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Irish Land League

 

 

 

 

After the Great Famine of 1845-50, Irish agriculture recovered steadily – until the harvest failed again in 1877, at the same time as North American agricultural products flooded the market. The leases, which had to be paid to English landowners and which could be endured during the prosperous years, were not lowered, however, and since they were at the same time a kind of symbol of class society, they also became a symbol of economic misery.

This provided a brilliant opportunity for the Irish nationalists of the cities, for whom the English landowners represented the foreign government. Until then, they had seldom cared about rural problems, but now a number of people within the Irish Republican Brotherhood began to build an alliance between the urban nationalists and the economically distressed peasants.

The alliance was based on ”constructive disagreement” and consisted of centrally located members of the Irish party in the British Parliament, the Republican Brotherhood and a newly built organization that spread rapidly, especially in Western Ireland, and relied not only on the tenants themselves but also on the support of parish priests. and retailers who relied on them: the Irish Land League.

The tactics were four:

The most famous was to organize boycotts – the word comes from the social isolation that the Land League imposed on the English estate manager John Boycott for his brutal methods and which was also applied against unsympathetic peasants. Illustration see above.

The most effective was to invent so much hassle for landowners who wanted to collect the rents – to pay in small installments, to appeal to courts, to block the roads, etc. – that the collection became so expensive that the landowners voluntarily agreed to a reduction.

A supporting tactic was, with the help of the jury system in the British courts, to have as many evictions as possible ruled illegal or at least to give the evicted tenant damages for his improvements made, that the penalty was ineffective

Ultimately, the Land League was able to provide support to evicted farmers thanks to fundraisers among the Irish in the United States.

The purpose of the campaign was not always clear. There was a tension between those who wanted low secure leases, ”the three F’s” - Fixed tenure, Fair rents and Free sale, i.e the right of possession, decent leases and the lessee’s right to sell their lease, and those who considered that only land reform and farmers’ property rights would help. The tension was not least due to the fact that many tenants were quite wealthy and in turn leased out land. However, the movement managed to allow this disagreement to remain ”constructive”, i.e to contribute to a broadened base that did not interfere with the movement’s practical work.

While local justice in Western Ireland was increasingly taken over by the Land League, English-owned estates became increasingly worthless. As early as 1881, the government gave up, after having tried in vain to stop the movement by arresting its leaders. The three F’s were written into the law, and the estates began to be bought up by the state to be sold cheaply in small pieces to the tenants.

The Irish ”land war” can be seen as a precursor to 20th century peasant movements for land reform. Its most lasting result, however, was that from now on the peasants became a backbone of the Irish national movement, which for the first time had a clear victory to point to. Plus, of course, the immediate misery was remedied.

Reading
Paul Bew: Land and the national question in Ireland 1858-1882, Gill and Macmillan 1978

 

 

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