On a recent research trip I spent a week travelling the N17 each morning and evening. This arterial route stretches North from Galway city, passing through the plain East of Lough Corrib, into County Mayo and on into Sligo. To those from outside the region it is perhaps best remembered as the subject of a song by Tuam band and early nineties hit machine the Saw Doctors, although, then again, perhaps not. It is two and half years since I left Galway and headed South to the sunnier climes of Cork and, while the archives I needed to visit on were quite a while outside of Galway city, it provided an ideal base camp for the week long trip. Waking on a mattress on a friends’ floor in Salthill, most days I would be on the road before the worst of the rush hour traffic and an hour and a half later find myself at the museum in Knock, Co Mayo, just before it opened at 10am. On other days the trip only took me as far as Tuam, a more reasonable 40 minutes north of Galway city.
Snaking between Tuam and Knock the N17 takes you through what was the heartland of the Land War of 1879-82. The land, which once would have been mostly under tillage, is now predominantly pasture. It is not bad by the standards of Connaught, but is poor in comparison to the lush pasture of Leinster and parts of Munster. Stone walls divide the fields and while hedgerows, trees and bushes can hardly be described as rare they are by no means as frequent as they would be in richer, deeper soil. Overall the landscape has a windswept, sodden appearance but is still agricultural land. Modern bungalows and two story houses are reasonably frequent and the towns one passes through are free from the sort of sprawl and expansive estates that surround towns closer to larger cities. One gets the impression they have not expanded greatly in the past century and a half since the Land War when they were the towns which played a central commercial and social role in the life of the region. Improvements in transport and accessibility to larger towns have, if anything, diminished their importance.
A regular sight in the countryside of the area are the crumbling ruins of long abandoned farmhouses. Often standing alone in fields, windowless and roofless, these structures are sometimes reasonably large two story houses, the former homes of large farmers, middlemen or land agents, those who employed labourers and arranged good marriages for their children. In equal frequency, although they would have been more prevalent in the nineteenth century, are the ruins of small cottages. Their thatch roofs long missing, these homes would have been the type most associated with the Irish peasant. Here they are made of stone, in other, less rocky regions, they were more likely to be mud walled. They are a reminder of a period when this was one of the most congested rural districts in Ireland which lead to it being particularly hard hit by the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52. The smallholders who inhabited the area derived the bulk of their nutrition from the potato, which, up until that point had sustained them well on small patches of land. An outbreak of potato blight, brought to Europe from the United states on a shipment of seed potatoes, led to the failure of the potato crop beginning in late 1845, the consequence of which was the death of over one million Irish people in the period to 1852 and the migration of a further million and a quarter in the same period. However the attitudes of the landlord class and the British government are what ultimately turned a crop failure into one of the greatest social disasters to beset any European nation in a time of peace. Early efforts at relief included subsidised maize flour, until this was abandoned in favour of public works, which often worked starving people to death in exchange for a pittance. After this system was abandoned effective relief came in the form of soup kitchens which operated for a spell in 1847, however these were short lived as they flew in the face of the laissez faire economic ideology beloved of British Liberalism. The free hand of the market has never dealt a fair hand to the poor and, unwilling to shoulder the burden of poor relief, the British government cast the responsibility on to the poor law system which administered the workhouses, a system ultimately funded by the rates of landlords, who in order to lessen their contribution, cast tenants out of their homes. Criteria for entering these workhouses were stringent and their conditions were so deplorable entry into them was far from a guarantee of survival. There was food in Ireland as millions starved, some was even exported, but it was felt that state intervention was immoral when it challenged the inherent wisdom of economic liberalism. For many in government the famine was seen as providential, the actions of a just God, in response to the laziness and intransigence of the Irish peasant. It was also hoped that it might clear a little bit of space for more modern and capitalist orientated agriculture, a system which lent itself to free trade and export rather than a sentimental attachment to the land.
After my last morning in the archive at Knock, as I travelled to Tuam for an appointment in St Jarlath’s College, I saw a sign pointing from the road that said ‘Irishtown’. I had time to spare and made a quick decision to make a quick detour. A few kilometres later I arrived into a small town where a sign on the road in said, ‘Welcome to Irishtown, Cradle of the Land League.’ I wasn’t expecting an interpretative centre but felt that surely there must be something here to see, some monument to the monster meeting of 20 April 1879 which is regarded as the starting point of one of the greatest and most effective social movements ever to manifest on Irish soil. When a series of bad summers in the late 1870s once again limited productivity on the land, the famine was still a living memory. Tenant farmers of all sizes faced real fears. None wanted to return to a point where farmers had to choose between feeding their family or selling produce to pay their landlord.
Not all tenants were smallholders, there were a variety of steps on the social ladder between landowner and landless labourer. Often the landlord might rent a large parcel of land to a reasonably large farmer. The large farmer, or middleman, then often subdivided the land between smaller farmers, at a significant mark up, who may in turn rent it out in even smaller parcels. Sometimes even the smallest of farmers would let out a small amount of land to a labourer, or cottier, who for either a cash payment or payment in labour would have a small piece of ground with enough room for a cabin, a small crop of potatoes and perhaps a cow and a pig. The pig was central to the household economy of the small farmer and the cottier. Fattened on potatoes and buttermilk, it was the sale of this animal which provided cash to pay rent or for necessary bought goods. While the tenantry were not a homogeneous mass, every tier felt they had something to gain from reform of the land system. The more moderate demanded what was known as the three f’s, fair rent, free sale (their right to sell their lease) and fixity of tenure. There was also a demand for compensation for improvements made to the land. The more extreme, and increasingly powerful, section of the movement called for peasant proprietorship, while on the far left of the movement a small minority called for nationalisation of all land. This group included Michael Davitt, one of the principal founders and leaders of the movement, but the problem with nationalisation was it was not desirable under British rule. While the system of land reform did not happen overnight the Land War played a significant role in ushering in a series of land acts, up to and including the 1903 Wyndham Land Act, which would oversee the transfer of ownership of the vast majority of land in Ireland.
Grievances with the landlord system were widespread throughout the nineteenth century and tenant right meetings were relatively common. However it was the meeting at Irishtown which came to be accepted as the beginning of the Land War and which led to the establishment of the Mayo Land League in August 1879 and the National Land League in October. We can see a certain level of opportunism in some of those who came to lead the Land League, in particular Charles Stewart Parnell who used it a springboard to establish his hegemony over the Home Rule Party, but it was at its very base a mass movement comprising principally of those whom it sought to represent. It featured an ad hoc mixture of a variety of shades of national opinion, including Home Rulers, Fenians and and even some Unionists. The New Departure, with which it is often associated, was an alliance between Fenians and Home Rulers but in reality the Land League never had the support of the leadership of either movement, yet, commanded the allegiance of the bulk of the membership of each.
The Land War was never a war as such and while officially it was a non-violent movement, violence often manifested itself. It used tactics such as mass meetings, a phenomenon which had been utilised widely by Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the century, the withholding of rents perceived to be unjust, resistance to eviction, and boycotts of landlords, land agents and those who took over evicted farms. Resisting eviction could often lead to violence and could on occasion be successful, not simply in preventing an eviction, but in garnering a PR victory and in galvanising support. Various secret societies had been active in Ireland throughout the nineteenth century and they usually manifested agrarian grievances in the dead of night with attacks on landlords and their properties. Throughout the Land War attacks on the homes and property of landlords and grazers were frequently carried out by these societies and could include the mutilation of cattle. Many landlords preferred to let out their land to large farmers for pasture as it paid better and involved less tenants. For the smaller tenants, the large cattle farmer was often seen as as much of a threat as the landlord, and there was a resentment towards seeing cattle fattened while people went hungry. These agrarian ‘outrages’ were well documented by the authorities and widely reported in the press. However, the new phase of agrarian agitation had taken the emphasis off such clandestine activities and while they still occurred in significant numbers it was the mass basis of the Land League which made it powerful. Grazers and large farmers became involved in the Land League and despite the efforts of some to have its efforts focus on the plight of the small farmer they were to benefit from the eventual land redistribution too.
According to the Connaught Telegraph of 26 April 1879 13,000 people attended the tenant right meeting in Irishtown. They came from Mayo, Galway and Roscommon, Irishtown being close to where these counties meet. The Royal Irish Constabulary were caught somewhat off guard by the scale of the meeting, despite placards being posted in advance. While some policeman were present Dublin Castle was never notified of the event and they communicated with police in the district demanding an explanation. Police in Roscommon seem to have been the most prepared for the meeting with Sub-Inspector Charles Shadwick at Roscrea communicating with his colleague in Claremorris to inform him of it. A report by police in Caslterea, dated 16 April, recorded placarding in advance of the meeting and a memorandum on 18 April informed the police in Ballinlough to post observers on the roads to monitor those attending.1
The lack of a visible police presence was remarked on by John O’Connor Power, Home Rule MP for Mayo,who said that they would be able to keep order themselves. Indeed the police reports say that the Nally family of Balla attended with a ‘contingent of 370 horse.’ P. W. Nally and J.W. Nally were prominent local Fenians and were to play an important local role in the Land War. The police also reported that ‘400 men marched deep into the field from the direction of Claremorris.’ and that there were marshals appointed who wore green sashes.2 One of these sashes, that of PJ Gordon, is now on display in the Knock Museum. While John O’Connor Power may have been present at this early stage of the Land War he did not press home his advantage and was to return to London to focus on his parliamentary activities. In doing so he left the field open to his great rival Charles Stewart Parnell, who having been approached by Michael Davitt and John Devoy was to take on the mantle of leader of the Land League.3 O’Connor Power would eventually lose the support of the Fenians, despite his having been a member of its supreme council, as they came to favour Parnell.
Other speakers on the day included James Daly, editor of the Connaught Telegraph, and Matt Harris, Chairman of the Ballinalsoe Tenants Defence Association and a prominent local Fenian. Daly called for rent reductions and pointed to the poor harvests and rising costs with which the people were faced. He told those assembled to ‘Organise your tenant defence meetings in every parish and let your agitation be- the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland.’ Daly went on to say
it is not on the floor of the English house of commons that the real struggle for independence must be fought (cheers); but as Irish nationalists we should be glad to see the enemies of liberty obstructed and harassed- no matter where or by whom- whether it be in Westminster or in Zululand- whether the attacking party be commanded by a Parnell or a Cetewayo.4
These references to Parnell’s obstructionism and the Anglo-Zulu war were well received and the crowd responded with cheers. Throughout the summer of 1879 land meetings were held throughout the west and began to spread into other regions. By 1880 the Land League had become a fully fledged mass movement which, while beset by flaws and divisions, played a crucial role in implementing one of the most fundamental social and economic transformations ever to take place in Ireland.
On arriving in Irishtown in December 2012 I did not see much in the way of reminders of the watershed of the Irishtown land meeting. The village had those usual things, a new estate on the way in, a primary school, a church, and in the centre a junction, a pub on one side and a petrol station and shop on the other. As I pulled into the petrol station I realised it was not the first time I had stopped there to ask directions. In a previous life, when I had merchandised for a confectionery company, I had travelled these roads visiting supermarkets and not realising that one day I would be viewing the landscape in an entirely different way. Traversing these roads as a merchandiser I had an interest in history but no in depth knowledge to map on to the landscape, although, the thankless and underpaid work did encourage me to follow my dreams and return to University to undertake a Ph.D. in history. As a historian one sees ghosts everywhere, not in a supernatural sense, but as we try to imagine the past from the scraps of information available to us we transpose it onto the landscape and sights around us. When people view ruins they do not view them just because a ruin is in itself impressive, they view it because it is an impressive reminder of what once was. But not all history leaves ruins, and not all historical figures leave monuments in their wake.
I entered the shop at the petrol station and asked the lady behind the counter if she could direct me to the site of the land meeting. She, not knowing, asked her colleague who likewise did not know. A customer, a farmer, was asked, he could not tell me either. Just then another man entered, a younger farmer. He was asked and he brought me outside and directed me down a road where, some five hundred metres from where we stood, I found a stone wall on the side of the road with a small plaque bearing the words, ‘Cradle of Land League: Site of Tenant Right Meeting 20 April 1879 which led to Foundation of the National Land League’. In the village a small obelisk stands to commemorate the event, a very small obelisk by the standards of obelisks, standing at less than two metres, but here at the site I found myself looking into a field that looks like many others. There is no sign of spectacle, no sense of thousands of people walking for dozens of miles in a downpour to air their grievances. This site leaves no trace, just as the vast majority of people who participated in the land war left no trace. Leaders and the literate will leave behind papers, documentation which may give us some clue to their lives, methods and motivations but with the mass of people in an age of little property and little literacy all we have are scraps. These people may be our forebears and, for a large section of the Irish population, they most certainly are, but generations have passed and silently they have slipped into history. The streets and squares of cities and towns contain statues of generals and politicians. Often representing the opposing sides in the various struggles fought between different conceptions of nationhood, but here, on a site where a people began to fight for their livelihoods, just a couple of dozen miles from where my own paternal grandparents were born, I stood looking into an empty field, viewing the ghosts of my imagination.
1National Archives of Ireland, Chief secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1879, 8039
2NAI, CSORP 1879, 8039
3Donald Jordan, ‘John O’Connor Power, Charles Stewart Parnell and the Centralisation of Popular Politics in Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 25 No. 97 (May, 1986), pp. 46-66
4Connaught Telegraph 26 April 1879