United Irish League Campaigns

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United Irish League Campaigns

The United Irish League was founded on 23 January 1898 at a meeting in Westport, Co. Mayo. Its principal architect was William O'Brien, a member of Parnell's Parliamentary Party in the 1880s and of the anti-Parnellite majority faction after 1891. After withdrawing from his parliamentary seat in 1895, O'Brien worked locally in west Mayo in facilitating and influencing the development of a new agrarian agitation focused on the plight of evicted tenants, on hostility to "land grabbers," and against the graziers occupying land that would otherwise have been available for tillage farming. With the help of others, especially the Parnellite MP T. C. Harrington and the veteran founder of the Land League, Michael Davitt, O'Brien directed his energies toward "a great accumulation of national strength" (O'Brien 1910, p. 89).

The organization that resulted, the United Irish League, had three interconnected objectives. The first, and most incidental, of these was to capture an initiative on the celebrations of the centenary of the 1798 United Irishmen's rebellions, then at risk of passing to the advocates of physical force. The second objective was to infuse into national politics an enthusiasm that, "drawing an irresistible strength and reality from the conditions in the west," would make impossible continuation of dissension and factionalism between Parnellites and anti-Parnellites. And the third, most tangible and practical objective, was to secure from Parliament a measure enabling tenant farmers to acquire ownership of their land from the landlords by means of the government's powers of compulsory purchase. This last objective provided the central focus for the League's expansion between 1898 and 1900 across the whole of Ireland, attaching to the cause of the poor western farmers the commitment of strong and prosperous farmers in the rest of the country for whom the ownership of their farms was an urgent priority. This demand also established the basis for an alliance with the Ulster Presbyterian farmers, who had been organized in 1900 into a popular agitation for compulsory land purchase by the parliamentarian T. W. Russell.

All these objectives were achieved, in one way or another, between 1898 and 1903. The new organization served as an embodiment, rather than a sentimental reminder, of the "spirit of '98," establishing a basis for the advocates of parliamentary politics to retrieve their nationalist credentials from the damaging factionalism of the 1890s. The zest with which the new agitation was taken up by grassroots nationalists in the countryside made it impossible for even the most obdurate to maintain a factionalist position in the face of widespread involvement of ordinary Parnellites and anti-Parnellites. This did not find expression, however, as the League leaders had hoped, in a rejuvenation of parliamentary representation with new, younger, and more robust League activists, but in a largely defensive action by the existing parliamentarians to protect their positions against the reforming zeal of the popular organization. The warring factions were reconciled in January 1900 in a party that O'Brien described as "reunified, rather than reformed," thus averting challenges to sitting members in the general election later that year. The power of the League was manifest, nonetheless, in the place it was given organizationally in relation to the Parliamentary Party. The third and focal objective of the League, a comprehensive measure of land purchase, was also achieved, although not by compulsory purchase. A conference of representatives of landlords and tenants agreed in January 1903 on the essential elements of a scheme of purchase in which the incentives for the landlords to sell and for the tenants to buy were provided by subsidies from the British exchequer. These provisions formed the basis of the Wyndham Land Act of 1903.

The agitational methods of the United Irish League followed the pattern of the Land League between 1879 and 1881. Conflict with authority over the moral pressure—alternatively described as intimidation—applied to those who offended against the League-endorsed land code drew irresistibly to the agitation the support of an ever-expanding cross-section of nationalists. In the circumstances of the late 1890s this meant first and fore-most the rank-and-file Parnellites for whom such conflict evoked powerful memories, but it also attracted many Fenians for whom the associated theater of action presented a public role long denied them. Their presence in the organization had the effect of frightening Catholic bishops, who had previously opposed the League, into encouraging the clergy to participate. For the leadership this had multiple benefits: The organization became church-sanctioned, thereby further facilitating its spread; both clergy and Fenians were valuable organizational assets; and the clerical presence helped to balance more extreme propensities that might have damaged the agitation's credibility.

The two peaks of agitation occurred during 1898 and 1899 and 1901 and 1902. In the latter years conflict became intense, with thirteen MPs and many League organizers and newspapermen imprisoned at various times. The techniques used—boycotting, league courts, use of local-government authority, and resistance to injunctions, jury-packing (exclusion of those assumed to be too sympathetic to the accused), and other governmental departures from the ordinary law—constituted an unprecedented level of passive resistance. These methods consolidated in the public consciousness patterns of popular action endemic in Irish political culture that would be reactivated in a more charged context between 1916 and 1921. This campaign in the countryside, however, faced significant opposition privately from several leading nationalists, including John Redmond and John Dillon, on the two grounds that it might offend Liberal opinion in Britain and could lead to imprisonment of political leaders.

The Land Act of 1903, and in particular the process of conference and conciliation between landlords and tenants by which it was brought about, had farreaching implications for Irish nationalism in general and for the United Irish League in particular. The organization, under O'Brien's leadership and with the support of the parliamentary leader, John Redmond, adopted a policy of extending the cooperation between the nationalist movement and the landlord class into other areas of Irish life. This reflected both the removal of land as a central economic issue shaping landlord attitudes and a desire to heal the sectarian divisions that had been an inescapable product of the land war. Initially successful in attracting widespread support among nation-alists, this new conciliation policy faced concerted opposition from a group of political leaders for whom it represented the abrogation of long-held political habits. In particular, John Dillon, Michael Davitt, and Thomas Sexton (who controlled the nationalist Freeman's Journal), set out to secure a return to traditional, if increasingly redundant, postures. In protest at Redmond's failure to assert his leadership against these critics, O'Brien resigned from Parliament and from his positions in the League. His hope that this would force a constructive debate proved vain; instead, its effect was to hand control of the movement to those who had opposed the new policy, with significant consequences for the future of the United Irish League.

With the removal of its founder from the helm of the organization, the United Irish League lost its role as a political initiator and became increasingly the electoral and patronage machine for the parliamentary Nationalist Party. While the principal policy issue around which it had been founded was substantially removed by the Land Act of 1903, those who now took responsibility for the organization had committed themselves to a continuation of land agitation. The effect of this was that the League took up residual issues left unresolved by the 1903 Land Act, principally the related issues of the evicted tenants and the congested (or overpopulated) districts. Land for the tenants evicted during the land war and more viable farms for small-holders through breaking up the grazing ranches now became the focus of the United Irish League's agitational strategy. The ensuing "ranch war" proved deeply divisive, its main tactic of "cattle driving" deeply offending many elements of rural society. More specifically, it soon became evident that many substantial farmers were more interested in securing redistributed land for themselves or their sons than in having outsiders take it up. Moreover, not only was grazing a highly profitable component of the Irish agricultural economy, but—as had always been the case—the graziers themselves were often very important local supporters of the Nationalist Party. Thus, whereas in the nineteenth century the land issue had been a struggle between native occupiers and the descendants of conquerors, this new campaign for land redistribution was based on a competition between different elements of the nationalist community. Its only achievement was the appointment in 1906 by a Liberal government of a royal commission on congestion, an exercise in buying time for a government unable to deliver much else to its Irish allies and a Nationalist Party desperate to show that the Liberal alliance could produce something. The Dudley Commission formulated no way forward. Ironically, it was the revolutionary Dáil Éireann in 1920 that issued a decree against claimants for land redistribution, describing their actions as a "stirring up of strife amongst our fellow countrymen." The United Irish League's campaign for landownership for Irish farmers and its subsequent appeal for conciliation between rival landed classes had built on nationalist ideals of the past, but its post-1903 strategies largely undermined its credibility as an innovative political force.

SEE ALSO Congested Districts Board; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918; Land Purchase Acts of 1903 and 1909; Land Questions; Land War of 1879 to 1882; Plan of Campaign; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Redmond, John


Bew, Paul. Conflict and Conciliation in Ireland, 1890–1910: Parnellites and Radical Agrarians. 1987.

Bull, Philip. "The Reconstruction of the Irish Parliamentary Movement, 1895–1903: An Analysis with Special Reference to William O'Brien." Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1972.

Bull, Philip. "The United Irish League and the Reunion of the Irish Parliamentary Party, 1898–1900." Irish Historical Studies 26 (May 1988): 51–78.

Bull, Philip. "The Significance of the Nationalist Response to the Irish Land Act of 1903." Irish Historical Studies 28 (May 1993): 283–305.

Bull, Philip. Land, Politics, and Nationalism: A Study of the Irish Land Question. 1996.

Higgins, Michael D., and John P. Gibbons. "Shopkeeper-Graziers and Land Agitation in Ireland, 1895–1900." In Ireland: Land, Politics and People, edited by P. J. Drudy. 1982.

Jones, David S. Graziers, Land Reform, and Political Conflict in Ireland. 1995.

O'Brien, William. An Olive Branch in Ireland and Its History. 1910.

Philip Bull

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United Irish League Campaigns

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United Irish League Campaigns