Ireland and the politics of bigotry – Part Three

Meanwhile the nineteenth century was proving to be another age of poverty, oppression and starvation for the mostly Catholic tenant farmers. They were still at the mercy of the landlords who charged increasingly exorbitant rents and would not hesitate to evict any family who could not pay. Keeping his tenancy was a matter of life or death to the farmer and his family. [part 1]

Daniel O’Connell

Daniel O'ConnellDaniel O'ConnellAs if that wasn’t enough the Anglican clergy, escorted by soldiers, would seize one tenth (the tithe) of the farmers produce although the farmer was already struggling to feed his hungry family. There were no laws or regulations to protect the tenant farmers from this exploitation, because the laws were made by the rich for the rich.

It is no surprise therefore that there was a resurgence of Whiteboyism and peasant reaction to the persecution that they suffered. The Whiteboys and other secret societies regrouped and took whatever revenge they could on the landlords and their agents who evicted the exploited farmers. This gave rise to the ‘Tithe Wars’ of the eighteen-thirties during which desperate peasant farmers fought and died trying to oppose the evictions and the legalised robbery that was making their lives unbearable. It is to the great shame of the Catholic Church that it did not support its followers at this time. Instead of condemning the greedy landowners who had caused and perpetuated this situation, they condemned from the altar the actions of the peasants who were fighting for their very survival. The rich landlords, both Catholic and Protestant, had a constant ally in the Catholic Church.

One of these landowners was Daniel O’Connell. He is famous in Irish history for having won Irish emancipation, although it would have come anyway as many of the influential figures in British politics at that time were in favour of it. For this O’Connell is revered in Ireland as the “Great Liberator” although in truth he was an enemy of the Irish working class.

The vote at that time was of no benefit to the workers or tenant farmers. If they did not vote for whoever the landlord nominated, they were evicted. It was, however, of great benefit to O’Connell’s own social strata, the rich and the upper middle class in Ireland, who saw it as an opportunity to gain more political power. O’Connell courted the support of the unions while he was campaigning for Catholic emancipation, but once that was achieved he showed his true colours. He constantly attacked the trade unions. He opposed the minimum wage and spoke against an act to limit the excessive and exhausting hours worked by children in British industry (in 1805 so many children died while working like slaves in the cotton mills that they had to be buried in many different parishes so that it wouldn’t look so bad).

His constant practise of associating only Catholics with the struggle for Ireland’s independence, thus dismissing the heroic efforts of Tone and the many other Presbyterians who gave their lives for that cause, alienated Protestants and made them more sympathetic to Orangism. John Mitchell, a leading member of the Young Irelanders who fought for Ireland’s cause during the terrible famine of 1845-49, said of O’Connell: “Apart from the British Government he is the worst enemy Ireland ever had.” He does not merit the high esteem in which the Irish people hold him.

The Famine and the Fenians

“Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn”. (Robert Burns)

As if the long suffering Irish people hadn’t enough to contend with, the potato blight struck in 1845 and lasted till 1849. Nothing showed up the injustice, inhumanity and downright evil of the landlord system, under which the oppressed Irish peasantry struggled to exist, like the ensuing famine. By the time the “Great Hunger” had played itself out 1,500,000 people had died of disease and starvation and at least 1,000,000 had been forced to leave there homeland forever. And it was all unnecessary.

It was not the potato blight that caused the terrible suffering of the Irish rural community at that time; it was the landlords’ insatiable greed and total disregard for human suffering. The poor tenant farmers had to give the corn they had grown to the landlord as payment for rent; those who didn’t were evicted. Families were left to die on the fields and by the roadsides while abundant food in the way of corn, barley and livestock was being exported for the landlord’s profit.

An organisation called the Young Irelanders tried unsuccessfully to do something about Ireland’s suffering during the famine, and from that organisation another was born. The Fenian movement, known officially as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was founded in Dublin on 17th March, 1858 by a former Young Irelander named James Stephens, a man with great organising ability. The Fenians were a socialist leaning movement and one of the leaders, Thomas Clarke Luby, declared that he stood for “…an Irish Republic in which the people of Ireland would own the wealth of Ireland and administer it for the benefit of the entire community and not one class.”

Such statements incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church, which once again took the side of the rich against the poor. The Church accused the Fenians of being evil and anti-Christian. Sir Shane Leslie, in his work The Irish Tangle in 1945, states: “No one cursed the Fenians more than Cardinal Cullen.” The London Times gleefully reported: “It is gratifying to record the consistent firmness with which our Roman Catholic clergymen at least have discounted all sympathy with Fenianism.”

The Fenians’ reply to the Catholic Church was straight to the point: “Our only hope is revolution, but most bishops and many of the clergy are opposed to revolution… when priests turn the altar into a platform, when it is pronounced a mortal sin to read the ‘Irish People’, a mortal sin to even wish that Ireland should be free, when priests call upon the people to turn informers… when, in a word, bishops and priests are doing the work of the enemy, we believe it is our duty to tell the people that bishops and priests may be bad politicians and worse Irishmen.”

Despite the fact that thousands of Irish families were being evicted from their homes and a constant stream of proposed laws to help the poor Irish tenants was rejected by the House of Commons, the Catholic Church still sided with the rich, and opposed the Fenian movement.

As with the United Irishmen, the government infiltrated the Fenian movement with spies. On September 15, 1865, the police raided Fenian headquarters and almost the entire leadership was arrested and sentenced to twenty years penal servitude. This was a devastating blow to the movement, although its leader, James Stephens, was rescued by an Irish-American officer named Col. Thomas Kelly and safely made his way to America via France.

The Land League

Although sentenced to 20 years in 1865, the Fenian leaders had their sentences reduced thanks to agitation from the English working-class movements, the Chartists, and the International Working Men’s Association headed by Karl Marx who raised international support for the imprisoned Fenians. Former Fenian organiser Michael Davitt was released in December, 1877, on condition that he lived abroad for two years. He returned to Ireland in 1879 to fight the cause of the impoverished Irish farmers once again.

Improved methods of agricultural production in America had a devastating effect on Ireland’s agricultural economy. In 1876 Ireland’s potato crop had been worth £12,500,000; two years later it was worth only a quarter of that. Yet the landowners still expected the tenant farmers to pay the same exorbitant rents, and those who were unable to do so were evicted. Between 1878 and 1886 130,000 families were evicted.

Not surprisingly there was a bitter backlash from the victims of these evictions. In 1878 one of Ireland’s biggest landowners, the Earl of Leitrim, was assassinated close to the mud hut from which he had evicted a poor widow.

To make matters worse bad weather resulted in poor harvests, threatening to create another famine situation.

In 1879 in Quinltagh, Co. Mayo, the local parish priest, Geoffrey Burke, inherited his brother’s property and immediately issued eviction notices to the tenants, all of whom were in arrears owing to the prevailing economic circumstances. Michael Davitt, along with another prominent Fenian, Thomas Brennan, and J. O’Connor Power the local Home Rule M.P., organised a meeting “to protest against the action of Canon Burke, to demand a reduction in rents, and to denounce the whole landlord system.”

7,000 attended the meeting on April 20th and from this the Irish Land League was born. Davitt travelled all over Ireland addressing meetings and building up league membership. He also invited Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Home Rule Party, to become president of the League. At a meeting at Westport, Co. Meath, Parnell spoke: “A fair rent is a rent a tenant can reasonably afford to pay according to the times… what must you do to induce the landlords to see the position? You must show them that you intend to hold a firm grip of your homesteads… you must not allow yourselves to be dispossessed as your fathers were dispossessed… help yourselves and the public opinion of the world will stand by and support you in your struggle to defend your homesteads.”

Dr. John McHale, Archbishop of Tuam, published a letter condemning the meeting and, as usual, the main body of the Catholic Church, ever paranoid about anything remotely socialist, declared their support for the landlords. But some Catholic clergymen had the courage to defy their Church leaders. Two prelates, William Croke, Archbishop of Cashel, and Dr. Nulty, Bishop of Meath, supported the League, and Catholic priest Father John O’Malley led the local Land League of Ballinrobe in a campaign against the land agent of the Earl of Erne, Captain Charles S. Boycott. In so doing he added a new word – boycott – to the English language.

On September 22nd, 1880, Captain Boycott (himself a small landowner) sent his bailiff to deliver eviction notices to some tenants. He was driven off, along with his police escort, by the angry tenants. Then the Ballinrobe Land League adopted a strategy recommended three days earlier by Parnell, but first suggested by Davitt eight months earlier: it was a strategy of ostracism.

On September 24th Boycott was astonished to see his servants and all the farm workers march off the estate. Furthermore, no shopkeeper or tradesman would do business with him. Boycott was desperate; he needed help to save his crop and when his plight was reported in the London Times other landlords and the ruling establishment were only too happy to oblige.

Six Ulster landlords, accompanied by fifty Orangemen and escorted by 600 infantrymen and 200 hussars, arrived on November 11th to come to Boycott’s aid. All were shunned (boycotted) by the local population. Boycott’s crop was saved, but at enormous expense: the crop was worth £300 but it cost £3,000 to save. Demoralised, the chastened Captain Boycott left for London a few days later. It was a resounding victory for The Land League.

The government was getting very worried, for not all Orangemen were opposed to the Land League. The fearless and indefatigable Michael Davitt had approached many Orange lodges and explained his case. As a result he was gaining a lot of sympathisers in the Orange movement; also, the staunchly Catholic Co. Mayo, angered by the Catholic Church’s support of the landlords, voted for an Ulster Presbyterian minister as their MP.

The Government was now on ‘red alert’. The Catholics and Protestants could not be allowed to unite, that would be a disaster for the landlord system and the ruling class in general. On October 12th Parnell and other leaders of the Land League were arrested. Eight days later the League was declared illegal.

But Parnell could not go the last mile. Instead of sticking to the principles of the Land League he made a deal with the Government to release the imprisoned leaders of the League in return for his co-operation. Also, the government would introduce a new Land Act setting up tribunals to establish fair rents for tenant farmers, fixed for a term of 15 years during which the tenant could not be evicted.

In addition 130,000 rent arrear cases were dropped, being paid at government expense. This was similar to the conditions enjoyed by tenant farmers in Ulster and took some heat out of the situation, thus avoiding the danger of the Ulster Protestants and the Catholics from uniting against the government. It was tragic that Parnell, a Protestant landowner who had financially ruined himself in his fight for the mainly Catholic tenant farmers, should fall at the last hurdle. He feared that to maintain his stance would plunge the country into revolution and civil war and he simply didn’t have the stomach for it.

The Land League rejected the Land Act, believing that the land being worked by the tenant farmers should belong to them and they should no longer be obliged to pay rent for the upkeep of absentee landlords. But the Land Act was passed and large numbers of tenant farmers accepted it. But agrarian crime and unrest continued; the rural population were still suffering from poverty and hunger. Meanwhile, the Ladies Land League tried to help the poor by charitable means, only to be rebuked for doing so by the Archbishop of Dublin.

In 1882 the now weakened Land League reformed itself as The Irish National League with the aim of attaining national self government.

Part 4 >>