O’Leary, Redmond and the land

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Home Rule, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2007), Letters, Volume 15

Sir,

—I read with interest D. R. O’Connor Lysaght’s letter in the lastissue on the different strands of Irish nationalist thought dealt within the previous (March/April 2007) issue. I think he misinterpreted thetheme of my short piece on John O’Leary, however, which was concernedsolely with analysing why Yeats came to associate O’Leary with apoetical idea of a non-confessional and ‘romantic Ireland’.
Contemporary Irish Protestants and Catholics often spoke as if allof humanity was either on ‘their side’ or ‘the other’, or else wereoutright atheists that did not belong in the modern world at all:rationalism had never replaced religion as a key factor in shapingIrish political culture or most people’s idea of the purpose ofeducation. Even Yeats could see that. Why is this important? Considerthis: both John Redmond and Edward Carson were, in many respects, fineexamples of the Victorian ideal of a rationally minded, no-nonsensepolitician, something which is evident in many of their earliestpolitical speeches. By the 1910s, however, both had been reduced tobehaving almost like two rival princes in the seventeenth-century HolyRoman Empire: Carson simply repeated a mantra (‘a Protestant provincefor a Protestant people’) while Redmond’s political answer to the HomeRule crisis was to present a map at the 1914 Buckingham Palaceconference providing a demographic breakdown of Ireland’s Catholic andProtestant populations. Romantic Ireland was dead and gone, indeed.
O’Connor Lysaght’s point on O’Leary’s limited view of the landquestion is a good one, although O’Leary, with his slightlyaristocratic sympathies, was not alone in being limited in this regard.Land reform was a UK-wide phenomenon between the 1880s and 1900s, andall the UK and Irish land acts passed during those years relateddirectly to the property rights of those who already owned land, orelse had sufficient capital to buy their holdings. The Irish land actof 1885, for instance, allowed farmers who belonged to the newpost-Famine rural middle class to buy their land in return for a singlelump sum, equivalent to about twenty years’ rent. The Plan of Campaignagitation, by calling for twenty per cent rent reductions on variousestates, better enabled such men to take advantage of this legislation:this was the most radical stance that the Irish Parliamentary Party orthe Catholic hierarchy ever took on the land question. But what of thevast majority of the Irish population: the urban and rural workingclasses, who had no capital, who owned no land to start with, and wholived all their lives in rented property? Such people had next tonothing to gain from these land reforms. Their lives were governedinstead by the operation of the Poor Law boards. Much of the Plan ofCampaign and similar agitations in defence of the rural middle classwas allowed to go on unimpeded, but the rural working classes (often,to O’Leary’s dismay, in conjunction with rural IRB circles in the west,as well as one or two country Catholic curates) who attemptedsimultaneously from 1881 until 1909 to introduce no-rent agitations andthe like were invariably suppressed by the police. This is why, asO’Connor Lysaght rightly noted, the Irish revolution of 1918–22, and,in particular, the disaffection of many rank-and-file members of theIRA, fed directly off the land, which had never been simply a legal‘question’ to be ‘answered’ by legislative reforms in Westminster: itwas the social reality of life itself for the greater percentage of theIrish population, and a reality that also partly underpinned Ireland’sconstant emigration. The Fenians of O’Leary’s day who were dismissiveof the Irish Parliamentary Party’s land agitations may have had fewrealistic options to offer in solving rural Ireland’s problems (allthey generally did was set up GAA clubs), but they were at least awareof these realities.

—Yours etc.,
OWEN McGEE
Greystones
Co. Wicklow

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