. The Land War merely intensified. The murder rate soared. Gladstone was forced to come to terms in May 1882. After the deal was done Parnell made no shift to revive the Land League in its previous form. He had new Home Rule fish to fry. The cause of the tenant farmer had become a ‘distraction’. Now where had we heard that one before?

The Irish National Land League was outlawed by the Liberal government of William Gladstone, after barely two years in existence, one hundred and thirty-six years ago, on this day.



‘On This Day 2’ hits the shops just in time for …


It’s here! – two more years worth of RTE

Drivetime’s  ‘On This Day’ feature.


More than one hundred stories from Irish history and the Irish diaspora – almost all of them accurate, many of them stranger than fiction.

Only one is completely fabricated – and it shouldn’t take too long to figure out which one. (Hint – just check the date of transmission)

Cheap and cheerful in a bookstore near you.

Thanks to all at New Island Books.



On This Day – 13 October 1928 The Dublin Gate Theatre Company produces its first play


It’s been on the go for almost ninety years, yet it only acquired its third artistic director six months ago. It is indelibly associated with the Rotunda Hospital complex but actually began its life on the premises of its great rival, the Abbey.

The Gate Theatre has survived for nearly nine decades mostly, but not always, complementing the work of the National Theatre on Abbey Street. But there were times when it looked highly likely to become an artistic casualty rather than an outstanding success.

The Gate actually opened its doors in 1928 in the Peacock Theatre, little sister to Abbey, under the guidance of the great theatrical and life partners, Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir. Both, as it happens, born in London, around the beginning of the twentieth century.


MacLiammóir was actually Alfred Willmore, once a child actor working with Noël Coward. He later toured Ireland, with his brother-in-law, Anew McMaster’s company. He fell in love with the country—and with fellow actor Hilton Edwards, whom he met while performing in the Athenaeum in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford—and decided to remain. He gaelicised his name, and learned to speak Irish better than most natives. He also made an—as yet unsubstantiated—claim to have had a sexual relationship with Ireland’s premier fascist, the Blueshirt leader Eoin O’Duffy. It could be true, but then MacLiammóir also had a mischievous and iconoclastic sense of humour.

Edwards and MacLiammóir were intent on bringing the best of European theatre to Dublin. The work of major playwrights like Ibsen and Strindberg was produced, first on the Peacock stage, starting with Peer Gynt in 1928. After some months in Abbey Street the company moved to Cavendish row, north of O’Connell Street, and occupied a building on the Rotunda Hospital campus. There the architect Michael Scott helped create the Gate’s compact and iconic home. The theatre seats just under four hundred.

One of the most enthusiastic early supporters of the venture was the corpulent old Etonian, Edward Pakenham, Sixth Earl of Longford, himself a playwright. He became Chairman of the theatre in 1930 and helped raised the funds that kept it alive. Longford could often be found patrolling from Parnell Square to O’Connell Street with a collection box actively seeking funds.

Despite the fame of its founders, and the fact that James Mason and Michael Gambon began their careers at the theatre, there is little doubt that the most distinguished Gate alumnus was Orson Welles, who conned his way into the 1931 production of Jew Suss, as a precocious sixteen year-old. He told Edwards he was an established Broadway star, and, sixty years before the internet, it was enough to get him a successful audition. He was forced back to the USA after a year, because he couldn’t get a work permit to stay. How different theatre and film history might have been had he been allowed remain in Dublin.


Welles continued his association with MacLiammóir and Edwards after his later Hollywood success, working on a number of projects with them, and casting MacLiammóir as Iago in his film production of Shakespeare’s Othello in 1952.

MacLiammóir died in 1978. Hilton Edwards survived him by four years, but by then the Gate had lost its way. It was probably rescued from oblivion by the arrival, as second artistic director, of the supremely self-confident and ebullient—some might even say brash—Michael Colgan, in 1983. During Colgan’s three decades as the Gate’s entrepreneur-in-chief the theatre has often overshadowed the Abbey, and has forged alliances with major dramatists like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. In April of this year Colgan handed over the reins to Artistic Director Number three, Selina Cartmell.

The Gate Theatre opened its doors for the first time, for a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, eighty-nine years ago, on this day.


On This Day – 29 September 1732 The birth of Sir Henry Cavendish – the one man Hansard.



Charles James Fox


Given the fact that today’s politicians complain bitterly that there is very little reporting of parliamentary proceedings, and that, if people choose to do so, they can catch elements of pretty much any parliamentary debate on radio, TV or the web, it is difficult to get one’s head around the fact that it is only relatively recently that it has been even legal to report the proceedings of the British House of Commons in newspapers.

Journalists who attempted to report on the deliberations of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ in the early 18th century, qualified as ‘strangers’, and could be removed from the House at the instigation of a member. This procedure, which still exists in modified form, was used in 1875 by the Irish MP Joseph Biggar, to have no less a personage than the Prince of Wales himself thrown out of the House. Biggar simply invoked the cry of ‘I spy strangers’ and everything came grinding to a halt until his future majesty was ejected.

In the eighteenth century, while it was actually legal to report the outcome of parliamentary deliberations, newspapers were not permitted to report the content of the debates themselves. Some editors and reporters were jailed for violating this parliamentary privilege. Newspapermen, in order to circumvent this passion for secrecy on the part of their betters, would record debates anyway, and then present them as thinly disguised fictional exchanges.


The same was true for the Irish Houses of Parliament, for much of their existence, prior to their disappearance in 1800. If you had the temerity to report on the musings of our elected representatives, you could be thrown in jail for contempt. Perhaps, if our great leaders of today were to threaten similar sanctions, they would find newspapers tripping over themselves to cover their compelling debates.

Which makes the achievement of Henry Cavendish of Lismore, Co. Waterford, all the more startling. He was a member of the aristocratic Irish family from which the Dukes of Devonshire are drawn. So he wasn’t in it for the money, because he didn’t lack for an estate or two.

Cavendish personally recorded 3,000,000 words of debate in the House of Commons in London from 1768-74. Without his furious note-taking the contributions to that parliament of the likes of Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox might have gone largely unrecorded.

However, Cavendish was not some freelance scribe chancing his arm, he was himself a member of parliament. The journal he kept was for private consumption only. However, had he not filled fifty notebooks, the record of that particular period, including important debates on North America, would have been rather more sketchy. Cavendish had done the same thing when he was an MP in the Irish House of Commons between 1776 and 1789. Using a shorthand system, developed by Thomas Gurney, Cavendish filled more than 15,000 pages in noting down the speeches of the House of Commons in London.

Cavendish served as a member of the Irish parliament for Lismore for three terms prior to the Act of Union. He also, somewhat bizarrely, was the member for the far distant Killybegs in Co. Donegal, for six years between 1791-97. His period as an English MP was spent as representative for one of the most notorious rotten boroughs in the British Commons, Lostwithiel in Cornwall. By the time of its abolition in the great reform act of 1832, it could only muster 24 electors, and had long been in the pocket of the Earls of Mount Edgecombe who could allocate the seat to whomever they wished.

While Cavendish didn’t exactly invent shorthand (though he is credited by some with the achievement) he made valuable use of the technique in an astonishing display of energy. The fact that he wasn’t expected to do much for his constituents, numbering in the dozens, gave him considerable freedom to indulge his hobby.

Sir Henry Cavendish, the one man Irish Hansard, was born one hundred and eighty-five years ago on this day.


On This Day – 22 September 1884 The gunboat HMS Wasp is wrecked off Tory Island

Wreck of hms_wasp_1884.jpg


If you were asked, what is the most northerly Irish island, you would probably hazard a guess that it was Tory Island, off the coast of Donegal. And you wouldn’t be too far wrong. The correct answer is Inishtrahull—or the ‘island of the empty beach’—which lies ten kilometres north-east of Malin Head. It also boasts the most northerly lighthouse in Ireland, which was manned until 1987.

But the most significant event in the history of the island took place more than a century earlier, and involved the loss of fifty-two lives.

The HMS Wasp was a British naval vessel, of something called the ‘Banterer class’, built in 1880 in Barrow in Furness in Cumbria. It was one hundred and twenty-five feet long, and its on-board steam engine meant that it was capable of achieving a speed of almost ten knots. It was armed with two four-inch, and two six-inch guns, and was rigged with three masts. It also carried two machine guns. The Wasp was commissioned by the Royal Navy in 1881. It intersected with the story of Inishtrahull when it became an element of the Irish Land War of the 1880s and was used to transport personnel to offshore islands in order to enforce evictions there.

In September 1884 HMS Wasp was dispatched from Westport to Moville in Donegal, under the command of Lieutenant J.D. Nicholls. It was to collect a party of court officials, Royal Irish Constabulary policemen, and bailiffs, in Moville and transport them to Inishtrahull, in order to carry out a number of evictions at the behest of the local landlord, Sir Robert Bateson Harvey. The tenants were to be dispossessed for the non-payment of rents to the value of just over seventy-six pounds. Keep that figure in your head when you hear what happened.

On the morning of 22 September 1884, with fifty-eight sailors on board, the Wasp was off Tory Island. The commander and most of the crew members were asleep. Just before 4.00 a.m. the gunboat hit a reef, the hull was split, and the craft quickly began to take on water. It sank within fifteen minutes. Only six men were able to escape and make their way to Tory island, where they were looked after by locals.

Astonishingly, after having endured such an ordeal, all six were later court-martialled by the British Navy, but exonerated. The cause ascribed to the disaster was a lack of attention to the navigation of the vessel in dangerous waters.

Given the nature of the Wasp’s mission you might have expected a less than totally sympathetic response from nationalist Ireland. However, that was not the case. The ultra-nationalist United Ireland newspaper did point out, however, that the lost gunboat itself had cost £50,000 to build, and that the loss of fifty-two lives was of incalculable value, all for the sum of seventy-six pounds and five shillings in unpaid rent. The newspaper’s editorial was scathing.


May we therefore assume that Sir Robert Bateson Harvey will not again have a gunboat placed at his bailiff’s disposal for the asking, and the Government will not imperil their seamen’s lives and taxpayer’s property to please a landlord? The Crown have always declined in England to provide the landlords of the Isle of Skye with vessels to overawe the crofters.


Among the many ironies of the tragedy was the fact that the total population of the island of Inishtrahull in 1884 was fewer than fifty souls. The previous year HMS Wasp had been used to transport much needed food supplies to the island. Inishtrahull was finally evacuated in 1929 during the first years of the new government of the Irish Free State.

The HMS Wasp sank without begin able to launch its lifeboats, at a cost of fifty-two lives, one hundred and thirty-seven years ago, on this day.





On This Day – 15 September 1803 Abraham Lincoln and Robert Emmet



They are two very different orations. One is short, a mere two hundred and sixty-nine words, and lasting barely three minutes. The other is in excess of  three thousand words, and must have taken closer to half an hour to deliver. The longer speech was given by a man marked for a judicial death, the shorter by one who would be mown down by an assassin’s bullet.

Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States of America, was born five years after the execution of the young rebel United Irishman, Robert Emmet, but the coincidental connections between the two men are compelling and inescapable.

Both were Republicans, both are perceived by their acolytes as martyrs. Emmet, a post-Enlightenment Irish Republican, atoned for the hapless nature of his one-day rebellion on 23 July, 1803 in Dublin, by making the single most famous, effective, and affecting speech in Irish nationalist history. Lincoln was one of the founder members of the anti-slavery Republican party, and its first successful Presidential candidate in 1860. His election precipitated the debilitating four-year American Civil War. His Gettysburg address was a model of rhetorical clarity, creativity and brevity.

Emmet’s speech, made after his conviction for high treason in Green Street courthouse in Dublin, is famous for its passionate peroration, made as he faced death by hanging the following day.


Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them rest in obscurity and peace, my memory be left in oblivion and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.


Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, made on 19 November 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—scene of a bloody and decisive battle four and half months earlier—is more famous for its iconic opening line.


Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.


But, did Emmet’s speech influence the creation of the most famous short oration in history? Very likely. As a boy in Indiana (where his family had migrated from Kentucky) Lincoln is known to have learnt Emmet’s valedictory off by heart. As a gangly teenager he would often deliver it as a party piece, for dignitaries visiting Perry County, where he lived.

More than a quarter of a century later, at the first Republican National Convention, in New York, in 1856, where Lincoln was defeated for the party’s vice-presidential nomination, the convention Chairman was a New York Judge and politician, Robert Emmet, the Dublin-born nephew of his celebrated namesake.

In February, 1865 Lincoln, was reviewing the death sentence on a young Confederate spy. He was considering an appeal for the boy’s life from a Delaware Senator, Willard Saulsbury, who had once referred to the President as ‘a weak and imbecile man’. So, you would assume, not much hope there.

Saulsbury, however, was both frank and astute in his appeal to Lincoln. He wrote


You know I neither ask or expect any personal favor from you or your Administration … All I ask of you is to read the defence of this young man … compare it with the celebrated defence of Emmet, and act as the judgment and the heart of the President of the United States should act.


Saulsbury knew his man. The death sentence was duly commuted.

In 1939 the distinguished playwright Robert Sherwood, won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. The significance of the play is in Sherwood’s middle name, Emmet. He was the great-great-grandnephew of the executed patriot. It was as if the Emmet family, having accepted the homage of the young Lincoln, was repaying the compliment.


Emmet would have been proud of the famous peroration of his celebrated acolyte.


We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Robert Emmet, was awaiting trial and probably writing the signature speech that Abraham Lincoln would later learn by heart, two hundred and fourteen years ago, on this day.








On This Day – 8 September 1852 The Irish Tenant League

sadleir john swindler.jpgWilliam_Nicholas_Keogh_caricature_by_Harry_Furniss.jpg


Today the story of an Irish political party dedicated to the interests of large, comfortable and respectable farmers – but enough about Fine Gael, coincidentally founded eighty-four years ago today. Instead the story of an Irish political party dedicated to the interests of large, comfortable and respectable farmers. Turns out we’ve had quite a few over the years.

The Irish Tenant League was the posh cousin of the Land League of the 1880s. Someone like Michael Davitt would never have been allowed near the Tenant League. He was far too working class. But the League made the 1850s more interesting in Ireland than the decade might otherwise have been, and regularly rattled the cage of the British government, before sliding into the inevitable abyss of corruption and recrimination.

The League was established in 1850s in the wake of the Great Famine. Under the terms of the Encumbered Estates Acts a number of vulture funds were buying up distressed properties. Sorry, that’s actually more recent. Let me rephrase. A number of wealthy capitalists were acquiring bankrupt estates at knockdown prices and threatening to change the rules for sitting tenants. That’s the great thing about history. If you stick around for long enough it just keeps happening all over again.

The leading lights of the new organisation were Charles Gavan Duffy, the former Young Irelander, and the English-born journalist Frederick Lucas, editor of the progressive Catholic weekly newspaper, The Tablet.

It was the Tenant League, not its more illustrious and egalitarian successor, which came up with the three famous demands of the Irish agrarian movement, the ‘3 F’s’, dreaded by every student of Irish history. You could easily recall two, but damned if you could ever remember the third. For the record, they were ‘Fair rent, free sale and … em … em …yes,  fixity of tenure.’

The organisation of the League’s activities fell to another former Young Irelander, Newry-born John Martin, who would later precede Charles Stewart Parnell as MP for Meath. The League attracted the support of the rump of the late Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Party in the House of Commons, and in 1852 managed to return fifty Tenant Right candidates to parliament. These included Gavan, Duffy, Lucas, the banker John Sadlier  from Tipperary, and the lawyer William Keogh, MP for Athlone. The Tenant League MPs were pledged not to align themselves with any British party which failed to endorse the ‘3 Fs’, and to refuse all political preferment.

Of course, it quickly went pear-shaped. A sectarian element intervened when a cohort of Tenant Leaguers decided that the cause of Catholic religious rights was more important than forcing agrarian reform. They broke off to form the Catholic Defence Association, nicknamed ‘The Pope’s Brass Band’. In response Frederick Lucas ill-advisedly took on the powerful Roman Catholic Cardinal-Archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen, and lost. Lucas died in October 1855, and the following month Gavan Duffy emigrated to Australia, where he became Prime Minister of the state of Victoria.

But it got even worse than that. Defying the pledge to remain aloof from political office, Sadleir and Keogh accepted positions in Lord Aberdeen’s coalition government, and joined that great anti-pantheon of Irish traitors whom we cherish to this day. Sadlier didn’t last long in office, he was gone by 1854, forced to resign when he was found guilty of trying to bring about the imprisonment of one of his bank’s customers. This errant depositor had failed to deliver on a promise to vote for Sadleir.   Two years later his Tipperary Bank went spectacularly bust and he committed suicide by drinking prussic acid.

It would be nice to report a similar fate for Keogh, instead he became a judge and handed down savage sentences to the Fenian leadership in 1867. It was left to William Gladstone, through his land legislation of 1870, and Davitt’s Land League of the 1880s, to bring into effect the principles of fair rent, free sale and … the other one.

A Dublin conference of the Irish Tenant League adopted an ill-starred policy of independent opposition in Parliament, one hundred and sixty-five years ago, on this day.