Father of the Land League

Davitt seems to have left prison with the intention of creating a closer alliance between the Fenian movement and the parliamentary nationalists of the Home Rule Party/Irish Parliamentary Party. Separation had always existed between the Fenians, who were committed to Irish independence by force, and the parliamentarians, who worked for Irish Home Rule by constitutional means.

Studio portrait of Michael Davitt.

Davitt’s change in attitude was likely influenced by the efforts of the parliamentarians to help have him and other Fenian prisoners released from prison. During this time, a shift in attitudes had occurred amongst the Fenians towards the possible collaboration with the Irish parliamentarians.

In July 1878, Davitt made his first journey to America to visit his mother and sisters, who had emigrated there. During this time, he embarked on a political lecture tour across the country, which helped to re-invigorate support and morale amongst Irish-American Fenian sympathisers. In America he met John Devoy, the leader of Clan na Gael, a political organisation of radical Irish-Americans and a counterpart to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In Davitt’s time in America, he found that the American branch of Fenianism was more open-minded to new strategies than its counterparts in Ireland and England. Davitt and Devoy worked together to create what would become known as one of the “New Departure” initiatives. This was a new alliance or co-operation between the republicans (Fenians) and the constitutionalists (Home Rule Party), which proposed they work together towards Irish self-government and radical land reform. This alliance, which they proposed to Charles Stewart Parnell of the Irish Parliamentary Party, would take time to come to fruition, with initial rejection and distrust on the sides of both groups.

This new alliance was soon called into action during the Land War that began in 1879. Ireland had entered an agricultural depression due to poor harvests, falling livestock prices, and particularly bad weather. Small farmers in the West of Ireland, particularly in Mayo, were unable to pay their rents or their accumulating debts. Davitt returned to Mayo in December of 1878 to find that a Mayo Tenant’s Defence Association had been formed following a proposal by local political leader and editor of the Connacht Telegraph, James Daly.

When Davitt returned again to Mayo in early 1879, he noted the rising number of evictions of small farmers by landlords, who at that time feared the threat of famine as well as that of losing their homes. Davitt worked with James Daly to organise and publicise a mass meeting in Irishtown in April which aimed to begin the mobilisation of the tenantry. While Davitt did not attend at that time, he publicised the event amongst his Fenian contacts and engaged the speakers. An estimated crowd of 10,000 attended the meeting, which attacked the landlord system and called for a reduction in rents. The Irishtown meeting attracted the attention of both politicians and journalists, and led to the sanctioning by the IRB of the involvement of individual Fenians in agrarian agitation.

 Irish family evicted at Moyasta, County Clare. Source: Lawrence Collection, National Library of Ireland.

The next major land demonstration was held in Westport on 8th June, and had both Davitt and Parnell in attendance – the first time that the two leaders had appeared on the same platform. The demonstration attracted huge crowds, and made the demand that small tenant farmers should have the right to own their own land. Political and public support for the movement was growing, and a series of demonstrations and mass meetings followed in the summer of 1879. Davitt worked to consolidate the Mayo movement, and drew up rules for a new National Land League of Mayo, established on 16th August 1879. This provided the foundation for a new larger national body, the Irish National Land League. This was launched on October 16th, with Parnell as president of the organisation and Davitt as principal organiser. The Land League promoted the “three F’s” encouraged by earlier land reformers – fixity of tenure, fair rent, and free sale of tenant right. Radically for its time, it also promoted the ultimate aim to convert tenants into owner-occupiers and an abolition of landlordism, with a slogan of “The Land for the People”. The radical and combative nature of the League and its aims would go on to result in a number of arrests for its leaders throughout the campaign.

Photograph of Michael Davitt taken in New York City by Napoleon Sarony. The scroll he holds says “Land League, The Land for the People”.

The main initial policy adopted by the League was that tenants on an estate should work together to demand a reduction in rent, and if that, or the acceptance of a fair rent price, was rejected by the landlord, the next steps were arbitration, and in the event of eviction, a boycott of the land by the neighbourhood. One of the powerful weapons of the league was the use of social shunning by the communities – tenants were encouraged to ostracise anyone who might take over the land from which another family had been evicted.

Membership Card of the Irish Land League, detailing the objectives of the League. From the collections of the Michael Davitt Museum.

As the campaign increased, by August 1880, the League were encouraging their members to ‘hold the harvest’ through rent strikes. Davitt estimated that in 1881 there were over a thousand branches of the organisation, with around 200,000 members, and the success of the Land League had an immense impact on highlighting the land question to a national and international level.

The term of “boycott” originates from the methods used by the League against a particular English land agent, Charles Boycott, in Mayo. Following the threat of eviction, the League encouraged Boycott’s employees to withdraw their labour, and create a campaign of isolation against the agent in the local community. Boycott was to find that all assistance and services were refused to him in the area, where his workers refused to harvest his crops, and the local shops and services in the nearby town of Ballinrobe refused to serve him. As a result of the campaign against him, Boycott was forced to hire Orangemen from Cavan and Monaghan to carry out his harvest, and to provide protection by the Royal Irish Constabulary – all of which amounted to a huge cost for the British government. The campaign ended with the leaving of Boycott to return to England. Due to the perceived success of the campaign and its publicity for the League, the system of “boycotting” became a common term and practice in use.

Personal Membership Card of the Irish Land League, with nationalist imagery in the text and symbols. From the collections of the Michael Davitt Museum.

On 24th January 1881, Parliament introduced the Protection of Persons and Property (Ireland) Act (also known as the Coercion Act), which allowed for the internment of anyone suspected of involvement in the Land War. Sensing the upcoming arrest of the League leaders, Davitt radically proposed the creation of a Ladies’ Land League, who would be able to take over the work of the League if the leaders were arrested. This had been proposed by Fanny Parnell (the sister of Charles Parnell), who had previously founded an American Ladies’ Land League in the US, and had suggested an Irish equivalent. Davitt later commented that his proposal was mainly laughed at by all, and strongly opposed, but the League eventually gave their tentative agreement to “what they dreaded would be a most dangerous experiment”. The Ladies’ Land League was founded in January 1881 with Davitt as its sponsor, and was the first political organisation in Ireland to be led and run by women. As he expected, Davitt’s former ticket-of-leave from prison was revoked, and he was arrested on February 3rd. The subsequent arrests of the male leaders of the League following the introduction of the Act marked the beginning of government suppression of the League.

Illustration of Michael Davitt showing events from his career – his Land League involvement, his time in prison on a prisoner ‘cart gang’, his arrest in England, and his re-arrest and return to the punishment work of oakum picking.

Davitt would spend the next fifteen months in Portland Prison in Dorset. A further Land Bill introduced by Parliament in April 1881 introduced the first grounding for the three Fs for Irish tenants – fixity of tenure, fair rents and free sale. However, this bill was criticised by the League as insufficient, as it would not provide assistance to leaseholders or tenants in arrears.

The Ladies’ Land League proved to be an essential and improved substitution for the male Land League members during their imprisonment, and the new organisation greatly extended the work of the League. They provided practical assistance to those who faced eviction, making light and transportable prefabricated houses available for their temporary use, and they provided aid to prisoners and supported their families. Their efficiency and development caused upset amongst a number of the male League leaders, and the organisation was wound up acrimoniously in August 1882.

Examples of the Land League huts provided to evictees by the Ladies’ Land League. Photo from The Lawrence Photograph Collection, National Library of Ireland.

The first phase of the Land War ended with the ‘Kilmainham Treaty’ in May 1882 – an agreement formalised between Charles Parnell and British Prime Minister Gladstone. The agreement promised the end of the Land War in exchange for changes to the legislation of the 1881 Land Bill; which would now include assistance for leaseholders and tenants with rent arrears, as well as the release of the Land League prisoners. This treaty led to the winding down of the Land League in favour of directing the movement’s full attention to achieving parliamentary Home Rule, a disappointment to Davitt who saw this as an abandonment of the land struggle at a time when it had achieved so much. From 1882 onwards, Davitt began to advocate that land nationalisation rather than peasant proprietorship was the way forward for Ireland, a socialist-inspired idea that was roundly rejected and dismissed by his peers, and one which led to Davitt’s unfortunate political marginalisation.

View our video on Michael Davitt and the Irish Land League