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.

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


ass46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

On This Day – 11 August 1796 Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin prepares to receive its first prisoners


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It’s such a huge tourist attraction today that it’s quite shocking to realise there were proposals as recently as the 1950s to demolish much of it. But Kilmainham Gaol survived intact to play a huge part in the current decade of centenaries.

It opened in 1796 and even then, it was a grim place, housing men, women, and children as young as twelve. Some were held there prior to transportation to Australia, others were lodged in the prison before their executions, some served many years there in dreadful conditions, often sharing a cell with up to four others.

Almost every self-respecting nationalist, including some far removed from revolutionary politics, spent a spell at their Majesties’ pleasure in Kilmainham.  A number did so prior to being hanged or shot. The list of guests constitutes a distinguished club, Henry Joy McCracken, Oliver Bond, Napper Tandy, Robert Emmet, Michael Dwyer, William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Charles Stewart Parnell, and Michael Davitt.

Attached to the Gaol was a magistrates’ court where cases would be despatched, or, if a serious crime was involved, the preliminary process leading to indictment would take place. It was here that the alleged killers of the Chief Secretary, Frederick Cavendish and his Under Secretary, Thomas Henry Burke, in Phoenix Park in 1882—the so-called Invincibles—appeared for remand hearings before being committed to Green Street court for trial. And it was here that they first realised the game was up, when one of their number, James Carey, presented himself as a prosecution witness. He had opted to turn state’s evidence to save his own skin. His first appearance at Kilmainham Magistrates’ Court was greeted with roars of rage from the dock. A reporter observed that one of the accused, Joe Brady:

 

Glared at him and stretched forward towards him [had he] been able to reach him, I believe he would have been torn to pieces, for Brady was a powerful young fellow, and for the moment he was for all the world like a tiger on the spring.

 

The prisoners were returned to their cells and a few weeks later Carey’s evidence sent five of them to the hangman, a seasoned veteran named William Marwood. His customary advice to his victims before they met their maker was, ‘Now then, hold your head back and you’ll die easy’. They were all executed in the Kilmainham Prison Yard, and their bodies were interred under the scaffold erected to hang them.

Three decades later it was the turn of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. Fourteen were executed there over a nine-day period in May. The first to die, on 3 May, were Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh. They faced firing squads of twelve British soldiers, mostly drawn from the Sherwood Foresters, who had been badly cut up on Mount Street Bridge the previous week. There was little regard to sensitivities on either side. No Catholic priest was allowed to be present to minister to the prisoners, and the same firing squad—consisting mainly of young recruits—was expected to execute all three men. A number of female prisoners, including Countess Markievicz, were rudely awoken by the volleys from the stone-breakers’ yard.

After the establishment of the Irish Free State the prison continued to be used during the Civil War. Around six-hundred Republican prisoners were incarcerated there, many of them women. One of the last to be released was Eamon de Valera.

The prison was closed by the Free State government in 1929, and might well have been demolished in the 1930s, except it was deemed too expensive to do so. The work of organisations, like the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society, ensured that it was eventually taken over by the Office of Public Works, and became one of the most visited historical sites in Dublin.

It has also been a useful location for a number of films. These include the adaptation of Brendan Behan’s prison drama, The Quare Fellow, as well as the Michael Caine film The Italian Job, and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. Collins himself was fortunate, he never actually served time there.

Kilmainham Gaol was finally completed and prepared to accept its first prisoners two hundred and twenty-one years ago, on this day.

 

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