THE Irish National Land League, commonly called the Land League, was founded on 21 October 1879 at a meeting held in a Dublin hotel attended by Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell. It followed on the earlier Mayo Land League which Michael Davitt and James Daly founded following meetings in Irishtown and Westport the previous August. Its objectives were rent reductions and the right of tenants to purchase the freeholds of their holdings. It was in truth a reaction to the agricultural depression of the 1870s and to the arbitrary system of rackrenting and evictions which the Land Laws allowed Irish landlords to inflict upon tenant farmers.
The passing of the 1870 Land Act gave Irish tenant farmers the right to be compensated in the event of eviction for improvements carried out during their tenancy. However landlords were entitled to contract out of the operation of the Act, thereby depriving their tenants of its benefit. The Duke of Leinster was one of the first Irish landlords to seek to defeat his tenants’ rights under the 1870 Act. The Leinster Lease, as it became known, sought to sidestep the Land Act and local opposition to its terms saw the founding of the Tenant Defence Asociation in Athy. This was the first such association formed in Ireland following the decline of Isaac Butt’s Tenant League of 1848.
The Athy Tenant Association held its first meeting on Tuesday 19 November 1872 with Captain Morgan of Rahinderry in the Chair. Local man Thomas P. Kynsey, J.P. acted as the association’s secretary. The group passed the following resolution:
“That an attempt has been made on the Leinster Estate to deprive the tenants of all the advantages conferred on them by the Land Act, the attempt in question should receive the instant and most determined opposition from the Association.”
The Duke of Leinster succeeded in overcoming local opposition to the Leinster Lease, usually as a result of the threat of eviction. One tenant farmer who signed was James Leahy, Chairman of Athy Town Comissioners, who would later attend the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament for South Co. Kildare. Athy’s Board of Guardians, at its board meeting on 1 January 1879, declined to sign the Leinster Lease on the basis “that this board as the representatives of the people decline to give their signatures to a document directly opposed to the provisions of the Land Act of 1870.”
Parliamentary elections brought Charles Stewart Parnell to Athy for what I believe was the first time on Easter Monday 1880. At that meeting James Leahy, the farmer from Ardscull, was nominated as the candidate for the Irish Parliamentary Party. He would win the seat and remain a Member of Parliament for the next 15 years.
Opposition to the Leinster Lease was maintained at a low level up to the summer of 1880, but evictions in September of that year on the local Verschoyle Estate prompted the formation of a branch of the Land League in Athy. Michael Boyton, an Irish American who lived in Kildare town, organised the meeting which established Athy’s Land League branch on Sunday 10 October 1880. Boyton, on addressing the meeting, claimed to have been commissioned by Charles Stewart Parnell to establish the Athy branch of the Land League following a request from tenant farmers of Athy to the League’s national organisation. It also followed approximately three weeks after Parnell, in a speech in Ennis, Co. Clare, had called for a “boycott” against those who opposed the Land League. Parnell had not used that exact phrase, but boycotting soon became the Land League’s most effective weapon following aggrieved tenants’ refusal to engage with Captain Charles Boycott of Lough Mask House in Co. Mayo.
I have been unable to discover who was elected President of Athy’s Land League branch. Dr. Patrick O’Neill was the Vice-President, with Timothy Byrne as Treasurer and John Cantwell as Secretary. The Athy Branch had a flag which was last known to have been in the possession of Peter P. Doyle of Woodstock Street. Made of green silky material, it had a picture of Parnell on one side, with the words “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” on the reverse.
On 8 January 1881 the local papers reported a Land League meeting in Market Square, Athy, during which Michael Blyton burned a copy of the Leinster Lease. However, within a few weeks local support for the Land League was undermined by a clerical instigated tenants’ agreement to accept a 20% rent reduction offered by the Duke of Leinster. Dr Kavanagh, the parish priest of Kildare, chaired a meeting of tenants which accepted the Duke’s rent reduction without referring the matter to the Land Leaage breach. As a result, Dr O’Neill resigned as Vice-President of the Athy branch as “the acceptance of the Duke’s offer had broken the backbone of the local Land League.” Athy, which in 1872 had given Ireland the first of the new wave of tenants’ defence associations, had little further involvement in the Land League.
The movement first started by Davitt and Daly in a small Co. Mayo village united Irish tenant farmers as never before. The British Prime Minister William Gladstone acknowledged that if the Land League had not existed the 1881 Land Act would not have been brought to Parliament. His Act gave legal status to the tenants’ freedom of sale and right to compensation for improvements. It also established the Land Commission and a Land Court with power to review rents under the Fair Rent clause of the Act.