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.

Fake Histories #40  Katharine O’Shea was a British spy whose job was to destroy Parnell?

 

iu-3.jpeg

Next Sunday is the hundred and twenty eighth anniversary of the death of the so-called ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ Charles Stewart Parnell. The honorary title is ironic as the man who conferred it on him in 1880, Timothy Healy MP, played a huge part in consigning Parnell to an early grave at the age of forty-five on 6 October 1891.

The waspish Healy had long since fallen out with his aloof and arrogant party leader before he got his opportunity to bring his animosity out in the open. This was handed to him, neatly tied up with silk ribbons, by Parnell himself, after the Irish party leader’s citation as co-respondent in the divorce of William and Katharine O’Shea.

This allowed Healy to give full reign to his vitriol in the pivotal five day meeting in Committee Room Fifteen at Westminster where Parnell’s continued leadership of the Irish Parliamentary party was being debated by its MPs in December 1890. At one point in that marathon internecine squabble Parnell squarely addressed the issue at stake by demanding pointedly ‘Who is the master of the party?’. To which Healy responded ‘Aye, but who is the mistress of the party?’ Legend has it that Parnell had to be physically restrained from assaulting his tormentor.

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In the months that followed the inevitable split in the ranks of the party, at every opportunity, Healy would refer to Katharine O’Shea—even after she and Parnell married—as ‘Kitty’ O’Shea. It’s the name by which many people know her today. But back in late Victorian Britain and Ireland the word ‘Kitty’ had an entirely different connotation. It was one of the many nicknames for a prostitute, and fed into the prurience of the political opponents of Parnell in the months before his death.

Such was the devastation the entire affair caused to Parnell’s political career, and the damage it did to any hopes of Home Rule for another generation, that many contemporaries of the nationalist leader, both supporters and opponents, wondered, and openly claimed, that Katharine O’Shea and her pompous, self-aggrandising, cuckolded husband, William, had been agents of the British, expressly charged with the task of destroying the threat posed by the biggest Irish nuisance to the British establishment since Daniel O’Connell. The entire affair, so the allegation went, had been whistled up by the Tory establishment to discredit and disrupt the forces of Irish constitutional nationalism.

It has to said, if this were true, then the O’Sheas were very good at their jobs. Double Oh Seven himself would have been proud to be numbered among their successors. Bringing Parnell down was a masterstroke, but killing him off was the coup de grace. There are no comebacks from the grave.

There is no doubt that both the O’Shea’s were well connected. Husband and wife, at different times, would have had dealings with the British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone. But the circumstances of the downfall of the Irish leader who, by 1890, was a staunch ally of the Liberal Prime Minister, were almost as much of an embarrassment to Gladstone as they were to the Irish party. That’s why it has to be a diabolical Tory plot.

The problem with that scenario is, when Parnell and Katharine met, and embarked on their ten-year affair, the Tories had just been tossed out of office. They didn’t get a whiff of power for another five years and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of Parnell baiting Gladstone and the Liberals for most of their period in opposition. Until they got back into government, in 1886, five years after the affair began, they would have had no interest whatever in shaming of humiliating Parnell by exposing his relationship with a married woman.

Which leaves us with the Victorian ‘deep state’, the shadowy institution that lives forever, irrespective of who is in power. It’s tempting to believe anything of an establishment that, because of its many mansions, and competing agents provocateurs,  succeeded, in 1887, in exposing a plot against the life of Queen Victoria which its own agents had concocted in the first place. But there’s not a shred of evidence for this proposition. In addition to which anyone even vaguely familiar with William O’Shea is always astonished that he was able to put on his own boots every morning. A former military type, he was always at least one brigade short of a division.

And anyone familiar with the relationship between Parnell and Katharine O’Shea would never accept that it was based on a treacherous deception.

So, even though one is prone to believe William O’Shea capable of almost anything, is it possible that he and his wife were British spies given the onerous chore of destroying Charles Stewart Parnell? Not a hope. That’s fake history.

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


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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.

 

 

27 January 1885 
- Parnell turns the first sod on the West Clare Railway


 

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In extenuation for his many crimes, it was once suggested that at least Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist leader, ‘made the trains run on time’. It’s hardly enough to erase the invasion of Abyssinia, and his alliance with Nazi Germany, nor the liquidation of a number of inconvenient political opponents.

But you can’t even offer that excuse, in the case of one of the great villains of Irish history, Captain William Henry O’Shea. The reason O’Shea didn’t make the trains run on time, was that he was one of the great parliamentary champions of the notoriously dilatory West Clare Railway. This narrow-gauge iron road ran, if that particular word doesn’t suggest far too much urgency, between Ennis and Moyasta, and thence west to Kilrush, or east to Kilkee, whichever was your preference. It travelled the route via Ennistymon, Lahinch and Milltown Malbay. It was the last operating narrow-gauge passenger railway in the country. The problem is that it just wasn’t very reliable.

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Despite its lack of length—it was only twenty-seven miles long when it opened in 1887—it was actually two railways, the West Clare and the South Clare, which met at Milltown Malbay. Hardly comparable to the iconic junction of America’s Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads at Promontory Point in Utah, but very exciting for the good citizens of Clare nonetheless, who now found it much easier to get around and to connect with the country’s main rail network at Ennis. The line was later extended to forty-eight miles in overall length.

Although work had already started the previous November, the sod was not officially turned on the original construction site until January 1885. O’Shea, the semi-detached Nationalist MP for Clare, wanted his pound of flesh, after months of lobbying parliament to ensure that funds were made available for the project, so the party leader himself, Charles Stewart Parnell, was recruited to pop over from his unwedded bliss with O’Shea’s wife Katharine in London, and do the needful with a shovel. Also in attendance was the man chosen to build the railway, one William Martin Murphy, who would have his own days in the sun during the infamous Dublin Lockout of 1913.

Of course, the railway was immortalized by its hilarious brush with the songwriter and performer Percy French. He successfully sued the line for loss of earnings, after arriving four and a half hours late for an engagement in Kilkee, on 10 August 1896 thanks, he alleged, to the rather relaxed attitude of the railroad employees to the joys of timetabling. He won £10 and costs at the Ennis Quarter Sessions in January 1897.

Now most sensible corporations, when in a hole, stop digging. But not the West Clare Railway. They appealed the decision at the next Clare Spring Assizes, held before the formidable jurist, Chief Baron Palles. French might have forfeited the case, as he arrived an hour late for the hearing. But his explanation—‘I took the West Clare Railway here, your honour’—probably sealed the case in his favour, though unless he was travelling from coastal Clare it was a humorous porky.

In the course of his contribution French offered a couplet that suggested he had a certain composition in mind already. He informed the Chief Baron that, ‘If you want to get to Kilkee / You must go there by the sea’. The lines didn’t actually make it into his final revenge on the hapless railway line ‘Are you right there Michael’ which begins:

 

You may talk of Columbus’s sailing

Across the Atlantical Sea

But he never tried to go railing

From Ennis, as far as Kilkee

 

Incidentally, on the same day as Percy French’s court appearance, one Mary Anne Butler from Limerick was also suing the railway, alleging that she had been attacked by a malevolent donkey on the platform in Ennis.

The line closed down in 1961, but thanks to a group of local enthusiasts the West Clare Railway lives once more. Part of the line, between Moyasta and Kilkee, has been restored, and one of the original engines, the exquisite Slieve Callan, is back in use.

The national press reported, that the first sod of the West Clare Railway was turned by Charles Stewart Parnell, one hundred and thirty-two years ago, on this day.

 

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On this day – 6 May, 1882 The Phoenix Park Murders

 

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Had it not been for a tight and uncomfortable new pair of boots late 19th century Irish history might have been very different. The boots belonged to Superintendent John Mallon, head of detectives at Dublin Castle. He was on his way to meet an informer near the Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park on the afternoon of 6 May 1882. It was warm, and his feet were sore. When he was met near the eastern entrance to the park by one of his officers who told him not to walk through the Park as he had spotted some well-known Fenians in the area, Mallon succumbed to the offending footwear, and the warning, and headed home instead of going to meet his informant.

 

Had he strolled on into the Park, however uncomfortably, his presence might have prevented one of the most vicious and notorious murders in Irish history. A short while after Mallon did his about-turn the new chief secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, a nephew by marriage of prime minister William Gladstone, decided, on his first day in Dublin, to walk from his office in Dublin Castle, to his new lodgings in Phoenix park – today it’s the U.S. Embassy. While en route he was passed by the carriage of his under secretary, the Galwayman Thomas H.Burke, effectively the head of the Irish civil service.Burke was a figure not greatly beloved in his own country at a time of repressive measures during the so-called Land War which had bedeviled the country for the three years.

 

When Burke recognized the lone walker as the new Chief Secretary he stopped his carriage and offered Cavendish a lift. The Chief Secretary declined and Burke sealed both their fates by offering to walk with him instead. As the two men approached the Viceregal Lodge they were accosted by a group of four men who produced surgical knives and proceeded to attack Burke. When Cavendish intervened to defend his Under Secretary he, in turn, was attacked and murdered. Burke’s killers had no idea of the identity or the importance of the man who had tried to defend their intended target.

 

The intervention of the new Chief Secretary and his brutal murder undoubtedly elevated the status of the crime and increased the intensity of the subsequent investigation. Later that night notes were posted through the letterboxes of the main Dublin newspapers claiming that the assassinations were the work of a shadowy new organisation, the Irish National Invincibles. This was a small, ruthless covert group that emerged from the ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood but which maintained no specific ties with that organization.

 

The timing of the atrocity could not have been worse. It came a couple of days after an agreement between the British government and the Irish party leadership to end the Land War and almost sabotaged the secret diplomacy that promised to terminate that rancorous conflict.

 

It took almost a year to apprehend and punish the killers of Cavendish and Burke. Six men were hanged for the crime, including two of the main ringleaders, Joe Brady and Daniel Curley. One of the other masterminds behind the assassination escaped with his life by informing on his colleagues. James Carey was one of a number of informers produced by the Crown in the case against his fellow Invincibles, but his evidence was crucial. Superintendent Mallon had essentially hoodwinked Carey into confessing and turning states evidence. While Brady, Curley and their associates were either hanged or jailed for lengthy terms Carey was freed and given a new identity.

 

Carey’s freedom, however, was short-lived. He was smuggled out of Ireland destined for South Africa a few weeks after the six Invincible hangings. Recognised on board the ship taking him and his family to their new lives he was shot dead by one Patrick O’Donnell when they reached dry land. O’Donnell, was, in turn, hanged for his own crime.

 

The Phoenix Park murders took place 131 years ago on this day.

 

 

 

 

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