On This Day – 8 September 1852 The Irish Tenant League

sadleir john swindler.jpgWilliam_Nicholas_Keogh_caricature_by_Harry_Furniss.jpg


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



On This Day – Drivetime – 15.1.1825 Suicide of banker Thomas Newcomen



In case you thought Irish banking failures and inquiries were peculiar to the 21st century – think again. As Woody Guthrie pithily put it …


Some men rob you with a gun

And some with a fountain pen


… and the Irish banker has been ruining himself and his customers as well as cleverly socializing his losses since the early 1800s.


Let’s look at a few of the most spectacular Irish banking collapses of the 19th century. Most of them involve politicians as well. Strange that.


For example, there was the scandal of the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank in 1856. It was run by the Irish Liberal MP for Carlow John Sadlier, and his brother James, MP for Tipperary. When it ran out of money John Sadlier took the easy way out and committed suicide on Hampstead Heath, leaving James to face the music. This he did for a while before he absconded. He ended his days in Switzerland, the natural home of the dodgy banker. Investigations revealed that the reason for the collapse of the bank was that John Sadlier had been embezzling on an outrageous scale. Before he shuffled off his mortal coil he’d removed nearly £300,000 from the vaults. The whole episode is said to have provided Charles Dickens with the inspiration to create the dubious financier Mr. Merdle in Little Dorritt. The book was being serialized when the scandal erupted.


Fast forward to 1869 and yet another example of Ireland’s capacity to forgive a scoundrel. In this instance it was another MP, James McNeale McKenna who, in the 1850s and 60’s was Chairman and MD of the National Bank of Ireland – so he combined in one person the roles later held by Sean Fitzpatrick and David Drumm in Anglo Irish Bank. Either Seanie and David were total slackers or James Mac Mac was an absolute hive of fiduciary energy.


He successfully ran the bank into the ground on foot of a number of unwise investments in pursuit of growth and greater market share. Aren’t we fortunate that our bankers shrugged off that bad habit a century and a half later. By the time he resigned, accused of cronyism and paying himself too much – other habits utterly alien to the modern equivalent – the National Bank of Ireland had debts of almost £400,000. Miraculously it survived. McKenna, MP for Youghal, lost his seat, but much later re-invented himself as a Parnellite and was re-elected in South Monaghan This bears out the suspicion that if Parnell had nominated a pile of pigeon droppings for a nationalist constituency they would have won the seat with a thumping majority.


Another flawed banker, however, was not so lucky where the Uncrowned King of Ireland was concerned. William Shaw, briefly, held the leadership of the Irish party after Isaac Butt died. But then in 1880 he got the bum’s rush when Parnell stood against him. Interestingly Shaw was supported in the leadership vote by one James McNeale McKenna. These banker/politicians stick together. Shaw, was also founder and Chairman of the Munster Bank. In 1884 he resigned, having received loans to the value of £80,000 – twice the exposure of the rest of the directors combined. Again, we are fortunate that this practice was completely stamped out before the 20th century. The bank didn’t outlive his Chairmanship long. It went bust the following year.


Finally we quickly rewind to the 1820s and Thomas Newcomen, a Viscount and, surprise surprise, a politician. He inherited the Newcomen bank, voted for the Act of Union in 1800, spent much time in his bank’s fine new headquarters – now the rates office beside Dublin Castle – and proceeded to drive the family business into the ground, taking many depositors with him. Newcomen was described as a reclusive Scrooge-like figure who ‘it was widely whispered, gloated over ingots of treasure with no lamp to guide him but the luminous diamonds which had been left for safe–keeping in his hands.’


Thomas Newcomen, driven to distraction by the collapse of his family bank, took his own life 190 years ago, on this day.