seamus dubhghaill

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


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Birth of William O’Brien, Journalist & Politician

william-o-brienWilliam O’Brien, journalist and politician who is for several years second only to Charles Stewart Parnell among Irish Nationalist leaders, is born on October 2, 1852 in Mallow, County Cork. He is perhaps most important for his Plan of Campaign (1886), by which Irish tenant farmers withhold all rent payments from landlords who refuse to lower their rents and instead pay the money into a mutual defense fund on which evicted tenants can draw.

O’Brien shares his primary education with a townsman with whom he is later to have a close political connection, Canon Patrick Augustine Sheehan of Doneraile. He enjoys his secondary education at the Cloyne diocesan college, which results in his being brought up in an environment noted for its religious tolerance. He greatly values having had this experience from an early age, which strongly influences his later views for the need of such tolerance in Irish national life.

A journalist from 1869, O’Brien is appointed editor of the Irish Land League’s weekly United Ireland by Parnell in 1881. In October of that year the British authorities suppress the paper and put O’Brien in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, along with Parnell and others. There he draws up a No Rent Manifesto, which, when read at a Land League meeting, results in the outlawing of the League. Released from prison in 1882, he resumes the editorship of United Ireland, and in 1883 he is elected to the British House of Commons, remaining there until 1895. His “plan of campaign” is disavowed by Parnell but nonetheless stirs up fierce agitation. To suppress the movement, the British government passes the Criminal Law and Procedure (Ireland) Act 1887, under which O’Brien is jailed again.

For some time following the O’Shea divorce case (1889–90), in which Parnell is corespondent, O’Brien attempts to mediate between the Parnellites and their opponents, although he sides with the majority in rejecting Parnell’s continued leadership of the Irish Home Rule struggle. In 1902 he supports the Land Conference, which secures agreement between landlords and tenants’ representatives and results in George Wyndham‘s Land Purchase Act (1903), which is designed to turn Irish tenant farmers into occupying owners.

In 1898 O’Brien founds the United Irish League, and in 1910, after control of that group passes to the Parnellite John Redmond, he establishes the All-for-Ireland League in opposition to the older organization. Most of his personal following, however, join Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin party by the end of World War I.

Retiring from political life, O’Brien contents himself with writing and declines Éamon de Valera‘s offer to stand for Fianna Fáil in the 1927 general election. He dies suddenly at the age of 75 on February 25, 1928 while on a visit to London with his wife. His remains rest in Mallow, and one of the principal streets in the town bears his name to this day. His head-bust overlooks the town Council’s Chamber Room and one of his finest portraits hangs in University College Cork.


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Founding of the Irish National Land League

land-league-posterThe Irish National Land League, one of the most important political organizations in Irish history which seeks to help poor tenant farmers, is founded at the Imperial Hotel in Castlebar, County Mayo, on October 21, 1879. Its primary aim is to abolish landlordism in Ireland and enable tenant farmers to own the land they work on. The national organization is modeled on the Land League of Mayo, which Michael Davitt had helped found earlier in the year.

At the founding meeting Charles Stewart Parnell is elected president of the league. Davitt, Andrew Kettle, and Thomas Brennan are appointed as honorary secretaries. This unites practically all the different strands of land agitation and tenant rights movements under a single organisation.

Parnell, Davitt, John Dillon, and others including Cal Lynn then go to the United States to raise funds for the League with spectacular results. Branches are also set up in Scotland, where the Crofters Party imitates the League and secures a reforming Act in 1886.

The government introduces the Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870, which proves largely ineffective. It is followed by the marginally more effective Land Acts of 1880 and 1881. These establish a Land Commission that starts to reduce some rents. Parnell together with all of his party lieutenants including Father Eugene Sheehy, known as “the Land League priest,” go into a bitter verbal offensive and are imprisoned in October 1881 under the Protection of Person and Property Act 1881 in Kilmainham Gaol for “sabotaging the Land Act.” It is from here that the No-Rent Manifesto is issued, calling for a national tenant farmer rent strike until “constitutional liberties” are restored and the prisoners freed. It has a modest success In Ireland, and mobilizes financial and political support from the Irish Diaspora.

Although the League discourages violence, agrarian crimes increase widely. Typically a rent strike is followed by eviction by the police and the bailiffs. Tenants who continue to pay the rent can be subject to a boycott by local League members. Where cases go to court, witnesses would change their stories, resulting in an unworkable legal system. This in turn leads on to stronger criminal laws being passed that are described by the League as “Coercion Acts.”

The bitterness that develops helps Parnell later in his Home Rule campaign. Davitt’s views as seen in his famous slogan: “The land of Ireland for the people of Ireland” is aimed at strengthening the hold on the land by the peasant Irish at the expense of the alien landowners. Parnell aims to harness the emotive element, but he and his party are strictly constitutional. He envisions tenant farmers as potential freeholders of the land they have rented.


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The Kilmainham Treaty Signed by Parnell and Gladstone

land-league-posterThe Kilmainham Treaty, an informal agreement between Liberal British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, is signed on April 25, 1882.

The agreement extends the terms of the Second Land Act of 1881, with which Gladstone intends to make broad concessions to Irish tenant farmers. But the Act has many weaknesses and fails to satisfy Parnell and the Irish Land League because it does not provide a regulation for rent-arrears or rent-adjustments in the case of poor harvests or deteriorated economic conditions.

After the Second Land Act becomes law on August 22, 1881, Parnell, in a series of speeches in September and October, launches violent attacks on Chief Secretary for Ireland William Forster and even on Gladstone. Gladstone warns him not to frustrate the Act, but Parnell repeats his contempt for the Prime Minister. On October 12, the Cabinet, fully convinced that Parnell is bent on ruining the Act, takes action to have him arrested in Dublin the next day.

Parnell is conveyed to Kilmainham Gaol, where he joins several other prominent members of the Land League who have also protested against the Act and been jailed. There, together with William O’Brien, he enacts the No Rent Manifesto campaign. He is well aware that some in the Liberal Cabinet, in particular Joseph Chamberlain, are opposed to the mass internment of suspects then taking place across Ireland under the Protection of Person and Property Act 1881. The repressions do not have the desired effect, with the result that Forster becomes isolated within the Cabinet, and coercion becomes increasingly unpopular with the Liberal Party.

In gaol Parnell begins to turn over in his mind the possibility of coming to an arrangement with the Government. He has been corresponding with Katharine O’Shea who engages her husband, Captain William O’Shea, in April 1882 to act as a go-between for negotiations on behalf of Parnell. O’Shea contacts Gladstone on May 5 having been informed by Parnell that should the Government settle the rent-arrears problem on the terms he proposes, he is confident that he can curtail outrages. He further urges for the quick release of the League’s organizers in the West who will then work for pacification. This shocks Forster but impresses Gladstone.

Accordingly on May 2, Gladstone informs the House of Commons of the release of Parnell and the resignation of Forster. Gladstone always denies there has been a “Kilmainham Treaty,” merely accepting that he “had received informations.” He keeps his side of the arrangement by subsequently having the Arrears of Rent Act 1882 enacted. The government pays the landlords £800,000 in back rent owed by 130,000 tenant farmers.

Calling the agreement a “treaty” shows how Parnell manages to place a spin on the agreement in a way that strengthens Irish nationalism, since he manages to force concessions from the British while in gaol. Since real treaties are usually signed between two states, it leads to the idea that Ireland could become independent from Britain. After the “treaty” is agreed, those imprisoned with Parnell are released from gaol. This transforms Parnell from a respected leader to a national hero.

The Phoenix Park Murders, in which two top British officials in Ireland are assassinated, take place four days later and undo much of the goodwill generated by it in Britain. Though strongly condemned by Parnell, the murders show that he cannot control nationalist “outrages” as he has undertaken to do.