The Irish Land War

Tennant Evictions during the Irish Land War

The Land War (Irish: Cogadh na Talún) 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 and some deaths in this campaign, 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 had few rights at law. The "Ulster Custom" was itself an informal extra-legal business practise designed to attract busier and richer tenants. Tenant farmers 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 on their farm, which was not the case in Britain. If they had a lease they could not sell the remaining term. Later in 1870 James Godkin's influential book "The Land-War In Ireland - A History For The Times" was published, listing the long-standing nature of the tenants' grievances and giving the name to the ensuing dispute.

Ammending the Land ActAlso in February 1870 the Prime Minister Gladstone introduced his "Act to amend the Law relating to the Occupation and Ownership of Land in Ireland", formally titled as the Landlord & Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870. 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". Wheat from new sources, such as the USA and the Ukraine, and refrigerated meat from Argentina and Australia, were imported into Europe, keeping prices low for producers there. Many consider that the spark that set off the events in Ireland was the murder of the unpopular Earl of Leitrim at Carrigart in April 1878. The three assailants went unpunished due to a lack of evidence as no witness wanted to testify against them.

Further, the term of most Irish land tenancies had reduced from a typical 31 years or "lease for three lives" in the 18th century down to annual or 11-month tenancies after 1850. This made Gladstone's attempt to equalise them with long-term English tenancies impractical, and caused tenants a considerable degree of insecurity. English tenants could also claim for the value of improvements and fertilisers when a lease came up for renewal; this sometimes applied in Ulster (the so-called "Ulster Custom"), but not in Connacht, the crucible of the Land War.

The Long Depression resulted in violence and widespread upheavals and extensive evictions when Irish tenant farmers were unable or unwilling to pay their rents and resorted to a rent strike. This was the case particularly in Connacht where the land is poorer, weather is wetter, farmers were poorer and there were fewer Royal Irish Constabulary on the ground. The first "monster meeting" (a huge rally) of tenant farmers was held on 20 April 1879 near Claremorris in County Mayo. This was followed by the localised, but worrying, 1879 famine that occurred mainly in Connacht.

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 conceded and then enacted by the British Government between 1870 and 1881. With Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of mainstream Irish nationalism and the Irish Parliamentary Party as its President, it included other agrarian 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 during 1881-82 by the new Land Commission, further discounts were sought. Agricultural labourers that were sub-tenants of tenant farmers were still expected to pay their rents.

Notice of rent strikeThe traditional view of the Land War in Ireland has been of the displacement of a Protestant Ascendancy class and the often absentee landlords. The former ascendancy had been on the decline since the Great Hunger 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 famine were Irish Catholics, but were still associated with the Ascendancy because of their wealth. A survey of the 4,000 largest Irish landlords in 1872 revealed that 71% lived on their estates or elsewhere in Ireland. By then, 43% of all proprietors were Roman Catholics, though the richest owners were mostly Anglicans.

Rent strikes often led to evictions. 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 quasi-military 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, the British army 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.


The most effective method of the Land League was the boycott, which took its name from when an unpopular landlord's agent, Charles Boycott, was ostracised 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. The boycotts were often 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.

The boycott proved an extraordinarily effective remedy against mistreatment, theoretically allowing people who believed they were being mistreated to counteract their situation purely through voluntary, non-violent, and unquestionably lawful means.

A minority also used violence on boycott-breakers and threats to ensure compliance. The fatal shooting of Peter Dempsey in 1881 was an example; he was a tenant farmer near Loughrea who was shot while walking his two daughters to Mass, using a mass path across a boycotted farm.

The boycott was particularly effective in the communities of rural Ireland. Ostracism made it very difficult to acquire food and other necessities; compliance with a boycott or leaving a community were the stark options. The unfortunate families who became victims of the boycott, sometimes by no direct fault of their own were unable to survive for long. Being outcast by the whole community made it impossible for them to feed their families or make a living. Whole generations of families were forced to move away from the communities they had lived in all their lives. Many moved to mainland Britain, to Liverpool and Scotland others took the long journey to America and Australia in their search for a better life. Family names that had been embedded in rural Ireland for centuries disappeared over night, never to return.

Alongside the Land War small nationalist groups such as the "Invincibles" murdered two senior politicians in the 1882 Phoenix Park Murders, heightening tensions. In the same year the murders of bailiffs and loyalists at Lough Mask, Maamtrasna and Castleisland were widely publicised; nationalists and Land Leaguers argued that packed pro-government juries had convicted and executed the wrong men, while their opponents argued that the victims' families had to have redress. Violence used ostensibly in the name of the League also overlapped with robbery; the murder of John O'Connell Curtin in County Kerry in November 1885, when resisting a band of "moonlighters" who wanted to rob his gun shop, came to international attention. Curtin was a Catholic tenant farmer; after his burial his family were boycotted locally for naming his murderers to the police, and were therefore obliged to sell their farm lease and leave 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 Home Rule and the eventual partition of Ireland.

After the general election of April 1880 with the land war still raging, Parnell believed then that supporting land agitation was a means to achieving his objective of self-government. Prime Minister Gladstone attempted to resolve the land question with Balfour's dual ownership Second Land Act of 1881, but it failed to eliminate tenant evictions. Parnell and his party lieutenants, William O'Brien, John Dillon, Michael Davitt and Willie Redmond went into a bitter verbal offensive against the Act and were imprisoned in October 1881 in Kilmainham Jail, together with other prominent members of the League, under the Irish Coercion Act. Together in jail it was easy to decide what action to take. The famous No Rent Manifesto was issued calling for a national tenant farmer rent strike. Finally, on 20 October the Government moved to suppress the Land League.

A genuine No Rent campaign was virtually impossible to organise, and many tenants were more interested in 'putting the Land Act to the test'. It further seemed that the Coercion Act, instead of banishing agrarian crime, had only intensified it. Although the League discouraged violence, agrarian crimes increased widely. For the ten months before the Land Act was passed (March–December 1880), the number of "outrages" were 2,379, but in the corresponding period of 1881 with the Act in full operation the numbers were 3,821. The figures to March 1882, with Parnell in jail, showed a continued increase.

Leaders of the Land War revolt; John Dillon, Chas. Stewart Parnell, Michael DavittIt was time for both sides to calm the situation. In April 1882 Parnell moved to make a deal with the government, seeing militancy would never win Home Rule. The settlement, known as the Kilmainham Treaty, involved withdrawing the manifesto and undertaking to move against agrarian crime. By 2 May all internees were released from jail, Davitt on the 6 May, the day of the Phoenix Park murders. With the Land League still suppressed, Parnell resurrected it with much ceremony together with Davitt on 17 October, proclaimed as a new organisation called the Irish National League.

Preceded by economic difficulties due to droughts in 1884 and 1887 as well as industrial depression in England causing shrinking markets,[13] the 1886-91 Plan of Campaign was a more focused version of agitation and rent strikes. Organised by Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) members such as Tim Healy, it copied Davitt's methods while disassociating the party from his more radical views. Lord Clanricarde had evicted many tenants and became the main target. 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. So did the government, and the Vatican issued "Saepe Nos" in 1888, a Papal Rescript forbidding the activities of the Land League, 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.

After the 1881 and 1885 Land Reform Acts, many Tory press commentators described 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, the IPP was by then divided into the Irish National Federation and the Irish National League over Parnell's divorce crisis.

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 a limited process of allowing tenant farmers buy their freeholds, which was greatly extended following the 1902 Land Conference, by the 1903 Wyndham Land Purchase Act. Augustine Birrell's Act of 1909 allowed for compulsory purchase, and also allowed the purchase and division of untenanted land that was being directly farmed by the owners.

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. The 1903 Act gave Irish tenant farmers a government-sponsored right to buy, which is still not available in Britain itself today.

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