Notes from a talk on the Land League & the Fenian's - and some prompted thoughts

One of my ongoing 'I really should write on..' projects is an article on the Fenian's and the land League period in particular.   Back in November I blogged notes I had done for an internal WSM branch talk on the topic and in the talk I did 'at' the Toronto anarchist bookfair last Saturday I mentioned them again.  Then as it happened on Monday Fin, another WSM member, did another internal talk on the Land League in particular which touched on a numbers of areas / facts / perspectives that I had not considered to date. So below is a segment of my Toronto notes on the Fenian's followed by some of what I took from Fin's talk.  Fin had the accompanying image in his talk which I found afterwards though google, its yet another British press propaganda image from the time which captures something of the alarm felt by the British state when faced with this mass militant movement.

This segment of my Toronto anarchist bookfair notes gives a quick context to the Fenian's and the Land League but if you know nothing about this period I'd recommend reading my The Fenians, armed rebellion and mass direct action blog for additional context before tackling my notes from the talk further down.

Segment of Toronto speaking notes on the Fenian's


In the 1860's the left of the Fenians played a major role in the creation of the Land League. The 12 year Land War that followed mobilised hundreds of thousands of peasants in a battle with the land lords that very often became physical. But the Fenian's as an organisation decided not to pursue that strategy and other Fenian leaders denounced it as divisive because it pitted Irish landlords against their tenants.. 

The Land League was the high tide of the radical republicanism that had began in 1798.  Sectarianism had reestablished itself in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion but the League was still able to use Orange Halls for meetings in the first months of the campaign.  Some of the Fenian leaders were well to the left, including at least one who was also a member of the first international.  There was a small section of the International in Ireland and even a little later a tiny anarchist group in Dublin.  During the Land struggle itself the British anarchist newspaper Freedom published reports from eviction resistance.  

Incidentally their is a connection with Ontario here as one side of the American section of the Fenians mounted three invasions of Ontario using Irish troops demobilized in the aftermath of the US Civil War invading via Vermont, Buffalo and Detroit.

This is the historical point at which the idea of working class revolution comes to the fore across Europe and North America.  In Ireland it resulted in the Catholic church red bating the Fenians. There was a subsequent shift by many republicans back towards a cultural nationalist agenda that sought to bury the divisisive issues around class within the republican behind the notion of a common Irish identity.  Republicans drove a revival of the Irish language and Irish sports and culture in opposition to what were identified as foreign influences in these areas.  This succeeded in re-enforcing a cross class nationalist unity but at the price of reversing the process that had been begun in the 1790s so that Irishness came to be increasingly defined as catholic, gaelic and peasant in character.  This was to have disasterous consequences.


Some notes from Fin's talk

One of the main organisers of the Land League Michael Davitt claimed it had 200,000 members in 1880.  If we consider the Land League as something of an insurrection in its own right (and given the scale of violence and troop deployments it was more significant than some insurrections) this would make it second only to the War of Independence period ITGWU in terms of mass republican organisations.

Unlike the common picture of peasant land organisation the Land League was a forward looking progressive organisation that sought links with the urban working class and the early union movement.  I'd come across one example of this previous, the mass meeting held in Dublin's Phoenix Park, Fin had actually found the poster for this event on Sunday July 24th 1881 which was amusingly 60's style multi-colour psycedelic in design.  I mentioned some of the radical history of the Park in a 2005 article written to advertise a Mayday Picnic 'It happened in the Phoenix Park all in the month of May' but I think it was only after writing that article that I found mention of the Land League meeting during a visit to the Phoenix Park interpretive center.  I can't remember exactly what I spotted but as far as I recall it was mentioned in the context of the Front Gates at the Park and how Davitt had threatened to tear them down if they were shut in order to prevent the meeting going ahead. 

That article does however discuss the Invincible assassination that took place in the Park towards the end of the Land War period.  Fin said this seemed to have a disastarous effect on mass mobilisation, something akin to that of 911.  They were followed by the Maamtrasna murders (17 Aug 1882) which I'd previously not heard of.  This was when a secret society murdered the Joyce family in a brutal fashion with many thinking the killings were related to the land war and in particular the discovery of the bodies of two landlords agents  (Joseph and John Huddy, agents of Lord Ardilaun of Ashford) in a nearby lake. 

Secret Societies I've realised are under considered on my writings to date on Irish republicanism.  I only really recall me talking about the Defenders as part of my writing's on 1798 and I don't think that blog on the Fenian's mentions them at all.  But they are almost certainly of considerable importance in understanding the violence that accompanies the land war much of which was very clandestine in nature but still capable of not only mass tacit support but feeding into mass mobilisation.  Fin pointed out that when the Land League has mass mobilisations to disrupt the auctions of the land of those evicted during the struggle part of the impact must have been the potential bidder knowing that some of the hundreds who were gathered to silently stare them down were probably members of secret societies like the Ribbonmen were were liable to later take action away from the eyes of the troops or police on duty that day.

There is an under considered aspect of this even to modern Irish politics because the secret society tradition, particularly in some rural areas, remains the tradition that shapes militant activism.  It can be a barrier when it comes to trying to co-ordinate activity because it means there is a reluctance to formally agree what is to be done rather than simply give it the equivalent of a nod and a wink.  As was pointed out in the discussion this clandestine activity giving power to mass mobilisation was also present in terms of the role both elements of the IRA and 'Ordinary Decent Criminals' (aka armed robbers) played in relation to the Dublin anti-drugs movements on the 1980's onwards.  I mention this in the Meeting Room and the Dublin anti-drugs movement of the 1980's blog post, retrospectively it's interesting to look back at the sort of activities that very modern, ultra urban movement used in the contest of some very similar actions during the Land War.  A final note of the secret society issue is the extent that this may be the reason for significant sections of Irish republicanism have a very strong tendency to small group militarism rather than mass politics.  I'd previously tended to ascribe this to the 'wrong' lessons being learned from 1798 but its probably more complex as people tend to organise in the patterns that their parents and grand parents organised in and the secret societies probably had considerably bigger reaches than the republican organistions.

Towards the end of the fragment of my notes I touched on what I see as the negative aspects of the Gaelic revival but Fin had some interesting figures in relation to religion.  By the time of the Land War there were  13,000 landlords 800 of whom owned 50% of land but unlike the famine some 43% landlords were catholic.  This figure had only been about 10% at the time of the famine but the famine bankrupted many landlords (in particular any who were sympatheic to the plight of their tenants) and the catholic middle class used the opportunity to buy up significant amounts of the land that subsequently went on sale.  If this was a result of the catholic middle class investing I would guess that the 800 who owned 50% were mostly from the older class of protestant and often British absentee landlords as holdings of that size would have been out of the reach of the savings of solicitors and the like but nevertheless these figures do undermine the traditional post independence assumptions about the nature of pre independence landlordism.

The catholic church itself was very hostile to the Fenian's and initially remained neutral in the Land War but once it had become a mass movement they felt the need to influence it and towards the end of 1880 the church came off the fence and deploys an army of priest organisers to back the moderate Land Leaguers around Charles Stuart Parnell.  He was of course a protestant land lord, capturing in one individual the contradictions of the movement.

The most famous part of the Land War was the campaign against the landlords agent Captain Boycott, the origin of the modern term boycott.  When he couldn't get any local labour to harvest his crops he wrote to the London Times for help.  But what I didn't know was that he actually opposed the solution the British government came up with, the recruiting of scab labour from two Orange Lodges in the north.  Boycott realised this sectarianising of the conflict was not going to help him and indeed although his harvest was got in this scab force required 5,000 troops to protect it meaning the total cost of harvesting if 200 pounds worth of potato crop ran into the thousands.

I'd imagine that mass involvement of priests as local organisers must have been a significant part of the story of the marginalisation of the radical faction of the Land League along with the decision by the Fenian's to withdraw and of course the very significant campaign of British repression though the Coercion Act which saw the radical leadership either jailed out of contact in solitary or forced to flee into exile within weeks if not days of the 1881 coercion act being introduced.

The big thing about the Land War of course is that it was a huge victory despite the suppression of the Land League.  Over the 20 years that followed land relations were transformed in Ireland but even in then short term rent reductions of 25% were won in some cases and the number of  evictions was greatly reduced as each eviction required a huge security mobilisation and even then it was very hard to find anyone willing to risk taking the land.  To this day in comparison with other countries banks tend to avoid eviction and courts are reluctant to order it, it remains to be seen if this changes as the crisis deepens.

The Land War came to an end as much because of the deployment of the carrot for the moderates as the stick for the radicals.  The willingness of the British state to do so was probably partly influenced by the spread of the Land League to the Scottish Highlands in 1881.  Britain to this day has enormous areas of land held in an almost feudal style by various Lords and royality, there must have been real concern if the Irish methods of struggle had spread to those estates.  That is an aspect of the deal cut with Parnell in 1881 that is worth considering.

by Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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