The fledging Land League, officially founded in Castlebar October 21 1879, had every reason to believe that the influential Archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale, the great supporter of Daniel O’Connell and Fenianism, would support them.
The League, led by such enigmatic men as Charles S Parnell, and Michael Davitt, played a restraining influence on enraged tenants in the so-called 12 year Land War. Following a succession of bad summers, poor harvests, increased rents, and evictions, some tenants took the law into their own hands. Uncooperative landlords were terrorised by a campaign of murder, arson, and boycott. The Land League, which began in Mayo, and spread rapidly as a mass people’s movement throughout Ireland (notably east Galway ), stood firmly behind the tenant farmer who was powerless in the hands of the landlord, but it rejected violence. The philosophy of the League was to abolish ‘landlordism’ and enable tenant farmers to own the land they worked on. It pursued what it called the ‘Three Fs’ (Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure, and Free Sale ) in mass demonstrations, articles in newspapers, and, through a series of clever tactics, in the Parliament. It organised resistance to evictions, reductions in rents, aided work of relief agencies, and campaigned for new laws. At the end of the day, the League’s methods proved successful. It achieved social justice for small and middle-sized farmers far in excess of what similar farmers in Britain ever achieved.
But all that was in the future. From its inception the League was vigorously condemned by the Catholic Church. I wrote last week about the attack launched by the parish priest of Knock, Archdeacon Cavanagh, which so appalled many of his parishioners, that a ‘Monster Indignation Meeting’ was held in Knock attracting between 20,000 and 30,000 protesters. The Archdeacon remained unrepentant, but his colleague, Canon Ulick Burke (a substantial landlord himself ), was so alarmed by the size of the protest that he immediately reduced his rents by 25 per cent!
Because the objectives of the Land League were so manifestly just, its leaders confidently expected all the churches to row in behind it. They looked expectantly for support from Archbishop John MacHale, who was now in his 90th year.
MacHale’s life story is extraordinary. He was a fearless, outspoken man, not only against the British authorities, but against his own clergy and Rome itself, if he thought it warranted. The role he played in fashioning the Irish Church as we know it today was pivotal. I will try to tell some of his story some day, but at this point in our Diary, MacHale had become so much the nationalist bishop that his reputation extended way beyond his own diocese. He was revered wherever Irish people lived. Michael Davitt wrote that MacHale was “probably the strongest personality in the Ireland of 1879”.
In July of that year MacHale was invited to attend a meeting in Ballyhaunis. His refusal and his attack on the organisers of the League was not only directly at odds with what his reputation for decades would lead people to expect, but it was of such a vehement nature that many simply didn’t believe that he ever made it. To ensure maximum publicity, and that there would be no misunderstanding of his intentions, MacHale published his reply in The Freeman’s Journal. He wrote that priests had always stood by the people, and warned against any attempt to ‘dissever’ such a sacred relationship. He questioned the leadership of the League (Charles S Parnell, Michael Davitt and other well know Mayo men ), who he called ‘a few unknown strolling men’; and warned that when these men had got what they wanted from the agitation (meaning when they had attained power ), ‘they would abandon the tenants’, and walk away.
The League leadership was appalled, but brazen. It refused to accept the criticism, and hit back in a way that for previous generations would have been unthinkable.
Michael Davitt replied to MacHale’s public letter by pointing out that he was no unknown outsider*. Although he had spent much of his life in England, he had been born in poverty to a small tenant family in Mayo, but his family had been evicted and forced to emigrate. Davitt had lost an arm when he was crushed by machinery in a Lancashire factory where he worked as a child. He had served long years in prison for his Fenian activities, and was now out on ticket-of-leave. He had been welcomed home by bonfires in Mayo when he visited before 1879. Far from being a cynical career-building step, as MacHale intimated, Davitt pointed out that if his activities on behalf of the poor tenants were to lead him anywhere it was most likely back to picking oakum in prison when the government revoked his leave.
Davitt’s dignified and forthright statement was followed by an even more daring display of people power. In September the League organised a ‘peaceful mass occupation’ of Tuam, MacHale’s cathedral city without warning him or the authorities that the event was about to happen. Reports say that more than 5,000 men, 200-300 of them on horseback, came into Tuam that evening. In the speeches from the platform criticism of the Archbishop was muted; but the point was made: The Land League was being backed by thousands of the laity, and it wasn’t afraid to press ahead with its demands.
Remember all this was happening around the extraordinary apparition on the gable end on the old church at Knock on the evening of August 21. The miracle was attracting enormous crowds, people were already claiming cures. It was the talk of the county and beyond. But was it a sign of support from Heaven at this time of deep social unrest? And, if it was, which side, the church or the Land Movement, did it favour?
Next week: The Church ensures that the Apparition firmly belongs to it.
* I am taking this directly from Knock - The Virgin’s Apparition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, by Eugene Hynes, published by Cork University Press 2008, on sale at €49. Its high price reflects the extensive research of this rich layered book, which is a pleasure to read, and goes a long way to guide the reader through the many competing strands of events at this turning point in our history.
Time table of events in the summer 1879:
Following a succession of bad harvests, and unseasonable weather, evictions and increased rent demands from landlords, tenants in Mayo began to protest. It grew into a national Land Movement demanding reduced rent, and an end to ‘landlordism’.
Initially there were ‘monster’ public meetings in Claremorris, Castlebar, Tuam and Irishtown.
-May : Archdeacon Bartholomew Cavavagh, PP Knock, attacked the Movement as unchristian.
-June 1: A ‘Monster Indignation Meeting’ was held in Knock to protest against Cavanagh’s attack.
-July: Archbishop John MacHale accuses the leadership of being nothing less than “ a few unknown strolling men.”
-August 21: The Apparition at Knock.
-September: ‘Monster’ protest in Tuam against MacHale’s attack on the leadership of the Movement.
-October 21: The Irish National Land League founded in Castlebar. Charles Stewart Parnell elected its first president.