Archbishop John Charles McQuaid agus Mná na hÉireann.

An unidentified Irish Head of State kneels before Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. Proper order!

Abject apologies for missing the 125th birthday of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid yesterday. 

Here was a distinguished clergyman who might have been imported directly from the Spanish Inquisition to administer his particular brand of religious certitude on an Ireland whose abject politicians were only too willing to kiss his ring. (See photo above lest there be any doubt on that score)

McQuaid was a cleric who liked women to know they were welcome in his church, as long as they restricted their activities to making the sangitches and changing the flowers on the altar every week.

Mind you, Ireland has never lacked for misogynistic Archbishops of Dublin. Cardinal Cullen, in the 1870s tried to force the administration to withdraw scholarships and prizes based on examination results from female second level students. He was supported in this by Irish MPs. It was British MPs who ensured that Irish girls would continue to benefit from their hard work in preparing for exams.

His successor, Cardinal MacCabe —an Irish churchman much beloved of Dublin Castle—went through multiple phases of apoplexy at the sight of women attending Land League meetings and, holy horror of horrors, making platform speeches.  In a pastoral letter to his archdiocesan clergy he advised them:

‘Very reverend dear fathers, set your faces against this dishonouring     attempt, and do not tolerate in your sodalities the woman who so far disavows her birthright of modesty as to parade herself before the       public gaze in a character so unworthy of a child of Mary.’

 But, of course, the Daddy of them all when it came to clerical misogyny was the Ayatollah himself, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (sadly he was denied a ‘red hat’ despite his sterling work on behalf of sixteenth century values). We don’t even need to grapple with the celebrated controversy over Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme to bathe Dev’s favourite Archbishop and Constitutional Consultant in the cold light of female repression. Or even his role in the insertion of the infamous Article 41.2.1 in de Valera’s 1937 Constitution. (Just in case you need reminding about that one it went something like this …

‘In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ 

That’s all big politics. Let’s focus on the really petty stuff instead.

Take, for example, how he took issue, in 1934, with the notion of girls and women being allowed to compete in athletics. In 1928 women had been admitted to the Olympic Games for the first time but McQuaid came from the same school as the founder of the modern Olympiad, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who believed that ‘women have but one task [in the Olympics] that of the role of crowning the winner with garlands’. 

Not even for 11″ or so were women to be allowed compete in the national championships.

In 1934 the National Athletic and Cycling Association [grandparent of Athletics Ireland] was contemplating adding a women’s 100 yards dash to the national championships. McQuaid, then president of Blackrock College, (apparently this is an all-male rugby playing establishment somewhere in south Dublin) wrote a letter on the subject to the Irish Press newspaper on 24 February 1934 in which he observed that: ‘Mixed athletics and all cognate immodesties are abuses that right-minded people reprobate, wherever and whenever they exist.’

He then proceeded to invoke one of only two superior beings whom he acknowledged, by pointing out that ‘God is not modern; nor is his Law’. Women who sought to compete athletically in the vicinity of men were ‘un-Irish and un-Catholic’, and the entire phenomenon was a ‘social abuse’.  He concluded by quoting from the only other superior being he recognised, the Pope (the one who never gave him a ‘red hat’), who was, apparently, of the opinion that: 

 ‘…in athletic sports and exercises, wherein the Christian modesty of girls must be, in a special way, safeguarded … it is supremely unbecoming that they flaunt themselves and display themselves before the eyes of all.’

So that was pretty conclusive, God, the Pope and John Charles were on the same side. The NACA decided not to include female athletes … even over 100 yards. To their eternal shame the Irish Camogie Association supported McQuaid, although that may have been not unconnected with the fact that its secretary was a man. Sean O’Duffy—who was apparently not related to Ireland’s leading Fascist Eoin O’Duffy—promised that the Camogie Association:

‘…would do all in its power to ensure that no girl would appear on any          sports ground in a costume to which any exception could be taken. If      they remained Irish in the ordinary acception of the word they could not       go wrong.’

Apparently the word ‘acception’ means ‘acceptation’ or ‘received meaning’. No, me neither!

Not until 1956 did Maeve Kyle become Ireland’s first female athletics competitor at the Olympics. It probably helped that she was a Northern Protestant and, consequently, beyond redemption.  

Maeve Kyle – avert your gaze Archbish!

Ten years later, having left Blackrock College, McQuaid was now Archbishop of Dublin with responsibility for all the clergy of the diocese, so, clearly, no longer associated with an institution dominated by testosterone. But he was still obsessed with female modesty, and in 1944 his attention had shifted from athletics to cycling – as in the menstrual cycles of women. In a letter to the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Local Government and Public Health he shared his anguish about:

‘…the evidence concerning the use of internal sanitary tampons, in       particular, that are called Tampax. On the medical evidence made available,          the bishops very strongly disapprove of the use of these appliances, more particularly in the case of unmarried persons.’

Now, in fairness to the Archbishop, in using the words ‘unmarried persons’ he was obviously expressing concerns in relation to men who used tampons as well as women.  One wonders had his eminence mistaken Tampax for Durex, both, after all, were highly sexualised products with the suspect letter ‘x’ in their names? 

Or was his anxiety based on the fear that the tampon might, in addition to its medicinal / physiological purpose, be used by women in pursuit of sexual stimulation. Sexual pleasure and gratification was after all:  

         a) in the gift of men only.  

         b) an unfortunate (if unlikely) pre-requisite for the production of children. 

         c) never willingly experienced by truly Catholic women.

Staying with sport, the Archbishop was also concerned about the dangers of hockey for women – he feared that the frequent twisting movements would lead to infertility, or what he called ‘hockey parturition’. Female hockey players might conceivably—ok, pun intended—find themselves unable to perform the main function appropriate to their gender, i.e. reproduction. The sport of lacrosse, which he believed, for some baffling reason, to involve less midriff action, was encouraged in Roman Catholic girls’ schools in the Dublin archdiocese. The fact that lacrosse had originated among Native Americans using the heads of defeated opponents did not seem to occur to him as making it in any way unsuitable. 

Lacrosse – far less midriff twisty than hockey, apparently

Belated happy 125th JC! No returns please. 

Lily Mernin – Collins’s ‘Mata Hari’ in Dublin Castle – the espionage work of ‘The Little Gentleman’

Lily Mernin – aka ‘The Little Gentleman’

To accompany tonight’s History Show programme on ‘Women in the War of Independence’ below are contextualised extracts from Lily Mernin’s Bureau of Military History Witness Statement about her espionage activities on behalf of Director of Intelligence, Michael Collins during the War of Independence.

LILY MERNIN – INTELLIGENCE AGENT, DUBLIN CASTLE

BMH WS #441 

From 1914-1922 Lily Mernin, a cousin of leading IRA propagandist, Piaras Beaslai, was employed as a typist in the Dublin District Garrison Adjutant’s office in the Lower Castle Yard. When Beaslai became aware of the precise nature of her work he spoke to Michael Collins about her. In 1918 Mernin met Collins for the first time. 

Piaras Beaslai brought him to my home and introduced him to me as a Mr. Brennan. I did not know he was Collins at the time. He asked  me would I be willing to pass out to him any information that might be of value which I would come across in my ordinary day’s work. I remembered he produced letters that he had intercepted concerning some of the typists and officers in the Castle, and things that were happening generally. I cannot remember exactly what they were. I promised to give him all the assistance that I possibly could. 

            The garrison adjutant for Ship St. barracks and Dublin District at the time was Major Stratford Burton. The work that he gave me to do was connected with Volunteer activities generally and, in addition, court martial proceedings on Volunteers was also given me to type. These dealt with the strength of the various military posts throughout Dublin district. Each week I prepared a carbon or typed copy, whichever I was able to get. Sometimes I would bring these to the office placed at my disposal at Captain Moynihan’s house, Clonliffe Road. He had a typewriter there and I typed several copies of the strength returns and any other correspondence which I may have brought with me that I thought would be of use. I left them on the machine and they were collected by some person whom I did not know. I had a latch key for the house and nobody knew when I came or went.  It was arranged for me that if I had anything special requiring urgent delivery to the Intelligence staff that I would deliver it at Vaughan’s [Hotel] between certain hours and/or Maire ni Raghallaigh’s bookshop , Dorset St. and Captain Moynihan’s, Clonliffe Road. Another place where I left messages was at Collins’s shop Parnell St, the number I cannot remember.

            I cannot recollect the exact nature of the letters and correspondence that I passed to the Intelligence staff. All I can say is that, in general, they dealt with the movement of troops, provisions for armoured trains or cars, and instructions and circulars to military units from GHQ.

Mernin proved extremely useful to Collins when it came to the identification of the Dublin accommodation of British agents, information that was to prove crucial to the assassinations on Bloody Sunday, 21st November, 1920.

Before the 21st November 1920, it was part of my normal duty to type the names and addresses of British agents who were accommodated at private addresses and living as ordinary citizens in the city. These lists were typed weekly and amended whenever an address was changed. I passed them on each week either to the address at Moynihan’s, Clonliffe Road or to Piaras Beaslai. The typing of the lists ceased after the 21stNovember 1920.

Apart altogether from using her access to written information Mernin, from time to time, was in a position to pass on useful office gossip to Collins.

There was a girl in the office who was the daughter of Superintendent Dunne of Dublin Castle. When he resigned she moved out of Dublin Castle to an address in Mount Street. Stopping at the same address were a number of men. Every morning she would come into the office she would tell us about them, she was puzzled to know who they were. Her brother also resided there with her and, apparently, he used to mix with them, and he discussed their conversation with her. She would report this conversation to us when she would come into the office in the morning. There was one fellow there by the name of McMahon who was very addicted to drink. While under the influence of drink he was, I believe, liable to talk a lot, and, mainly, his conversation concerned raids and arrests of ‘wanted’ IRA men. Whatever tit-bits of information that I could glean from Miss Lil Dunne I immediately passed it on to the Intelligence section. Suspicion was thrown in my direction one morning when Miss Dunne entered the office and excitedly said that her brother had been missing and that she thought he was held by the IRA, that somebody in the office had been giving information to the IRA concerning the conversation we had in the office about McMahon and Peel, British agents, who were lodging in the same house with her in Mount Street. However, I found myself in a predicament, but I remained cool and calm and bluffed my way out of it and said: “Who could be a spy?” and put the blame on her brother for talking too much. Sometime later the position was eased when Miss Dunne took ill and never again returned to Dublin Castle. All this information was, of course, passed on to the IRA Intelligence prior to the 21st November 1920.

            After 21st November 1920, a number of British intelligence officers were drafted into Dublin Castle. A [4] new department was opened up in the Upper Castle Yard. My work did not bring me in contact with this department. I was asked by the IRA Intelligence Squad to get what information I could about the movements of these officers. These were mainly descriptive particulars for the purpose of identification, where they resided, and where they frequented, also the registration numbers of the motor cars used by them.

            These Intelligence officers used come into our office. The three girls of the staff were curious to know who they were. Some of the girls would ask “Who was so-and-so that came in?” In this way, we got to know the names of the various Intelligence officers. Some of the girls in the office were very friendly with them and used to go around with them. General conversation would give a lot of information concerning their whereabouts, things that were said, etc. Any information obtained was immediately passed by me to IRA Intelligence.

            On various occasions I was requested by members of the Intelligence Squad to assist them in the identity of enemy agents. I remember the first occasion on which I took part in this work was with the late Tom Cullen in 1919. Piaras Beaslai asked me to meet a young man who would be waiting at O’Raghallaigh’s bookshop in Dorset St and to accompany him to Lansdowne Road. I met this man, whom I later learned was Tom Cullen, and went with him to a football match at Lansdowne Road. He asked me to point out to him and give him the names of any British military officers who frequented Dublin Castle and GHQ. I was able to point out a few military officers to him whom I knew.

            When I  got to know the Auxiliaries better, I accompanied Frank Saurin (then known as Mr. Stanley) to various cafes where I identified for him some of the Auxiliaries whom I knew.

A footnote. The ‘Lil Dunne’ in question was a great aunt of the novelist Sebastian Barry, she is the main character in his novel On Canaan’s Side. Lily Mernin, who was referred to by Collins only as ‘the little gentleman’ also had social access to Auxiliary policemen based in Dublin Castle, members of the notorious ‘F’ company.

The Auxiliaries organised smoking concerts and whist drives in the Lower Castle Yard. I was encouraged by Frank Saurin, a member of the Intelligence Squad, to give all the assistance I could in the organisation of these whist drives for the sole purpose of getting to know the Auxiliaries and finding out all I possibly could about them. Frank Saurin had arranged with me that should any of the Auxiliaries see myself or any of the girls of the Castle home, he would have members of his squad hanging around Dublin Castle to identify them. However the Auxiliaries never did come past the Castle gate.

            On one occasion I asked Frank for a reliable girl, whom I could trust, who would come along to the whist drives with me, to enable her to get to know these Auxiliaries and so prove a further source of identification. He sent along Miss Sally McCasey, who is now his wife. She did her work very well. She had a very charming manner and struck up a friendship quite freely.

L42

On at least one occasion Mernin brought the kind of intelligence to her relative, Piaras Beaslai, that he did not want to hear.

WS-042

One day a Sergeant from British Intelligence came into my office, carrying a lot of magazines – as I thought – bound together. I asked him what they were and he told me they were copies of “An tOglach” and would not part with them for five hundred pounds, as they were very valuable to them. I reported this to Piaras Beaslai the same night, not knowing he was the editor of “An tOglach” and wondered why he became so alarmed about it. I got the impression that some member of the IRA had been playing a double game. 

Mernin with her cousin Piaras Beaslaí

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 – https://eprints.maynoothuniversity.ie/5209/1/Johm_Noel_McEvoy_20140711125056.pdf

[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.

The ‘Other’ War of Independence. Land Appropriation during the Anglo-Irish War. Part 2 – ‘Back to the Land’ and cattle driving – two sides of the New Land War.

Contemporary cartoon depicting some of the allegations heard by the Times/Parnell Commission

The Special Commission on Parnellism and Crime was, in its avowed aims, a spurious exercise. Its proceedings being described by one enforced observer, the reporter John MacDonald of the London Daily News, as ‘a dismal monotone of cruelty and crime … the viva voce history of a people, one of the dreariest, saddest histories in the world.’[i] It was principally intended to establish the authenticity of the Times facsimile letter of 18 April 1887 (and a variety of related correspondence) which linked Parnell directly to the activities of the lethal Invincibles. 

            It amounted, constructively, to a self-serving indictment by the Tory government of the Irish Parliamentary Party and was designed to establish links between the Parnellites and some of the most shocking agrarian ‘outrages’ (the mot du jour) of the early 1880’s. It dismally and spectacularly failed in the former objective but was somewhat more successful in the latter. For most of its proceedings the Times (as de facto prosecutors) offered a doleful parade of the alleged victims of abuse and mistreatment in rural Ireland, who had, by their own accounts, fallen foul of Ribbon-Fenianism, ‘moonlighters’, vindictive Land League ‘court’ decisions, or sectional feuds. Some of the avowed victims were clearly charlatans tempted by the inducements of the Times to tell the Commissioners what the newspaper wanted them to hear. Some, however, were credible and compelling, and helped to convey the picture of an Ireland in which there was precious little of those much-touted mythical qualities of empathy, fraternity and collaboration in evidence. While Irish peasant society was never quite as Dante-esque and oppressive as the Times attested, it certainly qualified for entry into, at the very least, the Fourth or Fifth Circle of Hell (Greed and Wrath).

             Late Victorian Irish rural society fell far short of the idyllic. Its vices were as numerous as its virtues, despite the prevailing mythos of a noble and beleaguered Irish peasantry, more ‘sinned against than sinning’, whose occasional forays into violent behaviour—aimed solely at the forces of reaction, of course—were entirely justified on the basis of the iniquitous tenurial system against which they struggled. 

            A generation later circumstances had not changed all that markedly. The fissures that existed in the late nineteenth century were still in evidence three decades later. In some respects they had widened. In the intervening period the economics and practice of Irish agriculture had altered considerably. Some of the changes were derived from the continued fallout of the utilitarian post-Famine abandonment of the practice of subdividing farms, and the tacit acceptance of the more pragmatic system of inter-generational land transfer based on primogeniture. While this had positive elements—unbroken holdings could remain economically viable—it also had negative ramifications in the continued drain of post-Famine emigration. In the case of the Clinton family of Cloggagh, Co. Meath (cousins of my great-grandmother) this is starkly illustrated by the migration of almost an entire generation of Clintons (male and female) to the USA around the turn of the nineteenth century.      

            But, in addition, the fundamentals of Irish agricultural practice were also changing. There had been a distinct movement from tillage to pasture / livestock farming. An inevitable prerequisite for this development was an increase in the size of farms. One of the consequences was the reduced need for farm labourers. Both phenomena served to fuel an increased land hunger amongst the members of the lower socio-economic agricultural class to whom few benefits had accrued from the advance of ‘peasant proprietorship’. Driven mostly by Tory governments intent on ‘killing Home rule with kindness’ this trend had begun with the establishment of the ameliorative Congested Districts Board in the 1890s, expanded in scope with the Land Act of 1903—introduced by the Tory Chief Secretary George Wyndham—and  culminated in (the Liberal Chief Secretary) Augustine Birrell’s 1909 refinement of Wyndham’s template for tenant land purchase. The latter, for the first time, envisaged the compulsory purchase of estates and the re-distribution of land to tenant farmers on attractive terms via the Estates Commission or the Congested Districts Board.

            The popular expression of this land hunger was exemplified by ad hoc committees bent on acquiring and redistributing land[ii]. These were often led by local Sinn Fein activists. The illegal seizure of land would often be reinforced by the erection of flags staking a claim and bearing the legend ‘Occupied by order of the Irish Republic’ whether or not the annexation had any official sanction. In one instance sheep driven from the fields of an Anglo-Irish landowner were daubed in the green, white and gold of the tricolour.[iii]

            In parts of the country where the local Sinn Fein leadership attempted to dampen the enthusiasm of the appropriators, groups like the Back to the Land movement were ready to step in and lead. This organisation sought to purchase estates, divide the land into modest but viable parcels, and distribute farms to landless labourers or other aspiring agriculturalists. Back to the Land was supported, in theory at least, by bodies like the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the United Irish League—umbrella organisation of the Irish Parliamentary Party—and elements of the Trade Union movement. Indeed, at times, branches of the movement found it difficult to resist absorption into the UIL, as the Irish Party’s organisational behemoth practised what the late David Fitzpatrick has referred to as ‘the techniques of the party vampire’ in his magisterial study of County Clare in Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921[iv].  

            Back to the Land, whose emblem was that of a farmer behind his plough—rather than one driving someone else’s cattle at the dead of night[v]—had the resources to purchase or make offers, independent of the official Estates/Land Commissioners[vi] or the Congested Districts Board, on entire estates or large farms.[vii]  It appears that enterprising (or prudent) bank managers were willing to fund such transactions.[viii] Whether the offers always represented fair market value was a moot point, but if the alternative was a period of prolonged agitation—spiced with occasional violent interludes[ix]—the option of selling up was often preferable for the landowner. After all, many Irish nationalists had a philosophical objection to compensating landlords for estates deemed to have been illicitly appropriated centuries before. Nationalist opposition to the 1903 Wyndham Act had been based on the generous settlement terms afforded departing landowners.  When it came to the expropriation of land, Irish memories were elephantine. The Meath Chronicle caught something of the wistful ambiguity of an organisation advancing money to the reliquaries of the landlord class in a report of a Back to the Land executive meeting in April 1922.

‘They had made it plain that they were not out for confiscation and were prepared to give full value for any land they got, even though they might believe that it had come unjustly into the hands of the present owners.’[x]

The Back to the Land movement achieved considerable traction—albeit sometimes occasioned by the implicit threat of apres moi le deluge—in realising the ambitions of would-be farmers and landless labourers. Around the town of Oldcastle, Co. Meath alone, by the end of 1919, more than three thousand acres of ‘estate’ land had been divided among one hundred and seventy families by the local organisers of the movement. In March 1921, in its most significant coup, the fourteen hundred acre McRory Estate, also in County Meath, was purchased and divided among eighty families. The sale of the Fitzherbert family Proudstown Estate, part of which was to be used for the creation of Navan Racecourse, was not allowed to proceed until four hundred acres of the estate had first been purchased by Back to the Land.[xi] The owners were in no doubt about the ability of the organisation to prevent the sale going through. In 1917 Back to the Land had sought, unsuccessfully, to acquire the entire estate. In late September of that year, with North Meath MP Patrick White in attendance, an auction had proceeded for the sale of Proudstown at which, mirabile dictu, there was not a single bid.[xii]

            On the far murkier side of lawlessness was the practice of ‘cattle driving’. This was a refinement of the interventionist policies of the Land League in the 1880s, although it lacked the legitimacy of the nineteenth century ‘boycott’—a practice that continued into twentieth century Ireland. Cattle driving was an explicit and illicit response to the proliferation in certain parts of the country of ‘ranches’. These were large, consolidated (or occasionally scattered) holdings devoted entirely to pasture and to the rearing of livestock, some of sheep but mostly of cattle. The landless—or land deficient—class was losing out on two fronts to this relatively new development in Irish agriculture. With minimal requirement for the agricultural labour previously employed in tillage, the opportunities for the rural poor to make a living were reduced considerably. The ability of the increasingly prosperous ‘graziers’ to acquire additional land by purchase or rental, also shut out smaller farmers, and even the leadership of the Back to the Land movement,[xiii] from capitalising on the erosion of the landlord class and the disintegration of large estates. 

            Cattle ‘driving’— a reaction to large scale livestock grazing—was an activity associated with a period of renewed agrarian activism (1906-09) known as the Ranch War, but it was by no means confined to that period and continued, as a tactic, for many years after the passage of the Birrell Land Act of 1909. This was remedial legislation designed to put an end to the anti-grazier campaign. As the name suggests, cattle driving involved the enforced (and usually nocturnal) removal of a grazier’s mobile assets (his livestock) to a place of detriment far removed from his farm. It was slightly more humane than the ‘cattle houghing’ of the Land War in which livestock were deliberately maimed, although that barbarous practice continued as well. 

            Another legacy of the Land War and the Plan of Campaign was the use of the boycott as a weapon against graziers, or landlords, reluctant to divest themselves of their property. In December 1908, in the village of Cormeen, a few miles from the Clinton farm at Cloggagh, the Meath Chronicle reported that an ‘eleven month’ letting (a short-term lease and a device often used to circumvent decades of tenant right legislation) that was due to take place had mysteriously fallen through. The auctioneer, who had arrived by train from distant Enfield in the deep south of the county to bring down the gavel on the transaction, was informed that he was not welcome. He took both the information to heart, and the next train back to Enfield, from the nearby village of Kilmainhamwood. No auction or sale took place.[xiv] It was, on occasions, only the intervention of the Royal Irish Constabulary, in considerable force, which ensured that auctions went ahead.[xv]

Laurence Ginnell, Westmeath MP and TD

            Leading and exemplifying the ‘cattle driving’ movement was that scourge of the grazier, the maverick nationalist MP Laurence Ginnell from Westmeath. Elected as an Irish Parliamentary Party MP in 1906 Ginnell had never quite settled into subservience. He had first come to the attention of the House of Commons with a series of questions on the 1907 theft of the Irish ‘Crown Jewels’ from Dublin Castle. The tone of his queries suggested that he might have some inkling as to the identity of the thieves himself, and that they were to be found nestling in the arms of the British establishment.[xvi] His advocacy of cattle driving as an antidote to the social implications of increasing pastoralism set him at odds with the Irish party leadership. Their ways parted in 1909 when he sought, and was denied, access to the party accounts. He sat as an Independent nationalist until 1918 when he made the logical leap to Sinn Fein and became a TD after the Republican landslide in the December election.   

            The ‘battle cry’ adopted by the cattle drivers, and often articulated by Ginnell, ‘the land for the people, and the bullock for the road’, was a subversive variation of the famous slogan of the Land League, ‘The Land for the People’. One of the responses of the graziers to the threat of having their cattle forcibly re-located was the recruitment of vigilante ‘Emergency men’ to guard their bovine gold.[xvii]  Activists of the Ranch War prospered in Ginnell’s bailiwick of County Westmeath. As one of his allies was the MP for South Meath, David Sheehy, the same applied to the neighbouring county. Sheehy—father in law of Thomas Kettle and Francis Sheehy Skeffington—was a septuagenarian, largely absentee, public representative by the time of the onset of the Great War. But his credibility, when it came to land agitation, was non pareilcourtesy of a period of eighteen months incarceration ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’ during the Plan of Campaign of the late 1880s.  

(Tomorrow, in the final blog in this series, how the New Land War came to County Meath – with violent and tragic consequences)


[i] John MacDonald, Daily News Diary of the Parnell Commission (London, 1890),19 & 27.

[ii] See 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), 127-150 and Fergus Cambell, ‘The Last Land War? Kevin O’Shiel’s Memoir of the Irish Revolution (1916-21)’, Archivium Hibernicum, Vol. 57 (2003), 155-200

[iii] Maurice Walsh, Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, (New York-London, 2015), 179.

[iv] David Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921: Provincial Experience of War and Revolution (Cork, 1999), 101.

[v] Ultan Courtney, Mapping the Revolution: Maps, Mayhem and Murder in Co. Meath, 1916-1921 (Dublin, 2019), 13.

[vi] The Estates Commission was ‘a body created within the Land Commission to administer the new legislation’ (i.e. the 1903 Wyndham Act). Varley in ‘Gaining Ground, Losing Ground’, Campbell & Varley (eds), Land Questions, 29. 

[vii] Meath Chronicle, 28 February 1920 reported ‘Back to the Land – Castletown branch

‘The above association have [sic] recently purchased the late Dyas farm of 132 acres from Mr. J.H.Thompson which is now in course of division among landless men and uneconomic holders …’. 20 March 1920 – negotiations underway for the purchase of the Liscarton estate.  

[viii] Maurice Walsh, Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, (New York-London, 2015), 177.

[ix] Kevin O’Shiel, ‘No contempt of court’, Irish Times 21 November 1966.

[x] Meath Chronicle, 8 April 1922.

[xi] Oliver Coogan, Politics and War in Meath 1913-23, (Meath, 1983), 292.

[xii] Coogan, Politics and War in Meath, 25.

[xiii] Meath Chronicle, 17 April 1920 ‘Martry Back to the Land offer of £22,000 not accepted’.

[xiv] Meath Chronicle, 26 December 1908.

[xv] Courtney, The Blinding Light, 59.

[xvi] Myles Dungan, The Theft of the Irish Crown Jewels, (Dublin 2003), Chapter Five, ‘Star Chamber’  

[xvii] Patrick O’Reilly, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement #1650, 4.

The ‘Other’ War of Independence – Land Appropriation during the Anglo-Irish War – Part 1

Captain Charles Boycott – well-known agrarian neologism

(This is the first of three pieces on the often ignored parallel conflict being waged at the same time as the War of Independence – an extension of the 1906-09 Range War, it involved the opportunistic appropriation of land by small farmers and landless labourers in rural Ireland)

Land Wars – the context                      

 ‘Changes in the use to which the land of a country is put affect its whole social organisation, and of no change can this be said with more truth than of the transfer of land from tillage to pasture.’[i]

Irish Agricultural Statistics Report, 1901.

It is a struggle known to posterity as a ‘war’. It is even assigned a specific start date, it concluded with a ‘treaty’, had its own generals, NCOs and ‘grunts’, and ample scope for ‘collateral damage’. But whether there were enough violent fatalities during the Land War (1879-82) to justify the hyperbolic assignation ‘war’ is highly debatable. However, the more pedantic alternative, ‘The Lengthy Late Victorian Interlude of Irish Agrarian Civil Strife’ probably lacks a certain pithiness.  

            The presumptive opening of the conflict was 20 April 1879, the date of an angry and well-attended rent protest meeting in Irishtown, Co. Mayo. The three year struggle was deemed to have concluded in early May 1882 with the covert and deniable ‘Kilmainham Treaty’, a climbdown on both sides brokered by a charlatan (the preening Captain William O’Shea, husband of Parnell’s ‘mistress’, Katharine). The armistice was, or so the received wisdom goes, all neatly tied up in green ribbon just in time for the Phoenix Park murders on 6 May 1882.   

            Except, of course, that it wasn’t. Agrarian civil strife did not peter out just in time for the slashing intervention of the Invincibles. It merely lay fallow until the onset of the Plan of Campaign in 1886, when, on a somewhat diminished scale, the whole mêlée kicked off again. When that more ‘managerial’ engagement finally died down there was a brief hiatus until the improvisational ‘Ranch War’ of the early twentieth century (1906-09). 

Punch magazine’s take on the Phoenix Park murders

            Whatever you might choose to call it, the pivotal Land War of 1879-82, offers some of the more beguiling myths of nineteenth century Irish history. The mythology—born of that noble imagined past dreamed up in the pages of An Claidheamh Soluis and the meeting rooms of the National Literary Society—took it as axiomatic that a dogged and unified tenantry opposed an oppressive and seigneurial landholding élite and, courtesy of inspired leadership and peasant cohesion, routed the forces of feudalism a mere century after the French had adopted the more convenient shortcut of the guillotine to achieve a similar purpose. 

            While there is a significant seam of truth in the motherlode of myth, the reality is rather less fuzzy and heartening than the holy writ. Leadership there certainly was. The likes of Charles Stewart Parnell—so conspicuous a political ‘chief’ that he is invariably allotted his middle name by historians—Michael Davitt, and William O’Brien, were prepared to take personal and political risks in the cause of agrarian reform. There was also undoubted co-operation and solidarity among the rank and file membership of the Land League. Without collaboration, voluntary or enforced, the political and economic strategy that became known as ‘boycotting’—so-called, apparently, because a Mayo priest realised that his congregation could not get their tongues around  the word ‘ostracisation’ and named the practice after its most celebrated victim—would have been nullified.

            But the proposition that a resolute, united Irish peasantry marched in lockstep to vanquish the cloistered and privileged occupants of the ‘big house’, is as erroneous as it is alluring. One eminent Irish historian has warned against ‘the warm glow of old assumptions about this being a highlight of the ever-onward march of human liberty and progress…’[ii] Supporters of the Land League were prone to just as much insubordination, backbiting, intimidation, disloyalty, insularity, victimisation and intra-organisational anarchy as the membership of any radical socio-political movement before or since. Furthermore, the Land League was not an organisation in which, in any real sense, an empowered peasantry took control of its own destiny. The leadership of the organisation came, predominantly, from a rural merchant caste with a vested interest in targeting the country’s landlords, and a bloc of relatively comfortable farmers with a vested interest in protecting their own comforts.[iii] As the historian R. V. Comerford has put it succinctly, ‘there were many hundreds on horseback at the Irishtown meeting’.[iv] The Land League campaign, according to Joseph Lee, simply ‘crowned the strong farmer as the cock of the country walk.’[v]

            While the Irish peasantry may have provided the shock troops, when it came to the leadership cadre the Land War pitted rancher and retailer against rentier. It was the ‘ ‘strong farmer’ tenants’[vi] who, along with their temporary allies—the millers and milliners—were the real winners of an agrarian conflict that began long before 1879 and, like the Hundred Years War, renewed itself from time to time when the protagonists recovered from their exhaustion or encountered terrain that looked strategically advantageous. However, by the early twentieth century it was the erstwhile partners of the 1880s who were at each other’s throats. The graziers and the small farmers, temporary allies in the tussle for proprietorship, found they had little to unite them any longer. 

            The unlikely coalition had originally been a function of mutually declining fortunes.   

            Resources were squeezed during the worldwide economic depression that followed on from one of those periodic ‘panics’ in the US economy. This one was the ‘Panic of ‘73’, scion of the ‘Panic of ’57, parent of the ‘Panic of ’93. The Irish tenant farmer, who, by the 1880s, had come to rely on credit advanced by the shopkeepers of the market towns of rural Ireland, was faced with a stark choice. He could use his dwindling resources to pay the rent owed on his landholding. Alternatively he could repay his debts to the shopkeepers who provided him with groceries, seeds, hardware, and the occasional luxury, ‘on tick’. 

            By taking control of an organisation which validated (and even elevated) the practice of declining to remit bi-annual rent payments, the shopkeepers who assumed leadership positions in the Land League were simply protecting their own interests. The message, though understated, left no room for ambiguity, The Merchant of Ennis whispered, ‘if you can’t pay your rent and your domestic debts, then refuse to pay rent to Lord [here insert name of local aristocrat] until you get an abatement.’ 

            This classic ‘revolution of rising expectations’—the phrase had originated with that most welcome of 19th century tourists, Alexis de Tocqueville—was no free-for-all blitz on property, merely a highly targetted mugging of the landholding aristocracy, in which ‘one class of Irish capitalists waged economic war against another class of Irish capitalists.’[vii] Debts owed to banks, merchants or the local ‘gombeen man’ (moneylender) were entirely exempt from this assault. The country’s landlords, previously secure behind their demesne walls—unless their own debts  became excessive—discovered the truth of the axiom, ‘there is no honour among thieves’.

            The relative flexibility of the system of mercantile debt (which implied the continued extension of credit even when only a percentage of the debt was repaid), in tandem with the need to make future purchases from shopkeepers in a growing ‘cash’ economy, ultimately triumphed over the absolute inflexibility of the tenurial system. In the latter instance a large wad of cash was paid over, in full, twice a year–or else![viii] The Land League held out the prospect of pulling the teeth of the ‘or else’. It offered the tenant farmer a place of sanctuary—though the roof often leaked—and the prospect of continuing to have his cake, albeit on account, while eating it. 

            But the abiding myth bequeathed by the agrarian ferment of the 1880s was the notion that a revolutionary spirit of equality and fraternity motivated and united the Irish peasantry throughout the Land War. This was a convenient ex post facto construct fashioned by the twentieth century propagandists of Irish separatism and exceptionalism. It lionised the efficacy and ‘nobility’ of the Irish tenant, and encouraged a profoundly overoptimistic belief in his capacity for sustained agrarian radicalism and esprit de corps.

            The truth was rather more prosaic and predictable. An alternative view of the ‘Land War’ (1879-82 not the1886-91, 1906-09, 1917-18, or 1920 variants) is of a period of pervasive anomie, of a civil conflict that often pitched the impoverished against the merely impecunious, bent the highly stratified social structures of rural Ireland beyond breaking point, facilitated the rise of petty tyrants, and unleashed a fratricidal violence the scars of which had not still healed a generation later when the struggle was no longer against the so-called ‘eyes and ears of Dublin Castle’, but against the Castle itself. 

            While the Land War did prove fatal for a small number of Irish landlords (Lord Mountmorres and Lord Leitrim being the most prominent murder victims), most of those who died in the defence of what Michael Davitt memorably described as ‘feudalism’[ix] were much lower down the food chain. They were agents, bailiffs, policemen and agricultural labourers. People like the Huddys (Joseph Huddy, a bailiff,  and his nephew, John)  murdered on the Mayo/Galway border in January 1882, whose bodies were concealed (until recovered by the RIC) in the depths of Lough Mask.[x] Or John Henry Blake, agent to the repulsive Lord Clanricarde, who, although he had unsuccessfully urged his voracious employer to reduce rents on his Galway estates, was nonetheless murdered, along with his driver, in June 1882.[xi]

               But it was neither landlords, agents, bailiffs nor indeed members of the Royal Irish Constabulary who were the main victims of the dark passions unleashed by the Land War. It was the Irish peasantry itself. It somehow seems fitting that a recent work on the history of the agricultural co-operative movement is entitled Civilising Rural Ireland.[xii] In the 1880s, and in the decades thereafter, the Irish countryside could be a savage environment. 

            Take just a few examples. Galwayman Peter Dempsey was shot dead in May 1881 in full view of his two young daughters. His ‘crime’ was to have taken over the farm of one Martin Bermingham who had been evicted for non-payment of rent. Local petty ‘warlords’, many of whom held positions of authority in the Land League, and who exercised moral and physical hegemony over the most ‘disturbed’ parts of rural Ireland, adjudged that Dempsey had forfeited his life by dint of his transgressive behaviour.[xiii]

            Or John Doloughty, a 60 year old agricultural labourer with seven children, murdered in Clare on 9 July 1881. Doloughty’s ‘crime’ did not even loosely measure up to iniquities of Dempsey. He had no land of his own. He was merely a herder working for a Clare farmer, James Lynch. It was Lynch who had taken a farm from which a family named Hynes had been evicted. Doloughty had remained loyal to Lynch despite threats of boycotting and a nocturnal visit the previous October by three armed and masked men. During this ‘moonlighting’ escapade his life had been threatened and shots fired at him. His loyalty to the ‘land grabber’ Lynch was to cost him his life.[xiv]

            Or another herder, John Lyden from Letterfrack, Co. Galway, taken from his home and murdered by his neighbours in April 1881 for the offence of continuing to work for a ‘land grabber’ named Graham. After the mob shot Leyden dead they came back for his son who was dragged to where his father’s body lay and was himself shot. He died a month later.[xv]  

            Or the tragic Joyce family of Maamtrasna, Co. Galway, five of whom were brutally murdered by their neighbours in August 1882 for who knows precisely what ‘crime’. The adult male members of the family were shot, the females, unworthy of a bullet, were merely bludgeoned to death. Even by the vicious standards of late nineteenth century agrarian ‘outrages’ the Maamtrasna murders merits the Blue Riband.  

            Some of these killings then led in turn to almost inevitable miscarriages of justice when cases came to trial. The Crown sought to bring killers to book as expeditiously as possible and Her Majesty’s representatives were often less than discriminating in the manner and conduct of their investigations. Francis Hynes was tried and convicted for the murder of John Doloughty by a packed jury most of whose members had ‘escaped’ the attentions of their minders the night before reaching their decision. Their bibulous evening had ended in a series of drunken skirmishes in the corridors of the Imperial Hotel on Sackville Street, witnessed by United Ireland editor William O’Brien.[xvi] The most blatantly tainted verdict was, of course, the death sentence handed down on Maolra Seoighe (Myles Joyce), wrongfully accused of the murder of his cousins in Maamtrasna, and fully exonerated in statements made by the two men who went with him to the gallows and who admitted their part in the Joyce family murders.[xvii]

            The two preferred weapons of the Land War, the ‘boycott’ and the handgun, were often used to intimidate, maim or murder at the behest of local petty tyrants. These parochial warlords had burrowed their way into leadership roles in the agrarian movement and pursued agendas that often had little or nothing to do with the aims and objectives of the Land League. Questionable and vindictive decisions arrived at by the League’s informal ‘courts’ or local executive meetings could be used as a fig leaf to conceal self-serving objectives. Long-standing vendettas were pursued and vacant land was channelled towards favoured candidates under cover of edicts promulgated by ‘muscular’ elements who had assumed de facto control of the organisation at local level.[xviii]


[i] Irish Agricultural Statistics Report (1901)

[ii] R.V.Comerford, The Fenians in Context: Irish Politics and Society, 1848-82, (Dublin, 1998), 223.

[iii] Paul Bew, Land and the National Question in Ireland, 1858-1882, Chapters 6-8. 

[iv] Comerford, The Fenians in Context, 231.

[v] Joseph Lee, ‘The Land War’, Liam de Paor (ed.) Milestones in Irish History (Cork, 1986)

[vi] Tony Varley, ‘Gaining Ground and Losing Ground’, in Fergus Campbell & Tony Varley (eds) Land Questions in Modern Ireland (Manchester, 2013), 26.

[vii] Comerford, The Fenians in Context, 234.

[viii] This phenomenon is discussed by historians Samuel Clark in The Social Origins of the Land War and James S. Donnelly in The Land and People of 19th Century Cork, from which the phrase ‘a revolution of rising expectations’ comes.

[ix] In The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (1904).

[x] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 554.

[xi] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 645-649. According to the evidence of his wife ‘he gave a graphic description of the then state of the country, and laid it before his Lordship.’

[xii] Patrick Doyle, Civilising Rural Ireland: the cop-operative movement, development and the nation-state 1889-1939,  (Manchester., 2019)

[xiii] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 465. The farm had originally been taken by Murty Hynes, who gave it up under Land League pressure.

[xiv] Myles Dungan, The Captain and the King: William O’Shea, Parnell and late Victorian Ireland (Dublin, 2009)  147

[xv] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 597.

[xvi] Dungan, The Captain and the King, – Hansard, VOL 278 – 15 August, 1882.

[xvii] Myles Dungan, Conspiracy: Irish Political Trials (Dublin, 2009)  (Page ref for Maamtrasna chapter) 

[xviii] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Evidence of Michael Hoarty, Vol.2, 62-69. Evidence of John Cullotty, Vol.2, 173-182. Evidence of Mrs. Mary Hickey, Vol.2, 206-210.

The ‘Other’ War of Independence – Land Appropriation during the Anglo-Irish War

Part 1 – Land Wars – the context                            

 ‘Changes in the use to which the land of a country is put affect its whole social organisation, and of no change can this be said with more truth than of the transfer of land from tillage to pasture.’[i]

Irish Agricultural Statistics Report, 1901.

It is a struggle known to posterity as a ‘war’. It is even assigned a specific start date, it concluded with a ‘treaty’, had its own generals, NCOs and ‘grunts’, and ample scope for ‘collateral damage’. But whether there were enough violent fatalities during the Land War (1879-82) to justify the hyperbolic assignation ‘war’ is highly debatable. However, the more pedantic alternative, ‘The Lengthy Late Victorian Interlude of Irish Agrarian Civil Strife’ probably lacks a certain pithiness.  

            The presumptive opening of the conflict was 20 April 1879, the date of an angry and well-attended rent protest meeting in Irishtown, Co. Mayo. The three year struggle was deemed to have concluded in early May 1882 with the covert and deniable ‘Kilmainham Treaty’, a climbdown on both sides brokered by a charlatan (the preening Captain William O’Shea, husband of Parnell’s ‘mistress’, Katharine). The armistice was, or so the received wisdom goes, all neatly tied up in green ribbon just in time for the Phoenix Park murders on 6 May 1882.   

            Except, of course, that it wasn’t. Agrarian civil strife did not peter out just in time for the slashing intervention of the Invincibles. It merely lay fallow until the onset of the Plan of Campaign in 1886, when, on a somewhat diminished scale, the whole mêlée kicked off again. When that more ‘managerial’ engagement finally died down there was a brief hiatus until the improvisational ‘Ranch War’ of the early twentieth century (1906-09). 

            Whatever you might choose to call it, the pivotal Land War of 1879-82, offers some of the more beguiling myths of nineteenth century Irish history. The mythology—born of that noble imagined past dreamed up in the pages of An Claidheamh Soluis and the meeting rooms of the National Literary Society—took it as axiomatic that a dogged and unified tenantry opposed an oppressive and seigneurial landholding élite and, courtesy of inspired leadership and peasant cohesion, routed the forces of feudalism a mere century after the French had adopted the more convenient shortcut of the guillotine to achieve a similar purpose. 

            While there is a significant seam of truth in the motherlode of myth, the reality is rather less fuzzy and heartening than the holy writ. Leadership there certainly was. The likes of Charles Stewart Parnell—so conspicuous a political ‘chief’ that he is invariably allotted his middle name by historians—Michael Davitt, and William O’Brien, were prepared to take personal and political risks in the cause of agrarian reform. There was also undoubted co-operation and solidarity among the rank and file membership of the Land League. Without collaboration, voluntary or enforced, the political and economic strategy that became known as ‘boycotting’—so-called, apparently, because a Mayo priest realised that his congregation could not get their tongues around  the word ‘ostracisation’ and named the practice after its most celebrated victim—would have been nullified.

            But the proposition that a resolute, united Irish peasantry marched in lockstep to vanquish the cloistered and privileged occupants of the ‘big house’, is as erroneous as it is alluring. One eminent Irish historian has warned against ‘the warm glow of old assumptions about this being a highlight of the ever-onward march of human liberty and progress…’[ii] Supporters of the Land League were prone to just as much insubordination, backbiting, intimidation, disloyalty, insularity, victimisation and intra-organisational anarchy as the membership of any radical socio-political movement before or since. Furthermore, the Land League was not an organisation in which, in any real sense, an empowered peasantry took control of its own destiny. The leadership of the organisation came, predominantly, from a rural merchant caste with a vested interest in targeting the country’s landlords, and a bloc of relatively comfortable farmers with a vested interest in protecting their own comforts.[iii] As the historian R. V. Comerford has put it succinctly, ‘there were many hundreds on horseback at the Irishtown meeting’.[iv] The Land League campaign, according to Joseph Lee, simply ‘crowned the strong farmer as the cock of the country walk.’[v]

            While the Irish peasantry may have provided the shock troops, when it came to the leadership cadre the Land War pitted rancher and retailer against rentier. It was the ‘ ‘strong farmer’ tenants’[vi] who, along with their temporary allies—the millers and milliners—were the real winners of an agrarian conflict that began long before 1879 and, like the Hundred Years War, renewed itself from time to time when the protagonists recovered from their exhaustion or encountered terrain that looked strategically advantageous. However, by the early twentieth century it was the erstwhile partners of the 1880s who were at each other’s throats. The graziers and the small farmers, temporary allies in the tussle for proprietorship, found they had little to unite them any longer. 

            The unlikely coalition had originally been a function of mutually declining fortunes.   

            Resources were squeezed during the worldwide economic depression that followed on from one of those periodic ‘panics’ in the US economy. This one was the ‘Panic of ‘73’, scion of the ‘Panic of ’57, parent of the ‘Panic of ’93. The Irish tenant farmer, who, by the 1880s, had come to rely on credit advanced by the shopkeepers of the market towns of rural Ireland, was faced with a stark choice. He could use his dwindling resources to pay the rent owed on his landholding. Alternatively he could repay his debts to the shopkeepers who provided him with groceries, seeds, hardware, and the occasional luxury, ‘on tick’. 

            By taking control of an organisation which validated (and even elevated) the practice of declining to remit bi-annual rent payments, the shopkeepers who assumed leadership positions in the Land League were simply protecting their own interests. The message, though understated, left no room for ambiguity, The Merchant of Ennis whispered, ‘if you can’t pay your rent and your domestic debts, then refuse to pay rent to Lord [here insert name of local aristocrat] until you get an abatement.’ 

            This classic ‘revolution of rising expectations’—the phrase had originated with that most welcome of 19th century tourists, Alexis de Tocqueville—was no free-for-all blitz on property, merely a highly targetted mugging of the landholding aristocracy, in which ‘one class of Irish capitalists waged economic war against another class of Irish capitalists.’[vii] Debts owed to banks, merchants or the local ‘gombeen man’ (moneylender) were entirely exempt from this assault. The country’s landlords, previously secure behind their demesne walls—unless their own debts  became excessive—discovered the truth of the axiom, ‘there is no honour among thieves’.

            The relative flexibility of the system of mercantile debt (which implied the continued extension of credit even when only a percentage of the debt was repaid), in tandem with the need to make future purchases from shopkeepers in a growing ‘cash’ economy, ultimately triumphed over the absolute inflexibility of the tenurial system. In the latter instance a large wad of cash was paid over, in full, twice a year–or else![viii] The Land League held out the prospect of pulling the teeth of the ‘or else’. It offered the tenant farmer a place of sanctuary—though the roof often leaked—and the prospect of continuing to have his cake, albeit on account, while eating it. 

            But the abiding myth bequeathed by the agrarian ferment of the 1880s was the notion that a revolutionary spirit of equality and fraternity motivated and united the Irish peasantry throughout the Land War. This was a convenient ex post facto construct fashioned by the twentieth century propagandists of Irish separatism and exceptionalism. It lionised the efficacy and ‘nobility’ of the Irish tenant, and encouraged a profoundly overoptimistic belief in his capacity for sustained agrarian radicalism and esprit de corps.

            The truth was rather more prosaic and predictable. An alternative view of the ‘Land War’ (1879-82 not the1886-91, 1906-09, 1917-18, or 1920 variants) is of a period of pervasive anomie, of a civil conflict that often pitched the impoverished against the merely impecunious, bent the highly stratified social structures of rural Ireland beyond breaking point, facilitated the rise of petty tyrants, and unleashed a fratricidal violence the scars of which had not still healed a generation later when the struggle was no longer against the so-called ‘eyes and ears of Dublin Castle’, but against the Castle itself. 

            While the Land War did prove fatal for a small number of Irish landlords (Lord Mountmorres and Lord Leitrim being the most prominent murder victims), most of those who died in the defence of what Michael Davitt memorably described as ‘feudalism’[ix] were much lower down the food chain. They were agents, bailiffs, policemen and agricultural labourers. People like the Huddys (Joseph Huddy, a bailiff,  and his nephew, John)  murdered on the Mayo/Galway border in January 1882, whose bodies were concealed (until recovered by the RIC) in the depths of Lough Mask.[x] Or John Henry Blake, agent to the repulsive Lord Clanricarde, who, although he had unsuccessfully urged his voracious employer to reduce rents on his Galway estates, was nonetheless murdered, along with his driver, in June 1882.[xi]

               But it was neither landlords, agents, bailiffs nor indeed members of the Royal Irish Constabulary who were the main victims of the dark passions unleashed by the Land War. It was the Irish peasantry itself. It somehow seems fitting that a recent work on the history of the agricultural co-operative movement is entitled Civilising Rural Ireland.[xii] In the 1880s, and in the decades thereafter, the Irish countryside could be a savage environment. 

            Take just a few examples. Galwayman Peter Dempsey was shot dead in May 1881 in full view of his two young daughters. His ‘crime’ was to have taken over the farm of one Martin Bermingham who had been evicted for non-payment of rent. Local petty ‘warlords’, many of whom held positions of authority in the Land League, and who exercised moral and physical hegemony over the most ‘disturbed’ parts of rural Ireland, adjudged that Dempsey had forfeited his life by dint of his transgressive behaviour.[xiii]

            Or John Doloughty, a 60 year old agricultural labourer with seven children, murdered in Clare on 9 July 1881. Doloughty’s ‘crime’ did not even loosely measure up to iniquities of Dempsey. He had no land of his own. He was merely a herder working for a Clare farmer, James Lynch. It was Lynch who had taken a farm from which a family named Hynes had been evicted. Doloughty had remained loyal to Lynch despite threats of boycotting and a nocturnal visit the previous October by three armed and masked men. During this ‘moonlighting’ escapade his life had been threatened and shots fired at him. His loyalty to the ‘land grabber’ Lynch was to cost him his life.[xiv]

            Or another herder, John Lyden from Letterfrack, Co. Galway, taken from his home and murdered by his neighbours in April 1881 for the offence of continuing to work for a ‘land grabber’ named Graham. After the mob shot Leyden dead they came back for his son who was dragged to where his father’s body lay and was himself shot. He died a month later.[xv]  

            Or the tragic Joyce family of Maamtrasna, Co. Galway, five of whom were brutally murdered by their neighbours in August 1882 for who knows precisely what ‘crime’. The adult male members of the family were shot, the females, unworthy of a bullet, were merely bludgeoned to death. Even by the vicious standards of late nineteenth century agrarian ‘outrages’ the Maamtrasna murders merits the Blue Riband.  

            Some of these killings then led in turn to almost inevitable miscarriages of justice when cases came to trial. The Crown sought to bring killers to book as expeditiously as possible and Her Majesty’s representatives were often less than discriminating in the manner and conduct of their investigations. Francis Hynes was tried and convicted for the murder of John Doloughty by a packed jury most of whose members had ‘escaped’ the attentions of their minders the night before reaching their decision. Their bibulous evening had ended in a series of drunken skirmishes in the corridors of the Imperial Hotel on Sackville Street, witnessed by United Ireland editor William O’Brien.[xvi] The most blatantly tainted verdict was, of course, the death sentence handed down on Maolra Seoighe (Myles Joyce), wrongfully accused of the murder of his cousins in Maamtrasna, and fully exonerated in statements made by the two men who went with him to the gallows and who admitted their part in the Joyce family murders.[xvii]

            The two preferred weapons of the Land War, the ‘boycott’ and the handgun, were often used to intimidate, maim or murder at the behest of local petty tyrants. These parochial warlords had burrowed their way into leadership roles in the agrarian movement and pursued agendas that often had little or nothing to do with the aims and objectives of the Land League. Questionable and vindictive decisions arrived at by the League’s informal ‘courts’ or local executive meetings could be used as a fig leaf to conceal self-serving objectives. Long-standing vendettas were pursued and vacant land was channelled towards favoured candidates under cover of edicts promulgated by ‘muscular’ elements who had assumed de facto control of the organisation at local level.[xviii]


[i] Irish Agricultural Statistics Report (1901)

[ii] R.V.Comerford, The Fenians in Context: Irish Politics and Society, 1848-82, (Dublin, 1998), 223.

[iii] Paul Bew, Land and the National Question in Ireland, 1858-1882, Chapters 6-8. 

[iv] Comerford, The Fenians in Context, 231.

[v] Joseph Lee, ‘The Land War’, Liam de Paor (ed.) Milestones in Irish History (Cork, 1986)

[vi] Tony Varley, ‘Gaining Ground and Losing Ground’, in Fergus Campbell & Tony Varley (eds) Land Questions in Modern Ireland (Manchester, 2013), 26.

[vii] Comerford, The Fenians in Context, 234.

[viii] This phenomenon is discussed by historians Samuel Clark in The Social Origins of the Land War and James S. Donnelly in The Land and People of 19th Century Cork, from which the phrase ‘a revolution of rising expectations’ comes.

[ix] In The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (1904).

[x] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 554.

[xi] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 645-649. According to the evidence of his wife ‘he gave a graphic description of the then state of the country, and laid it before his Lordship.’

[xii] Patrick Doyle, Civilising Rural Ireland: the cop-operative movement, development and the nation-state 1889-1939,  (Manchester., 2019)

[xiii] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 465. The farm had originally been taken by Murty Hynes, who gave it up under Land League pressure.

[xiv] Myles Dungan, The Captain and the King: William O’Shea, Parnell and late Victorian Ireland (Dublin, 2009)  147

[xv] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Vol.1, 597.

[xvi] Dungan, The Captain and the King, – Hansard, VOL 278 – 15 August, 1882.

[xvii] Myles Dungan, Conspiracy: Irish Political Trials (Dublin, 2009)  (Page ref for Maamtrasna chapter) 

[xviii] Special Commission, Proceedings (1890), Evidence of Michael Hoarty, Vol.2, 62-69. Evidence of John Cullotty, Vol.2, 173-182. Evidence of Mrs. Mary Hickey, Vol.2, 206-210.