Land War of 1879 to 1882

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Land War of 1879 to 1882

The Land War of 1879 to 1882 began in the wake of three years of economic downturn that arrested the postfamine economic progress of many Irish farmers and heightened the anxiety of vulnerable small tenants, especially those along the western seaboard where post-famine prosperity had been most limited. It was given focus and leadership by a coalition of radical and constitutional nationalists. This coalition added potency to the mobilized Irish tenant farmers in a movement that forced the passage of legislation that began the dismantling of landlordism in Ireland.

The public meeting that launched the Land War occurred on 20 April 1879 at Irishtown in County Mayo. It came following two years of cold and wet weather, meager harvests, low livestock prices, and a decline in the demand for seasonal laborers in England and Scotland that left many western farmers with few sources of cash with which to pay rent, satisfy creditors, or purchase food. During the previous three years local activists in counties Mayo and Galway—most importantly James Daly, proprietor of the Connaught Telegraph, Matt Harris, a member of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and John O'Connor Power, MP and a former Fenian—had promoted the formation of tenant-defense associations and had sought to forge an alliance with local Fenians, who had a longstanding aversion to public campaigns for land reform. These efforts were greatly aided with the release from prison in December 1877 of Mayo native Michael Davitt, who, in association with New York-based Irish activist John Devoy, crafted the "New Departure" that made possible the alliance between Fenians, land reformers, and advanced parliamentarians.

Following the Irishtown meeting, County Mayo was alive with meetings characterized by fiery speeches and militant resolutions, and the festive mobilization of rural Ireland that swept away the initial hesitation of the clergy to join a movement that was beyond their control. These activities resulted in the establishment of the National Land League of Mayo by Davitt in August and the spread of the movement beyond the west of Ireland. This expansion of the movement was formalized in October with the founding of the Irish National Land League, with Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the advanced wing of the Irish Parliamentary Party, at its head. The formation of the Land League institutionalized the agitation and brought it under the direction of a central leadership that was committed to channeling the energy and rhetoric of the previous six months into a workable plan of action that Parnell hoped could be advocated in the House of Commons. The plan that emerged from the founding conference was a radical departure from the "three Fs" and from the principle of "dual ownership" advocated by earlier tenant-right organizations and Irish parliamentarians. The League plan called for an immediate and permanent reduction of rents, an end to evictions for nonpayment of rents, and legislation that would "enable every tenant to become the owner of his holding."

This strategy was bolstered in the spring of 1880 by a general election that returned to office the Liberal leader W. E. Gladstone, an advocate of land reform in Ireland, and that brought about the return of a sufficient number of MPs supporting Parnell to enable him to become leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. In April the Land League executive convened a national conference to draft proposals for land-reform legislation consistent with the League's program. The conference was given further significance by the presence of a substantial number of large farmers and cattle graziers, who were making their initial intervention in League matters. Their attempt to ensure that the League advocated land reform that would benefit large as well as small farmers was not welcomed by western radicals, who viewed large farmers as avaricious grabbers of land who furthered the impoverishment of vulnerable small tillers. Although tension between large and small farmers over tactics and goals plagued the Land League until its dissolution, and ultimately weakened the attachment of small western farmers to it, the conference marked the transformation of the League into an organization that agitated for legislative reform that would benefit all tenant farmers. Moreover, it was doing so in alliance with a radical group of parliamentarians with whom it shared a leader.

Over the next year hundreds of local branches were formed, public demonstrations were held nearly every weekend, and the country was teeming with a campaign to topple the traditional land system. That campaign involved organized efforts to withhold rents, to resist evictions, to support tenants evicted or threatened with eviction, to intimidate landlords, their agents, process servers, and police, often through violence or the threat of it, and to use public demonstrations and branch meetings to press for land reform. The most farreaching tactic was social and economic ostracism, dubbed "boycotting" in reference to the case of Captain Charles Boycott, the agent of the Earl Erne's Lough Mask estate in County Mayo, who was driven from his property in November 1880 following two months of a highly publicized refusal by his tenants to pay rent, his laborers to work, and local traders to provide him with any provisions.

Boycotting, and indeed the entire range of Land War tactics, were validated by a belief widely held in rural Ireland that the land belonged to the people who worked it, irrespective of the legal claims of landlords, who were seen as the descendants of English invaders who had stolen the land from its God-given owners. This belief, advanced on many League platforms, was the foundation for a code of behavior, dubbed the "lawless law" by Davitt, which called for not paying rent deemed excessive and not taking land from which the previous tenant had been evicted or compelled to leave owing to inability or unwillingness to pay excessive rents. This code was designed to protect access to land for impoverished tenant farmers as well as to render untenable the economic position of landlords. Along with the religious divide between most tenant farmers and their landlords, the tenants' confidence in the moral legitimacy of their cause produced a powerful degree of unity of purpose and action in rural Ireland.

In April 1881 Gladstone introduced a land-reform bill (which became law in August) that fell far short of what had been demanded by the League, but one that he conceded would not have come about without the sustained agitation of the previous two years. Realizing that this legislation would satisfy many tenant farmers and might undermine support for the land movement, the League called on its supporters to refrain from rushing into the newly established rent-arbitration courts to seek reductions, and instead to wait until a few carefully selected test cases could be decided. Convinced that the League executive was attempting to thwart implementation of the bill, the government arrested Parnell and much of the League's leadership in October 1881. From prison they issued a "No Rent Manifesto" that was ignored throughout Ireland but that did succeed in getting the League proclaimed an illegal organization. During the next six months the Ladies' Land League, established in the previous January, kept the agitation going, but with the principal leaders of the Land War in prison, League branches in disarray, and eligible tenant farmers rushing into the land courts, this initial phase of the Irish Land War soon came to a conclusion.

SEE ALSO Congested Districts Board; Davitt, Michael; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891; Ladies' Land League; Land Acts of 1870 and 1881; Land Questions; Parnell, Charles Stewart; Plan of Campaign; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; United Irish League Campaigns; Primary Documents: Establishment of the National Land League of Mayo (16 August 1879); Call at Ennis for Agrarian Militancy (19 September 1880); Land Law (Ireland) Act (22 August 1881)


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