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  • Constructing Political Consciousness in the West of Ireland, 1876–79:The Case of the Ballinasloe Tenant Defence Association
  • Brian Casey

Numerous farmers clubs and tenant defense associations emerged in the 1860s and 1870s in provincial Ireland. Such organizations reflected the emergence of a “challenging collectivity” that consisted of “combinations formed by and claiming to represent the interests of tenant farmers [that] became the predominant type of agrarian collective action in the post-Famine period.”1 They were keen to effect beneficial change by challenging the existing base of power in the countryside, and their rise coincided with increased literacy and a rising political consciousness among the lower classes in provincial society. It was this “increasingly Anglicized and literate society,” K. Theodore Hoppen has written, “which provided a growing audience for newspapers of all kinds and for a new national literature encompassing both the revolutionary and the constitutional traditions.”2 Peasants remained hostile to the outside world; quoting the opening lines of Silas Marner that “to the peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery,” Liana Vardi has shown that modernization brought them into contact with outside influences and railways were particularly important in this transformation.3 In The Making of the English Working Class (1963) E. P. Thompson makes reference to William Cobbett’s essays and their importance for the existence of political knowledge among the poor.4 Similar efforts were being made in late-Victorian West of Ireland towns and their rural hinterland.

In 1869, William Gladstone initiated the process of granting legal recognition [End Page 58] to the Ulster Custom and similar practices that existed outside of the province that compensated tenants for improvements made, a step that culminated in his first Land Act of 1870. Although landlord and tenant groups criticized the 1870 legislation, it paved the way for more comprehensive legislation that helped to expedite the decline of landlordism in Ireland through a series of acts in 1881, 1885, 1890, 1903 and 1909. Traditionalists within the land-owning class were horrified by Gladstone’s first effort, seeing it as an affront to the concept of private property. The duke of Leinster, for example, tried to circumvent it through the forced application of the Leinster Lease on his vast estate. This was a much more restrictive lease than what was previously in place; it pressured tenants to forego compensation for improvements, and it was symbolically burned by Michael Boyton on a 1798 pike in Athy in late 1880.5 Hoppen notes that although “landlords had already suffered a series of electoral and psychological setbacks in the 1870s, they were still powerful, wealthy, and prepared to fight.”6

Nevertheless, an underlying level of deference remained widespread in Irish society, as both a form of behavior and as a set of attitudes predicated on the idea that everyone knew their place in society. Peasants acknowledged their superiors by tugging at their forelocks or participating in such public displays of loyalty as harvest festivals, the marriage of an heir, or coming-of-age celebrations. These spectacles were designed to reaffirm devotion to the landlord in an overt and ostentatious way with sycophantic utterings to keep favor with the landlord. This was a ritualized and habitual element of rural society and, though imposed by a superior power, it cannot be said for certain that the actors who partook were totally powerless.

To challenge this ritualized deference, Fenians began formulating an agrarian policy in the 1860s that manifested their growing appreciation as to the usefulness of embracing the rustics to garner greater support for their own cause. This policy took on an agrarian and anti-landlord hue by the time of the Land War in 1879. Previously, Fenians had organized around an abstract nationalist concept that was proudly ignorant of the land question, believing that it only be solved following independence.7 The failure of the 1867 rebellion forced a reappraisal of being solely reliant on insurrectionary violence as “neo-Fenians” re-evaluated the approach of the movement in its aftermath. They were members that were acutely aware of the penurious conditions in the West and appreciated that concern over this poverty...


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