The Land War: A desperate duel between Parnell and Forster

Week III

Charles Stewart Parnell: A powerful and effective orator.

Charles Stewart Parnell: A powerful and effective orator.

The continued unrest, murders, and large-scale protests as the Land War careered dangerously through the Irish countryside, led at last to some reform. William Gladstone’s Second Land Act of 1881 proposed broad concessions to the tenant farmer. But Parnell, the very effective leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was not satisfied. He said that tenants were still vulnerable to rent arrears and poverty resulting from poor harvests. He urged that the Act either accommodate these concerns, or be rejected.

This constant attack on every effort that the government made to relieve the crisis, frustrated many, including the Chief Secretary for Ireland, William Forster.

Forster was not a bad man. As a Quaker,* he had accompanied his father into Connemara distributing relief during the Great Famine. The terrible state of the country made a deep impression on him. He was determined to do something to help Ireland as it emerged from the famine, and struggled through the final quarter of the 19th century. But Forster was a stickler for law and order. He was nicknamed ‘Buckshot’ because he reportedly ordered the police to disperse unruly crowds with a blast of buckshot. He could not stand Parnell. He believed that instead of welcoming liberal proposals, Parnell was completely out of order to reject the Second Land Act.

Frustrated by the stand-off, and perhaps unwisely, Forster set out on a personal crusade to some of the ‘disturbed areas’ in Clare, Limerick and Galway. A number of interesting episodes occurred, not least when he gave an impromptu speech, in ‘pithy and forcible terms’ to a group of men sheltering in a shed from the rain. They must have been amazed, but they listened to him in silence while he remonstrated with their ‘acquiescence in the reign of terror organised by the agitators’.

He visited Tulla Workhouse in east Clare, to speak to Michael Moroney, who had been shot by moonlighters near Feakle. He gave him a present of £10. The man died the following morning. From Ennis Forster travelled by train to Athenry, ‘the worst bit of Galway’, and held brief discussions with local people attending the weekly market. His adopted son (Forster and his wife had adopted four children ), reported that people ‘eyed him very curiously, but everyone has been civil enough’.

Civility, however, did not prevail in Gort. A crowd gathered at the railway station ‘headed by the priest of the district - a notorious Land Leaguer - groans and hoots, and cries of ‘Buckshot’ rang out as the train went out of the station’.

No Rent Manifesto

In the meantime Parnell launched a robust campaign against the Second Land Act, which became law on August 22 1881. With his powerful and effective oratory, he attacked Gladstone and Forster for introducing a ‘faulty bill’. His growing popularity was such that the government became increasingly alarmed. It warned him that if he did not desist from his constant barrage of criticism, he would be arrested. Parnell scoffed at the threat. He was arrested, and was conveyed to Kilmainham gaol where he joined other protesters including William O’Brien, the influential nationalist and journalist.

Immediately the two men declared a No Rent Manifesto in protest against the Coercion Act (which was becoming increasingly unpopular within Gladstone’s Liberal party ). It had been responsible for mass internment of suspects all over Ireland. ** The country was veering towards being ungovernable.

A national hero

Politics, however, saved the day, at least to some extent. Sensing that Gladstone was getting nervous, Parnell sent him word that if the government would settle the rent-arrears problem, he was confident that if he, and the other Land League leaders were released, they would be able to curtail the outrages that were happening with increased intensity.

It was a lifeline for Gladstone, and he readily grabbed it. He was becoming increasingly impressed by Parnell, and would later remark that Parnell was the most remarkable man he had ever met. Gladstone presented parliament with his Arrears of Rent (Ireland ) Act 1882, which astonishingly cancelled £2 million of accrued rent arrears owed by Irish tenants. The so called Kilmainham Treaty was an extraordinary victory for the Irish Parliamentary Party.

That, of course, was not the opinion of poor Forster. He was appalled by this turn of events. He felt betrayed and let down. He offered his resignation which was accepted. As Forster packed his bags Parnell emerged from Kilmainham a national hero.

But the story does not end there. Gladstone appointed Lord Frederick Cavendish, who was married to his niece Lucy, to succeed Forster as Chief Secretary of Ireland. I described last week of how, on his arrival in Ireland, four days following the Kilmainham Treaty, while being briefed by the Permanent Under-Secretary Henry Burke, both men were savagely murdered in the Phoenix Park.

The agreement with Gladstone still held, however. But it showed that despite Parnell’s strong condemnation of the murder, he could not control the hot heads that existed on the fringes of the growing nationalist movement. These, and other unforeseen events, such as the appearance of Kitty O’Shea, were to frustrate his ultimate goal, namely home rule for Ireland.

NOTES: * In 1850 he married Jane Martha, eldest daughter of Dr Thomas Arnold. She was not a Quaker, and her husband was formally excommunicated for marrying her. But the Friends who were commissioned to announce the sentence, ‘shook hands and stayed to luncheon’. Forster thereafter considered himself a member of the Church of England.

** I tried to convey the effects of the Coercion Act on Loughrea in last week’s Diary. Following the crisis resulting from the Phoenix Park murders, a second Coercion Act was introduced.

I am gleaning most of the above information from Pat Finnegan’s excellent Loughrea - ‘That Den of Infamy’ , published by Four Courts Press, and on sale €14.95. At last a readable historian has made the Land War accessible to the general public.


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