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What was the Land War?

In 1879, one the largest conflicts in Irish history erupted over the issue of land and landownership in Ireland. For the first time in centuries the authority of landlords to control the land in Ireland was questioned and challenged. This conflict was led by a tenant organisation known as The Land League.

After 3 years of struggle this movement of ordinary tenants had dealt a fatal blow to rural landlordism in Ireland while also transforming the careers and profiles of several Irish historical figures not least Charles Stuart Parnell and Michael Davitt.

At its height The Land League, had 200,000 members, while Ireland seemed on the verge of a civil war. Although struggles over rural land rights would continue into the early 20th century, by the end of the Land War the day of major rural landlords was coming to end.

The Background

The inequality of late 19th century land ownership is best articulated by the statistic that 800 families owned 50% of the land. Ireland’s overall population stood at around 5,000,000 in 1879, the vast majority of whom lived in the country as tenants on small plots rented from the landlords.

The tenants enjoyed few rights and the mass evictions at the height of the Great Hunger (58,000 families were evicted between 1848-51) had illustrated the willingness of the landlords to preserve their narrow class interest over any humanitarian concerns for their tenantry. This lead to general tension in Ireland after the famine.

  • These conditions existed for decades but the immediate issue that provoked the land war was the recession of the 1870′s. This was largely due to the:
    Global economic effects of the Franco- Prussian war (1870) and the   end of the US American Civil War (1861-65) which culminated in a depression that began in late 1870’s.
  • Local problems in Ireland which accentuated this crisis. These included a collapse in the potato crop between 1877 – 1881, while poultry, which had become a major aspect of rural life after the famine, was drastically impacted by a cholera epidemic.

After 1877 tenants could no longer meet their rents and began to fall into arrears. By the 1879, as credit dried up, famine was declared in some areas of the west while tenant families began to brace themselves for eviction as tens of thousands of tenants found themselves in arrears.

The Spark

In early 1879 the tenants of a landlord Canon Burke of Irishtown in east Mayo approached the editor of the Connaught Telegraph James Daly seeking help. They faced eviction because they were in currently in arrears and Burke sought to raise their rent. Daly, a well known activist around tenancy rights in the county, organised a protest meeting at Irishtown.

In organising this meeting Daly approached former political associates of his, who had been involved in the successful election campaign of the Fenian John O Connor Power in 1874. It was these men – Thomas Brennan, Michael O Sullivan and Mathew Harris would become the main organisers of the land league.

Although many would argued differently after the fact, the two men most associated with the Land war, Michael Davitt and Charles Stuart Parnell had little or no involvement at this early stage. Michael Davitt was only tangentially involved organising speakers while Charles Stuart Parnell had no involvement at all.

The meeting itself was a resounding success – 8,000 people turned out in spite of a warning not to attend by the Catholic Church. It was clear people would resist attempts to evict them more vehemently than they had during the great famine.

It’s important to note there are several reasons why Ireland was different between 1845 (when there had been the last major round of evictions) and 1879:

  • Emigration had fallen off due to the recession, this meant evicted tenants had nowhere to go which made people more willing to fight.
  • Seasonal work in England and Scotland had also declined so in the summer of 1879 there were large numbers of people in Ireland who would normally have been emigrating for the harvest in Britain
  • Illiteracy had dramatically fallen in Ireland (to around 50%) allowing for the development of a modern political movement to resist evictions – The Land league
  • The political landscape had changed dramatically, particularly witnessing the emergence of the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood also known as the Fenians). While the organisation took no official role, its members were well trained political activists able to organised resistance to evictions
  • The impact of the famine had embittered a generation and illustrated the need for resistance. (While resistance during famine was far greater than people acknowledge it was very localised and sporadic.)
  • The enormous Irish communities in America and England were in a position to finance the movement as well as providing some of its most able leaders of the Land War– Michael Davitt and Michael Boyton came from England and America respectively.

From a meeting to a movement

After the success of the initial meeting several more meetings of equal success were organised across Mayo. It was for such a meeting in Westport in early June 1879 that Michael Davitt, who became more and more involved in the summer of 1879, approached Charles Stuart Parnell to speak.

Parnell a home rule MP, was initially slow to commit but in the end he gave his support speaking to a crowd of thousands at Westport. This launched the meteoric rise of one of the most controversial figures in 19th century Ireland.

By the late summer of 1879, the west of Ireland was in political turmoil over the issues of land and evictions. The land movement which was initially called the Land League of Mayo organised successful resistance to threatened evictions.

Many commentators at the time noted the deferential treatment once afforded to landlords had evaporated while evictions became more and more difficult. By October 1879 the movement which was spreading changed its name to the Irish National Land League with Charles Stuart Parnell as the figurehead.

While successfully resisting evictions and the growth of such a major movement was inspiring, it should be remembered this took place to the backdrop of many tenants facing near famine conditions and this preoccupied much of the new organisation activity in late 1879.

The Goals

The land league marked itself apart from other land movements in Irish history in that its ultimate goal was not land reform but an abolition of landlordism in Ireland altogether. It did advocate reform such as rent reductions but these were very much seen as interim measures.

At the initial meeting in Irishtown in April 1879, Thomas Brennan set a tone that would reflect much of the Leagues activity

“I have read some history, and I find that several countries have from time to time been afflicted with the same land disease as that under which Ireland is now labouring, and although the political doctors applied many remedies, the one that proved effectual was the tearing out, root and branch, of the class that caused the disease.

All right-thinking men would deplore the necessity of having recourse in this country to scenes such as have been enacted in other lands, although I for one will not hold up my hands in holy horror at a movement that gave liberty not only to France but to Europe.

If excesses were at that time committed, they must be measured by the depth of slavery and ignorance in which the people had been kept, and I trust Irish landlords will in time recognize the fact that it is better for them at least to have this land question settled after the manner of a Stein or a Hardenberg than wait for the excesses of a Marat or a Robespierre.

(Stein and Hardenburg introduced peaceful reforms to land in Prussia while Marat and Robbespiere were the leaders of the French Revolution.)

Who were the Key Figures

  • James Daly – If anyone individual can be credited with starting the land league it is James Daly. Editor of the Connaught Telegraph, he was along time local activist on land issues. He has largely been written out of Irish history
  • Thomas Brennan – One of the main Fenian organisers in Leinster, he had a good understanding of politics in the west of Ireland after he helped John O Connor Power win an election in 1874 in Mayo. He along with Michael Boyton, Mathew Harris and Michael O Sullivan were perhaps the main land league organisers on the ground.
  • Michael Davitt was born in Mayo but emigrated to England at a very young age. He was a prominent Fenian in England in the 1870′s and became a cause celebré due to his imprisonment. When released he returned to Mayo and was shocked at the living standards but impressed by the Fenian’s there who were engaged in land agitation. After the land league got going he quickly became one of central figures in the movement.
  • Charles Stuart Parnell. He would become the figure head of the movement. His commitments to the ideals of the land league have been questioned by many. In his defence he gave the movement legitimacy in its early stages – this was the reason why Michael Davitt brought him on board.

Where did the war take place?

Although the league had branches all across the island, the war was most intense in the west particularly in Mayo, Galway, Kerry and South Tipperary. The struggle began in South Mayo but quickly spread from there. The league was quite different to other land movements in the 19th century in that it attempted to build connections to the urban working class and did not seek to glorify rural life (not surprising in the aftermath of the famine).

Attempts to link with the emerging working class radicals of the day were seen in events like the one advertised in the flamboyant poster on the right, which was a meeting held in Dublin in 1880 in an attempt to link the oppression of workers in the city to tenants in the countryside


From the summer of 1879 the land league and its supporters carried out various activities aimed at preventing evictions while advancing the cause of tenants. This ranged from protests at sales of leases of evicted tenants, protest meetings some of which were 10,000′s strong to more militant riots and even assassinations. The league itself did not officially sanction any illegal activity however some organisers did advocate more militant methods. One organiser the Irish American Michael Boyton advocated that land grabbers – people who took the land of evicted tenants should be “given the pill” a 19th century euphemism for shooting someone.

Perhaps the most famous and successful tactic of the league was the Boycott. Initially called social ostracism, boycotting saw landlords or those who opposed the league shunned by their community. They were hissed at everywhere they went, while no one would speak to them. People also refused to work for ostracised individuals or sell them produce.

Soldiers protecting the workers bringing in Captain Boycotts harvest
The name “Boycotting” was coined during the land war after the league ostracised a man called Captain Boycott who refused to reduce his rent. The British state attempted to back Boycott by getting Orangemen to come and harvest his potato crop after labourers in the local area refused to help.

Such was the influence of the league and its supporters, the harvest could only be brought under the protection of 2,000 soldiers who were drafted into the area.

While the league did not attempt to oppose such a large force the entire operation cost the British state £10,000 to harvest a crop worth a few hundred pounds. This was massive victory for the League as the state authorities could not carry out similar actions across the country – the boycott was born.

Reactions to the Land League

The land league evoked lots of different reactions many contrary to what we might expect.
The IRB (the Fenians)
John O’Leary

While many Fenian organisers were very active particularly in the early stages, the organisation itself never fully committed to the land struggle. This was down to an internal debate within the I.R.B. about how best to win Irish freedom.

While the activities of those engaged in the Land League spoke for itself, they were opposed by a conservative purist leadership of Charles Kickham and John O’Leary who argued anything other than armed struggle against Britain was a distraction. O’Leary’s criticism was no doubt influenced by the fact he himself was a landlord in Tipperary town.

It was nothing short of bizarre that as Ireland was witnessing its greatest upsurge in radical activity in nearly a century that the Fenians withdrew its limited support in 1880. This would only serve to damage the Fenians as they lost some of their more charismatic members – Thomas Brennan, Mathew Harris and Michael Davitt all drifted from the IRB in this period.
The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church viscerally opposed the Land League when it was formed for three reasons.

  • Firstly they hated the IRB which contrary to popular opinion was a vehemently secularist organisation modelled on French republicanism. The Catholic Church which was an overtly sectarian organisation in the 19th century hated the anti-sectarianism advocated by the Fenians.
  • The Catholic Church disdained what they called the “men of no consequence” organising the Land League. This was a reference to the ordinary background of the league organisers
  • Finally the Catholic Church in 19th century Ireland was seeking legitimacy ever since catholic emancipation in 1829. Many felt that association with the League would undermine any legitimacy they had developed.

In the summer of 1880 they realised their criticism of the League was damaging the church itself more than the land league. In a complete u-turn they supported the league, instructing priests to support it.

Criticism aside it should be noted that the massive famine relief organised by the Catholic Church in 1879 – 1880 was one of the key factors that prevented a catastrophe.

The Landlords

Lord Lucan

Unsurprisingly Landlords in Ireland were completely opposed to the demands of the Land League and refused to reduce rents. In a perverse comment as Ireland faced famine in 1879, Lord Lucan said he could not give his tenants a reduction in rent because this meant a reduction in his means. This intransigence of the

Landlords ensured their own demise.

Irish Emigrants

Irish Emigrants in Britain and American contributed massive financial aid to the Land League. In America the sister organisation of the Fenians – Clan na Gael contributed massive aid. This was aided by the fact that the leader at the time John Devoy, himself from a tenant family, supported the League. Fund-raising efforts in the US was massively boosted in early 1880 when Michael Davitt and Charles Stuart Parnell toured the USA.

Political Divisions

The Land league was an enormous movement and unsurprisingly there was many competing political strands with in the movement.

Charles Stuart Parnell

Fenians vs Home Rulers

This was perhaps the most obvious tension. The Fenians Davitt, Harris and Brennan all saw the land league as a step towards full independence for Ireland, so much so that the first resolution of the initial meeting at Irishtown was in relation to Irish independence.

The home rulers led by Parnell were completely opposed to this believing the best solution for Ireland was home rule while remaining within the British Empire. These tensions erupted on several occasions not least around the election of 1880 when

Parnell stood in Cork. Although he was not a Land League candidate (the league did not officially endorse any candidates) he no doubt gained from his association with such a popular movement

Michael Davitt

Thomas Brennan was highly critical and during the election in 1880 he made this veiled criticism in reference to Parnell

“We have had enough kings in Ireland, both native and foreign, both crowned and uncrowned, for all such men and their supporters really only despise the people on whose backs they climb to power”.

This was followed up with Michael Boyton making this not so veiled criticism
“You cheer for Parnell, Parnell is nobody without his followers”

Left vs Right

Again the league was split on political views with a certain degree of tension existing between left wing and right wing views. Parnell and much of the land leagues base formed the more conservative sections while the more radical Fenians tended to be left wing. Political tensions were obvious over the ultimate solution to Ireland’s land issue.

While the league advocated “the land of Ireland for the people in Ireland” this meant different things to different people. For the radicals Davitt, Brennan and Boyton who were influenced by the radical Henry George this meant the nationalisation of land. While the Fenian, Matthew Harris, the catholic church and much of the rank and file believed in peasant proprietorship i.e. that the tenants would each own a small plot.

Parnell himself finally seemed most comfortable arguing for tenant rights rather than ownership – he himself was a major landlord in Wicklow.

Class tensions

Within the league itself, there were major class tensions, as noted earlier the church criticised the league organisers as “men of no consequence”. Within the ladies land league (see below) there was also evidence of class tensions – a resolution to change the name to the Women’s Land League was rejected on the basis it would attract the wrong sort of person!

Suppression and the ladies & The Ladies land League

In 1881 it was clear that the Land League would be suppressed and later in that year Gladstone brought in the Coercion Act which effectively outlawed the Land League. Earlier, women involved in the League most notably Anna and Fanny Parnell (sisters of Charles Stuart Parnell) had formed the Ladies Land League. When the League was suppressed and most of the organisers were imprisoned the ladies land league stepped into the breach and essentially took over the work of the now illegal Land League.

This ranged in a variety of activities from ensuring that solidarity was organised for the families of imprisoned activists to resisting evictions.  The opposition faced from conservative sections of the establishment and within the Land League made life very difficult for the women involved. The bishop John McHale articulated the churches position when he said in reaction to the Ladies Land League:

“The modesty of her daughters was the ancient glory of Ireland. The splendour of the purity of St. Brigidwon her the sublime title of the Mary of Ireland. Her spiritual children were worthy of their mother’s fame, and Ireland shone out more brightly by the – chastity of her daughters than ever by the learning or labours  of her most distinguished sons. Like Mary, their place was the seclusion of the home.”

Although by no means a feminist organisation, it was a landmark in Irish history as it was the first organised engagement of women in politics in Ireland. While the ladies land league was a major milestone it’s also worth noting that many accounts of the earlier land leagues activities such as resistance to evictions involved women. The Ladies land League was not the first engagement of women in politics, far from it, but it was the first recognised and formalised involvement.

The end of the war

In 1881 the massive wave of repression saw nearly all land league leaders both radical and conservative imprisoned, however this only served to make the situation in Ireland worse, with violent incidents soaring in late 1881.
At the same time however the British Prime Minister Gladstone introduced the 1881 land act which granted a certain amount of rights to tenants.
The Land League opposed the measure but as 1881 gave way to 1882 the league was undermined on several levels

  • The 1881 land act allowed many tenants to get serious rent reductions and this undermined the need for tenants to engage in activism around rent and tenancy rights.
  • The Land league was a proscribed organisation and while the Ladies land league took over much of the work it was not able to replicate the effect of the bigger organisation.
  • The worst impacts of the recession began to pass and harvests dramatically improved in 1882.
  • In response to the imprisonment of the organisers, the Land League was an attempted Rent Strike. This was heavily opposed by those active on the ground but the imprisoned leadership forced it through. It was an absolute disaster as Fanny Parnell (of the ladies land league) had predicted as no ground work had been done. This only further served to damage the organisation.
    The end of the Land war came in the summer of 1882. Earlier that year Parnell had entered negotiations with the British Government that saw him released from prison in what became known as the Kilmainham treaty. In return for his release he agreed to
    •    quash the ladies land league,
    •    not to attempt to resurrect the now illegal land league
    •    support the 1881 Land Act.
    •    Pacify the land movement in Ireland

The Phoenix Park murders made international headlines

He was released in April 1882 and was shortly followed by Davitt who had spent 18 months in a prison in England with no communication whatsoever. The day Michael Davitt was released the chief secretary in Ireland was attacked and brutally murdered in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. The assassins killed the wrong man – the chief secretary who they sought out had recently been replaced.

The brutality of the murder shocked many people – it was condemned by all sections of the Land movement in Ireland.

A few months later the Maamtrasna murders took place in Galway when a secret society brutally murdered a entire family save one child in an incident linked to land tensions in the locality. These events served to make a climate where political violence was less tolerable while most tenants in Ireland were benefitting from improved harvests.

In Conclusion

Ultimately the Land war had been a resounding success from the Land Leagues perspective. Although the power of landlords would only truly be broken until the 20th century, the 1881 Land Act made life almost intolerable for landlords in Ireland. This Act and a further amendment in 1887 which widened the scope of the bill meant it would only be a matter of time before the landlordism in rural Ireland was brought to an end.
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