‘This extra parliamentary propaganda’: Land League posters

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, General, Uncategorized

In June 1880 the Freeman’s Journal published a letter by John Devoy defending his support for the Irish National Land League. Devoy railed against nationalists who might claim that he had betrayed his principles by supporting a partnership with parliamentarians and advocacy of a cause that deviated from the cherished aim of Fenianism, the overthrow of British rule in Ireland through armed revolt. Devoy wrote: ‘With all its shortcomings and all its mistakes… the land movement . . . made it possible to keep alive a national movement in the future’. Scotching rumours that he intended to run for parliament, Devoy said that the part of the movement that operated outside parliament would result in ‘breaking down the present land system or any other similar system’. The similar system he referred to was British rule in Ireland. Devoy felt that ‘this work of organisation, this extra parliamentary propaganda, is only now fairly initiated’. He urged clever, ambitious young men to look to the future: to organise, counsel and educate the people ‘for the long and arduous struggle before them’ rather than seek to strut around London as members of parliament.

Fenians direct successors of the Young Irelanders

The Young Ireland poet Thomas Davis believed that promoting a national identity distinct and separate from Britain was a necessary precursor to independence. In his essay ‘The History of Ireland’ he noted: ‘If Ireland were in national health, her history would be familiar by books, pictures, statuary and music . . . These are the pillars of Independence’. Davis felt that much work needed to be done before the Irish people could rise to the challenge of nationhood.
The Fenian movement was a direct successor of the Young Ireland movement. Its founders were veterans of the Young Ireland rebellions of 1848 and 1849. Prior to the foundation of the Irish Revolutionary or Fenian Brotherhood on St Patrick’s Day 1858, several of its future members joined or formed literary societies. In May 1858 the movement’s founder, James Stephens, called on solicitor McCarthy Downing in Skibbereen. In 1848 Downing helped the wounded Stephens and others to escape to France following William Smith O’Brien’s failed rising. Stephens found a ready-made group of conspirators, calling themselves the Phoenix Society, meeting in a room at Downing’s offices. Among its members were later leaders of the national movement Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and Mortimer Moynihan. By the end of 1858 the Phoenix Society members were arrested and tried. In his Recollections of an Irish rebel John Devoy acknowledged the publicity value of the affair. He noted that the arrest and trial ‘instead of frightening the young men of Ireland really advertised the movement and helped in recruiting later on’. F. S. L. Lyons felt that the Phoenix trials provided the nascent Fenian movement with ‘priceless’ publicity.

Stephens sacrificed secrecy for propaganda

In 1863 James Stephens sacrificed the secrecy of the movement and opened the Fenian newspaper Irish People a few yards from the administrative headquarters of Her Majesty’s government in Ireland. O’Donovan Rossa was the business manager while John Devoy distributed copies in his native County Kildare. Stephens felt that in order to achieve an Irish republic through force of arms the movement needed to have a public organ for promoting its programme. The work of propaganda occupied the leaders of the movement and allowed for their close observation by the police. John O’Leary, Thomas Clarke Luby, Charles Kickham, O’Donovan Rossa, Morty Moynihan and indeed Stephens himself were all first arrested because of their roles in propaganda rather than insurrection. Though many people, including Michael Davitt, later felt that opening the paper was a mistake, Devoy in his Recollections recalled the Irish People’s essential role in the movement: ‘There must be a public propaganda . . . which would reach the general public as well as the members of the organisation’.
The Irish People promoted the strident ideas of Young Irelanders like John Mitchel, Davis and James Fintan Lalor. It was Lalor whose writings had inspired the tenant rights movement of the early 1850s. In June 1848, in his first letter to the radical newspaper The Felon, he argued that the Repeal movement was futile: ‘Not to repeal the Union, then, but to repeal the conquest . . . [and] . . . found a new nation and raise up a free people . . . based on a peasantry rooted like rocks in the soil of the land’. In the same letter Lalor put it bluntly: ‘The soil of Ireland for the people of Ireland, to have and to hold from God alone who gave it’. Among his followers when he attempted a rising in 1849 Lalor counted Thomas Clarke Luby and John O’Leary. Through the pages of the Irish People they ensured that Lalor’s writings became Fenian orthodoxy. During the 1865 special commission in Green Street, articles from the Irish People were read into the record and subsequently re-published in the conservative mainstream press in Dublin and London. In 1882 Devoy wrote that Fenianism of the 1860s ‘gave organised shape to the national idea, [and] set people moving in the direction of nationality’. In his Recollections he said that ‘The organ of the movement did fine propaganda work’, it ‘revived the spirit’ created and fostered by Thomas Davis and Charles Gavan Duffy’s The Nation and carried the teachings of the Young Irelanders down ‘to a new generation’.
In the years after the suppression of the Irish People Fenians failed militarily in the rising of 1867 and their attempted invasions of Canada. In the same period, however, public sympathy and a national movement led by moderates and indeed enemies of the Fenians campaigned successfully for their prisoners’ amnesty. The Manchester affair, which led to the executions of Allan, Larkin and O’Brien, gave the movement martyrs. The song ‘God Save Ireland’, celebrating the Manchester Martyrs, by T. D. Sullivan, himself no friend of the early Fenians, became Ireland’s unofficial national anthem and provided a propaganda coup.
Nevertheless Fenianism was in peril. Founded on the principle of armed insurrection and a rejection of participation in parliamentary politics, it seemed that its leaders had broken faith with the movement. John O’Connor Power, though a member of the supreme council, the IRB’s ruling body, ran for and was elected to parliament in 1874. Another MP, Joseph Biggar, took the reverse route of becoming an MP first, then joining the movement and incongruously also gaining a seat on the council.
In America, where John Devoy and O’Donovan Rossa settled after their amnesty, the movement was also split. By 1876, however, Clan na Gael, a body formed to resolve differences in the movement, had taken control of the ‘skirmishing fund’ from the O’Donovan Rossa-led Fenian Brotherhood. A seven-man revolutionary directory was set up to oversee and attempt to reach consensus between the competing branches of Fenianism. In 1877 the IRB expelled O’Connor Power and Biggar and the movement was preparing for a renewed campaign based on its original principles.

The Irish National Land League

In December 1877, after a campaign by, amongst others, O’Conner Power and C. S. Parnell, a Fenian arms agent, Michael Davitt, was released from prison. Davitt’s release coincided with a poor harvest in Ireland and a downturn in agricultural prices. Davitt was soon elected to the supreme council. Appalled by conditions among tenant farmers in his native Mayo, he began to advocate the participation of the Fenian movement in land agitation. In 1878 Davitt toured America addressing meetings organised by Devoy and Clan na Gael. On 28 September, after a lecture by Davitt at the Cooper Institute in New York, Devoy proposed two resolutions that linked the republican cause with peasant proprietorship. He said that ‘as the land of Ireland belongs to the people of Ireland, the abolition of the foreign landlord system, and the substitution of one by which the tiller of the soil will become fixed upon it . . . [was the only solution to the land question]… which an Irish republic can alone effect’. In October Clan na Gael sent a telegram to the IRB supreme council with the details of the ‘new departure’ under which the movement would support parliamentarians and land agitation. The attached conditions were that the parliamentarians advocate for Irish independence and agitate for the settlement of the land question in Ireland by abolishing landlordism in favour of peasant proprietorship. Devoy felt that sweeping away the ‘foreign landlord system’ was a precursor to ‘sweeping away every vestige of English connection’ with Ireland.
According to Devoy, in the weeks leading up to what he called ‘the launch of the agitation’ at the Irishtown meeting on 20 April 1879, secret IRB meetings were being held in Mayo and Galway where ‘a toss of a penny might decide whether it was to eventuate in more or less peaceful agitation or work wholly with shotguns and revolvers’. The latter were in short supply, however, and Devoy was anxious that open revolt not be attempted, as it would achieve little for either the revolutionary cause or the tenant farmers. On 1 April he arrived in Ireland for an extended visit of inspection of the IRB and to help reach a consensus on combined action both within the IRB and with Irish parliamentarians led by Parnell, whom he had recently met in France. On 10 April 1879 placards appeared in the district surrounding Irishtown under Thomas Davis’s heading, ‘The West’s Awake’, announcing a land meeting to be held at Irishtown on 20 April 1879. The placards further declared ‘Down with the invaders! Down with the tyrants’. The Land War had begun with the propaganda department to the fore.

Day-to-day running in the hands of Fenians

In June 1879 Parnell agreed to lead a land movement. On 20 October the Irish National Land League was formed to coordinate and control a national campaign. At its head was Parnell, but the day-to-day running was in the hands of Fenians. Thomas Brennan, one of two IRB secretaries for Leinster, became the director of publicity. Throughout Ireland Land League meetings were organised by IRB men. The Land League provided the IRB with both a public body within which to organise and spread the secret society and public forums to proselytise the revolution.
To announce these meetings, large posters were produced by printing businesses attached to local newspapers. Some posters denounced the ‘tyrant British government’ and called for emancipation. One from County Kilkenny declared that anyone not attending was a slave and an enemy: ‘Let no decent man of the county remain at home for the coward, crawling slave will be known and marked’. They linked the land question with national independence as though both were so intertwined as to be inseparable demands. The ‘land codes’ were deemed to be ‘exterminating the Irish people’.

At land meetings IRB men displayed their control of the movement to the police and the masses. One poster requested that castle detectives attend and promised fireworks at the expense of a local landlord. Men marched in military style four deep, including some bearing imitation pikes behind bands playing national airs. IRB men on horses wearing green sashes imitated cavalry formation and formed guards around the speaker’s platforms. Irish and American flags were displayed at meetings, and contingents marched under revolutionary and nationalist banners: ‘Remember ’98’, ‘Unity is strength’, ‘Faith and Fatherland’, ‘Behold the dawn of freedom’, ‘Strike for your liberty’, ‘God save Ireland from the tyrants’, ‘Remember Emmet  . . . we will rise again’, ‘On to freedom’, ‘Law is one thing, Justice is another’. American Independence Day was celebrated in a show of republican solidarity. Cromwell was declared to be the landlord prototype and tenants were assured that under the conditions they suffered ‘the most degraded black slaves of the East would rebel’. The design of the posters was remarkable, utilising large formats and text under-printed in garish purple, orange, green and yellow. A land meeting held in the Phoenix Park on 24 July 1881 was advertised by a huge poster made from two sheets and under-printed in electric blue, orange and yellow—reminiscent of psychedelic art of the 1960s.
These bold displays of defiance fell short of open revolt. They were as brash as Stephens’s opening of the Irish People beside Dublin Castle in the 1860s. The propaganda and ideas of the Land League as represented by their posters reached the most remote corners of Ireland. As propaganda for the ideals of Fenianism the campaign is comparable with Bolshevik posters from the Russian Revolution or Saatchi and Saatchi’s efforts for Thatcher’s Conservative Party in the 1980s. In 1915 IRB man Patrick Pearse noted that when John Devoy’s biography was written he would be declared the ‘greatest of the Fenians’. Devoy never participated in armed insurrection: he had, however, organised, united and publicised the cause.

Frank Rynne is completing a Ph.D thesis on grassroots Fenianism and the Land War, 1879–82, at Trinity College, Dublin.

Further reading:

M. Davitt, The fall of feudalism in Ireland: or the story of the Land League revolution (Chicago, 2003).

J. Devoy, Michael Davitt from the Gaelic American (ed. C. King and W. J. McCormack) (Dublin, 2006)

O. McGee, The IRB: the Irish Republican Brotherhood, from the Land League to Sinn Féin (Dublin, 2007).

T. W. Moody, Davitt and the Irish revolution, 1846–82 (Oxford, 1981).


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