Parnell and Davitt

The introduction of secret voting in 1872 dramatically changed the face of Irish elections as the tenant now no longer felt under serious threat should he vote against the wishes of his landlord. Gladstone’s First Land Act of 1870, granted as a result of Fenian pressure, also marked the first step towards establishing ‘Fair Rents’. Land agitation would continue, however, but progress was slow and there would be no great advance until the arrival on the scene of Michael Davitt and his founding of the Land League at Irishtown in his native Mayo in 1879. This united practically all the different strands of land agitation and tenant rights movements under a single umbrella.

Michael Davitt was born at Straide, Co Mayo on 25th March 1846. When only six years old he witnessed a terrible sight ... his family being evicted and thrown out on the road and their little home flattened to the ground. The Davitts emigrated to England where Michael was sent to work in a Lancashire cotton mill at ten years of age, and a year later he lost an arm after it had got caught in one of the machines. In 1865 he joined the Fenians and in 1868 was appointed organising secretary of the IRB for all Britain. Arrested in 1870 he was sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude but was released after seven years. He again joined the IRB and travelled to America to join his mother and the rest of his family.

While in prison Davitt had come to realise that ownership of the land by the people was the only solution to Ireland’s problems, and he would later be frequently heard to say at meetings that “the land question can be definitely settled only by making the cultivators of the soil proprietors.” With that in mind, he founded the Land League, whose aims could be put under three headings, simply known as the “Three F’s” i.e. Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale. As a result, the Land League spread into every single parish in the country, even into north-east Ulster.

The Land League received a tremendous boost when it got the backing and full co-operation of Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and, at that time, chief campaigner for Home Rule. In 1881 Davitt was again imprisoned for his outspoken “no holds barred” speeches, later released and arrested yet again in 1883. In 1882 he was elected MP for Meath but was disqualified from taking his seat as he was in prison at the time. He was then elected for Mayo in 1895 and, working closely with William O’Brien, he founded the United Irish League in 1898.

It was mainly through Michael Davitt’s unceasing efforts that more Land Acts followed Gladstone’s First Land Act of 1870. The most important of these was the Land Act of 1881, which finally granted “the three F’s” and it was later followed in 1903 by the Wyndham’s Land Purchase Act which offered generous inducement to the landlords to sell their estates to the Land Commission who would then collect land annuities instead of rents. At long last ownership of the land would be transferred from the landlords to the tenants. Davitt’s ambitions had finally materialised although he himself was opposed to the Wyndham Act, objecting strongly to the landlords receiving any compensation for land which he felt belonged to the state. Michael Davitt died on 31st May 1906.

Running in tandem with the Land League was the movement for Home Rule. The concept of ‘Home Rule’ was the brainchild of Isaac Butt, a Protestant lawyer from Co. Donegal, who had brilliantly defended both Young Irelanders and Fenians and who formed a “Home Government Association” in 1870 to win control of Ireland’s domestic affairs. He then founded the Home Rule League in 1873. Joseph Biggar, a Belfast Presbyterian, carried the movement a stage further when he began an ‘obstructionist policy’ in the British Parliament in an effort to make them pay attention to Irish affairs. This policy proved extremely effective as it held up the normal working of British politics to such an extent that they had to take the Irish Question seriously. Biggar, however, was soon supplanted by Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant landowner, born at Avondale, Co Wicklow on 27th June 1846, who perfected Biggar’s tactics and quickly became a force to be reckoned with by the British. Parliamentary business was repeatedly brought to a complete standstill.

Parnell, first elected an MP for Meath in 1875, also threw his full weight behind Michael Davitt and the Land League, and actually became the League’s first President. It was Parnell who also conceived the idea of completely ostracising landlords and agents who failed to co-operate with the terms of the various Land Acts. They were to be completely shunned, even in church and in the market place. This policy came to prominence in the autumn of 1880 when the tenants of a Co. Mayo landlord, Captain Charles Boycott, refused to save his crops and he was only rescued when fifty Orangemen from Cavan and Monaghan travelled to gather his potatoes and thresh his corn. This, however, cost the government £10,000 and obviously could not be repeated to save every other landlord in the country, and the Land League was greatly strengthened as a result. The Irish people of Mayo had also added a new word to the English dictionary - ‘boycotting’.

The Home Rule movement gathered momentum when it got the backing of the Fenians in Britain and US and Gladstone was soon forced into granting concessions. Following the 1880 election Parnell was appointed chairman of the Home Rule group in parliament and this put him in an even stronger position where he was able to increase agitation, particularly for land reform. His ‘strong language’ speeches eventually landed him in Kilmainham jail in October 1881, an event which increased his popularity even further.

While in prison Parnell negotiated what became known as “The Kilmainham Treaty” by which further concessions were to be given to tenants while Parnell would try and prevent further agitation. He was released on 2nd May 1882, but a few days later, on 6th May, occurred the ‘Phoenix Park Murders’ when the chief secretary and the permanent under-secretary, Cavendish and Burke, were killed by an extreme Fenian group known as the “Invincibles” an event that considerably reduced support for the IRB, but which also had the effect of putting Parnell in a stronger position as he would now be given a greater influence over the Irish National League, the new organisation that had supplanted the Land League. A series of by-election successes also increased the number of MPs supporting Home Rule, and the Irish Party soon held the balance of power in the British Parliament, something which Parnell exploited to the full and put to good effect. Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill was put before Parliament in 1886 but only failed on its second reading in the House of Commons.

In 1887 Parnell received something of a set-back when a letter appeared in “The Times” newspaper, supposedly to have been written by him in support of the Phoenix Park murderers. Parnell denounced the letter as a forgery and in this he was proved correct, as the forger, a journalist named Pigott, later collapsed under cross-examination and Parnell was fully vindicated, which increased his popularity still further. He also capably dealt with the “Plan of Campaign”, an idea devised by William O’Brien urging tenants to withhold the payment of rents but which had been condemned by the Church. In this Parnell proved himself an exceptional statesman, and he was now regarded as the unopposed leader of the Irish people. They even called him “The Uncrowned King of Ireland.”

Just when it seemed that nothing could stop Parnell from achieving his ambition of Home Rule, he was plunged into controversy. On 24th Dec. 1889 one of his Irish Party MPs, a Captain O’Shea, filed divorce proceedings against his wife Kitty, naming Parnell as correspondent. The widely publicised court case which followed rocked the Irish nation to its very foundations and the Irish Party was split down the middle. A majority of the party eventually rejected Parnell as leader and the country now became divided into ‘Parnellites’ and Anti-Parnellites’. When Parnell married Kitty O’Shea in June 1891 they became even more divided, a division that would permeate Irish politics for decades.
With power slipping away from him and gradually, falling into ill-health, Charles Stewart Parnell died on Oct 6th 1891. He was given a magnificent funeral, the Irish people recognising that they had lost a true statesman and great leader. His monument at the north end of O’Connell Street in Dublin is a remarkable monument to a truly remarkable man.

The mention of Home Rule had also sparked off dreadful rioting in the north-east, particularly in Belfast, where Catholics were driven out of the shipyards, following bitter sectarian clashes. Randolph Churchill visited the city in 1886 and successfully played “the Orange card” for the benefit of his party, stating openly that “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”. Gladstone then introduced a Second Home Rule Bill in 1893 and it was passed by the House of Commons but was rejected in the House of Lords. The “Parnell Split” was not helping matters, but despite this and the fact that the House of Lords would never agree to pass such a bill, the question of Home Rule would simply not go away.