Land League

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900
CHAPTER XCI. (continued)

A monster meeting—memorable as the inauguration of what subsequently developed into a gigantic movement—was held on a plain a few miles from Claremorris, in the County Mayo, on Sunday, April 20, 1879. It was estimated that there were present from fifteen to twenty thousand people, and it included nearly all the farmers of the counties Mayo, Galway, and Roscommon. Five hundred horsemen wearing green emblems formed a conspicuous cavalcade at this concourse. The land and rent questions were discussed by the speakers, chief among whom were O'Connor Power, M.P., John Ferguson, of Glasgow, and Mr. Landen, Barrister, of Westport. At this time, it should be borne in mind, three bad harvests in succession had told with dire effect on the farmers, and their distress was becoming extreme; the wolf of hunger was at their doors, and that sword of Damocles—the ejectment writ—hung over their heads. At this meeting some novel opinions were expressed, and a few strong resolutions taken—the novel doctrine being but the echo of what had been quite recently expounded in the United States by a very remarkable man—Michael Davitt, whose name, let me add, will go down in history with that of Hofer and Kossuth and William Tell; for his record is a paradigm of true patriotism, and the voluntary sacrifice of his liberty, in his country's cause, not once but often, as great, almost, as that of the noble Roman leaping into the gulf to save the city. It was at his instance this meeting was held; but through the accident of missing a train, he was not present.

Michael Davitt was a native of a spot close to where this meeting was held. The earliest impression indelibly stamped on his memory by the sorrowful circumstances that attended it, was the eviction of himself and his family from their home. They emigrated to England, where in time Michael went to work in a factory, and, unfortunately, lost his arm by an accident. Exile and lapse of time did not efface the recollection of that sorrowful scene, where he and his kindred were flung out on the roadside; on the contrary, the condition of the working classes in England, which contrasted so favorably with that of his own poor countrymen, impressed him more and more that the legalized oppression which executed this wickedness in broad day, invited universal execration, and called to Heaven for vengeance on its perpetrators. Like Hannibal, but mentally, he registered a vow on his country's altar to devote his life and talents to overturn the oppressive system, and crush the malignant power of Landlordism.

For his part in the Fenian conspiracy he was tried and sentenced to fifteen years' penal servitude, of which he served eight years. Immediately on his release he went to America, and, as before mentioned, promulgated the doctrine of "The land for the people." Returning to Ireland, he caused the above-named meeting at Irishtown to be convened by circular. This was the first of its kind. It was followed by others—nearly all as large—in every part of the country. As the summer advanced, the distress in the Western counties increased. Mr. Parnell and his colleagues repeatedly stated the fact in the House of Commons, and invited government aid, but the premier of the day—the dilettante Disraeli—was as the deaf adder to the tale of Irish distress. Mr. Parnell then went to Ireland, and entered heartily into the Land agitation. He told the tenant farmers at a meeting in Westport to "keep a grip of their holdings," and this dictum, to their credit, they obeyed; and it proved the great distinguishing belligerent feature of this movement; it was no longer words, but a brave defense of their homes and little property against landlord rapacity. In October the Land League was regularly organized in Dublin, with Mr. Parnell as President; Thomas Brennan, Secretary; and Patrick Egan, Treasurer. Michael Davitt and others went through the country and organized local Land League clubs in all the towns of any note, and ere the end of the year, the Land League in strength of numbers and effective force for a determined struggle, surpassed any movement hitherto attempted in the country.

The extreme poverty of the "Western farmers excited universal sympathy. Two relief committees, one under charge of the Lady-Lieutenant, the Duchess of Marlboro, the other presided over by the Lord Mayor, sat in Dublin to collect and distribute relief. Mr. Parnell and Mr. John Dillon, went on their memorable mission of charity to the United States in December, where a large sum was raised for the suffering people. The New York Herald, on this occasion did noble work by opening a relief fund in its columns, which it headed with the magnificent sum of twenty thousand dollars. The Irish World, also, for its unceasing efforts on behalf of the famine-stricken people, and the immense sums of money it was instrumental in raising at that period and every week during the existence of the Land League, has merited the undying gratitude of the Irish race. The United States Government gave a warship—the Constitution—to bring over the supplies of provisions collected in the States for the same charitable object.

Toward the end of 1879, Lord Beaconsfield (Mr. Disraeli having been raised to the peerage with this title) and his cabinet got ousted from office by a combination of adverse circumstances. In April, 1880, a general election was held and the Liberals returned to power, with Mr. Gladstone at the helm. The new ministry attempted to stem the torrent of agitation in Ireland, which had then reached high water, by introducing one of those half-hearted measures called the Disturbance Bill; but that sleepy institution, the House of Lords, when it went up for their consideration, saw, perhaps, something in its provisions to disturb their normal somnolence, and vetoed it instantly. The Land League may be said to have been in the zenith of its power at this period. In membership it counted by millions, and its treasury was continually replenished by large sums transmitted by the treasurer of the American wing of the organization, the late Rev. Lawrence Walsh, of Waterbury, Conn., and also by the Irish World, of New York, as well as by money raised in Ireland.

The numerous open-air meetings held every week chiefly on Sundays—were not surpassed in point of numbers by those of the Repeal or Tithe agitations, and of the intelligence and earnestness of those who attended them, daily proof was afforded by the bold, unyielding opposition offered on almost every occasion to the executive of that loving legal instrument, the ejectment writ. The advent of the sheriff and his posse of "peelers" in the neighborhood was heralded by the ringing of the local chapel bell, and as at the whistle of Roderick Dhu all his clansmen sprang from the heather, so in a twinkling all the "boys"—some of them of the mature age of sixty or seventy—and the dear girls swarmed to the rescue. And a rescue it very often proved, when it happened to be a seizure for rent. On such occasions, usually after the seizure had been effected, the crowd surrounded the bailiffs and police, badgered and worried them, drove the confiscated cow in one direction, and the sacrificial pigs in another, and crippled the well-meant efforts of the rent-raising expedition.

It was at this period that the gentle Mr. Boycott, came into public notice, and earned for himself immortality in the next edition of Webster's Dictionary. His crime was not an uncommon one—the taking of an evicted tenant's farm—but he had other bad points, and his reputation was altogether unsavory. The punishment meted out to him was the same as dealt to others, but in an aggravated form. "Boycotting," as it came to be called, was ostracism and worse: it was to be shunned by one's species, even as the rooks take wing at the sight of the scarecrow. At this time, also, the English press, quite alarmed at the boldness and progress of the Land League, got up among them the "outrage" mill, for the manufacture of hideous tales. of midnight barbarities by Irish peasants, of the cutting off of cows' tails and men's ears; and these, in most cases, were afterward shown to have been cut out of whole cloth. The following gentlemen were indicted in October, 1880, for inciting the tenant farmers to pay no rent; Messrs. Parnell, Dillon, Brennan, Egan, Boyton and some others. A Dublin jury were manly enough on this occasion to do the right thing—they disagreed and the prosecution was dropped.

Early in the parliamentary session of 1881, Mr. Gladstone, hounded on by the "outrage mill" wing of the press, and his half frightened followers, who began to appreciate the Land League as a formidable organization, introduced the Coercion Bill, and in doing so, held out the promise of a Land Reform measure to follow. The Coercion Act was passed, but not until it encountered all the obstructive tactics of the Irish party, and after the determined resistance offered to its passage had been protracted for a whole month. The Coercion Act was followed by the enactment of a set of stringent rules—substantially a Coercion Act also—for the House of Commons itself. This penal code was, of course, framed for the extinguishment of the obnoxious party in the House—a muzzle for the Obstruction dog, and a clipping of the wings of the Irish oratorical bird.

On the 7th of April, 1881, Mr. Gladstone introduced his Irish Land Bill, which became law on the 22d of August following. The main feature of the bill was the establishment of Land courts throughout the country to arbitrate between landlords and tenants, and with power to adjudicate a scale of fair rents in all cases where lands were held by tenants-at-will. It also offered facilities for the tenant to become the owner of his holding—the partial creation of a peasant-proprietary—by a government loan of a proportion of the purchase money to be advanced under certain conditions. Though this bill was a wonderful advance on Mr. Gladstone's first concession in this direction in 1870, yet it had some very serious defects rendering it almost practically useless to the majority of tenants who were in arrear for rent—in many cases for two or three years' rent.

This condition of the tenant made him invalid in law and put him out of court. An equally grave defect of the bill was the omission—intentional or otherwise—to offer any opposition to the eviction crusade which was daily devastating the country and depopulating whole districts. Taken on the whole, however—granting that its beneficial provisions could be availed of—it was such a boon as a British ministry never hitherto dreamed of bestowing on Ireland; but not to them, save to the able and humane statesman at the head of the cabinet, Mr. Gladstone, is the merit of this measure due.

The Land Bill was won by the Land League. "The goal they had struggled to reach, lay a long way ahead of it, perhaps; but beyond this point, the Leaguers made no perceptible advance, and in a retrospect of their long struggle they can point with pride to this achievement as a signal triumph.