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'The New Land League goes against the spirit of the original group'

People should look to the original Land League a little more closely and learn from the past, writes historian Kevin McGuire.

Scene from the Great Famine, 1850.
Scene from the Great Famine, 1850.
Image: Shutterstock/Everett Historical

THE NEW LAND League has hit the headlines recently, but the spirit of the group is in total contrast to the spirit and ethos with which the original Land League was founded.

In the late 1870s, a close kin group of small farmers – many with holdings of no more than two acres – gathered in a village on the Galway-Mayo border and decided to take a stand against the powerful landlord class of Ireland to protect their livelihoods.

The momentous meeting took place in the hamlet of Quinaltagh, a few miles from the town of Dunmore. The revolutionary spirit they exhibited had been simmering for two or three generations. Many of those who took part were the descendants of refugees who had escaped from Ulster to Connacht in the mid 18th century to flee from religious persecution and certain death.

In the years following the Great Famine many parts of the island of Ireland experienced recurrences of agricultural recession and scarcity of basic provisions.

Breaking point 

It is a little known fact that parts of east Mayo, north Galway, west Roscommon and south Leitrim suffered a ‘mini Famine’ in the late 1870s that was almost as severe as the Great Famine of thirty years previously. The people of Quinaltagh and surrounding townlands had reached breaking point.

It so happened that at the time there was a credit squeeze occurring at the top and middle sections of Irish society. The middle and lower rank landlords, solicitors, land agents, and assorted ‘squires’ and ‘squireens’ had participated in a frenetic period of land purchase and the creation of a building boom from the 1830s through to the 1850s.

Much of the money had been borrowed on the back of perceived earnings from rents, agent fees, free labour and agricultural produce but the differences between income and expenditure was frequently massaged to make developers appear richer than they actually were. In the 1870s the gravy train ended abruptly.

The squeeze was put on the tenants, labourers and tillers of the lands to get more rent, and the threat of eviction was held over them if they did not comply.

Unfortunately, the people on the ground had experienced over thirty years of austerity and had nothing more to give.

The farmers themselves were in debt to shopkeepers, suppliers and other farmers for provisions they had purchased at highly-inflated prices during and after the Great Famine period.

A never-ending circle of misery

It was a never-ending circle of misery and the only way to get a few pence was to go to England during the harvesting season. The English farmers though were also experiencing an agricultural depression and no one was hiring.

A great number of farming families had agreements with their landlords going back generations that stated that they could pay their rents when they could afford them.

Generally these arrangements were done through a handshake and no legal paperwork was required, but when new landlords bought estates through the Encumbered Estates Court these agreements were rendered null and void.

Young and ambitious landlords/speculators immediately raised the rents to get as much return on their new investments as they could. They used the full rigour of the law to enforce their will.

When, in 1879, the new Bourke landlord took over his uncle’s estate near the crossroads of Irishtown, Co. Mayo, in close proximity to Quinaltagh, he went about evicting the tenants who would not pay his exorbitant rents. The locals on the Mayo-Galway border were a close kin group and had learned that by working in solidarity they could stop, or at least delay, the eviction notice.

Champion the cause 

They had enough foresight to know that if they succeeded in getting one of the local nationalist-leaning newspapers to champion their cause then the process servers would have to think twice about their actions due to the pressure exerted by public opinion.

James Daly, manager and editor of the Castlebar-based Connaught Telegraph, along with others in the locality, organised a monster meeting at a field in Irishtown and began the ‘No Rent’ slogan.

Michael Davitt, contrary to popular belief, was not present at the gathering in the small Mayo town on 20 April 1879 as he reputedly missed the train!

Charles Stewart Parnell, who came from a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowning family in Wicklow, was not really involved in the grassroots land movement at this time. It fell to a number of local activists – from seemingly insignificant places such as Quinaltagh, Burris, Kilmacreena, Lavalleyroe, Shanballybocht and Logboy – to do the original organising and to help their neighbours hold on to individual gardens, boggy hillocks and potato patches.

I’m proud to say my own forebearers participated in the Plan of Campaign.

In the years after the Irishtown meeting of spring 1879, the movement was taken over by ‘strong’ farmers, ranchers, career politicians, and publicity seekers. The Irish National Land League of 1888, which led to the establishment of the United Irish League (1898s-1920), was very much aligned with the Irish Parliamentary Party and had a predominantly upper middle-class make up.

Working-class 

The high-ranking clergy came on board, though they had strongly opposed the original Irishtown gathering, and would come to dominate, from behind the scenes, Irish politics for many decades to come. However, the spirit with which the embryonic working-class Land League began was never tainted….until now.

A recent commentator stated that Michael Davitt would be “turning in his grave” due to the activities of the ‘new’ Land League. These sentiments have been echoed to me in recent days by those who are descendants of the original Land League founders. They are upset and bewildered that the noble campaign and name that their great-grandfathers, great aunts and great uncles began nearly 140 years ago.

I hope people will look in to the history and development of the original Land League a little more closely and learn from the past.

In recent years historians and genealogists such as Gerard Delaney, Kevin Kilgarriff, Michael Kelly, Ivor Hamrock, Paul Waldron, Gabriel Prendergast and others have produced well-researched, high quality micro-histories on the personnel and the politics which led to the meeting in Irishtown.

The history of the time has a lot to teach us about history of the present. Unfortunately, some are not heeding the warnings.

Kevin McGuire is a historian and writer. 

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