Chapter 16: United Irish League and Continuing Land Reform

United Irish League – I Join to Improve the Programme – Shaw Taylor Land Conference of 1902 – O’Brien’s Ignorance and Self-Sufficient Blundering Lets Down the Farmers – Wydham’s Land Act of 1903 – Does Not Check Decay – Birrell’s 1909 Act


Personally, I took little interest in the proceedings, but I kept an eye on William O’Brien’s movements in Connacht. The flint and steel accidentally came together and the spark was fanned into flame after a lot of labour and money expended by Mr. O’Brien.[1] I had failed to persuade Mr. Redmond that there was still an Irish land question to settle, and as I felt the vital importance of a transfer of the land to the people to reverse the engines of Irish decay, I joined Mr. O’Brien, notwithstanding his failure, as I believed in the past, hoping to help him to effect a proper settlement. I took an honorary position in his new League in order to be near him. I kept on improving the platform of the League at the Annual Conventions in regard to the tenants’ improvements and on the claim of the Irish for financial aid to effect a settlement. But I always thought that unlike Parnell, O’Brien never paid sufficient attention to the future, and I never could get him to discuss the practical details of any section of the settlement. He took things for granted and gave himself no time to balance the pros or cons of anything. He had no plan of action when he went into the 1902 Shaw Taylor Land Conference,[2] and no programme except the platform of the League, but the outcome proves that he made no use at all of that which was the Tenants’ Charter. It is questionable if he even alluded to the only brief he held for the tenants. It is clear now that the landlords and their friends had thought the whole subject out, and it is also certain that A. J. Balfour was prepared to finance whatever arrangements would be agreed upon. Mr. O’Brien, it seems, consulted neither friends nor farmers until he had committed them to a one-sided transaction which has not stopped the decay of the country.[3] By his ambitious blundering impetuosity he defrauded the farmers and labourers, he debarred the landlords from taking their proper place in the future public life of Ireland, and he misled and defeated a Government that voluntarily conceded more substantial aid and restitution to Ireland than any Government for the past century. This seems a poor recompense for the labour and money Mr. O’Brien has spent in the movement, but from my standpoint I can deliver no other verdict honestly. I purposely mention no other member of the Land Conference, as my experience is that Mr. O’Brien dominates everybody and everything around and beneath him. I never saw him under fire with those on an elevation. The world knows that he is prepared to fight them no matter where they are, but fighting is not everything in statesmanship.[4]

The Birrell Land Act of 1909[5] was not put forward in the interests of the tenants, nor in any Irish interest, but as merely for the relief of the British Treasury.[6] It was accepted by the party leaders as, of course, Redmond did not consider there had been any Irish land question after 1896.

Some useful Irish Acts were passed through Westminster in the years which followed, but nothing of importance in connection with the land.[7] Most of these measures were not on the initiative of the Irish Party. Since Parnell’s death, they always seemed to be at the tail of an English party, who promised them some concession if they behaved themselves – “Don’t embarrass the Government, or waste the time of the House, or you will lose your bill.” Morley and Balfour adopted the same adroit procedure, which defranchised Ireland for years together. There was this radical difference, however: that all Balfour’s bills eventually passed into law but none of Morley’s.

A. J. Kettle, 1908, at age 75

Having reviewed what the Parnellites did and tried to do, and what the anti-Parnellites tried to do and failed to do, I must return to the Boulogne negotiations and my conversation with Mr. Parnell in Morrison’s Hotel.[8] After Mr. Parnell’s tragic death I was sometimes troubled as to the responsibility I may have assumed by putting my views before him on that occasion. He did not break off the negotiations for weeks after – still he may have been somewhat influenced to carry on the conflict to work out my policy. If I had anything to do with prolonging the contention, or of shortening his life, I humbly pray that Heaven may forgive me. I know my views were honestly tendered in the interest of Ireland, and the political history of the period proves that my forecast was fairly correct.

  1. William O’Brien had founded the United Irish League (UIL) in 1898. Initially popular in Connaught, it gained momentum and by 1900 had established itself as an elaborate and hierarchical organisation linked to a National Directory with the aim of achieving land reform through agrarian agitation. O’Brien argued that the parliamentary politicians were out of touch with popular opinion and that the party should be subordinate to the League. The movement was backed by O’Brien’s new newspaper, The Irish People, which he used to assert that the aim of the League was to serve the needs of the people, not of politicians. The reality, however, was that it did not long remain independent of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which soon came to dominate the councils of the League and its administrative machine (Lyons 1996a, 94).
  2. Chief Secretary for Ireland George Wyndham, who was in office from 1900 to 1905, favoured reform over coercion on the land issue. In 1902 he attempted to introduce a land purchase bill which had failed. In September 1902 a letter had been published in the newspapers from a Galway landlord, Captain John Shawe-Taylor, containing an invitation, endorsed by Wyndham, to certain named representatives of the landlords and tenants to meet in conference and attempt to reach a final settlement of the land question. On 20 December 1902 the representatives of the landlords were met by the representatives of the tenants: William O’Brien, John Redmond, Tim Harrington, and T. W. Russell (1841-1920), the key representative of Ulster farmers (Lyons 1996a, 95).
  3. After six sittings, the conference published a report in January 1903. It proposed a massive scheme of voluntary land purchase. The report was well received by the public and the Irish Parliamentary Party, which passed a unanimous resolution supporting it. However, some felt that the proposals were too favourable to the landlords. Wyndham followed the conference report with a new land bill in 1903 which proposed that landlords sell entire estates (if three-quarters of the tenants on the estate approved) and included a 12 per cent bonus to incentivise landlords to sell. In the end, the conference and report provided the basis for the most important land reform ever introduced in Ireland: the Land Purchase (Ireland) Act 1903 (O’Brien 1976, 146-47; Lyons 1996a, 95-96).
  4. There is little reason to doubt O’Brien’s sincerity in his attempts to address the land question, nor in his view of this as the first step in the attainment of Home Rule. However, it transpired that, similar to Kettle, many others did not share O’Brien’s outlook. Following the passage of the 1903 Land Purchase (Ireland) Act there was an all-out attack on O’Brien and the terms of the settlement. This was led by Davitt, Dillon, Sexton, and the Freeman’s Journal. It ensured that John Redmond, who had been one of the principal architects of the act, also fell in line with the critics. There was criticism of the financial clauses around the land purchase mechanism which, in retrospect, were justified when difficulties arose within a few years over the system of buying out the landlords. However, the main criticism was against the excessive benefits that landlords were alleged to be reaping from their sales. This view was exploited to undermine what those like Davitt and Sexton saw as the conciliatory approach used in negotiations with landlords. In addition, it masked a fear that such an approach could also, in reality, be used to ‘kill Home Rule with kindness’ (O’Brien 1976, 148; Lyons 1996a, 97-98).
  5. Augustine Birrell (1850-1933) was Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1907 to 1916 (DIB 2009, ‘Birrell, Augustine’).
  6. From 1907 Birrell was confronted with renewed agrarian agitation because of the slowing pace of land reform arising from a shortage of funds. The complicated Birrell Land Act had to be passed as a matter of urgency in 1909 in an attempt to put right the serious financial grievances around buying out the landlords that had arisen for the government out of the Wyndham Act. Birrell secured cross-party support for the funds and powers of compulsory purchase necessary to accelerate the transfer of land to tenants and reduce agrarian strife. However, it also led to a renewed split among the constitutional nationalists (Lyons 1996b, 125).
  7. Birrell was supportive towards nationalist Ireland, his ultimate objective being Home Rule. During his time as Chief Secretary he had a total of 56 pieces of largely beneficial legislation enacted, including acts for the establishment of the National University of Ireland and Queen’s University Belfast.
  8. See Chapter 14. During the Boulogne negotiations of early 1891, Kettle had confronted Parnell and encouraged him to establish a new party: ‘I think you will be able to found an independent Irish party in alliance with the property classes in Ireland, which will in all likelihood exercise a deeper influence on the people of England and the British Conservative Party than all the representations which can be made regarding the danger of Home Rule.’


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The Material for Victory: The Memoirs of Andrew J. Kettle Copyright © 2023 by Open Press at the University of Galway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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