Ghosts of Imagination: A Journey through Landscape, the Land League and the Search for Memory

The following piece is a revision of an article originally posted in 2013 on the group blog The Dustbin of History


In December 2012, while studying for a Ph.D. in history in Cork I undertook a research trip to Galway and Mayo, the setting for most of the events I was studying. Staying in Galway city, every morning I travelled north along the N17 to visit different archives.  This arterial route begins in the city and passes 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. Most days I was on the road before the worst of the rush hour traffic and an hour and a half later I would find myself at the museum and archives in Knock, Co Mayo, just before they opened at 10am. On other days my trip only took me as far as Tuam, just 40 minutes north of Galway city.

Land League Plaque
Plaque marking the site of the Irishtown land meeting.

Between Tuam and Knock the N17 takes you through the heartland of the Land War of 1879-82. The land, which would then have been mostly tillage, is now predominantly pasture. It is not bad land 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 enveloped many Irish towns in the so-called Celtic Tiger era. They seem not to have not expanded greatly in the past century and a half since the Land War. Then they were 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. These are the former homes of large farmers 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 rooves long gone, these homes are 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 disasters to beset any European nation outside of war. 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 fairly to the poor and, unwilling to shoulder the burden of poor relief, the British government cast the responsibility for the destitute onto the poor law system, which administered the workhouses. This system was 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. When a series of bad summers in the late 1870s again limited productivity on the land, the Great Famine was still a living memory. Fear of another famine gripped the country. None wanted to return to a point where they had to choose between feeding their family or selling produce to pay rent. This fear, and a myriad of other factors, led to the outbreak of the Land War, the largest and most effective social movement Ireland has ever seen.


One day as I travelled to Tuam from Knock I saw a road sign pointing to Irishtown. I had time to spare and made a quick decision to make a quick detour. After a few kilometres I arrived in a small town where a sign on the road 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. It was here that 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, took place. Grievances with the landlord system were widespread throughout the nineteenth century and tenant right meetings were relatively common. However the Irishtown meeting is regarded as a watershed and the beginning of the Land War. It led to the establishment of the Mayo Land League in August 1879 and the National Land League in October of that year. Opportunism manifested in some of those who came to lead the Land League, but it was at its base a mass movement comprising principally of those whom it sought to represent. It featured a variety of shades of national opinion, including moderate nationalists known as Home Rulers, militant nationalists known as Fenians and even some Unionists, who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom but wanted the land issue addressed. The New Departure, with which the Land War 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.


Not all tenants were smallholders, there were a variety of steps on the social ladder between landowner and landless labourer. Often a landlord rented a large parcel of land to a reasonably large farmer. The large farmer, or middleman, then 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 (the right to sell their lease) and fixity of tenure. There was also a demand for compensation for improvements made to the land. The more radical, and eventually largest, 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 nationalisation under British rule would merely transfer control of the land from Landlords to the British government. Therefore, even those who favoured nationalisation in principal did not campaign for its immediate implementation. While 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 oversaw the transfer of ownership of the vast majority of land in Ireland.


The Land War was never a war as such and while officially it was a non-violent movement, violence often manifested itself. Tactics included mass meetings, a strategy utilised by Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the century, the withholding of unjust rents, 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. 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, their properties and cattle. Throughout the Land War attacks by these societies were frequent. These agrarian ‘outrages’ were well documented by the authorities and widely reported in the press. However, the Land War took the emphasis off clandestine activities and while they occurred 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.


Old Mapof Irishtown
Irishtown as it appeared on a nineteenth century Ordinance Survey map. The site of the meeting is outlined in red.

According to the Connaught Telegraph of 26 April 1879 13,000 people attended the tenant right meeting in Irishtown. They came from counties Mayo, Galway and Roscommon, Irishtown being close to where these counties meet. The Royal Irish Constabulary were caught off guard by the scale of the meeting, despite placards being posted in advance. While some policeman were present, Dublin Castle was never notified and the authorities communicated with police in the district demanding an explanation. Police in Roscommon seem to have been the most prepared and Sub-Inspector Charles Shadwick at Roscrea communicated with his counterpart 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 at the meeting was remarked on by John O’Connor Power, Home Rule MP for Mayo, who said that they would be able to keep order themselves. Fenians and activists acted as stewards and the Nally family of Balla attended with a ‘contingent of 370 horse.’ P. W. Nally and J.W. Nally were prominent local Fenians who played 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 P.J. Gordon, is now on display in the Knock Museum. While John O’Connor Power was the one of the first MPs to participate in the Land War he did not press home his advantage and returned to London to focus on his parliamentary duties. In doing so he left the field open to his great rival Charles Stewart Parnell, who was approached by Michael Davitt and John Devoy to take on the mantle of leader of the Land League.[3]


Other speakers at the Irishtown meeting included James Daly, editor of the Connaught Telegraph, and prominent local Fenian Matt Harris, Chairman of the Ballinalsoe Tenants Defence Association. 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 parliamentary obstructionism and the Anglo-Zulu war were well received and the crowd responded with cheers. During 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 division, played a crucial role in implementing one of the most fundamental social and economic transformations ever to take place in Ireland.


Irishtown google map
Irishtown today. The site of the meeting is marked in blue.

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 itself is unremarkable but as I pulled into the petrol station I realised it was not the first time I had been there. In a previous occupation, when I had merchandised for a drinks company, I had travelled these roads visiting supermarkets without 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 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 and 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, 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 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, 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.

[1]    National Archives of Ireland, Chief secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1879, 8039

[2]    NAI, CSORP 1879, 8039

[3]    Donald 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

[4]    Connaught Telegraph 26 April 1879


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