xxxxxAs we have seen, the enormous suffering of the Irish people during the Great Potato Famine of 1845 (Va) brought violence in its wake. The Fenian Uprising of 1867 (Vb), for example, though ending in failure, was an all-out attempt to overthrow British rule. The following year the British politician William Gladstone committed himself to the pacification of Ireland, but for many years the so-called Land War continued, a period of serious civil unrest during which attempts were made to improve the condition of the tenant farmers. Due to failing harvests and falling prices, many were in arrears with their rent and faced eviction by English landlords. The “coercion” measures imposed to stamp out the violence led to the Phoenix Park Murders in Dublin in May 1882, in which two senior British ministers were stabbed to death. In the meantime the fight to assist the tenant farmers was led by the leader of the Land League, the Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell. He was imprisoned for inciting disorder in 1881, but was released the next year following an agreement with Gladstone. In return for government measures to improve the lot of the tenant farmer, he agreed to end the violence and assist in the pacification of the island. As leader of the Irish parliamentary party at Westminster, his opportunity came in 1885 when his party gained the balance of power in the House of Commons. This enabled him to throw his party behind Gladstone’s first Irish Home Rule Bill, put forward, as we shall see, in April 1886.


MAY 1882  (Vc)


Famine: wood engraving, published in The London Illustrated News, 1849, artist unknown. Davitt: by the photographic studio of Bradley & Rulofson, San Francisco, c1880 – Library of Congress, Washington. Eviction: by the British artist Robert Thomas Landells (1833-1877), published in The London Illustrated News, December 1848. Carey: published 1883, engraver unknown. O’Donnell: from a U.S, poster honouring the death of O’Donnell, artist unknown – Rare Books and Special Collections, Library of Congress, Washington. Murders: contemporary illustration in the Paris magazine Le Journal, artist unknown. Gladstone: after an engraving by the English artist Walter Wilson (1851-1912), published in Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, 1886. Parnell: by the American photographer Matthew Brady (1822-1896) and his nephew Levin Corbin Handy (1855-1932), 1870/80 – Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington.

xxxxxAs we have seen, whilst the British government had taken some measures to alleviate the enormous suffering of the Irish people during the Great Potato Famine of 1845 (Va), their efforts had proved too little and too late. As a result, resentment against the British - for a long time simmering just beneath the surface - gained strength and pace, and culminated in the Fenian Uprising of 1867 (Vb). This all-out attempt to overthrow British rule and gain independence for the Irish, though badly organised, persuaded a number of British politicians that the Irish problem called for radical measures of reform. The Liberal leader William Gladstone, becoming prime minister the year after this unsuccessful rebellion, set his sights on “pacifying Ireland”. In 1870 the first Land Act was passed to assist tenant farmers, and the following year the Church of Ireland was disestablished, putting an end to its levying of tithes.

xxxxxBut the Land Act of 1870 was extremely limited in its scope and, in fact, did very little to alleviate the current suffering of the tenant farmers. The early years of the1870s saw the “Long Depression”, a period characterized by low prices, bad weather and poor harvests. And imports of wheat from new sources, such as the United States and the Ukraine, and refrigerated meat from Argentina and Australia made matters worse. Many tenant farmers fell into arrears with their rents and, having no legal rights, found themselves at the mercy of their English landlords. The result was the so-called “Land War”, a prolonged period of civil unrest marked by widespread upheaval and the constant threat of evictions. Many landlords and their agents were attacked, and there was the occasional death, such as the murder of the 3rd Earl of Leitrim, a ruthless landowner, in 1878. In April the following year a huge rally of tenant farmers was held near Claremorris in County Mayo, and October of that year saw the founding of the Irish National Land League at the Imperial Hotel in Castlebar, the county town of Mayo.  

xxxxxThexIrish politician Charles Stewart Parnell, founder of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was elected the League’s president and, together with other radicals - including Michael Davitt (1846-1906) (illustrated), a former member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood - they set out to secure for the tenant farmer the 3 Fs - fair rent, freedom to sell the lease, and the fixity of tenure. And in the long term they aimed to “facilitate the obtaining of the ownership of the soil by the occupier”. Officially, the League was opposed to violence, but in practice its members organised resistance against evictions and confronted landlords over excessive rents. One of the League’s most successful tactics was “boycotting”, whereby an unpopular landlord - or shop or business for that matter - was ostracised by the local community, driving the victim out by sheer lack of food and living essentials. But the campaign was not confined to Ireland. At the same time, the Irish parliamentary party at Westminster - some 60 strong - employed every kind of obstruction to slow down the proceedings of the House of Commons. This not only focused attention on their concern over Irish agriculture, but also raised the question of Irish home rule. And at one stage, Parnell, Davitt and others visited the United States to drum up funds for the League’s campaign.

xxxxxThe provocative stance taken by the League - encouraging tenants to refuse to pay their rents and to resist eviction - inevitably led to violence. Landowners and land agents were attacked, English-owned farms were burned down, and live stock killed or maimed. In retaliation the landowners formed their own defence association and employed “enforcers” to evict tenants. The situation became so serious that Gladstone felt obliged to take action. In April 1881 the Coercion Act, a form of martial law, was passed. This suspended the Habeas Corpus Act, thereby permitting imprisonment without trial of any persons “reasonably suspected” of breaking the law. In addition, there could be no unlawful assembly, and restrictions were placed on the number of people who could possess arms. Anxious at the same time, however, to bring about reconciliation, in the August he introduced his second Land Act. This not only met the basic requirements of the 3 Fs, but also went considerably further. A court was formed to fix fair rents, a rent, once fixed, was to remain unchanged for 15 years, and it was ruled that provided a tenant paid his rent he could not be evicted.

xxxxxThis Land Act went a long way to improving the rights of the tenant farmer, but Parnell considered that it did not go far enough. It made no provision to help tenants in distress, and it excluded tenants who were in arrears with their rent. He now began to make speeches violently denouncing the government’s policy towards Ireland, and with his encouragement the civil disobedience continued. As a result, he was held responsible for the violence and arrested in October 1881. Along with other prominent members of the Land League, he was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin for “sabotaging the Land Act”. From there, however, Parnell issued a “No rent manifesto”, calling for a general strike of tenant farmers until the members of the League had been released. It was only partially successful, but the widespread unrest continued and persuaded the government that a settlement had to be reached. InxAprilx1882 Gladstone negotiated an agreement with Parnell - the so-called Kilmainham “Treaty”. In exchange for his release and a government undertaking to abandon coercion and assist tenant farmers who were in arrears with their rent, Parnell agreed to call a halt to the land war and cooperate with the government.

xxxxxThe agreement had its dissenters. In the Land League, Michel Davitt and a number of other members were strongly opposed to the “treaty”, whilst on the government side William Edward Forster, the man who had spearheaded the Coercion Act, resigned in protest. He was replaced by Lord Frederick Charles Cavendish, and he was at once despatched to Ireland with the clear intention of achieving Gladstone’s mission - the pacification of Ireland. But it was not to be. In the Ireland of that day there was a large number of secret societies whose sole aim was to turn the violence of the Land War into a nation-wide campaign for independence. They wanted no let-up in the struggle being waged against the British government.


xxxxxOne such society was the so-called Irish National Invincibles. As early as the mid-1860s they had attempted to stir up rebellion in the counties of Dublin and Kerry. It was members of this society who, in the late afternoon of the 6th May 1882, attacked Lord Cavendish and Thomas Burke, his under-secretary, while they were walking in Phoenix Park, Dublin, and stabbed them to death. The Phoenix Park Murders strengthened the need for some kind of political settlement.

xxxxxThexmurderers were traced and brought to justice in the Spring of 1883. With the assistance of three who turned Queen’s evidence - including the gang’s leader, James Carey (1845-1883) (illustrated left) - five were hanged and six others were sent to penal servitude. In Britain, justice was seen to have been done, but in Ireland there was much anger shown towards the informers, and much rejoicing in the streets of Dublin and other cities when, later that year, Carey himself was shot and killed. Atxthe end of the trial, he and his family were given a new identity and a passage to Port Elizabeth in South Africa, but during the voyage an Irishman named Patrick O’Donnell (1835-1883) (illustrated right) recognised him and, in an alleged fight, shot him dead. O’Donnell pleaded self defence, but he was found guilty of murder and hanged at Newgate Prison, London in December 1883. In Ireland, however, he was seen as a loyal hero. A plaque commemorating his execution was placed at his birthplace in Min an Chladaigh, Gweedore, Donegal, and a memorial in the form of a large Celtic Cross was erected in the town itself.  

xxxxxThe Phoenix Park murders shocked Victorian England, and was followed by a wave of terrorism. The Gladstone’s government responded with the Prevention of Crimes Act, which suspended trial by jury, banned public meetings, and gave the police exceptional powers for three years. And the army was called in to reinforce the forces of law and order. Faced with bitterness and distrust on both sides, Gladstone now began to see home rule as the only solution to pacify Ireland and complete his mission. For his part, Parnell roundly condemned the murders and in October 1882, in order to broaden his campaign, he replaced the Irish National Land League, suppressed by the government, with the Irish National League. This organisation - the main basis of support for the Irish Parliamentary Party - continued the fight for land reform, but also took up the demand for home rule. Meanwhile a more extreme element, led by Davitt, demanded that the land of Ireland should be given to the people of Ireland. In the meantime, however, efforts were continued to improve conditions on the land. The Arrears Act of 1882, for example, wrote off the debts of tenants whose land was worth less than £30 a year. Half the debt was paid by the government, and the landlord forwent the rest. Then in 1885 the Land Purchase Act (or Ashbourne Act), put forward by the Conservative government, gave tenants the chance to buy their own farms - with the consent of the landlord - with loans paid back at less than the annual rent.


xxxxxThe climate for political change within Ireland came with the results of the general election in November 1885. The Irish Nationalists gained a commanding position. Their 86 seats virtually equated to the Liberal majority over the Conservatives and this gave them the balance of power in Parliament. A minority Conservative government took office, but the turning point came in January 1886, when the Conservative prime minister, Lord Salisbury, a man opposed to the idea of home rule, announced that his government intended to re-introduce restrictive legislation to combat civil unrest. The next day Parnell switched his party to the support of the Liberals, and the minority Tory government was defeated. This brought about a Liberal administration under Gladstone and this, as we shall see, paved the way for the introduction of the first Irish Home Rule Bill in April 1886 (illustrated).

xxxxxIncidentally, the word “boycotting” took its name from a Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, a land agent for an absentee landlord in County Mayo. He refused to lower the rents of his tenant farmers, and evicted those who fell into arrears, and so, by way of retaliation the local community ostracised him and his family, refusing to harvest crops on the estate or supply food and other essentials. So effective was this strategy that Boycott and his family were forced to return to England, the Irish acquired a new and effective “weapon” in the Land War, and the English language took on a new word.


xxxxxThe Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) was born in Avondale, County Wicklow. He was educated at Cambridge University and elected an MP for County Meath in 1875. As we have seen, he played a very active part in Irish politics during the 1880s. As president of the Irish Land League he led the campaign to alleviate the suffering of the tenant farmers, and his fiery oratory landed him in prison in October 1881.The British prime minister, however, William Gladstone, came to an agreement with him. He was released just before the Phoenix Park Murders of May 1882 - which he publicly condemned - and in 1886, when his Irish parliamentary party gained the balance of power at Westminster, he threw his support behind Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule Bill. As we shall see, the bill was not passed, but he continued to support home rule until 1890, when he was found guilty of adultery. This split his party in two and brought an end to his career. He died the following year, aged 45.

xxxxxThe Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) was born in Avondale, County Wicklow, son of a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner. He attended various schools in England before going up to Magdalene College, Cambridge. He left without taking a degree in 1869, and then spent some time touring the United States. On his return he became interested in the Home Rule League, formed by the Irish barrister and politician Isaac Butt in 1873, and was elected member of Parliament for County Meath two years later.

xxxxxAs we have seen, Parnell played a prominent and active part in Ireland’s troubled history during the 1880s. As president of the National Irish Land League, formed in 1879, he led the campaign to alleviate the suffering of the tenant farmer. Indeed, his fiery oratory in their support stirred up such violence in the Land War that he was sent to prison in October 1881, along with other League members. However, he was quickly released when the British government, led by William Gladstone, realized that only he - the “uncrowned king of Ireland” - could play a crucial part in reaching a peaceful solution to the troubles. He exercised some influence within the more extreme national movements, and he had the support of the Roman Catholic Church. And the Phoenix Park Murders of May 1882 - denounced by Parnell - were further proof, if proof were needed, that some form of political settlement was required, though not all British politicians were prepared to go that far.

xxxxxMeanwhile at Westminster, as leader of the Irish party, Parnell skilfully employed tactics to disrupt the work of the House of Commons in order to keep the severity of the Irish Question in the pubic eye. In the election of November 1885, however, his party gained the balance of power in parliament and the voting advantage that went with it. As a result, in January 1886 he threw his party’s support behind Gladstone’s Liberals and, as we shall see, paved the way for the first Irish Home Rule Bill in April 1886.


xxxxxDespite the failure of Gladstone’s bill and his consequent defeat, Parnell continued to work for home rule. He kept up his support for the tenant famers, and he met Gladstone on two occasions to plan a second attempt at legislation. In 1887, however, his career was seriously threatened when The Times of London published letters purportedly written by him in support of the Phoenix Park murders. These letters were eventually found to be forgeries and by a special commission of enquiry he was completely exonerated in February 1889, but there was no way out of the scandal that engulfed him ten months later. It was then that Captain William O’Shea, formerly one of his staunchest supporters, filed for divorce and cited Parnell as co-respondent. It then emerged that Parnell had had a long term relationship with Mrs O’Shea, and had fathered three of her children.

xxxxxThis revelation of adultery brought an end to Parnell’s political career and it split the party he had for so long worked hard to build. He made strenuous attempts to reunite the nationalists, but the majority of party members and Catholic bishops remained strongly against him. In this fight for survival his health quickly deteriorated, and he died of rheumatic fever in October 1891 at the age of 45. Over 200,000 people attended his funeral in Dublin to pay homage to a man who, more than any other politician of his time, had worked constantly in the service of his country. Today a memorial to him, erected in 1911, stands at the north end of O’Connell Street in Dublin.


Charles Stewart Parnell