The Irish Land War 1879 - 1904: Ireland's Forgotten Social Revolution

owedtojoy

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140 years ago saw the initiation of an Irish Social Revolution - the biggest in our history, whose effects on the Irish people rival (and may even dwarf) the effects of the 1919 - 1922 Revolution.

The immediate effect was to transfer the ownership of most Irish land into the hands of "peasant proprietors" - mostly small farmers, who for the first time in history had a direct stake in personal property. The displaced owners were often Protestant gentry, who had been granted land in the 17th or 18th centuries as part of the English Conquest, and outcome of the Elizabethan and Cromwellian wars. Other landlords were surviving Catholic gentry, wealthy middle-upper class Irish and banks who had re-possessed mortgaged Irish lands from landlords ruined by the Great Famine.


The late 19th century witnessed major land reform, spearheaded by the Land League under Michael Davitt demanding what became known as the 3 Fs: fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tenure. Parliament passed laws in 1870, 1881, 1903, and 1909 that enabled most tenant farmers to purchase their lands and lowered the rents of the others. From 1870 and as a result of the Land War agitations and subsequent Plan of Campaign of the 1880s, various British governments introduced a series of Irish Land Acts.
William O'Brien played a leading role in the 1902 Land Conference to pave the way for the most advanced social legislation in Ireland since the Union, the Wyndham Land Purchase Act of 1903. This Act set the conditions for the break-up of large estates and gradually devolved to rural landholders' and tenants' ownership of the lands. It effectively ended the era of the absentee landlord, finally resolving the Irish Land Question.
A British historian described the Land War as "the biggest challenge to British rule since 1798". And the Land League accomplished its mission by employing public protests, rent strikes, open resistance to evictions, and boycotting anyone who took land from which another had been evicted. Other less savoury tactics (not sanctioned, but often winked at) were shootings, "houghing" (cutting the hamstrings of animals), "cattle driving" (driving off cattle, often stampeding them over cliffs). Often police backed by soldiers had to be used to enforce evictions.

1024px-Eviction_scene%2C_Ireland_%2822812392674%29.jpg


Yet, as far as I can see, this massive upheaval in Irish life is mostly forgotten today. For example, the Land League was founded in April, 1879, at a public meeting organised by Michael Davitt (a Fenian on parole from jail) at Irishtown, Co Mayo. As far as I know, this anniversary without Commemoration, and I wonder if anyone will bother commemorating it on the 150th Anniversary in 2029.

I can suggest some reasons for this/
  1. The progressive urbanisation of Irish life. As more recent generations are father from the land, the memory of the importance of the Land War fades. The men in mutton-chop whiskers who led the Land War agitation are more remote than an urban intellectual like Wolfe Tone.
  2. The man who took the energy and the potential and harnessed it into a political movement was Charles Stuart Parnell. But it was Parnell's lieutenants like John Dillon and John Redmond who finally got Home Rule onto the Statute Book. Dillon was a veteran of the Land War, who had once been arrested for making a speech for resistance to evictions. The new Free State Governments was not going to celebrate men who had been its political opponents.
  3. The man who saw primarily that the Land Question could drive the National Question was Michael Davitt, anticipated by John Fintan Lalor in the 1840s, and it was Davitt who brought Parnell into the Movement. But Davitt went on to advocate dangerous socialist ideas like collective ownership of land, an idea anathema to the new Ireland.
  4. Visible symbols of the Land War did not exist. Pearse did not even mention the Land War, in comparison to the exaggerated importance of the relatively minor Young Ireland "Rebellion" or the Fenian Rising, described to me by an Irish historian as "a few pistol shots in the night". An exception was made for Parnell, long dead, but John Redmond, William O'Brien, John Dillon or Michael Davitt are even more forgotten men than Daniel O'Connell.
  5. The myth of the New Ireland was the simple, Catholic lives of the peasantry, redolent of folklore and poetry. The reality that Irish peasants for the most part lived desperately poor, often violent, lives was not to be admitted.
The Land War was an alliance of Fenians like Davitt, Agrarian activists (often in secret societies), and town-based or urban men of property, who would often be the new elite, with their sons obtaining college degrees from the new Irish Universities. So pervasive was this Social Revolution that the 1919 to 1921 War of Independence did not displace it, it only confirmed it. The Ireland of 1924, one of conservative Catholic middle class or small farmers, bound to a local elite and the Catholic Church, was visibly the same as the Ireland of 1914 over most of the country.

That social system persisted into the 1980s - it could be argued that it's last "kick" was defeating the Divorce Referendum of 1986, where concerns about the transfer of land ownership to divorced spouses probably defeated the proposal.
 
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McTell

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My timeframe would be more 1840s-1960s, from the famine to Lemass.

The famine cleared away the cottier class, and the land war the landlords. You will see Dail questions about which "estate" would be divided all the way up to the 1960s.

My family benefitted, but I wonder if they might have done better in americay.

Davitt wanted land to be publicly owned and rented out to farmers, where the state would become the landlord. There was no mileage in that, and no votes.

Most of the hardship was caused by tenants bidding too high a price for land, and then losing all in a bad harvest. Others rented land so they could say they had it, in a sort of one-up-manship game, but didn't farm it well.

But the surprise is that it was the tories who made it happen in 1903.
 

Dame_Enda

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The reality of the situation is that the abolition of landlordism is largely responsible for the land ownership structure in Ireland today (at least in rural Ireland). Landlordism remains an issue in the Scottish Highlands, where certain feudals privileges were only abolished by the Scottish Parliament a few years ago. Landlordism allowed petty tyrants like the Countess of Sutherland to expel her tenants in the Highland Clearances.
 

owedtojoy

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The reality of the situation is that the abolition of landlordism is largely responsible for the land ownership structure in Ireland today (at least in rural Ireland). Landlordism remains an issue in the Scottish Highlands, where certain feudals privileges were only abolished by the Scottish Parliament a few years ago. Landlordism allowed petty tyrants like the Countess of Sutherland to expel her tenants in the Highland Clearances.
I understand that much of our legal system of regulating rent and properties are shaped by our experience of dispossession and malign landlords.

The Land Acts, the Land Commission and the Land Courts were a massive system of State intervention, unprecedented at the time, and with few parallels even today. It was mainly UK Liberal Governments who passed the legislated, which is why so many Irish towns have a Gladstone Street, but the last major one was from a Conservative Government.

Scotland did see parallel movements, with the big landowners trying to clear their land of poor tenants for deer and sheep. A similar phenomenon took place here, with an effort by larger farmers to acquire more land to raise beef or dairy cattle. Some of the later Land War agitation (up to 1910 and after) was directed against such "Ranching".

Modern revisions see problems with the outcome of the Land War. As the 20th Century moved on, it marooned families on small, non-viable holdings, forcing the high emigration of younger children that were a feature of the country for many years. Palliatives like the "Farmer's Dole" were either a grant to help families to live on the land, or a poverty trap, depending on your point of view.
 

Dame_Enda

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I understand that much of our legal system of regulating rent and properties are shaped by our experience of dispossession and malign landlords.

The Land Acts, the Land Commission and the Land Courts were a massive system of State intervention, unprecedented at the time, and with few parallels even today. It was mainly UK Liberal Governments who passed the legislated, which is why so many Irish towns have a Gladstone Street, but the last major one was from a Conservative Government.

Scotland did see parallel movements, with the big landowners trying to clear their land of poor tenants for deer and sheep. A similar phenomenon took place here, with an effort by larger farmers to acquire more land to raise beef or dairy cattle. Some of the later Land War agitation (up to 1910 and after) was directed against such "Ranching".

Modern revisions see problems with the outcome of the Land War. As the 20th Century moved on, it marooned families on small, non-viable holdings, forcing the high emigration of younger children that were a feature of the country for many years. Palliatives like the "Farmer's Dole" were either a grant to help families to live on the land, or a poverty trap, depending on your point of view.
I would argue it resolved the problem of Hunger which blighted Ireland for centuries owning to the land being exploited for the benefit of a colonial power.

Regarding the role of the two parties, I agree that the Liberals were the first to recognise the importance of resolving the land issue. However the Tories were responsible for most of the land repurchase albeit under the policy of "Killing Home Rule with Kindness" under the governments of Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour. The Liberals did create the Land Court and granted the original Land League demand of the "3-f's" (fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure). But the Wyndham Act and Balfour Act under the Tories were responsible for transferring millions of hectares into the hands of the tenants.
 
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owedtojoy

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I would argue it resolved the problem of Hunger which blighted Ireland for centuries owning to the land being exploited for the benefit of a colonial power.

Regarding the role of the two parties, I agree that the Liberals were the first to recognise the importance of resolving the land issue. However the Tories were responsible for most of the land repurchase albeit under the policy of "Killing Home Rule with Kindness" under the governments of Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour. The Liberals did create the Land Court and granted the original Land League demand of the "3-f's" (fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure). But the Wyndham Act and Balfour Act under the Tories were responsible for transferring millions of hectares into the hands of the tenants.
It is one other reason that the Land War is not mentioned much these days.

A period where the Irish Parliamentary Party worked assiduously at Westminster, and actually wrung concessions from Tory and Liberal Government that brought real benefits to Ireland, rather contradicts the Nationalist narrative of continuous English misrule. Positive outcomes like the Congested Districts Board, and the Balfour Railways, are known only to historians and anoraks.

I think the British may have expected or hoped that a conservative property-owning peasantry might have been more quiescent and accepting of the Union. And they may have been nearly right. Cultural nationalism and the First World War derailed than expectation.
 

McTell

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It also gave us the idea that emancipation had been granted in 1829, in part because of an implied threat of trouble; the land war was defused for this reason in 1898-1903; so when it came to sovereignty we were again going to have to fire a few shots in the air.

You only had to go to London in the 1890s and see the huge disparities in wealth, to realise that the ruling class didn't care about the poor on its own doorstep, never mind in Mayo.

It seems the yeast in the tory mix was the unionist radical Joe Chamberlain, who I know little about except "3 acres and a cow".

 

owedtojoy

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It also gave us the idea that emancipation had been granted in 1829, in part because of an implied threat of trouble; the land war was defused for this reason in 1898-1903; so when it came to sovereignty we were again going to have to fire a few shots in the air.

You only had to go to London in the 1890s and see the huge disparities in wealth, to realise that the ruling class didn't care about the poor on its own doorstep, never mind in Mayo.

It seems the yeast in the tory mix was the unionist radical Joe Chamberlain, who I know little about except "3 acres and a cow".

I agree - the Land War showed the British could make concessions. But you could also say it showed that those concessions could not be gained without extreme protests.

The Land War was viewed with horror in Britain - it was the era of famous Irish murders like the Lough Mask Murders (of a landlord's agent and a co-worker) and the Maamtrasna Murders. Though, I think the second one is now thought not to be land-related. Together with the Phoenix Park assassinations of Lord Frederick Cavendish and his Chief Secretary, it imprinted on the English psyche a vision of Irish lawlessness.
 

owedtojoy

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Michael_davitt.jpg

Of all figures in Irish history, Michael Davitt might be one of the most overlooked and underestimated. But in his own day, like Daniel O'Connell, he had an international reputation as a politician, labour leader and human rights campaigner.


Davitt made one vital intervention into European history - as a foreign correspondent for Hearst newspapers, he provided vivid reports on a savage Russian pogrom in Kishinev (now Chinisau), Moldova (1903). It was not the biggest pogrom in Russian history, but became the most infamous.

Davitt's reporting led to an international outcry and a widespread indictment of the Tsarist Government, which was complicit in the pogrom.

In House No 13 on Asia Street, notorious as the scene of the murder of four Jews, he picked up a child's first exercise book on which, as he relates, a man had wiped his bloody hands.
The same blood-stained copybook is still among Davitt's papers in Trinity College Dublin. He remarked on his return to Ireland that what he had learned and seen in Kishinev would haunt him to his dying day.
 

making waves

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It still astonishes me that the nationalist narrative of the Land War is taken as gospel - when in fact the Land War was far from a homogeneous Irish V Brits conflict.
 

McTell

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It still astonishes me that the nationalist narrative of the Land War is taken as gospel - when in fact the Land War was far from a homogeneous Irish V Brits conflict.
You're right, a lot of landlords were irish by most standards. Maybe 40% were catholic. Some had mortgages where they had borrowed money from the newly-rich church!

Others like clanricarde had been here for centuries, but we wanted his land anyway. So a theory arose of "we are getting back what was taken from us". Very few could prove that imho.

Then the basic fact that we were being undercut by food from the US, argentina, russia, NZ and australia. That was the driver in the 1870s.

After independence people were using taxpayers' money to buy CPO'ed land, arranged by a local politician who usually got votes out of it. That had to end sometime.
 

making waves

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You're right, a lot of landlords were irish by most standards. Maybe 40% were catholic. Some had mortgages where they had borrowed money from the newly-rich church!

Others like clanricarde had been here for centuries, but we wanted his land anyway. So a theory arose of "we are getting back what was taken from us". Very few could prove that imho.

Then the basic fact that we were being undercut by food from the US, argentina, russia, NZ and australia. That was the driver in the 1870s.

After independence people were using taxpayers' money to buy CPO'ed land, arranged by a local politician who usually got votes out of it. That had to end sometime.
There was also intense class conflict between farm labourers and Catholic tenant farmers - the farmers were determined not to let their drive for ownership of land be diverted into a class war and actively screwed the labourers during the process of the Land War. The conflict continued right up to the end of the century.
 

McTell

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There was a farm labourers' union called the Knights of the Plough.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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Almost unnoticed the question of land ownership in Scotland has begun to rear its head, hidden slightly as it is by Union and Brexit issues.

A vast proportion of Scotland is in the hands of a handful of landowners. Every now and then Holyrood shape up to take a run at it and the Lairds are nervous. One of these days Holyrood will take a run at it and keep going, I suspect.
 

owedtojoy

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It still astonishes me that the nationalist narrative of the Land War is taken as gospel - when in fact the Land War was far from a homogeneous Irish V Brits conflict.
I gave hints of alternative narratives in the OP, so I would like to hear more about those.
 

making waves

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I gave hints of alternative narratives in the OP, so I would like to hear more about those.
The Land League was dominated by tenant farmers - labourers established Labourers Leagues throughout the country in an attempt to create an independent movement to protect the interests of labourers. These interests included wages, conditions and labourers cottages. Ranged against the labourers were the Parnell nationalists, tenant farmers and the Catholic hierarchy who repeatedly hammered the Laboruers Leagues with claims that they interests would be addressed once the tenant farmers got their demands - labour must wait - of course the nationalists and the tenant farmers never had any intention of promoting the interests of labourers and systematically shafted the labourers organisations during and after the land war.
 

owedtojoy

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The Land League was dominated by tenant farmers - labourers established Labourers Leagues throughout the country in an attempt to create an independent movement to protect the interests of labourers. These interests included wages, conditions and labourers cottages. Ranged against the labourers were the Parnell nationalists, tenant farmers and the Catholic hierarchy who repeatedly hammered the Laboruers Leagues with claims that they interests would be addressed once the tenant farmers got their demands - labour must wait - of course the nationalists and the tenant farmers never had any intention of promoting the interests of labourers and systematically shafted the labourers organisations during and after the land war.
I agree with that ... rural Ireland was riven by a major schism between tenant and gentry (property owners, small or large), but also between tenants and labourers. The sons of the property owners would be no less likely to marry a tenant farmer's daughter, than the son of a tenant farmer to marry a labourer's daughter.

The labourers bore the brunt of the class war and never acquired any rights at the bargaining table. The labourers overlapped with the smaller tenant farmers, and they were the majority of those who emigrated from Ireland up to the 1950s. In the main, the labouring class disappeared completely.

The labourers have been largely (but not totally) written out of the histories of the period.
 

an Toimíneach

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I agree with that ... rural Ireland was riven by a major schism between tenant and gentry (property owners, small or large), but also between tenants and labourers. The sons of the property owners would be no less likely to marry a tenant farmer's daughter, than the son of a tenant farmer to marry a labourer's daughter.

The labourers bore the brunt of the class war and never acquired any rights at the bargaining table. The labourers overlapped with the smaller tenant farmers, and they were the majority of those who emigrated from Ireland up to the 1950s. In the main, the labouring class disappeared completely.
Are those two sentences not in conflict with each other?
Drawing the line between "labourers" and "small farmers" in 19th century Ireland seems nigh impossible.
 


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