In there was a flurry of articles in The Spectator about the Irish Land League and its rent strike. The Spectator’s archives have recently come on-line, so I can share some excerpts here:
On the Irish Land League shot its last bolt, — by the issue of a Circular enjoining on the Irish farmers the absolute refusal of all rent till Mr. Parnell and his colleagues have been liberated. The circular is exceedingly violent in tone, but not drawn up without a considerable amount of rhetorical ability. It states that the time has come “to test whether the great organisation built up during years of patient labour and sacrifice, and consecrated by the allegiance of the whole Irish race the world over, is to disappear at the summons of a brutal tyranny.” The crisis, it goes on, is not of the Land League’s making. The Government are determined, says the Manifesto, “to strike down the only power which could have extracted any solid benefits for the tenant-farmers of Ireland from that Act, and to leave them once more helplessly at the mercy of a law intended to serve landlordism, and administered by landlord minions;” and so forth. Wherefore, the only weapon left is to withhold every penny of rent till the Land League is again at work, — a command which is accompanied by a variety of furious attacks on the British Government. The Irish will not believe Mr. Serjeant O’Hagan, Mr. Litton, and Mr. Vernon to be “landlord minions,” and they will not believe that the new Land Act was passed for the sole benefit of Irish landlords. The Manifesto professes to be signed by the men in jail, some at least of whose signatures must have been affixed for them, and in Davitt’s case, probably without even his knowledge of the contents of the address. The great thunderbolt will bury itself impotently in the earth.
The Spectator was (and is) a conservative journal and didn’t have much sympathy for radical Irish rabble-rousers. As such, its coverage of the strike is often more spin and wishful thinking than news, and even as news is of doubtful reliability, but an occasional data point peeps through now and again.
The manifesto of the League was immediately met by Government with a decree for its suppression. On the Government announced that the League, by its recent proceedings, had shown itself an “illegal and criminal association, intent on destroying the obligation of contracts and subverting law,” and warning all persons to quit it, and all attendants at meetings in its support that they would be dispersed by force. The Government, moreover, pledged themselves “to employ all the powers and resources at our command to protect the Queen’s subjects in Ireland in the free exercise of their lawful rights, and the peaceful pursuit of their lawful callings and occupations,” to “enforce the fulfilment of all lawful obligations,” and “to save the process of law from hindrance or obstruction.” As this proclamation will be followed up by the arrest of all persons continuing to belong to the Land League, that body can only continue to exist as a Secret Society, which may be formidable, but cannot ally itself with respectable classes, or escape the permanent condemnation of Rome. The garrison of Ireland is being steadily increased, and now numbers, it is believed, 40,000 men, and the police have obviously received orders to defend themselves when attacked. Indeed, the careful precautions taken by Government form the gravest symptom of the condition of Ireland.
The general tone of the news from Ireland, disastrous as some incidents have been, is not without some gleams of hope. The rioting in the cities, though serious, was in a great degree the work of lads, and even the American Irish counsel abstinence from insurrection. The troops have not yet been compelled to fire, and the danger of local émeutes believed to be subsiding. The suppression of the League has not been followed by more riots, and the League has forbidden public meetings. The Land Court has been opened at last, and though the information is not yet conclusive, the indications are that those of the peasantry who are rack-rented will at once resort to it. The opening scene revealed, indeed, a liking for the Court even among the populace of Dublin. The manifesto of the Land League prohibiting the payment of rent has elicited from the Catholic Church, through the Archbishop of Cashel, a counter-manifesto, denouncing repudiation, as contrary alike to principle and policy. Archbishop Croke’s letter is lacking in a feature it ought to have possessed, — a strong statement of Catholic abhorrence, on religious grounds, of such threats; but it derives force from his long and, as we deem, unwise support of the League, in every stage but the last. The sky is still black, but there are rifts in it.
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…this great Manifesto from the Executive of the Land League makes the Land League at last a distinctly illegal organisation, whatever it may have been in the past. Till it was issued, Mr. Gladstone himself held that the Land League’s proposed objects were not unconstitutional, — that it was quite possible to be a Land Leaguer, and yet not desire to break the law. Thisis now possible no longer. After the Executive of the Land League has required all its constituents to withhold their just debts till such time as it shall please a Government over which their creditors have no control, to set certain prisoners at liberty, every honest Irishman who wishes to see just debts paid must separate himself from that Land League. “It is as lawful to refuse to pay rents,” says the Manifesto, “as it is to receive them.” The Land League might just as well say, “It is as lawful to break a deliberate contract as it is to fulfil it.” It is not lawful to refuse to pay any debt which the creditor knows to be justly due ; nor is it lawful to conspire to get other men to refuse to pay such debts. Whether the British Government has done well or ill in apprehending Mr. Parnell, the Land League has, at last, adopted an ostentatiously illegal, as well as unjust, policy, and pronounced itself an illegal organisation.…
The Dublin Town Council has rejected the motion for conferring the freedom of the City of Dublin on Mr. Parnell and Mr. Dillon, by the casting-vote of the Mayor; the Archbishop of Dublin is said to have suspended a priest in his diocese, for refusing to retire from the Land League; the Wicklow farmers and landlords are joining together heartily to discountenance intimidation; and on the whole, the symptoms of the moment in Ireland are not unfavourable for the collapse of the anti-rent agitation. One very grave incident of the week is the murder, in the county of Clare, of a very active member of the Land League, named Thomas MacMahon, apparently for denouncing other farmers who had paid their rents. If this be the cause of the murder, it is clear that the tyranny of the Land League is felt as an oppressive yoke in the county of Clare, and that local feeling rebels against it. It is the great misfortune of Ireland, that no agrarian passion of whatever kind seems to hesitate at murder as its natural mode of expression. The fear and anger created by the vexatious interference of the Land League express themselves just as the fear and anger against landlords, for which the interference of the Land League was supposed to be the remedy, expressed themselves before the Land Act was passed.