Category: Archive

St. Patrick’s Day Remembering the Land League

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

This month marks the 120th anniversary of the founding of the American Land League, the sister organization to the Irish Land League. Although short-lived and, in the end, ultimately unsuccessful, the Land League came closer to achieving the overthrow of British landlordism and gaining Irish independence than any nationalist movement in the 19th century. In the process, it united Irish Americans as never before and raised compelling questions about exploitation and social inequality not just in Ireland but in America as well.


In the early 1870s, Irish nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic lay in a sorry state. A decade earlier, the surging Fenian movement had given Irish nationalists reason to hope they might one day live to see Ireland free of British rule. But a failed uprising in Ireland in 1867, several disastrous attempts by American Fenians to invade Canada (to provoke an Anglo-American war), severe British repression, and condemnation by the Catholic church left the movement in shambles.

Despite these setbacks, however, Irish nationalism was far from dead. Indeed, the decade of the 1870s saw the revival of Irish nationalism’s two main traditions: physical-force nationalism, which sought Ireland’s immediate and complete independence from Britain through armed rebellion, and constitutional nationalism, which pushed for greater independence for Ireland within the United Kingdom through the peaceful establishment of an Irish Parliament (i.e., "home rule"). Adding to both its vibrancy and complexity, there emerged in this period a third strand of Irish nationalism, one that sought (in addition to some form of independence) sweeping social reform of Irish society, most especially its land system.

Physical-force nationalism revived in the form of Clan na Gael ("Band of the Irish"), a revolutionary organization founded by journalist Jerome Collins in New York City in 1867. Unlike the Fenians, the Clan was a secret, oath-bound society. While this fact hampered the Clan’s growth somewhat, it also protected it from unwanted attention from clerical and British authorities. The movement spread across the country in the early 1870s as activists established revolutionary cells from New York to San Francisco. Ten years after its founding, with a dedicated membership of 10,000, the Clan established formal ties with the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland through the creation of a joint Revolutionary Directory.

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The key figure in the emergence of the Clan was John Devoy. As a rising figure in the IRB in the 1860s, he was among the hundreds arrested in the British crackdown of 1866-67. Sentenced to long terms in prison, they were given amnesty in late 1870 on the condition that they not return to Ireland until their sentences expired. Devoy and four others, among them Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, sailed into New York Harbor in January 1871 aboard the S.S. Cuba and were greeted with a tumultuous celebration. Devoy joined the Clan soon after settling in New York and quickly assumed control of the organization.

Constitutional nationalism reemerged in the 1870s in the form the home rule movement. Picking up where Daniel O’Connell had left off in the 1840s, its supporters formed the Home Rule party and succeeded in electing 60 home rule MPs to Parliament in 1874. Led by a Protestant lawyer named Isaac Butt, they quickly introduced a Home Rule Bill, which Parliament soundly defeated. But the following year the movement was energized by the emergence of a younger, more dynamic voice — that of Charles Stewart Parnell.

As a landlord and member of the Protestant Ascendancy, Parnell seemed at first an unlikely Irish nationalist. But he possessed a genuine sympathy for the plight of Irish Catholics and genuine hostility toward English domination of Irish affairs. The latter Anglophobia derived, in part, from the fact that his mother was an American and her father, Commodore Charles Stewart, had served in the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812 and sank two British warships. Soon after arriving in Parliament, he began delivering scathing speeches against English misrule in Ireland and holding up the general business of Parliament through the use of obstructionist tactics. By 1878, he was the undisputed leader of the Home Rule Party.

Traditionally both camps kept their distance — Home Rulers out of fear of being branded as revolutionaries; physical-force nationalists out of contempt for the very idea of home rule. But new thinking on the part of Devoy and Parnell, as well as an agricultural crisis in Ireland, would soon lead to the establishment of an extraordinary nationalist alliance.

The New Departure

As Irish nationalism in its various forms gained momentum in the late 1870s, one issue lurked in the wings: the "land question."

Physical-force nationalists like John Devoy had long shunned the issue, arguing that the introduction of "social issues" would detract from the fundamental goal of overthrowing British rule. But by 1878, Devoy had come to the conclusion that the strategy of revolutionary Irish nationalism had to change. He knew full well that with just 10,000 members, Clan na Gael could hardly expect to overthrow British rule in Ireland by force of arms alone. Moreover, he had become convinced that the nationalist movement needed to focus on more than Irish independence. It must, he argued, address the fundamental social problem of Ireland: the landlord system that left the vast majority of people as tenant farmers paying high rents and living in fear of eviction.

"I believe in Irish independence," he told an audience in 1878, "but I don’t think it would be worthwhile to free Ireland if that foreign landlord system was left standing."

With its potential to garner the support of Ireland’s tenant farmers — traditionally cool to nationalist efforts — the land question was no longer a problem to avoid but an opportunity to seize. If nationalists could politicize agrarian discontent by pointing the finger at British landlordism, they could enlist the mass of Irish tenant farmers in a nationalist movement leading to Ireland’s independence. Devoy’s new thinking outraged hard-line physical-force nationalists, but it also opened the door to a remarkable nationalist alliance that would shake Ireland to its foundation in the years to come.

Motivated by this new outlook, Devoy worked to establish an alliance that until recently would have been considered unthinkable: the joining of physical-force nationalists with Parnell’s constitutionalist Home Rulers. In a telegram in October 1878, Devoy offered nationalist support to Parnell if he would champion land reform, refrain from criticizing the IRB militants, and speak of Irish "self-rule" in more vague terms (i.e., not simply home rule) so as to attract supporters of total Irish independence. Parnell met with Devoy on three occasions in 1878-79 and expressed a general willingness to join what Devoy began to call the "New Departure."

Just how much of Devoy’s program Parnell agreed to support is unclear. Devoy believed, or at least allowed himself to believe, that Parnell had agreed to use home rule merely as a short-term device for securing the complete independence of Ireland. In Devoy’s mind, it would work like this:

Parnell would launch a campaign to end British landlordism and the establishment of a program to transfer land to peasant ownership.

The British government would refuse and respond with a crackdown.

In the ensuing crisis, Parnell would demand Parliament grant Ireland home rule.

When Parliament refused, Parnell would withdraw the Irish MPs to Ireland, where they would establish an independent Irish government.

Britain’s military response would be repulsed by the heavily armed forces of the IRB and Clan na Gael.

Victorious, Ireland would declare itself an independent republic.

Farm crisis

Devoy and Parnell hoped to confine agrarian protest to a moderate program of land reform that would not detract from the ultimate goal of home rule and independence. That proved impossible, for even as the New Departure was in formation, Ireland plunged into agricultural distress. After 22 years (1856-1878) of rising living standards and falling rates of tenant evictions, the first of seven consecutive poor harvests hit Ireland in 1879. On top of this, prices fell for Irish farm products such as butter (50 percent) and grain (30 percent), making it virtually impossible for small farmers to meet their rent obligations. Soon thousands of Irish peasants faced both starvation and eviction. Some even began to speak of another famine.

It was this combination of Devoy’s new approach and agricultural distress that led to the full-blown emergence of the third strand of Irish nationalism, one that demanded radical social reform as part of its program. The leader of this movement was Michael Davitt. Born in the same year as Parnell (1846), he came from the opposite end of the social spectrum. He was born in Mayo into a family of poor Catholic tenant farmers. Like so many others, they survived the Famine only to be evicted. They migrated to England and found work in a Lancashire factory town. It was here that Davitt, at the age of 11, lost his right arm in a factory accident.

In his late teens he joined the IRB and became its secretary in 1868, when he was only 22. Arrested in the crackdown on the IRB following the Fenian Uprising, he served seven years of a 15-year sentence before being released in 1877. Eager to resume his nationalist activity, he immediately sailed for New York. After conferring with Devoy, he agreed to return to Ireland to organize tenant discontent into a potent nationalist force.

In April 1879, Davitt organized a rally of distressed farmers in Irishtown, Co. Mayo. It drew more than 15,000 and propelled Davitt to the fore as the leader of a growing tenant uprising. He soon established the Land League of Mayo (in August 1879) and, in October, the Irish National Land League of Ireland. Parnell, who had tried to keep a safe distance from the land issue, now was forced to cast his support to it and become its first president. Quite suddenly, the direction and spirit of the New Departure had been substantially altered. The land question, intended to be a secondary issue used to enlist peasant support in the nationalist cause, now dominated its agenda and Davitt, formerly a traditional "independence first" nationalist, found himself the leader of a growing social movement.

The Land War

The Land League agitation started by Davitt and supported by Parnell and Devoy firmly linked the land question to the national question.

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 got decreed to be beat inhabitants thereof. Land being created to supply mankind with the necessities of existence, those who cultivated to that end have a higher claim to its absolute possession than those who make it an article of barter to being used or disposed of four purposes of profit or pleasure."

In a country where 70 percent of the land was owned by only 2,000 people while 3 million tenants owned none at all, this was a powerful and popular message. The League called for the redistribution of property from landlords (who would be compensated) to tenants. To bring this about, tenants began to withhold their rents. Some resorted to violence, destroying crops, maiming cattle, and, in a few cases, murdering landlords or their agents. The struggle became known as the Land War and its revolutionary potential sent chills through the Protestant Ascendancy

Another tactic employed in the Land War was social ostracism. Anyone who aided the landlord by collecting rents or carrying out evictions found himself cut off from also social contact. This was especially true for those "land grabbers" who took over an evicted farmer’ s holding. As Parnell put it, "When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must show him on the roadside when you meet him, you must show him in the streets of the town, you must show him at the shop counter, you must show him at the fair and at the marketplace and even in the house of worship, by leaving him severely alone — by isolating him for the rest of his kind, as if he were a leper of old, you must show him your detestation of the crime he has committed."

The most famous victim of this policy was the land agent for Lord Erne’s Mayo estate, Captain Charles Boycott, whose name became a synonym for the practice. Shunned by the locals, he needed more than 1,000 British troops to harvest the estate’s crops (at a cost of the £10,000 to the government).

The Land League in the U.S.

Crucial to the success of the Irish Land League was the establishment of a American branch. Parnell arrived in the United States in January 1880 and commenced a whirlwind fund-raising tour through 60 cities and towns, culminating with an address before a joint session of Congress. On the day of his departure, he exhorted the Irish in America to keep the Land League movement going.

"The famine-causing land system remains uncrushed, and, therefore, there still remains good work for Irishmen [in America] to do," he said. "I feel sure you will continue . . . to spread the Land League organization all over this country."

And they did. Shortly after Parnell’s departure, Irish nationalists gathered in New York City to form the American Land League. In little more than a year, they established nearly 1,000 American Land League branches across the country, from major cities like New York and Boston to the mining districts in Colorado and Butte, and raised over $535,000. No longer was Irish nationalist activism in America confined to a few thousand members of Clan na Gael. It had become a mass movement, drawing support from upper-class professionals and poor factory workers alike. It also involved women — who formed Ladies Land League chapters — as no nationalist movement before it ever had.

The key figure in spreading the Land League in America was Patrick Ford, founder and editor of the Irish World, the largest-selling and most influential Irish-American paper in the Gilded Age. Ford, born in County Galway in 1837, immigrated to Boston with his parents in 1846, at the outset of the Famine. Work as a printer’s assistant in the office of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper, The Liberator, exposed him to social radicalism and compelled him to enlist in the Union army during the Civil War. After a brief post-war stint in the South he settled in New York City, where he founded his paper in 1870.

Ford was a radical reformer who did much to challenge the stereotype of Irish Catholics as socially conservative. He supported virtually every liberal cause, from currency reform, to women’s rights, to labor unionism, to land reform (he favored nationalization). To emphasize his embrace of issues not purely Irish or Catholic, Ford expanded the name of his paper in 1878 to the Irish World and Industrial Liberator.

Ford’s brand of nationalism reflected this radical outlook. He viewed the Land League movement as a unique moment in history where the poor could smash land monopoly (and economic exploitation in general) and gain greater social equality. "The struggle in Ireland," he constantly reminded his readers, "is radically and essentially the same as the struggle in America — a contest against legalized forms of oppression . . . " Through the Irish World, the largest-selling Irish-American newspaper, he helped establish hundreds of Land League branches and collected more than half of the $535,000 raised. John Devoy, despite his own embrace of the land issue, deplored Ford for his extreme radicalism. But there was little he could do — Ford delivered the money.

The appeal to workers

As Ford’s success in raising Land League funds suggests, his radical nationalism (and that of Davitt in Ireland) had enormous appeal among working-class Irish and Irish Americans. In linking the struggle in Ireland to that taking place in America, Ford provided a massive body of Irish Americans and Irish immigrants — the largest ethnic component of American wage earners — with a language and ideology of radical social criticism. He compelled his readers to examine their own situation in the U.S. to see the universality of the struggle against accumulated, undemocratic power. When presented in this light, the everyday terms of Irish nationalism — rent, landlord, and exploitation — took on new meaning in the day-to-day lives of the Irish in America. They faced long hours of toil for meager wages, paid by absentee capitalists (industrial landlords) living in luxury befitting British aristocrats. They then paid most of those meager wages to a landlord in exchange for a crowded and unhealthy tenement, from which they might be evicted at a moment’s notice. And should they combine to ask for an increase in wages, they likely would receive the policemen’s club instead.

Land Leaguer and labor activist P.J. McGuire offered specific examples when he argued the same point: "It is no longer an Irish question, because it has come into the arena of world affairs. We [Americans] have known of people driven from their homes at the point of the bayonet. The railroad companies have repeatedly turned out workmen from their homes, and last year in New York City there were 60,000 evictions."

In his effort to inject a sweeping social radicalism into Irish-American nationalism, Ford found an unlikely ally, the political economist Henry George. Although neither Irish nor Catholic, George became one of the American Land League’s most popular figures. His book "Progress and Poverty" (1879) identified land monopoly as the source of growing social inequality in America and became a bestseller among workers and middle-class reformers. George joined the Land League because he, like Ford, saw the land agitation in Ireland as a great opportunity to smash land monopoly and demonstrate to the world the virtues of radical land reform (in George’s case, he proposed a "single tax" on land to end monopoly).

Participation in the Land League, then, offered working-class Irish Americans the opportunity to consider issues beyond mere national independence, especially questions of social and economic justice, both in America and in Ireland. As James Baggs, a New York City produce dealer, put it: "The greatest part of the vast sum of money sent through the Irish World was subscribed by the poor workingmen and workingwomen of America, who, in so doing, were impressed with the idea that they were doing a work that would benefit the people of Ireland, and the workers throughout the world as well.

Not surprisingly, one of the most important legacies of the Land League in America was the great intellectual influence it had on the labor movement. Many of the leading figures in the Knights of Labor and American Federation of Labor were drawn to social activism and radical ideas through their experience in the Land League.


The high point of the League’s activism came in the fall of 1881 when Parnell, frustrated by Britain’s coercion policies and seeking to shore up his support among the League’s radical element, denounced the Gladstone government and declared a Land Act passed by Parliament inadequate. This landed him in Kilmainham prison. Four days later, on Oct. 17, 1881, Parnell issued the "No Rent Manifesto," calling upon 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" had the unintended effect of destroying the Land League. To start with, the British government responded by banning it outright. Then, slowly but surely, the New Departure coalition began to disintegrate. In the U.S., Devoy and the more conservative nationalists decided they had had enough of Ford’s radicalism and moved to isolate him and his followers from the Land League leadership. A similar conservative turn occurred in Ireland, propelled by three events in the spring of 1882. On May 2, 1882 Parnell and other League leaders walked out of Kilmainham prison and announced that a deal had been struck. In exchange for ceasing the radical land agitation, Britain would make amendments to the Land Act favorable to tenant farmers and halt its coercion policy.

The "Kilmainham Pact" outraged both Ford and Devoy, but before they had time to react, the League suffered another severe blow when, four days later, Fenian extremists (the "Invincibles") murdered Lord Frederick Cavendish, recently appointed chief secretary of Ireland, and Thomas Burke, the undersecretary. Now the enemies of Irish nationalism could dismiss the land agitation as a Fenian front for violent revolution. The Phoenix Park murders, as at least one historian has pointed out, served as the Irish version of Chicago’s Haymarket Riot of 1886 because of the conservative, anti-radical backlash that ensued. Devoy’s goal of Irish independence and Ford’s quest for social revolution both appeared to be all but extinguished.

The third blow to League unity came that same month when Michael Davitt emerged from prison to announce that he had become converted to the doctrine of land nationalization (he had, he confessed, read George’s "Progress and Poverty" twice during his stay in prison). Ford and the radical nationalists were ecstatic, Devoy horrified. Davitt eventually toned down his radicalism to stay in good graces with Devoy, but by then the damage was done, the ideological cracks in the Land League alliance had became unbreachable chasms.

Even before these incidents occurred, the Land League movement in America had began to sputter to a halt. The number of League branches in America declined from a high of nearly 1,000 in late 1881 to few than 500 by mid-1882. Contributions to the League suffered a corresponding drop.

The final unraveling began Oct. 7, 1882 with Ford’s stunning declaration in the pages of the Irish World that his paper would no longer accept Land League donations. "The reason for this action," explained Ford, "is that there is no longer a Land League in existence. What was the League is a thing of the past." As could be expected, nationalists and conservatives denied the League’s death and denounced Ford, in the words of the Irish-American, as a "conscientious demagogue, turned traitor because his venal designs have been detected and repudiated."

But as it turned out, Ford was right — the League, as it had been originally established, was dead. The Land Act and subsequent Kilmainham Pact did precisely what Devoy and the independence-first nationalists feared it would do — it appealed to the traditional conservatism of the Irish peasantry. Kilmainham guaranteed a moderate and constitutionalist course for subsequent nationalist activity. Within days of Ford’s announcement, the Irish National Land League of Ireland officially changed the organization’s name to the Irish National League. Dropping the word "Land" from the title was significant for it meant that Pandora’s Box of land agitation, full of dangerous ideas, tactics, and trends, was now safely shut and stored away.

With the Land League gone, Parnell’s home-rule movement took control of the nationalist agenda. With unlikely support from Gladstone in 1886, they nearly succeeded in gaining passage of a Home Rule Bill, but conservatives in Parliament united to kill it, as they would again in 1893. By then Parnell was gone (done in by the scandal over his affair with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea, and ill health). Not until the aftermath of the executions following the 1916 Rising would Ireland, or the United States, experience a level of popular nationalism to rival that of the Land League in the early 1880s.

(Edward T. O’Donnell is an assistant professor of history at Hunter College and the author of the forthcoming book "1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History" [Doubleday].)

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