The Land War and its Significance, 1848-1903

39. With the failure of the rising the nation turned with new fierceness to the war for the land.

England, by striking down the prosperity of Ireland in its own interest, had struck away the resident Ascendancy it had placed in Ireland. The population of Ireland was now almost wholly that of the ancient Irish nation. This made the war significant. The people lived as tenants where they had been freemen and possessors. They were rackrented, harassed and compelled to live in squalor where they had been builders of a polity and a State. And those who by force of arms had effected the change, and brought them to this pass, now had returned whence they came, to spend there the gains so gotten. Therefore, if the tenants could break their power, and win back the land to their possession, a state of affairs would be created approximately the same as had existed before the disruption of the National Polity. The polity itself would be lacking, but the foundation on which that polity had been built would be secured. Nor was this only a strange historical symbol in the renewal of a nation. It was actually the prompting cause of the Land War. It was, indeed, almost as if the nation had become a person, and had consciously willed the result. For when the people arose and demanded their land, they demanded it as a right, like men who, though they might have lost the fact of possession, had never lost the thought and voice of possession. They did not, as others might have, seek amelioration of their intolerable state; they demanded back their own, and as they did so they acted in some remarkable reminiscences of their old law. When they withheld rents, they withheld them as a declaration of war, as they might withhold vexatious tributes imposed by a conqueror. When they shot bailiffs and agents, they shot them as they would transgressors. Then suddenly in the height of the war they enforced the legal penalty of their old law.

"The body of law," reads an old text, "which all Ireland enacted .... none dared to transgress; and he that perchance did so was outlawed from the men of Ireland." The old law, abolished with their social order, lived now in intuition; and with the present stirring of emotion intuition awoke and enforced the law. The people outlawed the landlord and all his underlings. They withheld all dealings from him. In the words of their new leader, they shunned him in the marketplace and on the road. They made his life impossible in the social order, because he made their social order impossible. It was a remarkable act; it was a remarkable enforcement of law; and it was all the more remarkable because it was the emergence of the old polity in the fight for that on which the old polity was based. And as though to make the contrast all the more remarkable, the foreign Government was compelled to withdraw its own law, and re-enforce Coercion.