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Response to Review no. 503

I am grateful for the comments made by Fergus Campbell in his review. In particular, I can only hope that the questions raised in my book and in Campbell’s own groundbreaking work (1) will inspire future research into this period of Irish history and into John Redmond’s Irish party. I would be the first to agree that more work needs to be done on the social composition of organisations such as the United Irish League (UIL), the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) and the Irish Volunteers. Campbell himself has provided a model of how such work can be done in relation to the UIL and the Volunteers, centred on County Galway.

My observations on Campbell’s review will, however, concentrate on the areas of disagreement between us. The most significant of these relates to the land. It appears that Campbell overstates my argument, transforming it into a statement that the land question was ‘solved’ and the UIL (the Irish party organisation which led the land agitation in the 1900s) was in ‘irreversible decline’. What I did find, in my study of five midland and East Connacht counties, was a clear pattern of agrarian offences and land disputes:

  • There was a pronounced decline in the immediate pre-war years.
  • This was especially the case for cattle drives (an average for 1912–14 of 20, against 49 p.a. in the post-Ranch War years of 1909–11) and for boycotts (an average of 7 recorded at the end of January 1913–15, against 54 in the preceding three years) (pp. 24–5).
  • Ambitious politicians who tried to sustain agrarian agitations (J. P. Farrell MP for the Irish party in Longford, Laurence Ginnell MP against the party in Westmeath) failed in the immediate pre-war period.
  • Comment was repeatedly made by the press, police and politicians in the five counties on the state of quiet and ‘apathy’ pervading local politics – at least until the Home Rule crisis broke, in nationalist Ireland, in the autumn of 1913.
  • Even in 1914, ‘white gloves’ were still periodically handed out to judges at court sessions across the five counties, in celebration of their ‘crimeless’ conditions. The RIC county inspector for Roscommon (which had been at the heart of the Ranch War of 1907–8 and would later, as Campbell notes, be a centre of agrarian unrest in 1920), made his first nil return in January 1914, with no land agitation, drumming parties or boycotting (p. 28).

Campbell cites data on land purchase in my book (derived from The Ireland of Today, published by The Times in 1913), showing percentage rates of purchase up to March 1912 (pp. 25–6). For the five counties the average percentage was 45.4 per cent; for Connacht 37.8 per cent and for all-Ireland 38.2 per cent. Campbell uses this as evidence that the glass of land purchase was distinctly half-empty rather than half-full, but ignores the qualifications made in my book about these data. They did not include purchases contracted but uncompleted, were based on acreage and not holdings, and included non-agricultural land such as woods, bogs and marsh in the denominator. All of these led to the true rate of land purchase being understated.

Within the five counties, there were exceptions to the pattern of a steadily declining land agitation. County Sligo was more disturbed and even saw an upturn in activity in 1914 (as occurred elsewhere in the south and west of Ireland). Here, the grievance of farmers was local and specific – the snail’s pace of purchases and reorganisations being carried out by the Congested Districts Board (CDB). Particularly galling was the contrast to CDB activity in County Roscommon, where the political boss and CDB board member, John Fitzgibbon MP, ensured that patronage was dispensed and that land purchase proceeded apace. According to the Ireland of Today data, 55 per cent of land in Roscommon had been purchased by March 1912, against only 31.5 per cent in Sligo (pp. 26, 29).

The other exception was Leitrim, where there was almost no activity at all. In the three years 1912–14, Leitrim saw just one cattle drive, no unlet grazing farms and, at year-ends, only one boycott. As early as 1909, the Leitrim county inspector reported that over 80 per cent of tenants had purchased and were ‘thrifty and contented’. Even the Ireland of Today percentage for March 1912, at 45.4 per cent, was well above the Connacht and all-Ireland averages (p. 26). I continue to believe that the near absence of land agitation in Leitrim and continued disaffection in Sligo were correlated to local rates of land purchase.

In the immediate pre-war years, land purchase and rising farm incomes did take the steam out of the land agitation in significant areas of Ireland. I do not, however, believe that the 1903 Land Act ‘solved’ the land question in Ireland. Disputes did not vanish overnight and agrarian rhetoric still flowed from the lips of local politicians. As I evidenced in my book, there remained an underlying hunger for land which, during the First World War, led to the almost-instant demonisation of the CDB when it had to suspend operations because of Treasury constraints. The paralysis of land purchase from late-1914 onwards, the persistent wartime fears of ‘famine’ (with a far greater focus on conacre and tillage) and a breakdown of local authority all stoked the revived Sinn Féin campaign for conacre in 1918 and the acute agrarian disturbances which broke out in 1920.

In the five counties, a decline of UIL activity before 1914 was linked to the reduction of land agitation. Comments on the reluctance of farmers and country districts to remain politically active were widespread. Whether measured by the volume of branch-supplied press reports, fund raising, or the number of branches in good standing with the National Directory, the UIL’s decline was material (pp. 45–8). In North Westmeath, its condition was critical, following the split there between followers of John Hayden and Laurence Ginnell. Generally, there was speculation as to whether the UIL, in its present form, could continue to exist after the achievement of Home Rule. Despite this, it is only with hindsight that the UIL’s decline could be considered ‘irreversible’. Outside of North Westmeath, the UIL could still be characterised as experiencing a cycle of decline (eventually followed by recovery) such as it and its predecessor organisations had already experienced several times. Moreover, the local impact upon the Irish party of the UIL’s decline was largely offset by the robust growth of the AOH – overtly sectarian, more militant, more ‘social’ and appealing to younger men, as well as controlling personal and political advancement through its political ‘machine’. Again, the local exception to the pattern of pervasive AOH growth was supplied by Westmeath, but my overall conclusion was that the Irish party was ‘anything but terminally ill’ before 1914. It was far more ‘representative’ than ‘rotten’ (pp. 250, 257).

My final comments on Campbell’s review relate to the subject of ‘localism’ and the extent to which it was manifested in the Roscommon Associated Estates Committee (RAEC), led by Canon Thomas Cummins in Roscommon town. Throughout my work, I have been struck by how much pre-war provincial politics conformed to Theodore Hoppen’s observation of Victorian Ireland: of ‘a penetrating and tenacious political culture in which limited goals and local priorities could, more often than not, count for more than heroic principles and dramatic brilliance’. (2)

Cummins was the embodiment of such ‘localism’; an energetic, determined man, who believed in clerical leadership of local society, and in his own personal leadership. The cause of his breach with the Roscommon town UIL in 1911 was not ostensible but real, resulting from the town UIL reneging on a deal struck (concerning the choice of a UIL candidate) between Cummins and the local MP, John Hayden. The affront to Cummins’s status as a leader of the town was never forgiven. The breach also took place some months before he reached the conclusion that the Roscommon’s Town Tenants’ Association, of which he had just become president, was not up to the job.

Specifically, town tenants in Roscommon faced the same issues that frustrated town tenants across the south and west of Ireland. Though neighbouring agricultural estates were coming up for sale, there was no legal obligation on their landlords to sell to town tenants. Statutory agencies (the CDB, the Estates Commission) could only advance funds for purchase if townlands were part of neighbouring agricultural estates, and even then they could only advance funds to direct tenants, not to tenants of middlemen. Reflecting these frustrations, town tenants’ associations were active across the five counties in the pre-war years. In Roscommon town, the Essex Estate was just one of several on which the Town Tenants’ Association had made no progress.

Cummins, therefore, formed his new Estates Association, the RAEC, and became its driving force, pursuing a thoroughgoing policy. For town purchase to go through, he had to secure the purchase of neighbouring agricultural estates. For tenants of middlemen to be included, all the relevant estates owning Roscommon town had to be bought. For the town to be regenerated (for unemployment to be reduced, for emigration to be stopped), the grass ‘prairies’ surrounding the town had to be broken up and resettled (p. 108). The rhetoric used by Cummins and his associates was consistently anti-landlord and anti-grazier, but was not in any way unusual when compared to that used by other clerics, newspapers and politicians across the five counties. Moreover, Cummins’s rhetoric was just that – he consistently refused to sanction any form of intimidation or agrarian ‘crime’. Hayden and his newspaper, the Roscommon Messenger, continued to support the RAEC. Stalwarts of the ‘clique’ running the town UIL attended RAEC meetings, though Cummins never let them into the RAEC’s inner workings.

Cummins remained on distant terms with the town UIL and became increasingly frustrated by ‘the party’s’ lack of support for the RAEC (particularly from the CDB board member, Fitzgibbon). Nevertheless, he contributed to the party’s Home Rule fund and, typically, made his contribution public knowledge. During the World War, he spoke bitterly about the effects of the war on Irish life, but only became an open, public supporter of Sinn Féin just before the 1918 general election. Again, he had parted company with an organisation which he no longer considered fit for purpose. The distinctiveness or otherwise of his political ideology can be gauged from his call for support of Sinn Féin, in late 1918, as ‘a new, virile Irish party’ (p. 115).

Cummins epitomised the prevalence of the local and the personal, in at least five counties of ‘middle Ireland’, in the years before 1914. It was in 1914 that national ideologies again came to dominate local politics, when volunteering burst across provincial, nationalist Ireland, followed by the trauma of the World War. It was also in 1914 that the decline of the UIL accelerated to become a slump. Only then did the limitations of the conservative, conciliatory, ‘Redmondism’ of the Irish party’s leader, for many years a minority taste in provincial, nationalist Ireland and within the Irish party, become so cruelly exposed.

Notes

  1. Fergus Campbell, Land and Revolution: Nationalist Politics in the West of Ireland, 1891–1921 (Oxford, 2005). Back to (1)
  2. K. Theodore Hoppen, Elections, Politics and Society in Ireland, 1832–1885 (Oxford, 1984), pp. viii–ix. Back to (2)