A Voice â€“ All but the farmers, Mr Oâ€™Kelly, and down with them.111
As Oâ€™Farrell has pointed out, the INL was quick to adapt Liberal
rhetoric to its own needs.112 This is true of their anti-coercion rhetoric,
as we have seen, but is also relevant to their attitudes to â€˜classâ€™ struggle:
whenever necessary and politic, INL speakers invoked the law against
the tenant-dominated Poor Law guardians and demanded the full imple-
mentation of the Labourersâ€™ Act â€˜with a comfortable house and half an
acre of landâ€™.113 Yet, on the whole, class conflict was a potentially embar-
rassing issue for the Nationalists, as it diverted attention away from the
question of Home Rule, and exposed the extent to which the problems of
the rural poor were a result of social inequality rather than national
oppression. These tensions might have exploded into open conflict
similar to that which periodically affected the relations between farmers
and labourers in Britain, had it not been for the imperial (rather than
national) context of Irish politics.114 The deep-seated, widespread dis-
trust of the government and especially of Dublin Castle engendered an
attitude with which, as we have seen in the previous chapter, British
radicals of an older generation were able to sympathize. This was the
â€˜Chartistâ€™ conviction that no economic or social reforms would be possi-
ble without prior constitutional change â€“ that â€˜the true remedy for Irish
discontent [was] that the people should be governed by Laws made by
their own representatives in a native Parliamentâ€™.115
Thus even such a sincere agrarian radical as Michael Davitt felt con-
strained to preach class harmony, exhorting â€˜the tenant farmers and the
labourers not to look upon each other as occupying antagonistic positions
in the land movement. The one common enemy you have to struggle
against â€“ he argued â€“ [was] the principle of monopoly.â€™116 Once â€˜mono-
polyâ€™ was overthrown, and Ireland had parliamentary self-government,
â€˜then the right of the agricultural labourer to his share of the land
[would] be recognised as much and as fully as the right of the tenant
Rep., â€˜The National Leagueâ€™, FJ, 23 July 1883, 7.
Oâ€™Farrell, England and Ireland, 26.
Rep., â€˜Meeting at Ashbourne, County Meathâ€™, FJ, 16 Nov. 1885, 7.
At a popular meeting in Limerick, in preparation for the Prince of Walesâ€™ visit to Ireland,
John Oâ€™Connor, MP, complained that the prince â€˜came as if to hunt elephants, as he
did in Indiaâ€™, while neither he nor â€˜any other scion of the Royal Family of England ever
came in Irelandâ€™s day of trial and troubleâ€™ (rep., â€˜Great Nationalist demonstration in
Limerickâ€™, FJ, 7 Apr. 1885, 6).
From the first resolution, cited in rep., â€˜Great demonstration at Killucanâ€™, 5 Nov. 1883, 6.
Cited in rep., â€˜Great land meeting in Wexfordâ€™, FJ, 9 Oct. 1882, 6.
Constitutional Nationalism and popular liberalism 131
farmer (loud cheers)â€™.117 To Davitt â€˜monopolyâ€™ was, of course, â€˜land-
lordismâ€™ â€“ the main social evil against which both the Nationalists and the
Liberals inveighed at the time. Allegedly, â€˜landlordismâ€™ in Ireland was
even more â€˜monopolisticâ€™ than in the rest of the United Kingdom,
because the landlords controlled not only the land, but also the police,
the courts of justice and ultimately Dublin Castle.118 It was â€˜responsible
for the arbitrary attempt made by the Irish Government to suppress
legally convened constitutional meetingsâ€™,119 as well as for the judicial
â€˜misconstructionâ€™ of the Land Act, for the purpose of making its
provisions ineffective.120 It operated â€˜a system of the most merciless
coercion ever inventedâ€™, and one â€˜of jury packing and judicial murder in
operation â€“ one of the most iniquitous that ever disgraced the judgement
In Nationalist ideology the law and the state were â€˜alienâ€™ institutions,
a description which wealthy farmers must have found socially reassuring,
because it ruled out questions of â€˜classâ€™, which, at the time, was poisoning
farmer/labourer relations in Britain. In this context, the National League
claimed to be the only institution which could provide â€˜the Irishâ€™ (that
is, the temporary alliance between farmers and labourers) with some of
the protection normally provided by the law. Likewise, only the Irish
party â€˜[was] strong enough to bring the meaters and superiors of
the police to their senses (cheers)â€™.122 This fostered a special sense of
solidarity among all those who happened to be at the receiving end
of Coercion Acts, irrespective of social background. Whatever other
purpose â€˜coercionâ€™ actually served, it certainly helped the INL to
overcome the embarrassment of class struggle by an appeal to civil
liberties and national self-government. In this way it enabled the
Nationalists to present moderate policy aims as a major challenge to the
government. The â€˜radical moderationâ€™ of this strategy had the additional
advantage of uniting all the fringes and factions of the movement: the
Ibid. Quite unusually, one of the resolutions passed called for land nationalization,
and the meeting endorsed the programme of the Labour and Industrial Union. For the
link between Home Rule and the labourersâ€™ question in Nationalist rhetoric cf. rep.,
â€˜R. Lalor, MP, and Mr A. Oâ€™Connor, MP [addressing a meeting at Ballylinan]â€™, FJ,
23 Oct. 1882, 6.
M. Davitt, cited in rep., â€˜Messrs Davitt and Mâ€™Carthy, MP, at Edgeworthstownâ€™, FJ, 16
Oct. 1882, 7.
From the first resolution, cited in rep., â€˜The Killimore-Daly meetingâ€™, FJ, 5 Nov. 1883, 6.
T. Healy in rep., â€˜The Monaghan electionâ€™, 22 June 1883, 3; see also the lively debate at
the Kilkenny Board of Guardians between Lord Ormonde and the Nationalist guardians
in rep., â€˜Lord Ormonde and the Land Actâ€™, 29 Dec. 1883, 3.
Mr Oâ€™Brien, MP, cited in rep., â€˜Great demonstration at Killucanâ€™, 5 Nov. 1883, 6.
T. Sexton, MP, and a man from the crowd, cited in rep., â€˜The representation of Sligo.
the nominations: popular demonstration at Tubber Curryâ€™, FJ, 15 Aug. 1883, 3.
132 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
priests and well-off farmers liked its contents, the Fenians liked its results
and the labourers were given yet another scapegoat for their frustration.
That the interests of the property holders could be defended without
discarding the ideological framework of the liberal tradition was a further
bonus for the Nationalists. They could reassure their electors and at the
same time challenge British public opinion by attacking the government
with arguments which were plainly drawn from the familiar Gladstonian
They well remembered â€“ an Irish MP told his Newcastle audience â€“ that
before the general election of 1881 [sic, sc. 1880] every Liberal sounded the
doctrine of hatred of coercion and the love of liberty, and whenever any high-
handed action was perpetrated by the Government in office, denunciations were
raised from every Liberal platform throughout the length and breadth of the land,
and the country was called upon to rise up and put an end to this state of things;
but when the Liberals came into power there was an end to these headstrong
declarations about liberty and progress, and they found those who professed to be
their friends in Opposition turn upon them as soon as they held the reins of
While the INL claimed to stand by the rights of the people, â€˜unconstitu-
tionalâ€™ government repression reached an initial climax with the 1881 and
1882 Coercion Acts. The former made provision, among other things, for
the arrest and detention, without trial or appeal, of any person â€˜reason-
ably suspectedâ€™ of being involved in seditious activities. The latter Act,
which was to continue in force for three years, conferred wide-ranging
powers on the magistrates, interfered with the liberty of the press and
suspended trial by jury.124 Particularly objectionable was the imprison-
ment of MPs, â€˜confined under . . . sham accusation[s]â€™ and â€˜ compelled . . .
to wear the convict uniform, just like any other person confined in . . . jailâ€™.
A Liberal government persecuted â€˜the elected representatives of the
peopleâ€™ in Ireland, yet, â€˜if . . . a popular leader was arrested in France or
Italy, or any other European country, some serious event would have
followedâ€™.125 Indeed, â€˜[i]f any other country in the world had maintained
such a struggle against foreign domination as Ireland, English statesmen,
poets, and writers would be loud in their praises of that countryâ€™.126
Michael Davitt was not an MP when he was arrested in February 1881,
but was definitely a popular leader. Though the British government
ensured that he would be granted privileged treatment while in prison,
J. Barry, MP, cited in rep., â€˜Mr Healy, MP, and the Liberal Partyâ€™, FJ, 14. Sep. 1883, 2.
V. Crossman, Politics, law and order in nineteenth-centry Ireland (1996), 224â€“6. See also
L. P. Curtis, Coercion and conciliation in Ireland, 1880â€“1892 (1963).
T. D. Sullivan, MP, cited in rep., â€˜The National Leagueâ€™, FJ, 29 Mar. 1883, 2.
â€˜Democratic Ireland: lecture by Mr Edmund Leamy, MPâ€™, FJ, 7 Jan. 1886, 8.
Constitutional Nationalism and popular liberalism 133
in Ireland his arrest generated considerable emotion.127 It was a â€˜[viola-
tion] of the spirit of English lawâ€™ by an irresponsible authority, bent on
pleasing a group of selfish landlords.128 Once released, Davitt proceeded
to address meetings in both Ireland and Britain, and argued that he had
been imprisoned because his speeches had tried to â€˜provokeâ€™ the govern-
ment â€˜to perform their dutyâ€™, to act in time and prevent famine, distress
and starvation in the west of Ireland. He elicited â€˜[l]oud and prolonged
cheersâ€™ from an English crowd at Bermondsey in December 1882, when
he declared that â€˜[i]f I could prevent starvation from entering the hovels of
my people â€“ if I could prevent one death during this coming winter â€“ I
would make twenty inflammatory speeches and would go to prison in the
bargainâ€™.129 Having explained his motives, Davitt challenged his English
audience to say whether in Britain they would tolerate an inquisitorial
system and penal law based on circumstantial evidence and administered
by â€˜crown prosecutors with seats on the benchâ€™ and â€˜specialâ€™ juries. He
denounced and ridiculed Forsterâ€™s repressive methods, arguing that â€“ far
from providing an effective check on rural crime â€“ they alienated the
â€˜strong conservativeâ€™ classes in Ireland and brought the law and the police
into disrepute by showing that both were ineffective and biased against
In their actual practice, the constabulary occasionally made things
worse by lack of tact and discretion. Thus in Sligo, in August 1883,
the chairman of a meeting about to be held at Riverstown was seized
â€˜with an amount of violence which I never saw exceeded â€“ wrote a
reporter â€“ [and] dragged . . . to the police stationâ€™. Thomas Sexton, the
main speaker at the meeting, tried to find out the charge against his
friend, but the constable in charge refused to answer, first declaring that
he â€˜[knew] nothing about itâ€™, and then that the charges were â€˜[his] busi-
nessâ€™. The arrest of a town â€˜notableâ€™ in such a way, in the presence of an
MP and a large number of Nationalists assembled for a lawful meeting,
was something which tested the patience of an already excited crowd.
However, Sexton managed to prevent the deterioration of the situation
into a riot. He â€˜urged [the crowd] to bear with any amount of provocation
rather than give a handle to their enemies, and advised them to return
The Irish point of view was that the people were being deprived of their
rights â€˜under the constitutionâ€™, which was constantly being tampered with
Cashman, Davitt, 239. 128 Moody, Davitt, 471.
Cited in rep., â€˜The pacification of Irelandâ€™, FJ, 23 Dec. 1883, 5.
Rep., â€˜The representation of Sligo â€“ extraordinary scene â€“ strange arrestâ€™, FJ, 16 Aug.
134 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
to serve class and sectarian purposes, while Nationalist leaders were
imprisoned â€˜for language which might have been uttered with impunity
on any English platformâ€™.131 That similar convictions were voiced not
only by newspaper editors and parliamentarians, but also by farmers and
their Catholic clergy,132 conveys the extent to which the notion of con-
stitutional rights was rooted in Irish political culture. Even before the
â€˜Kilmainham Treatyâ€™ there was a strong link between the tenantsâ€™ agita-
tion and claims of constitutional rights, particularly freedom of speech.133
After the â€˜treatyâ€™ this liberal rhetoric became the staple of Nationalist
protest meetings. Voiced by the leaders at the hustings, it was echoed by
ordinary people in the streets and squares when confronted with police
violence. A good example is provided by the following episode, at a banned
meeting in Galway, in December 1882. Following a typical Victorian
custom, â€˜[t]he various contingents [of the demonstrators] marched to the
place of meeting in military order, wearing laurel leaves in their hats. There
was a very large attendance of ladies.â€™134 Everything was calculated to
convey the impression of order and respectability. However, at 2 p.m.
the police intervened to disperse the meeting, which had been prohibited
earlier in the morning. At 3 p.m. â€˜an excited scene took placeâ€™:
A farmer said in a loud voice â€“ Who rules this island who could tolerate such
tyranny â€“ constitutional liberty suspended at the bidding of landlords? (Cries of
â€˜Because we would not allow them hunt over our lands. We never will.â€™)
Here a policeman proceeded towards the farmer and told him as the Lord
Lieutenantâ€™s proclamation was read he should arrest him if he did not leave, and
cease addressing the people.
Farmer â€“ You can shoot me, but I will not leave. I can hardly believe Mr
Gladstone would allow this devilish tyranny to be practised in his name.135
The conflict â€“ as the people in this crowd saw it â€“ was about the law and
Another tenant farmer stepped forward to where some police were staying in a
large field. Addressing the police he said â€“ Leave this place, ye are trespassers. I am
paying a heavy rent for this place . . . I require each policemanâ€™s name.
Police â€“ We wonâ€™t leave; nor will we give our names.
Sub-Inspector Bell â€“ Do you know that we have a legal right to be here? An
offence against the law has been committed, and it is our duty to get evidence.
Donâ€™t interfere with me and my men.
L.a., 9 Feb. 1883, 4.
E. Larkin, The Roman Catholic Church and the Plan of Campaign in Ireland, 1886â€“1888
Rep., â€˜The land question: freedom of speechâ€™ (a tenant farmersâ€™ meeting at Portsdown),
FJ, 16 Mar. 1880, 5.
Rep., â€˜Another meeting suppressedâ€™, FJ, 19 Dec. 1882, 6. 135 Ibid.
Constitutional Nationalism and popular liberalism 135
Farmer â€“ I am within my right, sir, here on my own land. I have broken
Eventually at four oâ€™clock the police left, having taken the names of all the
ladies and some three hundred young men, to be prosecuted at petty
sessions. The people â€“ about two thousand of them â€“ then moved to
another field and held the meeting anyway. Addressed by an Irish
American, the gathering passed a resolution calling for â€˜complete national
independenceâ€™, though the spirit of the event was better captured by
another resolution, which decried â€˜the unwarrantable and unconstitu-
tional attempt made to suppress our legally constituted meetingâ€™ and
express â€˜pity [for] the statesman who could trample under foot the last
shred of the so-called Constitution to satisfy the vindictive and corrupt
minds of the rack-renting, foxhunting landlords of Galwayâ€™.137
The governmentâ€™s justification for coercion was that it was necessary in
order to preserve life and property against agrarian outrage and the
organized terrorism of secret societies. With such aims Nationalist leaders
and the INL fully concurred, but they regarded the governmentâ€™s meth-
ods as worse than useless for they failed to distinguish between passive
resistance and social solidarity against eviction (including boycotting)138
on the one hand, and actual violence on the other. By outlawing both
forms of protest, the government brought about the very evils which