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.
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