The Land War in a Nutshell

The Land war is in the minds of most Irish people synonymous with the ending of landlordism in Ireland and describes period from 1879 to 1882 when the Land League was active. However the term Land War can in itself be misleading. It implies an open conflict between the classes of peasant and Landlord or the nations of Ireland and England.

While at times there were acts of violence committed in the course of the Land war these were the exception rather than the rule and never were official League policy. Most instances of violence that arose were in the defence of homesteads and attempting to prevent eviction. However while such cases achieved a lot of publicity they were not the most common means of resisting eviction.

On estates where rents were believed to be excessive tenants were urged to withhold rent and to pay rent at ‘The point of a bayonet.’ This collective bargaining was aimed to put landlords in a position where there was an economic imperative for them to review the rents they were charging. In the case of a tenant being evicted the response usually was for other tenants not to lease the vacated farm and to socially ostracise anyone who did, in a tactic that came to be known as the Boycott. Likewise the sale of a tenants property was a method by which Landlords tried to collect outstanding rents and these sales too were boycotted.

While a number of so called agrarian outrages were committed throughout the course of the Land War this was not a new phenomenon and such acts had been frequently carried out by various secret societies throughout the nineteenth century. Michael Davitt, the chief architect and organiser of the Land League, was himself a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and had spent years in prison for his activities. It was he and John Devoy who first approached Charles Stewart Parnell with the idea of the New Departure. This was a compromise between hardline Fenians and moderate Home Rulers in order to further the goals of land reform, but was never the policy of either group and was rejected by large sections of each.

The original stated aim of the Land League had been to achieve the three F’s; fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale; or the ability to sell on ones interest in their holding. However as the campaign advanced the call for peasant proprietorship came more to the fore. Joseph Lee has stated, ‘The Land League not merely articulated but largely created, that aspiration.’ Davitt himself favoured Land Nationalisation. However for Davitt nationalisation would not have been desirable under British rule as it would have made the Irish peasantry tenants of the British government.

Gladstones Land Bill of 1881 was an attempt to make some concessions to the Land League but did not go far enough. However the arrest of the Leaders of the League in 1882 led to the Kilmainham treaty and the end of what is popularly known as the Land War. Parnell now secure in his position as head of the Home Rule Party dedicated his energies to more parliamentary methods of organisation while those who were more drawn to conspiratorial violence likewise returned to their preferred methods of organisation. Reform of the Landlord system was by no means immediate but over the next decades various bills were brought into existence which gradually created a system of peasant proprietorship.

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3 thoughts on “The Land War in a Nutshell

  1. Thanks for that refresher, I was trying in the back of my heads for the last few months to remember the third of the three f’s – free sale. As James Fintan Lalor said ‘The land question will be the engine that will carry the national question in its train’ or something to that effect. The idea that it was the Land League itself which created the idea of peasant proprietorship is an interesting one, given the continuing effect 0f that idea down to the present day. My own feeling is that the idea was however, probably inevitable. One can see it crops up in all underdeveloped countries. It would be interesting to examine that argument and to see if, taking the notion that the demand would have become common currency sooner or later, what effect did the Land League itself have in strengthening it in the consciousness of the nation, ie is it more of a concrete notion in the minds of the Irish than in the minds for example of Mexicans, Russians, etc. I however, am not the one who will undertake that study.

  2. You are quite right that the Land League didn’t completely create the aspiration of peasant propietorship, what it did do was bring it to the fore and make it a demand of the agitation. Without looking at every individual case it would be hard to see if the demand for peasant propietorship is always inevitable but in Ireland the status of peasant as owner occupier was one which didn’t seem to ahve any precedent prior to the land acts. Under the rundale system as well as under brehon law it seems the land was shared, even if not owned in common and there was a certain sharing of labour amongst the peasants. However it would be wrong to assume that under the gaelic laws the land was held in common as if in some sort fo primitive socialism. This is a view that James Connolly puts forward in ‘labour in Irish History’ and Davitt puts forward in ‘The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland’ but it would seem that they had let their own socialism colour their view of history.

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