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Defying the Law of the Land
Agrarian Radicals in Irish History
By Brian Casey
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Brian Casey,
All rights reserved.
Demonising the Irish Landlords Since the Famine
L. PERRY CURTIS, JR
Shortly after midnight on a moonless August night in 1971 an American historian of Ireland descended into the semi-darkness of Derry's Bogside where a car bomb had recently exploded. Along with a friend who taught at Magee College, he picked his way through shards of glass from the blown-out windows of a large warehouse where workers were busy nailing plywood boards into the empty window frames. A grizzled old man standing in the doorway of a small house announced himself as the last resident of William Street. Surveying the grim, almost surrealist scene, he shook his head and muttered: 'It's all the fault of the landlords'.
This epiphany was all the more ironic because the historian visitor had spent the previous week in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland exploring the estate papers of Ulster landlords in the Victorian era. Why, he wondered, did the old man not blame this renewal of the Troubles on the Protestant business elite of Belfast and Derry that had dominated Northern Ireland for so many decades? Was this venerable Bogsider thinking, perchance, of Sir Basil Brooke, later Lord Brookeborough? The epitome and legatee of the old political and social elite, Brooke, had founded the B-Specials and governed a Protestant state on behalf of a Protestant populace for more than twenty years. Despite the steady erosion of wealth and political clout among Ulster's hereditary landocracy, this poor Bogsider, who had endured so much urban and sectarian conflict, still clung to an image of an omnipotent and predatory elite that belonged to the bygone era of the land wars instead of the guerrilla warfare of the 1970s.
Rather than addressing the question of how and why the former Ascendancy class lost its hegemony in the north to the rich and aggressive members of Belfast's Chamber of Commerce, this essay seeks to explore the cultural and political roots of the old Bogsider's blanket indictment of that hereditary elite. Well before the partition of Ireland the haut bourgeois leaders of Ulster Unionism had orchestrated a formidable campaign against Home Rule. Making good use of money, organisation, mass meetings, marches, and an endless stream of Orange or sectarian propaganda, they prevented any alliance between the Protestant and Catholic working classes. Determined to scuttle the third Home Rule Bill at any cost to democratic and constitutional principles, the Ulster Unionist Council arranged the massive ceremonial signing of the Ulster Covenant in September 1912 and then backed up this oath with the threat of force by means of the Ulster Volunteer Force, composed of Solemn League Covenanters who would never accept a Catholic-dominated government in Dublin. After the horrors of the First World War had ended and the predictable partition of Ireland had become a reality, the northern Unionist oligarchs formally established their ascendancy and played the Orange card to the fullest extent relegating the Catholic minority in the six counties to second-class citizenship.
Demonising the traditional Anglo-Irish landed elite had a long history, owing in large part to the huge disparity in wealth, status, and power – not to mention religion – between the owners and tillers of the soil. To appreciate the persistence and the virulence of anti-landlord prejudice after the Great Famine we need first to examine the popular images of this class that flourished during the heyday of the Irish National Land League. What is remarkable is the enduring nature of these negative images both north and south of the border long after the old gentry had ceased to lord it over their largely Catholic tenantry.
Despite creeping insolvency, the decimation of the officer class on the Western Front, the voluntary or compulsory sale of estates, arson attacks on over 250 Big Houses and emigration, the former landlords remained an object of abuse or derision in the popular imagination. In this scenario of denigration, myth played a major role. As the late and great historian Professor T.W. Moody once observed about myths and memory:
The past is dead. Nothing, for good or ill, can change it; nothing can revive it. Yet there is a sense in which the past lives on: in works of human hands and minds, in beliefs, institutions, and values; and in us all who are its living extension. It lives on in us, both for good and ill, shaping our lives and helping to determine our action.
For reasons that had little or nothing to do with post-Independence Ireland's pressing political and economic problems and despite the existence of many ex-landlords with 'good' reputations, the stereotype of the callous or rack-renting and evicting landlord lived on.
Accounts of the allegedly ruthless and avaricious behaviour of the landlords during the Great Famine could easily fill a book. Despite numerous exceptions to the rule, owners of large and small estates never fully recovered from the stigma arising out of the clearances and destruction of cabins or dwellings during and after 1846–7. Of course there was nothing new about either partial failures of the potato crop or multiple evictions. But after the lethal blight arrived in the summer and autumn of 1845 the plebeian small holders and labourers lost their staple food supply and had no money to pay the rent. In order to avoid paying higher rates for poor relief and to free themselves from the onus of beggars at their backdoors, countless landlords and their agents purged the estate of the poorest or least profitable occupiers, who had now become too heavy a burden for them to bear. They then consolidated or 'squared' the now vacant holdings and converted them into larger rent-producing farms.
No doubt the grim black-and-white prints of roofless hovels, deserted villages, and ragged and emaciated peasants that appeared in the Illustrated London News made an indelible impression on readers in England, where liberal-minded MPs were appalled by all the reports of mass evictions, house-razings, disease, and starvation. It took only a handful of serial evictors, like Lords Lucan and Sligo in County Mayo, the Gerrards and Lord Dunsandle in County Galway, Col. Vandeleur and the land agent Marcus Keane in County Clare, to condemn the entire class as 'exterminators', notwithstanding the strenuous efforts of a few benevolent landlords to alleviate the overwhelming distress.
Wherever landlords imported new tenants, known as 'land- grabbers', to cultivate the enlarged holdings, the latter were regarded, as James Donnelly has observed, 'with a poisonous, ineradicable hatred'. Local people were 'much more likely to remember, and remember much longer, the landlords whose large-scale evictions branded them as "exterminators" in popular estimation'. In short, the death toll from Famine-related diseases and starvation, the clearances and forced emigration, and the failures of Famine relief all combined to create an enduring legacy of resentment aimed at both the British government and the Irish landlords, who were also reviled in England for dumping untold thousands of unwashed, dirty, ragged, and destitute Irish evictees on their shores. A rant by a Catholic bishop in America illustrates just how deep this demonisation went: 'Everything, in a word, tended to make the Irish landlords the worst aristocracy with which a nation was ever cursed; and by the most cruel of fates this worst of all aristocracies was made the sole arbiter of the destinies of the Irish people'.
The radical Young Irelander and devout Anglophobe John Mitchel famously accused the English government of mass murder by refusing to provide adequate relief. He also found the landlords guilty of 'exterminating' or 'slaughtering' their tenants. While modern historians have disavowed this indictment, some have justified Mitchel's wrath by emphasising the devotion of Whig legislators at Westminster to both political economy and evangelical Providentialism, the combination of which spurred many landlords to modernise their estate management by means of eviction, enlarging the small holdings and re-letting them to solvent tenants. Cecil Woodham-Smith's own gentry affiliations did not stop her from declaring that 'few classes of men have had so much abuse heaped on them as Irish landlords, and with justification'.
A few fragments of this abuse came from the unlikely quarter of Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Thus the hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, roundly condemned every absentee landlord in the country of his birth. After touring the country at the height of the Famine, the young Lord Dufferin castigated the gentry for having 'left their people to grow up and multiply like brute beasts' and for stifling 'by their tyranny all hope and independence and desire of advancement'. Even worse, they had turned the peasantry into 'cowards and liars' and were now abandoning them 'to die off from the face of the earth'. For such reasons this Oxford undergraduate declared that they deserved to be swept away and replaced by improving landlords like himself.
Landlords who did not have to liquidate their properties in the Encumbered Estates Court after 1849 remained heavily burdened with family charges, annuities, and other liabilities. What saved them from bankruptcy was a combination of fertile land, the hiring of professional land agents, the economic recovery of 1865–77, the yield from investments, and low-interest mortgage loans obtained from British assurance companies as well as the Church of Ireland's endowment.
This brief spell of prosperity ground to an abrupt halt in 1878–9, owing to the concurrence of foul weather and an agricultural depression that reduced the earnings of tenant farmers. The sharp increase in arrears of rent after 1879 was also caused by Land League-inspired resistance to paying the rents that were now denounced as exorbitant. Needless to say, the resort of agents to threats of ejectment for non-payment, even if these were not carried out, did not exactly improve landlord-tenant relations.
Despite sundry disagreements about causation, most historians of the first Land War concur that the leaders of the Land League and the Home Rule agitation proved highly effective in their verbal attacks on the landlords as rack renters and evictors. They demanded both independence from Westminster and the abolition of England's 'garrison' in Ireland – from the landlords to the bureaucrats of Dublin Castle, the Royal Irish Constabulary, and the magistracy – all in the name of 'the land for the people'. Launching their offensive against landlordism, they relied on a network of branches, mass meetings, brass bands, processions, and the press to send the message that the landlords were predators and deserved to be sent packing. Against a background of bad weather, local crop failures, and declining prices, the nationalist triumvirate of Michael Davitt, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Devoy joined forces in 1877–9 under the umbrella of the New Departure and embarked on a campaign to undo the Act of Union and restore the land to its rightful owners – 'the Irish people' – by non-violent or constitutional methods. Mobilising so many thousands of tenants and their urban allies into concerted action under the auspices of the Land League was no easy task. Nevertheless the dynamic and resourceful leaders of the League, aided and abetted by militant priests, proved equal to this challenge and created a formidable coalition designed to achieve both Home Rule and peasant proprietorship. The propaganda war waged by Parnellite MPs and the League's national and local leaders proved successful, and many landlords were forced to reduce their rents by at least 15 per cent, rather than face boycotting or intimidation.
All over the south and west, League branches organised resistance to eviction and sponsored 'indignation' meetings where anti-landlord rhetoric reached new heights of passion. While insisting on non-violent tactics, the League's leaders turned a blind eye to agrarian outrages that often followed eviction. Notices to quit by landlords unwilling to grant abatements fuelled the Land War and increased League membership. The new tactic of boycotting those who disobeyed the League's orders took a heavy toll on landlords, agents, process-servers, bailiffs, and land-grabbers alike. The police and magistrates had a hard time prosecuting the offenders, despite the summary powers authorised by Coercion Acts. In the meantime, moonlighters or nocturnal marauders issued death threats, fired into dwellings, mutilated livestock, set fire to hay stacks and waited in ambush to shoot 'obnoxious oppressors'.
This agrarian agitation grew rapidly into a full-scale revolt against the entire land system driven by Catholic tenants and their town allies, determined to achieve 'fair' rents, security of tenure and in the long run the abolition of the rent nexus altogether. Not even Gladstone's famous Land Act of 1881 that conceded the 'three F's' curbed agrarian outrages during the ensuing year. However, the Land War did put an end to the traditional deference of tenants to their lords and masters – what the ex-Fenian Davitt denounced as a 'slavish social attitude' marked by cringing and unmanly posturing before the landlord and his agent. Instead of bowing or doffing their hats in the presence of the gentry, after 1879 the politicised tenantry reserved that mark of respect for their parish priest who proudly wore that signifier of secular gentlemanliness, the polished silk top hat.
As a mere child Davitt had been traumatised by eviction in 1852 when his impoverished family was driven out of their hovel in Straide, County Mayo. Undying resentment moved him to accuse the alien Sassenachs of having treated the people like 'intruders and outlaws' in their own country. Although he conceded that a few landlords had shown compassion during the Famine, most of them had acted in an 'inhumanly selfish and base' manner owing to their 'vulture propensities'. At the huge Land League rally at Westport in June 1879 he called the gentry 'the bastard offspring of force and wrong', who had confiscated the land from its rightful owners; and he exhorted his audience to rise up and 'win back the soil of Ireland from the land-robbers who [had] seized it'. He also blamed the Great Famine – what he called that 'holocaust of humanity' – on the landlords and their backers, the English government, for having promoted 'a pagan homage to an inhuman system'.
Besides indulging in virulent anti-landlord rhetoric at protest rallies, League activists also disrupted the gentry's favourite sport of foxhunting after the government had arrested the League's top leaders including Parnell on 13 October 1881. Spuriously claiming to be a confidant of Parnell, one nationalist priest notified League branches in Queen's County that the leader objected to hunting because it represented the values of 'a dominant, worthless, insulting class'.
The revolt of so many Catholics in town and country against landlord hegemony proved a major watershed in Irish history. Defending the Land League and its long-term goal of peasant proprietorship, Parnell, scion of a long-established landed family in County Wicklow, called absentee landlords 'colossal bloodsuckers', who always exacted 'the last pound of flesh' from their tenants. One of his chief lieutenants, John Dillon, nursed a lifelong hatred for the landlords. In his youth he had urged Irishmen to arm themselves with rifles for the coming struggle against their oppressors. His equally militant comrade, William O'Brien, told a cheering audience in Dublin in September 1887 that the landlords were an alien 'race' descended from 'the throat-cutting and psalm-singing' soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. No longer the lords and masters of yesteryear, they had had 'three hundred years of unbroken power to make history, and the only history they made was one of famines and rack-rents and penal laws and misery'. A 'few thousand foreigners' had 'plundered and degraded millions in their own land', and these 'bigots and rack-renters' were entirely to blame for their present 'humiliation and helplessness'. After all they had produced one Parnell out of the 'ten thousand aliens or enemies and oppressors of the people'.
In September 1878 the outspoken Irish-American nationalist John Devoy told a boisterous audience in New York that landlordism was 'a disgrace to humanity and ... civilisation' because it had caused 'the expatriation of millions of Irishmen' and ruined the lives of all who stayed behind. The land question, he concluded, could never be resolved until the 'foreign tyrants' who had made the lives of the people so miserable were 'driven back to England, or to perdition', and the land had been restored to its rightful owners. Another caustic critic of the landed elite was himself a minor landowner in County Cork. A convert to Catholicism and a moderate Home Ruler, William J. O'Neill Daunt, wrote to his good friend the eminent historian, W.E.H. Lecky, blaming Ireland's parlous condition on:
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Table of Contents
List of Contributors,
Preface and Acknowledgements,
Foreword by Carla King,
1. Demonising the Irish Landlords Since the Famine L. Perry Curtis, Jr,
2. Narrating the Irish Famine: Chartism, the Land and Fiction Timothy Keane,
3. Rural Radicals or Mercenary Men? Resistance to Evictions on the Glinsk/Creggs Estate of Allan Pollok Pauline Scott,
4. Agrarian Radical or Tenant Reformer: James Daly, a Reappraisal Gerard Moran,
5. Matt Harris and the Ballinasloe Tenant Defence Association, 1876-9 Brian Casey,
6. Thomas Stanislaus Cleary (1851-98): Land League Leader and Campaigning Newspaper Editor Oisín Moran,
7. 'A Few Good Canons?': Canon Ulick Bourke and Clerical Reaction to the Outbreak of the Land War Shane Faherty,
8. Redressing Historical Imbalance: The Role of Grassroots Leaders Richard Hodnett and Henry O'Mahony in the Land League Revolution in the West Cork, 1879-82 Frank Rynne,
9. Canon Keller of Youghal Felix M. Larkin,
10. A 'First Voice': Henry Villiers Stuart (1827-95) and the Cause of the Irish Agricultural Labourers Ian d'Alton,
11. Benjamin Pelin, the Knights of the Plough and Social Radicalism, 1852-1934 Fintan Lane,
12. John Fitzgibbon of Castlerea: 'A Most Mischievous and Dangerous Agitator' John Bligh,
13. Daniel Desmond (D.D.) Sheehan (1873-1948) and the Rural Labour Question in Cork, 1894-1910 John O'Donovan,
14. Pádraic Ó Máille: Irish Agrarian Radical? The Case Considered Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh,