Analysis: intense agitation and outrage over land saw violence 'sweeping through the west like a prairie fire' a century ago

Ireland is currently marking a chain of events that commenced with the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in the British House of Commons in 1912 and concluded with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. 2020 is the centenary of heightened agrarian agitation, a time when the Connacht Tribune reported that violence was "sweeping through the west like a prairie fire."

While this claim could be accused of being overly sensational, the intensity of agitation is demonstrated by the officially returned "agrarian outrages," which were higher in 1920 than in any other year since 1882 when the Land War was at its height. Some of the agitators, particularly in the east of the country, were agricultural labourers seeking better working conditions and wages. In addition to holding strikes, labourers disrupted fairs and attacked farms. 

But the dominant form that the agitation took, particularly in the west, was the seizure of land, sometimes carried out by large groups that included women and children. Hundreds of estates and cattle farms were forcibly taken in the early 1920s. In some cases, the land was then broken up into tillage holdings for individual small farmers, non-inheriting farmers' sons or landless labourers. Seized land was also used for common grazing. Kevin O'Higgins, Minister for Justice in the early years of the Free State, later claimed that "practically two whole counties" in the west "became a common and everyone’s stock was on everyone else’s land" in 1920.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Countrywide, historian Pat Finnegan on how and why Loughrea was dubbed "that den of infamy" by the British during the Land War

As well as seizing land, people grouped together locally to jointly purchase it. The subsequent transfer of land, though legal, could involve some degree of intimidation or the threat thereof. In the spring of 1920, The Connacht Tribune reported that threatening letters had become "as mushrooms in August." In March 1920, Frank Shawe-Taylor, a substantial landowner and grazier, was shot following his refusal to give up his grazing land. In the aftermath of his murder, landlords who received anonymous letters telling them to give up their land were likely to have taken such demands very seriously. Similar to the seized land, some of these properties were subsequently divided, with others used by the group as a whole as commonage. 

Contemporary witnesses to the 1920 land seizures included Kevin O'Shiel, a young barrister who was approached by the "illegal" Irish government established after the 1918 General Election and asked to look into this outbreak in agrarian violence. In a series of articles published in the Irish Times in November 1966, O’Shiel reflected back on his subsequent involvement in what he termed "the last land war".

In some of these pieces, O'Shiel noted the particularly "aggressive 'Bolshie’ spirit" of the agitators he encountered in Co Roscommon. He claimed that agitation in that part of the country amounted to an "agrarian avalanche" that was "almost impossible to cope with." Removing cattle from a farm and either driving them to the grazier’s house, placing them on another farmer’s land or leaving them on a road some distance away was a common tactic employed against large-scale cattle farmers in the early 20th century. O’Shiel claimed that "most of the ranches" in Co Roscommon had been "cleared of their stock, and roads and lanes, all over the county, were choked with wandering and half-starved beasts."

The agitators' invasion of estates had an especially practical and immediate dimension

On initial reflection, land bills may seem to be the most notable land-related events of the ten-year period that Ireland is currently commemorating, but we should also remember the 1920 land seizures and the experiments in collectivised farming that followed some of these seizures. They are a reminder that for some rural dwellers, including the Roscommon agitators observed by O’Shiel, the Irish land question was far from answered by land purchase acts. 

The Roscommon agitators ("exceptionally bad", according to O'Shiel) included those who were most desperate: labourers and non-inheriting farmers’ sons who owned no land at all or small farmers whose ownership of unviable holdings had left their circumstances largely unchanged. Indeed, the conditions of some members of the rural poor had deteriorated over the previous years. For example, those who had once enjoyed rights of common grazing in untenanted pastures found that these lands now tended to be in the hands of large cattle farmers. Moreover, the wartime disruption of emigration ensured that there was even greater demand for the land that was available. 

For those most impacted by land hunger, the long-term issue of land redistribution was often of less concern than gaining quick access to land for survival. Their invasion of estates, as demonstrated by the "weapons" carried by the Roscommon agitators, had an especially practical and immediate dimension. Contemporary accounts talk of these agitators carrying spades and pitchforks and the police arriving to find that strips had already been apportioned and digging commenced. 

In the late 19th century, the Irish rural poor had made a significant contribution to a movement that brought about the transfer of land from landlord to tenant-farmer. 2020 is a good year to remember those who helped ensure the effectiveness of Irish land agitation, but gained least from the land purchase acts that it culminated in.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ