The History of Ireland - Part 11

Land Reform: Davitt & Parnell (1850-1891)

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After the devastating famine, lower and middle class Irish-Catholics understandably became obsessed with mere survival. They also became bitterly divided over the merits of peaceful politics. The non-violent ("constitutional") philosophy of O'Connell -- that reform could be achieved through Parliamentary action -- lost credibility*, which is hardly surprising given Parliament's callous indifference during the famine. Disillusioned pacifists tended to seek refuge in the Catholic Church, which attained more influence than it had enjoyed for centuries, while a more violent ("revolutionary" or "physical force") segment of Irish society gained support; they argued that the British government would never respond to "constitutional" measures, and advocated violence to effectuate reform. Then in 1878 a major farm crisis revived demands for genuine land reform, which became a surprising reality through an alliance between "constitutional" politics (under Charles Stewart Parnell) and "revolutionary" intimidation of landlords (under Michael Davitt).

The violent element of society was exemplified by a handful of zealous separatists, adherents of Wolf Tone who called themselves "Republicans". These revolutionaries advocated an Irish Republic totally separate and independent from England, to be achieved by any means required, including physical force. Even during the height of the famine (1848), a group called Young Ireland -- mostly former O'Connell supporters disillusioned over the failure of working within the law -- had mounted an unsuccessful "war of independence". One of the rebels, James Stephens (a Protestant), avoided prison by faking his own funeral and fleeing to France; he returned to reorganize Young Ireland into the "Fenian" movement (1858), with one branch in Ireland (called the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or "IRB") and another in the United States (called the Fenian Brotherhood, later Clan na Gael). The Fenian strategy was to prepare secretly for an armed rebellion to be launched when Britain found itself in a debilitating war or otherwise vulnerable. While some Fenians were willing to exploit issues such as land reform to broaden support for independence, the true believers felt such issues were distractions. In 1867, the Fenians killed 30 Londoners while blowing up the outer wall of the Clerkenwell prison in an unsuccessful prison break attempt; and they sponsored uprisings in 1865 and 1867. Although these Fenian endeavors were uniformly unsuccessful, they kept alive the flame of revolutionary nationalism, not to mention the IRB itself. Indeed, when finally the events of 1916-22 unfolded -- the Easter Rising, the revolutionary government of Sinn Fein, the "troubles", civil war, and near independence but with partition -- it was the Fenian IRB that violently forced the issues. In James Stephens' own lifetime, however, the Fenians were ineffectual except in garnering publicity.

The Fenians' failed risings of 1865 and 1867 had one unintended consequence. In 1869, legislation was enacted abolishing the tithe and repealing the laws that "established" the Anglican Church as the official Church of Ireland (1869). Prime Minister William Gladstone later acknowledged that the Fenians' violent activities precipitated the measure.

The Fenians' emphasis on violence was dramatically at odds with O'Connell's insistence on peaceful political activity within the law, even though both movements sought the same goal: greater independence from England. From this conflict emerged a new two-pronged concept, called the "New Departure", under which the "physical force" (violence-tolerant) and "constitutional" (non-violent) factions would not fight one another, but would cautiously cooperate, each in its own sphere, towards the common goal.

Ironically, agricultural land reform -- the issue which was regarded as a distraction by hard core Fenians, but which had obsessed the populace since the 17th Century confiscations -- became the focus of the "New Departure" strategy. In the winter of 1878-79, an economic crisis -- brought on by crop failures, falling crop prices, and wet weather -- threatened the rural population with a disaster comparable to the famine. It brought to the fore Michael Davitt, a Fenian Catholic, who formed an alliance with Charles Stewart Parnell, a pro-Catholic legislator who was both a landlord and a Protestant, to effectuate comprehensive land reform in Ireland. Davitt and Parnell made strange bedfellows.

Michael Davitt (1846-1906) was the working class son of a tenant farmer who had been evicted from his Mayo farm during the famine because his potato crop failed and he could not pay his rent. The family moved to Lankershire, England, where at the age of 11 Michael lost his right arm in a machine while working in a cotton mill. A Catholic who was taught by a Wesleyan schoolteacher, he accepted religious diversity as a way of life and identified with all workers, English and Irish alike. Upon returning to Ireland, he became a leader in the IRB, where his Fenian activities earned him a 15 year prison sentence, of which he served seven. Unlike the more zealous Fenians, who saw land reform as a distraction from the real issue of independence, Davitt had genuine concern for the tenant farmers, and made agricultural land reform his overriding issue. In 1879, two years after his release from prison (and in the midst of the farm crisis of 1878-79), he founded the National Land League, which became the less respectable prong of the "New Departure" dual approach to agricultural land reform, i.e., the Land League was not above using intimidation and threats of violence.

To achieve what he regarded as justice for tenant farmers, Davitt's Land League used some of O'Connell's perfectly legal methods -- mass meetings and brass bands -- plus societal ostracism. Occasionally, in the tradition of the Whiteboys and the Defenders, it used intimidation and violence or threats of violence. The League would identify landlords who had been guilty of "abuses" -- unfair evictions or rack-renting -- then focus public attention on these landlords, and organize the entire community to refuse them all goods and services, including labor to work the farm. "Grabbers" -- persons who became the new tenant farmer after an unfair eviction -- were ostracized. In one spectacularly successful example, the League used these tactics to bring one absentee landlord from Mayo to his knees. Eventually, the landlord harvested his crop, but only after bringing in 50 laborers at a cost ten times the value of the crop. The landlord's on-site agent was named "Boycott", whose name was added to the dictionary to describe the League's tactics. The Land League had other impressive successes, but absent the emergence of Parnell as their champion in Parliament, it is unlikely that the Land League ever could have effectuated permanent or widespread reform.

Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) was by inheritance an affluent Protestant landlord, but his heritage was hardly pro-British. On his fathers' side, his great grandfather, an incorruptible member of the 1800 Irish Parliament, had voted against the Union. On his mother's side, his ancestors had emigrated from Belfast to America in the 1770s, and his grandfather had fought against England in the War of 1812. An intransigent nationalist, he was elected to the British Parliament in 1875 from a largely Catholic district in Meath. Initially, he made his name by obstructing other legislation to gain consideration of home rule for Ireland. Then Davitt persuaded him to become the parliamentary champion of land reform, i.e., the second prong of the Davitt's New Departure strategy. Paradoxically, then, this affluent Protestant landlord became the leader of the land reform movement, as well as the Home Rule movement. To the great mass of peasant and middle class citizens, Catholic and Presbyterian alike, he shortly became one of the most beloved men in Ireland. Among affluent Protestants, of course, he was considered a traitor to his class. In 1880, with massive grass roots assistance from Davitt's Land League, a slate of Parnell supporters was elected to Parliament, and Parnell supplanted Isaac Butt as chairman of the Irish party.

The Davitt-Parnell alliance paid dividends almost immediately. Prodded by Parnell, Gladstone and his Liberal government successfully pushed through the Land Act of 1881, incorporating the long standing demands of tenant farmers known as the "three Fs" (1) "fair rents" (legal review of rent fairness by an independent tribunal), (2) "fixity of tenure" (protection against arbitrary eviction), and (3) "freedom of sale" (the right of a tenant farmer to transfer or sell his leasehold in the farm). The 1881 Act paved the way for additional reforms in 1891 and 1896; and much later, after Parnell, Davitt and Gladstone were all dead, the Wyndham land act (1906) completed the reforms by permitting tenants to purchase their farms on easy terms over 68 years, while offering a bonus to selling landlords. The vast majority of Irishmen depended on farming for their livelihood, and for them it is virtually impossible to overemphasize the importance of these victories, particularly the 1881 Act. For over 270 years they had been agitating unsuccessfully for land reform. Now the New Departure, with Davitt and Parnell playing key roles, won had for Irish who worked the land, Catholics and Presbyterians alike, their first genuine bread-and-butter victory in 270 years.

Now the political winds began to shift strongly in Parnell's favor. Parliament enacted a "franchise act" expanding the electorate throughout Britain; in Ireland, it added some 500,000 new voters to the rolls, most of whom were less affluent Catholics who supported Parnell. And since land reform had largely been achieved, the Land League permitted itself to be transformed into a highly efficient political machine under Parnell's control.

Parnell returned to his earlier goal: A subordinate ("Home Rule") parliament for Ireland. The idea was not new. It had been raised in the 1840s both by O'Connell and by Young Ireland, and had been pursued unsuccessfully by Isaac Butt (Parnell's predecessor as leader of the Irish Party). In the 1880s was certain to be killed by the House of Lords. Nonetheless, with Parnell behind it, Home Rule became the highly divisive and defining issue of the 1885 election. Conservatives opposed it as the first step towards breaking up the empire, but the most passionate resistance came from Protestants, particularly Ulster Presbyterians, because any Home Rule Parliament was certain to be dominated by Catholics. The election inflamed dormant religious antagonisms, polarizing anti-Home Rule "Unionists" (generally Protestant) from pro-Home Rule "Nationalists" (generally Catholic), a split that eventually (1910) evolved into private armies. But in 1885, Parnell's Irish party won 86 seats, exactly the separation between Liberals (335) and Conservatives (249). A deal was struck: Gladstone announced support for Home Rule, and with Irish support became prime minister for the third time. But Gladstone's Liberal Party split over his 1886 Home Rule Bill, and it was defeated in Commons, a defeat that was widely viewed as a temporary postponement.

Parnell seemed politically invincible until 1890, when a divorce court revealed that he had been "living in sin" with the wife of William Henry O'Shea. Gladstone forced the Irish party to choose between Parnell's leadership and his own support for a second Home Rule bill. A majority in the Irish Party, and the Catholic bishops, turned against Parnell, who took his case to the country, but in doing so he overburdened his precarious health and died soon after. Gladstone's second Home Rule passed the House of Commons but was killed in the House of Lords (1893). Parliament (but not the Irish Party) then placed Home Rule on the back burner.

With the fall of Parnell and the failure of Home Rule, the passion went out of Irish politics, and there ensued a 20 year period of tranquility plus modest progress for Ireland (1890-1910). After considerable infighting, leadership of the Irish party eventually fell to the docile John Redmond, while successive British governments adopted the policy of placating Ireland in an attempt to "kill Home Rule with kindness". The government spent extraordinary sums in Ireland on two new colleges, plus public works projects such as a railroad to western Ireland. Most importantly, the government passed the final piece of comprehensive land reform, the aforementioned Wyndham Land Act (1903), which permitted tenants to purchase their farms on easy terms over 68 years.

In abandoning politics and rebellion, the Irish populace turned to a nostalgic study of "Irish Ireland", an exploration of their ethnic and national identity. The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 by Douglas Hyde, later President of the Irish Free State, to revive the Gaelic language and culture. The Gaelic Athletic Association, formed in 1884, promoted traditional Irish games -- hurling and Irish football -- in place of "foreign" games. William Butler Yeats, acknowledged as the greatest English language poet of his era, spearheaded a literary revival emphasizing Irish roots and national identity. A series of periodicals advocated a return to Gaelic roots. None of this was overtly political, yet it dove-tailed with the trendy new concept among political scientists that a separate cultural identity justified carving new states out of existing larger states. Thus this "Irish Ireland" movement later became a critical factor in turning world opinion in favor of Ireland in its quest for independence.

One of the few overtly political manifestations of the "Irish Ireland" movement was the formation of Sinn Fein ("we ourselves") in 1905 by Arthur Griffith (1872-1922). Sinn Fein was primarily an Irish nationalist movement, but it also functioned as a minor and largely unsuccessful political party. Under Griffith's direction, it advocated a dual monarchy along Austro-Hungarian lines, all to be achieved by passive resistance rather than physical force. Meanwhile, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was infiltrating the nationalist and separatist groups, including Sinn Fein, still waiting for the opportunity to foment rebellion if England should find itself in a debilitating war.


*  Disillusionment over the legislative process (vis--vis violent revolution) further skyrocketed after the 1852 election. A slate of candidates ran on a "Tenant Right" agenda, pledging to vote as a block and to refuse to serve in any cabinet not pledged to "Tenant Right". When 48 of them were elected, they joined other Irish members (the so-called "Pope's brass band") to help topple Lord Derby's Tory government, but then two of them -- John Sadleir and William Keogh -- broke their pledge and took lucrative cabinet positions in Lord Aberdeen's new government, which did not support Tenant Right. Cynicism only increased subsequently when Keogh committed suicide, and Sadleir was convicted of fraud in an unrelated case.