The Land League -

Mass movement of rural workers and tenant farmers

Tom Burns writing in Militant Irish Monthly, No. 76, Sept. 1979

The organised Labour Movement should try to win the small farmers to its banner. Their problems and the problems faced by rural labourers result from the capitalist system with the banks and industrial monopolies run for the profit of a small minority. One hundred years ago, Michael Davitt, leader of the Land League, tried to link the struggles of urban and rural workers and tenant farmers. In this article Tom Burns describes the history of the Land League and its relevance today.

On the 21st October 1879 the Irish Land League was founded at a meeting in Dublin. This meeting followed a series of mass demonstrations against evictions and high rents in Counties Mayo and Galway during the summer of 1879. At the head of this land agitation was Michael Davitt. Davitt's family had been evicted from their home in Straide, Co. Mayo in 1852 when he himself was just six years old.

The Davitt's emigrated to Lancashire where Michael became a mill worker at the age of 11. While working in England Davitt came into contact with the radical ideas of Chartism and learned the methods of trade unions, which he later applied in the struggle of the tenant farmers against landlordism.

When he returned to Ireland in 1877 he found the tenant farmers in the West of Ireland in a desperate situation and faced with disaster. Foreign competition on the British market meant that there was little demand for Irish agricultural produce and consequently the earnings of the tenant farmer declined. Meanwhile, the landlords continued with their policy of driving the tenant farmers off the land in order to create vast cattle ranges. In 1879 there were 980 evictions involving more than 4,6000 people. While tenant farmers in Mayo were forced to subsist on 15 acres of very bad land, some 750 landlords owned almost half of the total area of the county.

The Land League became the largest movement in 19th Century Ireland. At the height of the struggle Davitt estimated that the League had over a million members - both tenant farmers and farm labourers. The spirit and the methods of the Land League were those of trade unionism.


When a tenant was threatened with eviction the local branch of the Land League organised mass demonstrations to prevent evictions. The most effective of the League's weapons was the method of 'Boycotting'. All labour was withdrawn from the offending landlord's estate - from farm labourers to the chambermaids. Local shops would not supply him with food or services until such time as the rent was reduced or the tenant restored.

Davitt realised that if the struggle of the tenant farmers was to be successful the landlord system itself would have to be destroyed. However, under Parnell and the more conservative elements in the leadership, the Land League refused to accept Davitt's ideas. But despite this, major concessions were won, starting in 1881 with the Land Law (Ireland) Act and culminating in the Wyndham Land Act of 1903.

But, as Davitt had predicted, the Land Acts did not solve the problems of the small farmers. As late as 1911, despite the Land Acts, the 6,000 largest landowners still held the same amount of land as the 70,000 smallest holders. The lavish compensation paid to the landlords - they got much more than they would have got on the land market - remained a constant burden on the small farmers for years. Many of the holdings were too small to support a family. Large-scale emigration resulted.

Without the overthrow of capitalism this was inevitable. As Lenin explained: 'No laws on earth can abolish inequality so long as production for the market continues, and so long as there is the rule of money and the power of Capital…But the overthrow of the power of the landlords…however complete will not itself undermine the power of Capital.'

Despite various Government policies since 'independence' in 1922 and despite the promised 'Bonanza' of EEC entry the lot of the small and medium sized farmer still remains very bleak. Most rural areas, especially in the West of Ireland, suffer from chronically low incomes, involuntary migration and inadequate public facilities and services.

Instead of the expected agricultural growth rate of 33% for the years of 1971 to 1`978, a recent government estimate puts the actual growth rate at 6%. Furthermore, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute 'levels of stocking are still considerably low and much land remains under-utilized.'

According to another report, on the basis of present acreage, beef production could be doubled. The capitalist system is incapable of developing Irish agriculture to its full potential.

Nor is capitalism able to guarantee a decent standard of living to small farmers. In 1977 almost 31% of farms had a family farm income of less than £1,000 per year. 80% were below 30 acres in size. Most of those on very low incomes were in Connaught, Monaghan and Cavan. In the North West of the country 47% of all households still have no piped water, 65% have no bath or shower and 42% have no indoor toilets.

at the same time massive profits are being made by the speculators who invest in agricultural land. This has resulted in the price of agricultural land rocketing to over £4,000 per acre for good land whereas it stood at £150 per acre in 1968 about 50% of agricultural land transactions in the market are purchased by persons not farming full time (NESC Report No. 27).

The poverty, the long hours and drudgery which is the lot of the small farmer cannot be overcome on the basis of capitalist policies. The small farmer is being pushed to the wall not only by EEC policies which discriminate in favour of the large ranchers, but also by the crippling interest rates charged by the banks - at present 15-17%. On top of that there is the enormous increase in the costs of seeds, fertilisers, feeding stuffs, stocks and farm machinery. Only a Socialist programme which stands for the nationalisation of major industry and the banks would provide the basis for cheap credit from publicly owned banks, while materials and feeding stuffs could be made available cheaply to small farmers.


By taking over the large estates many of which are owned by the big monopolies, agricultural collectives could be established. These, staffed by several families, would demonstrate the superiority of the collective system of farming. On this basis the long months and the drudgery of the seven-day week could be ended and a living wage paid to those working on the collective. Thus the poverty, insecurity and isolation of rural life could be ended on the basis of a totally voluntary collectivization of agriculture. If the Labour Party took up this programme and patiently explained it, Labour could win the thousands of small farmers who have obviously become disillusioned by the policies of both Fianna fail and Fine Gael. This Labour could build the alliance of workers and small farmers which was Michael Davitt's life long objective.

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