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Irish Land Wars

The Land War in Irish history was a period of agrarian agitation in rural Ireland in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. The agitation was led by the Irish National Land League and was dedicated to bettering the position of tenant farmers and ultimately to a redistribution of land to tenants from landlords, especially absentee landlords. While there were many violent incidents in this campaign, and some deaths, it was not actually a "war", but rather a prolonged period of civil unrest.


In February 1870 the Land Conference, at a public sitting, passed resolutions condemning capricious evictions and demanding

permanent fixture of the tenant in the soil

eviction only on non-payment of rent

right of sale of interest by the tenant

the establishment of local land tribunals and the valuation of rent.
At this point, most Irish tenant farmers outside Ulster had few rights at law. They had no right to be given a written lease and when a rental agreement (usually for 12 months) ended they could be evicted. When evicted they could not claim compensation for any improvements they had made made on the farm, which was not the case in Britain and Ulster. If they had a lease they could not sell on the remaining term.
Also in February 1870 the Prime Minister Gladstone introduced his "Act to amend the Law relating to the Occupation and Ownership of Land in Ireland". This had passed into law rapidly in August, reforming some unfair contractual aspects where a land tenancy was economically viable. Gladstone found that Irish and English tenant farmers had different rights, and the aim was to equalize them.
Unfortunately the 1870 reforms became less relevant in the worsening economics of the following decade. Farm produce prices and earnings had been strong in the 1850s and 1860s, leading Irish tenant farmers to agree to pay higher rents. This was followed by years of low world prices, bad weather and poor harvests after 1874 all over Europe, known now as the "Long Depression". New sources of wheat, such as the USA and the Ukraine, and refrigerated meat from Argentina and Australia, were imported into Europe, keeping prices low for producers. Many consider that the spark for the events in Ireland was the murder of the unpopular Earl of Leitrim in April 1878, where his three assailants went unpunished from a lack of evidence as no witness wanted to testify against them.
The depression resulted in violence and widespread upheavals and extensive evictions when Irish tenant farmers were unable or unwilling to pay the full arrears of rents and resorted to a rent strike. This was the case particularly in the west of Ireland where the weather is wetter, farmers were poorer and where there were less police on the ground. The first "monster meeting" of tenant farmers was held on 20 April 1879 near Claremorris in County Mayo.

Land League 1879

The Land League was founded in 1879 by Michael Davitt - a former Irish Republican Brotherhood member and radical politician. Initially it had sought reforms including the "Three Fs" - Fair rent, Fixity of tenure and Free sale, which were guaranteed in 1870-81. With Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of mainstream Irish nationalism and the Irish Parliamentary Party as its President, it included other agarian agitators and activists William O'Brien, John Dillon, Timothy Healy and Willie Redmond. Rents were paid in full to League organizers or local parish priests, who then tried to negotiate a discount with the landlord in settlement of the rents owed. Though rents were reduced judicially from 1881-82 by the new Land Commission, further discounts were sought. However agricultural labourers that were sub-tenants of tenant farmers were still expected to pay their rents.
The traditional view of the Land War in Ireland has been of the displacement of an ascendancy class and the often absentee landlords. The former ascendancy had been on the decline since the famine of the late 1840s and for them the problem was that previously agreed rents could not be paid after the slump in prices from 1874; some allowed generous rent rebates while others stuck to the agreements and enforced their property rights. Some were already owed rent and many had mortgaged their property and needed the rents to pay the mortgage costs. Many new landlords since the 1840s Famine were entirely Irish and Catholic, but were still associated with the former "ascendancy". A survey of the 4,000 largest Irish landlords in 1872 revealed that 71% lived on their estates, and by then 43% were Roman Catholics. This suggests that the use of such terms as "absentee landlord", and categorising all landlords as being members of a "Protestant Ascendancy", did not entirely reflect the reality on the ground, and may have been used for emotive effect.
Rent strikes often led to evictions, the landlords' only remedy. Land League members resisted the evictions en masse during the Land War, resulting in enforcement of evictions by court judgements for possession that were carried out by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Murders of some landlords, their agents and policemen, as well as attacks on supportive witnesses and on their property and animals, all occurred as reprisals for evictions. In response soldiers were often deployed to back up the police, restore law and order and enforce evictions, after the Coercion Acts were passed. For protesting tenants, these Acts were a form of martial law; their opponents saw it as the only way to guarantee their legal rights against what often seemed like mob rule


The most effective method of the Land League was the Boycott, where an unpopular landlord agent Charles Boycott was ostracized by the local community. Boycotting was also applied to tenants who wanted to pay their rent, and to the police, as well as shops and other businesses who traded with boycotted people. In theory, boycotts are extremely effective, since they were unquestionably lawful under the common law, non-violent, and effectively punitive: since nobody is forced to join a boycott, it was a voluntary act, through private agreement, and consequently there was no common-law remedy against it, since the right to not engage in commerce, socialization, or friendship is implicit in the right to engage in commerce, socialization, or friendship. Those who broke a boycott, and their families, however, could expect to be subject to social and informal sanctions for breaking a boycott, such as shunning, ostracism, or extension of the boycott to them. This proved an extraordinarily effective remedy against mistreatment, allowing people who believed they were being mistreated to counteract their situation purely through voluntary, non-violent, and unquestionably lawful means.
The boycott was particularly effective in the communities of rural Ireland, where people commonly worked, traded, played and prayed together. Ostracism made it impossible to buy food and other necessities; compliance with a boycott or leaving a community were the stark options.

Parallel violence

Alongside the Land War small nationalist groups such as the "Invincibles" murdered two senior politicians in the 1882 Phoenix Park Murders, heightening tensions. Violence ostensibly in the name of the League overlapped with robbery; in November 1885 the murder of John O'Connell Curtin in County Kerry when resisting a band of "moonlighters" who wanted to rob his gun came to international attention. Curtin was a Catholic tenant farmer; after his burial his family were boycotted locally and were therefore obliged to sell their farm lease and left their home in April 1888. The bitterness and distrust engendered in the Land War, and the suffering on both sides, were emotive elements in the movement for Irish independence and also the eventual partition of Ireland.

Plan of Campaign 1886

In 1886-91 the Plan of Campaign was a more focused version. Organised by IPP members such as Tim Healy, it copied Davitt's methods while disassociating the party from his more radical views. Given the extended franchise allowed in 1884, the IPP had to gain credibility with the larger number of new voters, choosing the group that was most likely to support it; the low-to-middle-income rural electorate. Most IPP members were Catholic, and appealed to Rome for moral support, as did the government, but were instead issued with "Saepe Nos", a Papal Rescript in 1888 forbidding their activities, particularly boycotting. In 1887 the "Perpetual Crimes Act" was passed to deal with the offenses surrounding the Campaign, and it was described emotively in the Nationalist press as a Coercion Act.
Given the 1881 and 1885 reform Acts (see below), many press commentators saw the Plan of Campaign as an opportunistic and cynical method of revenge following the division of the Liberal Party and the rejection of the first Irish Home Rule Bill in June 1886. It was also described as cruel as new rent strikes would inevitably result in more evictions and boycotting as before, with all the associated intimidation and violence. Other reporters saw it as a matter of justice and of continuing concern to genuine liberals.
The Campaign led on to events such as the Mitchelstown massacre in 1887 and the imprisonment of IPP MPs such as William O'Brien for their involvement. The violent aspects of the campaign were abandoned on the run-up to the debates on the Second Irish Home Rule Bill in 1893, and the IPP was by then divided over the affair between Kitty O'Shea and Parnell.

Land Acts

The Land question in Ireland was ultimately defused by a series of Irish Land Acts, beginning in 1870 with rent reform, establishing the Land Commission in 1881, and providing for judicial reviews to certify fair rents. The Ashbourne Act of 1885 started the process of allowing tenant farmers to buy their freeholds, which was greatly extended by the 1903 Wyndham Act. Birrel's Act of 1909 allowed for compulsory purchase, and subsequent Acts allowed the purchase and division of untenanted land.
These Acts allowed tenants first to attain extensive property rights on their leaseholdings and then to purchase their land off their landlords via UK government loans and the Land Commission. A 1909 Act suggested by Augustine Birrell allowed for untenanted land to be compulsorily purchased and divided between local framers. The 1903 Act gave Irish tenant farmers a government-sponsored right to buy, which is still not available in Britain itself today.
Recent research has suggested that many Landlords in the late 19th and early 20th century, such as Lord Dunsany or Lord Dunraven who chaired the 1902 Land Conference, had more progressive attitudes towards their estates and tenants. In addition, it is claimed that the bigger farmers were the main beneficiaries of the Land Acts, as the small farmers' holdings, especially in the west, were uneconomic as private farms.

(Source Wikipedia)