Leabharlann na Meán


Machnamh 100 - ‘Of Land, Social Class, Gender and the Sources of Violence’

Áras an Uachtaráin, 27 May 2021

The act of commemoration involves a choice, and a decision to indicate an importance to an event or events chosen above others. To organise a celebration is to further add to the importance of envisaging as to how one’s choice will be construed, and the taking of responsibility for inclusivity as to how a discourse might be constructed in terms of response.

What Machnamh seeks to do is, rather like what we have just heard in this session today, to provide as wide a context of fact, comment and research as is possible, so that we may be able to make such a reflection as will enable, and empower, us to have a deeper, fuller view of past events, have a tolerant method of recall in present time, and allow neither the past nor the present deprive us of emancipatory futures, yet to be realised.

I have, quite often, been struck by how it is within literature rather than sociology or history that the complexity of a period is best captured. I encountered this in the past when studying and writing of migration. The formal scholarship in social studies seemed locked in an approach that could not handle the important core of the migratory experience – transience. Yet, in the novels of Patrick McGill or in Mici Mac Gabhann’s Rotha Mor an tSaoil, I found the texture of what I sought. This is not to suggest a substitution of literature for history, or a privileging of fiction over fact. Rather, it is to suggest that a sensitivity to literary sources can open the door to a necessary respect for a phenomenological approach in sociology and history, one that has not always been welcome.

In this regard and dealing with the title of my paper Land, Social Class, Gender and Sources of Violence, I have been returning to John B. Keane’s play The Field. What an introduction it constitutes to the distinction between “ownership” and “occupation”; the rocks hewn to clear the ground for the making of a field, not recognised in the sign ‘For Sale’; the isolation of the widow whose life has been made impossible, and is effectively left with a sole option of selling and leaving; the consequence, too, of realising that there will never be enough land and that, what is anticipated as becoming available creates passions that are not merely of acquisitiveness, or, as would become later, insatiable expansion, but of violence, covert and overt.

I think it is unreasonable to assume that issues such as those derived from land, of evictions, of the transmitted memory of An Ghorta Mór, of exile and forced emigration, were not present in the formation of the minds of those participants in either the War of Independence or the tragic Civil War which followed it.

These are issues which precede both. They are unfinished aspirations for many, of both the ancient and more recently, dispossessed. They run parallel with campaigns seeking more moderate forms of Home Rule short of full independence. Indeed, these issues illustrate for us what were the formative sources of both social class distinction, the decline and rise of new classes, and the new accommodations, that would compose an enduring conservatism drawn from an intersection of the different movements of the late 19th century.

Since the third decade of the 19th century, campaigns for Repeal, Reform of Tenants’ Rights, Home Rule, Clerical Activism, and Control of Protest of the lower classes had intersected. There are times when they seem to be on the same path, when a resolution appears in prospect, only to fade again.

Later in the century, the division within the landlords, reflected in the periods before and after the Land Conference of 1903, are an example of an opportunity that would come to be perceived as lost, just as the later failure of a British government to respond to the expression of the people’s will in 1918, or the attempts at peace, such as that of Archbishop Clune, might also have been viewed by some historians.

As to omissions, those left out, if more than 70 landlords attended the Land Conference of 1903, and if indeed there had been an argument as to how tenants would be chosen to attend, then surely it is also of significance that the agricultural labourers are not directly represented.

We have in recent times moved away from the once popular inaccuracies of suggesting that the experience of the Famine or its subsequent emigrations were a homogenous experience of the Irish people. Those with least and without the means of leaving the country died in higher proportions. Those with means to leave are heavily represented in the emigration statistics. It is part of the removal of the possibility of any meaningful revolution, or indeed deep revision, of distribution of the land in response to an increasing population.

The early 20th century began with a significant change in relation to Irish rural society. There were times when progressive views for tenant-right reform seemed to fit together as is recounted, for example, in the memoirs of Andrew J. Kettle known as ‘right-hand man to Charles Stewart Parnell’. There were, too, those within the Home Rule movement who saw the resolution of the land issue as an outcome that would reduce support for their principle aim, by the removal of the support of the discontented and the variously organised land distribution activists.

Between 1870 and 1953 Ireland was recomposed in terms of land ownership. The appendix to his memoir of his father by Laurence J. Kettle published in 1958 opens with the phrase:

“The present generation of Irishmen (sic.) has little, if any, knowledge of the revolutionary changes which took place on the land in Ireland during the 19th century.”

He goes on to give an account of the structures of land holding that preceded the plantations of Ireland, including that of the 17th century on the part of King James I and of “how later on Cromwell confiscated 11 million acres from Irish and Anglo-Irish estates and planted on them his troopers and others to whom he owed money”. However, it is in relation to the discussion around the passing of the Land Acts that this valuable memoir that Laurence J. Kettle edited is most relevant for our purposes today.

Between 1870 and 1953, 450,000 holdings of land, 15 million acres out of 17 million acres changed ownership on an expenditure of £130 million, as Laurence Kettle puts it “£8 13s 4d per acre”. This, however, was no revolution but it is a formative influence on social class as it would go on to define a later island of Ireland. George Bermingham had written of how on enquiring of his local newsagent in County Mayo in the late 19th century as to how the vote on Home Rule had gone the previous evening in London, the shopkeeper-newsagent had replied, “To hell with Home Rule, it’s the land we’re after”.

The reluctance to deal with social class within Irish historiography is something on which I have often pondered. Is it accidental? Is it ideological? Is it a function of a historical tendency to assume a modernisation model as an explanation of change?

However such questions are answered, the close examination of the sources of conflict is not something that has attracted scholars in the social studies of the near modern period. The result is that we are left with significant omissions as to the experience, indeed of their place in Irish history, of those who were the subject of such omission, who were the victims of deep structural exclusions, and neglected consequences of accommodations to hegemonic notions of property, uncritical acceptance of clericalism, suppression of gender needs and aspirations, and recipients of an authoritarianism, with its unquestioned concept of hierarchy, that would feed its way into the institutional structure.

Historians have written in detail of how the cash component of the landlords’ settlement was an inducement and indeed as to how it had different consequences in Ireland and in England. There were in the late 19th century some landlords, now capitalised, who set about new strategies of management of their agricultural holdings. Others chose to expend their money in the contours of British society. There would be consequences for this in adjusting to later finalisations.

There had, however, been earlier attempts at “modernisation” of land usage. In 1982, John Gibbons and I, in our chapter ‘Shopkeeper-Graziers and Land Agitation in Ireland, 1895-1900’, published in Irish Studies 2 – Ireland: Land, Politics and People (edited by P.J. Drudy) give an example from County Mayo:

“In one case, Lord Sligo and the Earl of Lucan cleared 48,555 acres of their estates south of Westport to make way for Captain Houston, a Scottish grazier. All houses and smallholders’ buildings were broken down. The landlords received a rent of £2,100 per annum. They were saved, as they saw it, from the complications of collecting rents in small amounts from a multitude of poor tenant farmers. Houston went on to graze the land profitably for about twenty years and introduced new techniques and new breeds of cattle. He employed thirty herds of twenty labourers. He had five hundred cattle and twelve thousand sheep when economic depression, and particularly American competition, began to bear on his enterprise in the early years of the 1890s. During these years, sheep were selling at 10 shillings less per head than five years previously and cattle prices had decreased by £3 or even £4 per head during the preceding three years. The fall in the price of wool had been dramatic also.

The first commercial farming experiment to follow the land consolidation had thus failed. Captain Houston gave up the land, and it returned to the landlords ‘practically a useless wilderness as far as its original purpose was concerned’. The fact that the Earl of Lucan had divided up among smallholders two grazing tracts, one near Castlebar and one south of Westport, from which he had already cleared tenants, raised expectations in the case of the Houston ranch.

The Congested Districts Board (set up in 1891, to purchase and amalgamate land holdings as well as to promote development in general) had been alerted to the possibilities before the ‘ranch’ was handed back. Indeed a migration had been suggested.”

John Gibbons and I in that chapter went on to give details of a later evolution of the grazier phenomenon in County Mayo – the role of the shopkeeper-grazier.

Earlier in 1974, Peter Gibbon and I had drawn the wrath of modernisation theorists by publishing Patronage, Tradition and Modernisation: the Case of the Irish Gombeenman. Our work was out of the tradition of transactionalism in the anthropology of the time. We had been looking at the credit relations that prevailed on the fringes of society even when they were contemporaneous with evolving banking systems at the centre of society. We did not purport to make a statement on shopkeeper-tenant credit relationships in general. Our evidence was drawn from government reports on the West of Ireland.

The 1982 chapter took account of what would later be the confrontation in the 1898 local elections in Mayo which consisted of shopkeeper-graziers in alliance with, as the local press put it, “The Snobocracy”, versus non-grazier-shopkeepers in alliance with the trades. Based on John Gibbons’ fieldwork, we showed how by keeping the regions of their credit relationships separate from the regions of their grazing activities, the shopkeeper-graziers could prevail, could even find a space of influence within the movements of the land war.

This would become exposed, and become a point of confrontation, in the later United Irish League of 1898.

In our chapter Shopkeeper-Graziers and Land Agitation in Ireland’ contained in Land, Politics and People from 1982, John Gibbons and I gave an illustration of the impact that the grazier acquisition and consolidation had on land holding patterns:

“In 1902 in the Westport Poor Law Union, 66 graziers held 98,790 acres out of 280,730 acres in the Union. Eighteen of these graziers were shopkeeper-graziers from adjoining towns. Some held two, three or four ranches. The Kilmaclasser District in the Poor Law union gives us an even clearer example. The district was made up of 21 townlands in all. Of these eight were held by shopkeeper-graziers from nearby towns, two were held by a local grazier farmer and two were held by the landlord, The Earl of Lucan.”

Clearing the land, as tillage with its labour intensity is abandoned, is not, and was not, a uniquely Irish experience. The Enclosure Acts in England were a significant source of the men, women and children who would become the human content of its Industrial Revolution.

Emma Dabiri, in her recent What White People Can Do Next, quotes from Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism:

“… between 1750 and 1850 around 4,000 Enclosure Acts were passed, pushing dispossessed workers into the rapidly expanding cities as casual labourers.”

Between 1604 and 1914 over 5,000 Enclosure Bills were enacted by the Parliament which related to over a fifth of the total area of England, amounting to about 6.8 million acres.

It would not be an insignificant achievement of Machnamh if students in Ireland and Britain had the opportunity of seeing how the history of these neighbours, Ireland and England, are inextricably linked.

This was, as nearly all agree now, an imposed experience based on what was the informing ideology, expansion, and indeed adventurism, of the new expansionist, commercial and industrial changes that were taking place at the heart of the empire. That interconnection, the wider view, is important. Even the closest attention to detail as to the delivery of a particular event in its locality or particular time, cannot compensate for missing the influence of the ‘Other’ in either direction.

No more than in relation to our present capacities, or our mutual future aspirations, we have been interconnected, and deeply so, through the tumult, tragedy and achievements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It is, of course, important as to whether that interconnection is worked in terms of choice or coercion, willingly or by overt or covert colonisation – a topic I sought to address in my consideration of imperialism in Machnamh Seminar II.

The massive expansion of the Irish population in the 19th century is well known to Irish students, but perhaps much less so are the facts of the English Enclosures. Later in the late 18th century and into the 19th, the factory system would again change everything. This is recorded in the poetry of the time (the practices of rural life giving way to migration). Wordsworth’s poem ‘Michael’ is an example. Factory life, mining life would change even the most private aspects of workers’ existences.

While a new source of wealth had emerged, industry, the source of status, title, advancement in the artificialities of a society exempt from work, remained attached to land – a factor that would not be unimportant to an Irish landlord class, particularly its absentee component, whose pursuit of status in English society, combined with the eschewing of prudence in lifestyle, accelerated, even if it was not the source, the bankruptcy of their Irish estates.

The Land Acts punctuate the decline of Landlordism. However, I have suggested that the transformation in land ownership created a new class that could, as absentee landlords could not, for the most part, shelter behind the masks of religion and nationalism.

It was in the same Volume of Irish Studies 2 that the differing positions of Samuel Clarke, a distinguished member of that group of United States historians to whom we owe so much for pioneering on the social history of the 19th century, be it land, religion or social movements, and David Fitzpatrick whose work is seminal. Samuel Clarke identified agrarian classes as at least a potential for revolt, both sporadic and organised. He saw it in the structure. David Fitzpatrick, however, drew our attention to violence within and between the network of families.

There are points of convergence between their views. David Fitzpatrick wrote:

“The most universal problem faced by members of the rural population was that of getting and keeping the land, a problem that was becoming steadily more serious in the years after the Napoleonic Wars as a result of overpopulation and the deterioration of the Irish economy. But did this violence represent a collective assault by the Irish peasantry on the landowning class? The answer very clearly is that it did not. Much of this violence was a struggle by small farmers and labourers against large farmers.”

I believe that David Fitzpatrick’s work, including his insistence on the stem family having prevailed before the Famine, and the consequences that flowed from a sub-division where perhaps one member had a sustainable habitation and others did not, was a valuable contribution. With life expectancy low, as some historians have put it, young people snatched from life what they could and sought shelter in the corners of fields. Fitzpatrick’s account of Cloone in 19th-century Leitrim describes conflicts in Cloone as follows:

“…intensive conflict both within and between a wide range of social strata, conflict so pervasive that concepts such as ‘community’ or class ‘collectivity’ carry little conviction. Conflict between members of different social strata cannot always be interpreted as the struggle of the downtrodden against their oppressors, despite the numerous intimidatory notices and more violent ‘outrages’ which were executed by labourers against farmers, or by tenants against landlords and their agents. Other outrages manifest the relentless but less familiar struggle of the oppressor against the insufficiently downtrodden. In 1839, for example, two attempts were made to burn down the cabin of Bryan Monaghan of Edenbawn: the first by his nephew (who subsequently fled the country), the second ‘at the instance of his (Monaghan’s) Brother who is wealthy and occupies the entire Farm, with the exception of the Cabin in Question, and if the Cabin could be destroyed, the poor Man who occupies it would then have no claim to the lands.”

It is important not to ever forget the experience of those at the bottom of the class hierarchy, as Clarke or Fitzpatrick have written of. Wherever one is on the island of Ireland, there are examples. The cottier who had only his labour to deliver, in pre-Famine times, paid for access to his shelter and a plot that could produce his daily seven pounds of potatoes, with about 200 days of labour per year. While the English land-holding system carried, and carries, its inherited traces of feudalism, and that Ireland did not, it is hard to regard the experience of such a cottier as being substantially different from that of a serf.

When one speaks of this, the sheer contrast with what would be described as the seminal anthropological account of rural life in County Clare in 1934 by Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball, is astonishing. Within a decade of a civil war, surrounded by land conflict, in an atmosphere of clerical prohibition, of banned crossroad dancing, pastorals on the sinfulness of the body and the dangers of losing the faith in a suggested Godless city to which all might emigrate, the authors found a system that was neat in its reproduction of itself. This was as the authors’ model prescribed, carrying as it did the structural-functionalist elements that would dominate sociology for decades.

Yes, they did identify the harshness of country reactions where the property transition model had been disturbed, be it “the barren wife” or “a young widow without issue”. In accordance with social custom, they were required to accept repayment of their dowry and to return to their families.

Where a husband had married into land (cliamhain isteach), he, too, was expected to return to his people on being refunded his dowry if no children were born of the marriage after a reasonable period of time. Such situations still pertained elsewhere in Ireland into the late 1950s. Arensberg and Kimball state the matter succinctly:

“The country districts recognize only vaguely the right of a woman to hold property. The patrilineal identification of family and land is incompatible with it. Whatever farm a woman works or controls is regarded as a trust for a son or brother of her husband or father”.

Such a relationship to the economy as was possible to the married woman might include having produce to sell at the local market, be it eggs, butter, poultry, vegetables, fruits or flowers. This was possible while a railway system existed, and as a source of income it effectively disappeared with the closure of the railways. The buses that were offered as a substitute did not facilitate the carrying of such produce to the market, and together with a meagre income of such women the markets themselves withered.

Until the 1960s the Irish Census, we must remember, had a category headed “Relatives Assisting”. This referred, among others, to those members of the family, who had not, as Arensberg and Kimball put it, “travelled”. An examination of wills of the period shows, too, how limited was their life world. They were offered “a room in the house and a seat in the car to Mass”. That, as I wrote elsewhere, in my poem Relatives Assisting’ had to be their consolation together with “their High Nellie bicycle and their prayers”.

Violence takes many forms and is not limited to the use of physical force. It can be sourced and expressed in a variety of ways in structures. The patriarchy of land ownership that existed in Ireland, the remnants of which perhaps remain with us, was one form of economic and cultural control, in a society whose institutional sources of power were in a collusion with what amounted to little less than a land-based patriarchal violence that served to maintain men’s power and dominance.

Gender-based physical and sexual violence was also inflicted with cruelty, and is an aspect of the revolutionary period that has been suppressed and denied, until recently by some pioneering and fine historians. It is a neglect that has gone on for too long. The assumptions regarding what was to be the role of women in Irish society was to become a slow-burning issue that would reveal so much of what was exclusionary. It lasted well into modern times. While the present generation may experience some of the gains made in terms of rights, generations of women had just the experience of the struggle, often cruel and frequently harsh.

Violence was unleashed on women in several forms and from all backgrounds. Gradations of such violence included the control of women over their bodies, the legacy of which lingered on shamefully into modern times, manifesting in the form of Mother and Baby Homes, forced adoptions, ‘marriage bars’ and unequal participation in many aspects of society, including participation in juries in the courts.

We must now face up to all of the aspects of the period as part of our process of ethical recall. Such a commitment will help the ongoing shaping of a more compassionate and equal society. This necessitates an understanding of women’s complex role as activists, the detrimental impact of violence and social and political divisions on them, and their part in the foundation of the new State, a State that would ultimately ignore the feminist and socialist ideals of the rhetoric of the early revolution, leaving women to live essentially as second-class citizens in a conservative, clerically dominated nation.

What I have outlined are sources of violence that were still in the ether of the period of the War of Independence and the tragic Civil War. These are events about which now there can be no equivocation. Reading recently of, for example, the manner of the shooting of Mary Lindsay who, on identifying preparations for an ambush on her land, sought to have it cancelled before reporting it, I was made to recognise again how important it is to be unequivocal in condemnation of such horrific violence, of not allowing a particle or any strut of heroism to be attached to such a perpetration of not only the ending of a life, but the doing so in a way of exceptional cruelty, one that included the denial of a place of burial.

In shining a light on the contested and divisive narratives of the past, including the sources and consequences of the gradations of violences, the linkages between land, social class and the experience of women in early and more contemporary times in Ireland, we engage in a process of inclusive ethical commemoration in a manner that promotes tolerance, healing, and prompts consideration of the often conflicting senses of identity in contemporary Ireland, north and south. With a multiplicity of narratives being given public space, an emerging spirit of humility, maturity and tolerance is a prize worth seeking.

May we achieve it. Together.

Beir Beannacht.