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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Founding of the Ladies’ Land League

Anna Parnell, younger sister of Irish Nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, founds the Committee of the Ladies’ Land League, an auxiliary of the Irish National Land League, in Dublin on January 31, 1881. The organisation grows rapidly. By May 1881 there are 321 branches in Ireland, with branches also in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The organization is set up to take over the work of the Irish National Land League after its leadership is imprisoned. They raise money for the Land League prisoners and their dependants. They encourage women to resist eviction from their cottages. If families are evicted, the Ladies’ Land League provides wooden huts to the evicted families.

The ladies find themselves with additional work late in 1881. The Land League has started its own paper, United Ireland, in August 1881, but towards the end of the year the government tries to close it down. William O’Brien, the editor, continues to smuggle out copy from Kilmainham Gaol, but it falls to the ladies to get it printed. This is done first in London and then for a while in Paris. Eventually the ladies print and circulate it themselves from an office at 32 Lower Abbey Street.

On Sunday, March 12, 1881, just more than a month after the formation of the league, a pastoral letter of Archbishop of Dublin Edward McCabe is read out in all the churches of the diocese. It condemns the league in the strongest terms, deploring that “our Catholic daughters, be they matrons or virgins, are called forth, under the flimsy pretext of charity, to take their stand in the noisy street of life.” McCabe is not representative of all bishops, particularly Archbishop of Cashel Thomas Croke, a strong supporter of the original league. Croke publishes a letter in the Freeman’s Journal challenging the “monstrous imputations” in McCabe’s pastoral.

The dissension is revived somewhat in the summer of 1882. McCabe, now a Cardinal, and another bishop try to have a public condemnation of the Ladies’ Land League inserted into an address by the Catholic Bishops of Ireland in June. The other bishops resist on the basis that it would probably do more harm than good. They content themselves with expressing their hope that “the women of Ireland will continue to be the glory of their sex and the noble angels of stainless modesty.” When newspapers interpret this as a condemnation of the league, Croke writes again to the Freeman’s Journal to deny that this had been the intention of the bishops.

The order banning the Irish National Land League makes no direct reference to the Ladies’ Land League but many police officers try to insist that the ban includes the women’s group. Eventually, on December 16, 1881, Inspector General Hillier of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) orders the police to stop the women’s meetings. Anna Parnell defiantly issues a notice to all Ladies’ Land League branches in the country calling on them all to hold a meeting on January 1, 1882.

The prominent resident magistrate, Major Clifford Lloyd, claims that the huts built for evicted tenants are being used as posts from which the evicted tenants can intimidate anyone who attempts to take over their vacated holdings. In April 1882, he threatens that anyone attempting to erect huts will be imprisoned. That month, Anne Kirke is sent down from Dublin to Tulla, County Clare, to oversee the erection of huts for a large number of evicted tenants. Lloyd has her arrested and imprisoned for three months.

The government does not wish to be seen to use the Coercion Act to imprison women, but another stratagem is used. In December 1881 21-year old Hannah Reynolds is imprisoned under an ancient statute from the reign of Edward III, the original purpose of which was to keep prostitutes off the streets. The statute empowers magistrates to imprison “persons not of good fame” if they do not post bail as a guarantee of their good behavior. Since Reynolds claims her behavior is good, she refuses to pay bail and spends a month in Cork gaol. In all, thirteen women serve jail sentences under this statute.

On May 3, 1882 Parnell and other leaders are released from jail after agreeing to the Kilmainham Treaty. This includes some improvement in the 1881 Land Act. He now wishes to turn his attention more to the Home Rule question. The Irish National Land League is replaced by the Irish National League. Parnell also wants to see an end to the Ladies’ Land League. There had been increased violence while he was in jail and he sees Anna as too radical. The organization has an overdraft of £5,000 which Parnell agrees to clear from central funds only if the organization is dissolved. At a meeting of the Central Committee on August 10, 1882 the Ladies’ Land League votes to dissolve itself. Anna Parnell herself is not in attendance at that meeting having suffered a physical and mental collapse after the sudden death of her sister Fanny the previous month.

The records of the Ladies’ Land League are lost to history in 1916. Jennie Wyse Power, who had served on the Central Committee, had kept them in her house in Henry Street, Dublin. When fire spreads from Sackville Street during the 1916 Easter Rising, her house is destroyed and the records perish in the blaze.

(Pictured: Lady Land Leaguers at work at the Dublin office)


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Bloody Sunday 1887 in London

Bloody Sunday takes place in London on November 13, 1887, when a march against unemployment and coercion in Ireland, as well as demanding the release of Member of Parliament (MP) William O’Brien, is attacked by the Metropolitan Police Service and the British Army. The demonstration is organised by the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Irish National League. Violent clashes take place between the police and demonstrators, many “armed with iron bars, knives, pokers and gas pipes.” A contemporary report notes that 400 are arrested and 75 persons are badly injured, including many police, two policemen being stabbed and one protester bayonetted.

William Ewart Gladstone‘s espousal of the cause of Irish home rule has split the Liberal Party and makes it easy for the Conservatives to gain a majority in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. The period from 1885 to 1906 is one of Tory dominance, with short intermissions. Coercion Acts are the answer of British governments perturbed by rural unrest in Ireland, and they involve various degrees of suspension of civil rights. Although one purpose of the November 13 demonstration is to protest about the handling of the Irish situation by the Conservative government of Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, it has a much wider context.

The Long Depression, starting in 1873 and lasting almost to the end of the century, creates difficult social conditions in Britain, similar to the economic problems that drive rural agitation in Ireland. Falling food prices create rural unemployment, which results in both emigration and internal migration. Workers move to the towns and cities in thousands, eroding employment, wages and working conditions. By November 1887, unemployed workers’ demonstrations from the East End of London have been building up for more than two years. There have already been clashes with the police and with the members of upper class clubs. Trafalgar Square is seen symbolically as the point at which the working-class East End meets the upper-class West End of London, a focus of class conflict and an obvious flashpoint.

This attracts the attention of the small but growing socialist movement – the Marxists of both the Social Democratic Federation and Socialist League, and the reformist socialists of the Fabian Society. Police and government attempts to suppress or divert the demonstrations also bring in the radical wing of the Liberal Party and free speech activists from the National Secular Society.

Some 30,000 persons encircle Trafalgar Square as at least 10,000 protesters march in from several different directions, led by Elizabeth Reynolds, John Burns, William Morris, Annie Besant and Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, who are primarily leaders of the Social Democratic Federation. Also marching are the Fabian playwright George Bernard Shaw and Charlotte Wilson. Two thousand police and 400 troops are deployed to halt the demonstration. Burns and Cunninghame Graham are arrested and imprisoned for six weeks. Annie Besant, who is a Marxist, Fabian and secularist, speaks at the rally and offers herself for arrest, but the police decline to do so. Of the 400 arrested, 50 are detained in custody.

In the fighting, many rioters are injured by police truncheons and under the hooves of police horses. There are both infantry and cavalry present. Although the infantry are marched into position with bayonets fixed, they are not ordered to open fire and the cavalry are not ordered to draw their swords.

The following Sunday, November 20, sees another demonstration and more casualties. According to a report in the partisan Socialist Review, among them is a young clerk named Alfred Linnell, who is run down by a police horse, dying in hospital a fortnight later from complications of a shattered thigh.

The funeral of Linnell on December 18 provides another focus for the unemployed and Irish movements. William Morris, leader of the Socialist League, gives the main speech and advocates a holy war to prevent London from being turned into a huge prison. A smaller but similar event marks the burial of another of those killed, W. B. Curner, which takes place in January. The release of those imprisoned is celebrated on February 20, 1888, with a large public meeting. Henry Hyndman, leader of the SDF, violently denounces the Liberal Party and the Radicals who are present.

(Pictured: Bloody Sunday, 1887. This engraving from The Illustrated London News depicts a policeman being clubbed by a demonstrator as he wrests a banner from a female protester.)