In the last entry we discussed the rise of the home rule movement, with the Home Rule League becoming Britain’s first legitimately powerful third party. With that came the attention of the IRB and the so-called “New Departure”. But behind everything that I discussed last week was something that I only briefly mentioned: the all-important, all-encompassing issue of land.
In 1870, the famous set of demands afterwards known as the “3 F’s” had first been bandied about. These called for fair rents, to be set by courts, not landlords. They called for tenants to be given the right of free sale of their interest in land to an incoming tenant, without the interference of a landlord. And they called for fixity of tenure, namely that a tenant could not be evicted from his/her land provided he/she was paying their rent.
The land question simmered alongside every other issue in Ireland. The vast majority of the population remained poor farmers working small farms, who carried bitter memories of the famine. Despite the hardships, tenants still had no legal right to a written lease, and were so entirely at the mercy of landlords that the leading politicians in Parliament realised that something had to change.
I briefly mentioned before the name William Ewart Gladstone, leader of the Liberal Party and, in 1870, Prime Minister. That year he introduced new laws to try and enact fixity of tenure, though with mixed success. Economic prosperity in the 1850’s and 60’s had turned to depression in the 1870’s, and rents that had risen were slow to come down, increasing the amount of evictions. Throughout that decade, the situation in Ireland escalated, with Gladstone’s Land Act largely ineffectual in a country where so many informal leases lasted only 11 months or so. In areas of special penury, rent strikes were sometimes arranged locally, something that happened with increasing frequency, in Connacht especially. These had mixed results: Connacht had less signs of government authority in the form of RIC barracks, but sometimes rent or evictions could still be forced at the point of a baton.
In 1878, the incredibly unpopular Earl of Leitrim, a landlord hated by Catholic and Protestant tenants alike, was murdered while driving home one night: the local community closed ranks and the perpetrators were never caught. This is often seen as the first real blow of what became afterwards known as the “Land War” though the term is a bit of a misnomer: the violence that occurred in this period could be said to be on a par with previous agrarian violence, but it did have a greater degree of organisation, especially when the remnants of the “New Departure” got involved. In 1879, the last of the notable Irish famines occurred in Connacht, though deaths were few thanks to the more active response of the government (pushed by the Home Rule League), better transportation links in the region and the money sent by Irish abroad. Still, the event was an unwelcome reminder of things that had occurred before.
That year, radical politician and former IRB member Michael Davitt founded the Land League, to campaign for the 3 F’s. Parnell was soon its President. Notable Irish politicians like William O’Brien and Willie Redmond got their start organising for the Land League, which was rapidly overseeing a larger amount of rent strikes and agrarian resistance. Naturally, this increased reprisals from authorities and counter-reprisals in the dead of night, in line with previous actions of the Ribbonmen and Whiteboys. The murder of landlords, rent agents and RIC personnel became more and more common as the 1880’s began. In the worst areas, the British Army were deployed to back up local police, with predictable results.
It is this period where the word “boycott” first took on its modern connotation, when the tenants of Mayo landlord Charles Boycott engaged in a rent strike, which escalated to a local shunning of the man, his family and any tenants who agreed to pay their rent. Actively proposed by the likes of Parnell, the “boycott” could work wonderfully well as a protest measure, being effectively impossible to legislate against and likely to make the target’s position untenable. Adding the possibility of those who broke a boycott being killed in the dead of night as a reprisal, and it becomes clear how dangerous the situation could be. Northern Protestants came south to help Boycott’s take in his harvest in 1880, with government funding: the action was so wasteful that Parnell quipped every turnip cost a shilling. Boycott was driven from the area and never returned.
In the 1880 elections, the Home Rule League increased its seats to 63, while the Liberals returned to power (the Benjamin Disraeli led Conservatives had ousted Gladstone in ’74). Gladstone brought in a second Land Act and established a Land Commission that improved the situation somewhat, but agrarian “outrages” continued without much abatement.
In 1881, after a period of consistent written attacks on government policy in regards the land question, Parnell and others were arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol, where they authored the “No Rent Manifesto”, calling for a national rent strike. The Land League was outlawed, but the outrages and violence continued to increase. Parnell and others were in prison until April 1882, when they were released following the “Kilmainham Treaty”, whereby they agreed to row back on militant rhetoric and fight against agrarian violence in return for an extension of the Land Act to deal with hundreds of thousands of rent arrear cases. The Land League was resurrected as the Irish National League, with Parnell in charge and with a more constitutional focus in its efforts to resolve the land issue. The next year, Parnell was elected the new leader of the Home Rule League, soon re-named the Irish Parliamentary Party. He stood on the verge of being the pivot of power in the British legislative system.
The Land War was not over, though the outrages began to die down as the evolved Land Acts took effect. Agrarian violence would spring up again, but it would take a while for it to be centre stage in Ireland. The violence of 1879-1882 had achieved its purpose though, making Ireland a central issue for successive London administrations, alleviating some of the worst aspects of land policy, and further binding together the various elements of Catholic Irish nationalism. In 1882, Parnell and his new IPP stood as the forefront of this movement, and would only make further gains.
But all the while, the militant side of things was not comatose. There were elements within both the IRB and Clan na Gael unhappy at Devoy’s New Departure, and the Home Rule League’s turn from backing aggressive action. And those elements were not going to sit and wait.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.