By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred twenty-two years ago this week, on Oct. 21, 1879, tenant farmers in partnership with Irish nationalists founded the Irish National Land League. The immediate concern of farmers was widespread crop failure and their inability to pay their rents, but they also hoped to use the crisis to force the British government to enact sweeping land reform. Their Irish nationalist partners likewise hoped to mobilize tenant unrest behind their effort to secure home rule for Ireland. Their partnership launched the most successful nationalist effort in the 19th Century, one that rocked the Anglo-Irish world to its foundation.
The Land League represented a unique moment in Irish history, for it briefly united two distinct nationalist traditions: physical force and constitutional (i.e., home rule). Representing the former was John Devoy, a Fenian exile and leader of the American physical force organization known as Clan na Gael. Representing the latter was Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish MP and leader of the Home Rule party. Although both camps traditionally had nothing but contempt for the other, both recognized that the looming “land question” in Ireland presented a golden opportunity to advance the cause of Irish freedom.
Secret negotiations began in 1878 until Devoy and Parnell reached a loose agreement in 1879 that they termed the New Departure. In exchange for broad nationalist support, Parnell would demand land reform, refrain from attacking militant nationalists, and speak of Irish “self-rule” in vague terms (i.e., not specifically home rule, which meant establishing an Irish parliament within the United Kingdom). The latter provision was key to attracting hard-line supporters of total Irish independence.
Both Devoy and Parnell agreed the potentially explosive land issue needed to be kept in check. They quickly discovered, however, that the agricultural crisis of 1879 pushed it to center stage. That year brought the first of seven consecutive poor harvests and the end of 22 years (1856-1878) of rising living standards and falling rates of eviction. Soon thousands of Irish peasants faced both starvation and eviction.
Thus there emerged the third strand of Irish nationalism — radical land reform. Its leader was a led Michael Davitt, a former Fenian. In April 1879, he organized a rally of distressed farmers in Irishtown, Co. Mayo, that drew more than 15,000. That led to the establishment of the Land League of Mayo, which in turn led to the founding of the Irish National Land League in October.
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The League’s goals were clear: abolish the British landlord system that held the great majority of the native Irish population in grinding rural poverty. As the League put it in its Declaration of Principles:
The land of Ireland belongs to the people all of Ireland, to be held and cultivated for the sustenance of those who God decreed to be the inhabitants thereof.
In a country where 70 percent of the land was owned by only 2,000 people, while three million tenants owned none at all, this was a powerful and popular message.
In May 1880, after a hugely successful fund-raising tour in America by Parnell, Irish-American activists established the American Land League. Nearly 1,000 branches were subsequently established over the next year, from major cities like New York and Boston to the mining districts in Colorado and Butte. Together they raised over $535,000 for the cause. For the first time Irish nationalist activism in America became a mass movement, drawing support from upper-class professionals, conservative clergymen, and poor factory workers alike. It also involved women as no nationalist movement before it ever had, as Fanny Parnell, sister to Charles, formed dozens of Ladies Land League chapters.
While Irish Americans raised money for the cause, matters in Ireland exploded in what became known as the Land War. Hard-pressed by the crisis and eager to force reform, individual tenants began to withhold their rents. Some resorted to violence, destroying crops, maiming cattle, and in a few cases murdering landlords or their agents. Others employed social ostracism against landlords and their agents who evicted tenants or against “land grabbers” who took over an evicted farmer’s holding. This tactic came to be known as “boycotting” after its most famous use against the Mayo land agent Capt. Charles Boycott.
The high point of the League came in October 1881 when the Gladstone launched a campaign of repression, arresting Parnell and other key leaders. Four days later, on Oct. 17, 1881, Parnell boldly issued a “No Rent Manifesto,” calling upon all the tenant farmers in Ireland to withhold their rents to protest British policy. To many expectant Irish nationalists, Ireland seemed on the verge of a full-scale uprising.
Yet, the “No Rent Manifesto” marked the beginning of the end for the Land League. First, the British government responded by banning it outright. Second, it accelerated the disintegration of the New Departure coalition. Radical Irish American nationalists, led by Irish World editor Patrick Ford, interpreted the Manifesto as an assault on the Irish land system, while John Devoy and his fellow conservative nationalists insisted it was merely a symbolic statement. Third, after six months in prison Parnell himself pulled back from the Manifesto. In May 1882 he stepped out of prison to announce that a deal had been struck: in exchange for ceasing radical land agitation, Britain would halt its repression and make amendments favorable to tenant farmers to a Land Act passed back in the fall.
Other events would transpire, most notably the murders on May 6 of the top two British leaders in Ireland by Fenian extremists, that accelerated the disintegration of the Land League. By the fall of 1882 it ceased to exist.
The abrupt end to the Land League and the bitterness among nationalists that it engendered should not obscure its accomplishments. It played a role in the rise of Parnell and the home rule movement. By injecting social issues — i.e., land reform — into the nationalist cause, the League also helped accelerate the pace of land redistribution in Ireland. Its significance can also be judged by the void it left — not until the aftermath of the 1916 Rising would Ireland, or America, experience a level of popular nationalism to rival that of the Land League in the early 1880s.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Oct. 18, 1950: Cornelius “Connie Mack” McGillicuddy retires as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics after 50 years.
Oct. 19, 1989: A British court nullifies the guilty verdicts against Guilford Four, jailed for 14 years for a bombing they did not commit.
Oct. 23, 1969: Playwright Samuel Beckett is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
Oct. 17, 1803: Leader of 1848 rebellion, William Smith O’Brien, is born in Dromoland, Co. Clare.
Oct. 20, 1674: Colonial Pennsylvania official James Logan is born in Lurgan, Co. Armagh.
Oct. 22, 1920: Harvard psychologist and 1960’s LSD advocate Timothy Leary is born in Springfield, Mass.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.