How the Irish Land League Teaches the Alphabet

When The Spectator put its archives on-line a while back, I looked through for what I could find about the tax resistance movements of the period. From there were a number of articles that touched on the activities of the Irish Land League.

I’ve collected here some excerpts of interest. The Spectator’s tory perspective should be kept in mind. Much of the articles these excerpts came from consisted of tut-tutting commentary and feel-good predictions that everything is going fine and the riff-raff will soon quiet down. I’ve left that out, and pulled excerpts that point out some of the facts on the ground that were shaping the conflict.

From “The True Difficulty in Ireland” ():

Take this case of Kanturk, where, as we have said, there is a priest not wrapped in this invincible ignorance himself, but struggling painfully to do his duty to his people and his Church. He addresses his people one Sunday on the wrongness of introducing a children’s Land League into the parish of Kanturk. And Canon Dennehy tells us why he objected to this, — not simply on the general ground that the principles of the Land League are dishonest, but because he knew that the children who were to be taught the principles of the Land League were to begin their learning by lessons in the following delightfully Christian and Catholic alphabet:—

A is the army that covers the ground,
B is the buckshot we’re getting all round,
C is the crowbar of cruellest fame,
D is our Devitt, a right glorious name;
E is the English, who’ve robbed us of bread,
F is the famine they’ve left us instead;
G is for Gladstone, whose life is a lie;
H is the harvest we’ll hold, or we’ll die;
I is the Inspector, who when drunk is bold,
J is the jarvey, who’ll not drive him for gold;
K is Kilmainham, where our true men abide;
L is the Land League, our hope and our pride;
M is the magistrate, who makes black of white;
N is no rent, which will make our wrongs right;
O is Old Ireland, that yet shall be freed;
P is the peelers, who’ve sold her for greed;
Q is the Queen, whose use is not known;
R is the rifles, who keep up her Throne;
S is the sheriff, with woe in his train;
T is the toil that others may gain;
U is the Union, that works bitter harm;
V is the villain that grabs up a farm;
W is the warrant, for death or for chains;
X is the Express, all lies and no brains;
Y is “Young Ireland,” spreading the light;
Z is the zeal that will win the great fight.

Canon Dennehy does not tell us whether he read this doggrel in his church, but he does intimate that he illustrated from it his objection to the training of infants in such un-Christian and un-Catholic sentiments and principles. Well, what was the result? That from thirty to forty of his parishioners left the church in wrath at his protest against such principles as these.

It is obvious from this alphabet, and the passion with which the parishioners left the church when they heard it attacked, that multitudes of the Irish, — and, as we believe, mostly those who are not personally concerned in the withholding of rent, and who would not directly gain by it, — have persuaded themselves that the No-rent agitation is a matter of mere patriotism and politics, altogether unconnected with common morality; that they have persuaded themselves that in this way, and no other, the English may be best ejected from Ireland; and that it becomes the patriot to die rather than not “hold the harvest,” even though he had contracted solemnly to give part of the harvest to the man who let him the land. The agitators have got into the heads of the Irishmen that the land belongs in justice to the tillers of it…

Nothing is more easy than for political passion so to disguise the character of grossly criminal acts that, while very few commit them, hundreds of thousands apologise for them, and feel utterly indisposed to aid the law in its attempt to punish the offenders.

From “News of the Week” ():

A gleam of light has appeared in Ireland. Throughout the present Sessions, Juries have shown some readiness to convict, and this even in agrarian cases. In one case of intimidation, seven prisoners were found guilty, and in another fourteen. The Judges, while giving very severe sentences on all convicted, incline, we perceive, to reward a plea of guilty by distinct and large remissions of penalty. That plea, they say, in the present circumstances of the country, furnishes distinct help to the administration of the law. That is true, but it will be needful to take care that the remissions are not so large that a suspected man may think the certainty of six months’ imprisonment better than the chance of five years’ penal servitude. It is believed that the altered tone of the juries is due to impatience of the intimidation practised on farmers, and it is certain that it will have the most direct effect in diminishing outrages. Even the chance of ten years’ penal servitude for breaking a law adds greatly to the general respect for it. The Government, at the same time, rather increases than relaxes its energy, having this week seized the Land League organ, United Ireland, and arrested its sub-editor and manager. The charges against the paper are incitement to pay no rent and sedition.

From “News of the Week” ():

[Mr. Forster (William Edward I assume) gave a speech] showing… that the Land League had been urged forward by an American threat to refuse supplies, if the rent were not withheld; that Mr. Parnell, at the Tyrone election, had avowed that his intention was “to abolish rent altogether,” and in other places, that any man taking another man’s land should be “boycotted;” and that some of his leading followers had justified intimidation, and expressed openly their hopes for an Irish Republic.

From “The New Temper of Irishmen” ():

It is in incidents like the attack on young Morony, at Feakle, in Limerick, that we see the deepest ground for alarm. It seems certain that Morony had been ordered by some illegal combination not to pay his rent, and had paid it, and was consequently visited by an armed party, who charged him with his offence, while one of them “stepped forward, and placing the muzzle of a rifle to Morony’s leg, immediately below the knee, drew the trigger and fired, shattering the bones to pieces.” The “Moonlighters then left,” the man died of his wounds, and, in the absence of evidence, it was found necessary to arrest seventeen persons under the Coercion Act.

There is something in the self-restraint of these “Moonlighters,” in the careful limitation of their crime, so as to avoid incurring, as they hoped, any risk of the gallows, in the cold-bloodedness and want of passion in their deed, which is utterly horrible, and which in England would produce an outburst of furious detestation. The Moonlighters would have the whole population for enemies, and all healthy men for police; would be hunted from county to county, and would be as certain of conviction if they were caught as if they had tortured children. Why is it not so in Ireland? It is nonsense to talk of defective administration, when in all cases of ordinary crime — theft, for instance, and forgery — punishment is, on the whole, more certain in Limerick than Liverpool. And it is nonsense, or rather pleonasm, to talk of terrorism, when without popular support no terror could be maintained for a day, the police being anxious and able to arrest, if only evidence were forthcoming, and juries would convict. There is much want of moral courage in Ireland, but there must be something worse than this, a positive sympathy with any crime having for its object an ultimate increase in the income of tenant-farmers.… We talk of agents of the Land League and their “organisation,” but there is no criminal in Ireland and no organisation that could stand up against the universal popular detestation which makes of a man a leper, and which in Ireland is visited with appalling effect on many crimes.

From “Mr. Forster Thinking Aloud” ():

Mr. Forster [the government’s Chief Secretary of Ireland], who had just arrived from Ireland — where he had been occupied in the double task of making detention easier for the suspects [including some Irish members of Parliament], and preventing the torture of honest tenants suspected of disobeying the "No Rent" manifesto — rose, in a fever of moral indignation, to deliver his soul upon the League and upon Coercion. He intimated that, as he has always done, and as all England, except Mr. Cowen, does, he held the Land Leaguers morally responsible for the outrages, inasmuch as they had made no persistent effort to repress them; and, quoting Mr. Healy’s remark that an Irishman who received a slap must be expected to return a blow, indignantly denounced the levelling of that blow at innocent and humble tenants, who were killed, or tortured, or maimed for doing their duty; and then, perhaps carried away in part by his recollection of the scenes he had witnessed, admitted that Coercion had not prevented such crimes. “The Protection Act had not succeeded as Government had hoped. Honourable Members had been too strong for them. Remittances from America had been too constant. Perhaps the Government had underrated the forces opposed to them.” They “did not think they would have to deal with men of the position and influence of those who had carried on the movement.”

Yet Forster, in his speech, threatened to double-down on increased Coercion powers. Instead, the government partially caved in — saying that it intended to release some of the Irish Land League leadership — and Forster resigned about a month later.

From “The Irish Jacquerie” ():

It is not the prevalence of murder in Ireland which is so amazing, but the acquiescence of the people in the impunity of murderers. The murders can be accounted for; murder is an incident of every jacquerie, and there is too much reason to believe that in many districts of Ireland the anti-landlord agitation, the incentives to crime supplied from abroad, and the misery of the lowest class, to whom the Land Act promises nothing, have changed an agrarian movement into a true jacquerie.

But then, why do the body of the people in the bad districts acquiesce? That they do acquiesce is evident, from the difficulty of obtaining evidence, from the astounding reluctance of the injured to come forward, from the timidity of Catholic clergymen known to be horror-struck at the state of their parishes, from the language of the violent Press, which, after all, must be seeking popularity, from the action of the juries; and, above all, from the universal belief, current among the police, the officials, the neighbours, and the murderers, that jurymen will not act.

In Ireland alone, the quiet classes, with an irresistible Government behind them, with soldiers and armed police, whom nobody ever faces, and who do their duty admirably, still acquiesce in crime, make no effort to prevent it, or detect it, or punish it. They will not organise themselves as constables, or arm as a volunteer guard, or start vigilance committees, or vote, as jurymen, according to their consciences, or even, as witnesses, state the things they know. What is the explanation of that? — for that, and not the frequency of murder, distressing and exasperating as that is, is the difficulty of the Government.

We can find but one solution of the problem which in the least fits the facts, and this is, that the body of the people, partly from tradition, partly from political feeling, and partly from social training, so distrust and detest the law, that any defeat of its agents affects them with a feeling of pleasure. They cannot bring themselves to assist them, even in their own interest, and feel when they are witnesses, or even jurymen, as if they were “informers.” It is a strange and a terrible condition of opinion, but it must exist, and is the most perplexing and, in certain ways, hopeless of all the conditions of the insoluble Irish problem.

From “News of the Week” ():

The Catholic clergy of the diocese of Cashel and Emly, in their annual conference at Tipperary on Thursday, passed three sets of resolutions. By the first, they emphatically denounce Mr. P.J. Smyth, Member for Tipperary, for his recent conduct in Parliament, and call on him to resign his seat. By the second, they “earnestly and sincerely deprecate” all outrages on person and property, and especially those upon defenceless animals, and pledge themselves strenuously to denounce midnight raids. By the third, they declare that there can be no peace in Ireland while evictions continue for non-payment of excessive rent, and while the leaders of the Irish people are in prison, and consequently “demand from Government the immediate staying of evictions for arrears, the restoration of our constitutional rights, and the release of our imprisoned patriots.” These resolutions are signed by 115 priests and curates, and seem to show that the lower clergy in this part of Ireland sympathise much more strongly with the Land League than the Bishops, so many of whom have warned their flocks against believing that good can come either out of outrage or out of secret societies. The division among the clergy is possibly, in part, apparent only, as only the Bishops are quite free; but it goes deeper than we remember in any recent struggle. Formerly, the Church acted in Ireland as a whole, or abstained from acting.

From “News of the Week” ():

were wholly taken up with a very long discussion of the proper way of defining the offence of intimidation or “boycotting,” Mr. Charles Russell wishing to limit it to threats of violence, or attempts to incite other persons to use such threats; while the Government contended that in Ireland intimidation of a most cruel kind is practised by means of boycotting, even when no direct threats of violence are used, as, for instance, when a blacksmith was totally deprived of his custom for not acting with the Land League, and the servants of others were compelled to leave them by the notices they received, often notices which inspired the fear of violence, whether threats of violence were used or not. On , Mr. Dillon made an elaborate defence of boycotting, distinguishing it from threats of violence, as a mere “sending to Coventry” and exclusive dealing, and this he declared to be quite essential to the sort of agitation which Irish tenant-farmers had been conducting, however regrettable the necessity for putting on such a screw might be. Among the Liberals who wished the crime of intimidation to be more closely defined, though they did not wish it to be limited, as Mr. Russell proposed, to threats of violence exclusively, or incitements to such threats, was Mr. Bryce, who suggested that conspiracies to exclude a man from the market, or from intercourse with his fellow-men, or to deprive him of his rents, might be made punishable as intimidation, though an individual refusal to have dealings with a man should not be so regarded. There was a general concurrence that the offence of intimidation needed either closer definition, or, at least, more of negative definition, more careful exclusion of what it did not mean, though Mr. Russell’s attempt to limit it to direct threats of violence met with very little favour.

The Boycotting Difficulty

The debate which had yesterday lasted for three full days on the difficulty of defining Intimidation and Boycotting, though it looks like obstruction, is better justified than any dilatory proceeding of the kind which we can remember during recent years. The point is really one of the utmost difficulty and of the utmost importance, both to the Government on the one side, and to the Irish party on the other. We quite hold with the Government that it is impossible to define too closely the offence of intimidation, and that it is necessary to put down that offence. Even if we were to attempt such a definition, and speak of it as comprising any threat of violence, or any threat involving interference with the livelihood or the means of subsistence of the person threatened, in the hope of preventing him from doing what he has a right to do, or to make him do what he has a right not to do, the definition would be at once too wide and too narrow; it would render punishable some acts which might be perfectly justifiable, and would certainly fail to include some acts which are perfectly unjustifiable. The statement of a labourer to an employer that without higher wages he would work no more for him, and would try to persuade every other labourer that the wages offered were too low, and were likely to cheapen labour in the market to a disastrous point, is a perfectly legitimate statement, and one that any labourer ought to have the power to make; and yet it is unquestionable that such a declaration might very seriously threaten the livelihood of the employer to whom it was made. On the other hand, such a definition as we have suggested above would not cover the inclusion of a man’s name in a published “black list” of persons with whom it was considered by a given organisation (say, the Land League), that it was disgraceful to hold any sort of social intercourse; and yet the publication of a man’s name in such a black list, even though it were expressly stated that no violence and no refusal of the ordinary means of subsistence to those included in it was intended or recommended, would probably be an infinitely worse calamity than any attempt to organise a strike against an employer till he raised his rate of wages, could be. The truth is that the character of intimidation depends so much on the minuter social circumstances of the day, that it is impossible to define it exhaustively, without great danger both of including what ought to be excluded, and of excluding what ought to be included; and we do not, therefore, in the least blame the Government for insisting that they cannot, and will not, supply a definition, though it is their intention to put down the sort of intimidation which has generally gone under the name of “Boycotting,” a form of intimidation which has, no doubt, often involved much more cruelty and terrorism than the milder forms of violence, like stone-throwing or hooting, could have involved.

On the other hand, we cannot in any way reproach the Irish party for objecting that in relation to an offence which is to be judged by such judges as the Resident Magistrates of Ireland, there is a very great danger, indeed, in leaving the character of the offence undefined. Say what we will, the Resident Magistrates of Ireland belong to a caste who feel very little sympathy with the people; they are not highly-trained lawyers; they are not, as a rule, persons of judicial mind; and they are pretty certain, without intending it, to strain the interpretation of an ill-defined offence in a manner that may prove exceedingly injurious to the right of political combination. Under these circumstances, we cannot condemn them for resisting tenaciously, and even obstinately, till they secure for the Irish people that right of legitimate combination which was secured for the English artisans by the Act of .

It seems to us that there is probably a way out of the difficulty. We believe that though it is impossible so to define intimidation as to cover all the offences which the Government wish to put down, it might be easy to define those rights of legitimate combination which it is absolutely necessary for the Irish people to maintain. Why not, after explaining and illustrating the nature of the offence, add something distinctly explaining what the Act is not intended to forbid or render punishable? If we suggest words, it is not, of course, that we are prepared to defend them as adequate words, but only that we may make clearer the mode in which we would prevent the Bill from going beyond its true object. The words might be something of this kind, — “Provided always, and it is hereby expressly declared, that nothing in the foregoing clause shall be taken as declaring illegal, or prohibiting as criminal, any agreement amongst tenants to stand by each other in demanding a reduction of rent, or any effort to persuade others, by fair argument, to demand such a reduction; or any agreement amongst labourers to stand by each other in the demand for a rise of wages, or for more convenient conditions of labour, or any effort to persuade other labourers to second them; or any political combination to co-operate in bringing about a given political object by legitimate moral pressure, so long as that moral pressure is not calculated to excite others, either directly or indirectly, to hold their opponents up to public odium and hatred for resisting the pressure put on them.” We do not for a moment pretend, of course, that such language as this is scientifically sufficient for its purpose. But we believe that the difficulty would be better met by explaining distinctly the sort of combinations which it is not intended to discourage or prevent, and which the Act would require the Resident Magistrates of Ireland to consider as perfectly lawful, than by any attempt to define all the forms of intimidation which it is desired to prevent, and which the Act is intended to punish. With such a class of Judges as the Resident Magistrates of Ireland, it is most important to be perfectly explicit in setting before them what they are not to construe as intimidation. And in that case, as an appeal is apparently to be allowed from their judgment, they are pretty certain to take care not to punish as intimidation the sort of combinations which the Court of Appeal might declare that the Act was intended expressly to sanction. Hitherto, as we think, both the Government and the Irish party have been in the right in refusing to give way. But we believe that if, instead of attempting to define intimidation, the Bill were to attempt to describe what is not to be regarded as intimidation, some approximation between the views of the Government and the views of the moderate Liberals and moderate Irishmen, might really be effected.

From “News of the Week” ():

Michael Davitt, Mr. Healy, Member for Wexford, and Mr. W. Redmond have recently made violent speeches in Ireland, pointing to a renewal of agitation against rent, Davitt in particular declaring that unless the surplus under the Arrears Act was given to the suffering people of the West, Connemara, Donegal, Kerry, and Cork must “march upon the plains and seize the land.” He advised all rent to be withheld till the grant was made. Sir W. Hart-Dyke, on , therefore, asked what the Government intended to do. Mr. Trevelyan replied that Mr. Redmond’s speech came within the Act, and he would be prosecuted; while Mr. Davitt and Mr. Healy would be bound over to good behaviour in recognizances, or committed to prison in default. “If such speeches continue to be made, there is no hope for peace and order in Ireland,” and if they were repeated, the Viceroy would prohibit the meetings of the National League [the successor to the banned Land League]. Mr. Healy hereupon remarked defiantly that he should be in Dublin on , whereat the House laughed. It is most painful to all Liberals to witness these interferences with freedom of speech, but it is still more painful to the Government; and if the latter are convinced that such speeches endanger order, they have practically no option. We should say, on the whole, that with the West in distress, Dublin full of assassins, and all Ireland hungry for excitement to make the wet winter pass, they do endanger it.