The Irish Land League was an Irish political organization of the late 19th century which sought to help poor tenant farmers. Its primary aim was to abolish "landlordism" in Ireland and enable tenant farmers to own the land they worked on. The period of the Land League's agitation is known in Ireland as the Land War.
The first of many "monster meetings" of tenant farmers was held in Irishtown near Claremorris, County Mayo on April 20 1879, with an estimated turnout of 15,000 to 20,000 people. This meeting was addressed by: James Daly (who presided), John O'Connor Power, John Ferguson, Thomas Brennan, and J. J. Louden.
The Connaught Telegraph's report of the meeting in its edition of April 26 1879 began :-
Since the days of O'Connell a larger public demonstration has not been witnessed than that of Sunday last. About 1 o'clock the monster procession started from Claremorris, headed by several thousand men on foot - the men of each district wearing a laural leaf or green ribbon in hat or coat to distinguish the several contingents. At 11 o'clock a monster contingent of tenant-farmers on horseback drew up in front of Hughes's hotel, showing discipline and order that a cavalry regiment might feel proud of. They were led on in sections, each having a marshal who kept his troops well in hand. Messrs. P.W. Nally, J.W. Nally, H. French, and M. Griffin, wearing green and gold sashes, led on their different sections, who rode two deep, occupying, at least, over an Irish mile of the road. Next followed a train of carriages, brakes, cares, etc. led on by Mr. Martin Hughes, the spirited hotel proprietor, driving a pair of rare black ponies to a phæton, taking Messrs. J.J. Louden and J. Daly. Next came Messrs. O'Connor, J. Ferguson, and Thomas Brennan in a covered carriage, followed by at least 500 vehicles from the neighbouring towns. On passing through Ballindine the sight was truly imposing, the endless train directing its course to Irishtown - a neat little hamlet on the boundaries of Mayo, Roscommon, and Galway.
Evolving out of this a number of local land league organisations were set up to work against the excessive rents being demanded by landlords all over Ireland, but especially in Mayo and surrounding counties.
From 1874 agricultural prices in Europe had dropped, followed by some bad harvests due to wet weather. The effect by 1878 was that many Irish farmers were unable to pay the rents that they had agreed, particularly in the poorer and wetter parts of Connacht. Unlike other parts of Europe the Irish land tenure system was unflexible in times of hardship.
The two aims of the Land League, as stated in the resolutions adopted in the meeting, were:
...first, to bring out a reduction of rack-rents; second, to facilitate the obtaining of the ownership of the soil by the occupiers.
That the object of the League can be best attained by promoting organisation among the tenant-farmers; by defending those who may be threatened with eviction for refusing to pay unjust rents; by facilitating the working of the Bright clauses of the Irish Land Act during the winter; and by obtaining such reforms in the laws relating to land as will enable every tenant to become owner of his holding by paying a fair rent for a limited number of years.
The government had introduced the first ineffective Land Act in 1870, then the equally inadequate Acts of 1880 and 1881 followed. Parnell together with all of his party lieutenants went into a bitter verbal offensive and were imprisoned in October 1881 under the Irish Coercion Act in Kilmainham Jail for "sabotaging the Land Act", from where the No-Rent Manifesto was issued calling for a national tenant farmer rent strike which was partially followed.
Although the League discouraged violence, agrarian crimes increased widely. Typically a rent strike would be followed by evictions by the police, or those tenants paying rent would be subject to a local boycott by League members. Where cases went to court, witnesses would change their stories, resulting in an unworkable legal system. This in turn led on to stronger criminal laws being passed that were described by the League as "Coercion Acts".
The bitterness that developed helped Parnell later in his Home Rule campaign. Davitt's views were much more extreme, seeking to nationalise all land, as seen in his famous slogan: "The land of Ireland for the people of Ireland".
Withholding of rent led on to evictions until "Ashbourne's Act" in 1885 made it unprofitable for most landlords to evict. By then agricultural prices had made a recovery, and rents had been fixed and could be reviewed downwards, but tenants found that holding out communally was the best option. Critics noted that the poorer sub-tenants were still expected to pay their rents to tenant farmers.
The widespread upheavals and extensive evictions were accompanied by several years of bad weather and poor harvests, when the tenant farmers who were unable to pay the full arrears of rents resorted to a rent strike. A renewed Land War was waged under the Plan of Campaign from 1886 up until 1892 during which the League decided on a fair rent and then encourage its members to offer this rent to the landlords. If this were refused, then the rent would be paid by tenants to the League and the landlord would not receive any money until he accepted a discount. The first target was a member of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, Canon Ulick Burke, who eventually reduced his rents by 25%. Many landlords resisted these tactics violently and there were deaths on either side of the dispute. The Royal Irish Constabulary, though largely made up of Irishmen, had to uphold the law which was on the landlord's side. Originally, the movement cut across sectarian boundaries, with many meetings being held in Orange halls in Ulster, but this ended as the landed gentry extended their influence within the Orange Order.
Following the Land War, Parnell disbanded the organization after having founded the Irish National League to campaign on broader issues incluning Home Rule. Many of the Scottish members formed the Scottish Land Restoration League.