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Article Published February 12, 2002

County Mayo (Ireland): An Outline History -- The Land War
By Bernard O'Hara and Nollaig ÓMuraíle, Mayo Ireland Ltd

The Land War

The people who remained in County Mayo in the wake of the Great Famine soon showed that they were resilient in the face of adversity. A national movement was initiated in County Mayo during 1879 by Michael Davitt, James Daly, and others, which brought about the greatest social change ever witnessed in Ireland. Michael Davitt (1846 -1906), who was born at Straide, County Mayo, saw his family evicted at the age of four, emigration to England, and experienced many hard knocks and disappointments in his voyage through life. He became Mayo's most famous son on the pages of Irish history and one of the great patriots of his country. James Daly (1835-1910), who played a crucial role in the early land agitation in Mayo, came from Boghadoon, near Lahardaun, and was editor of The Connacht Telegraph newspaper. The land agitation started at a meeting held in Irishtown, near Ballindine, County Mayo, on Sunday 20 April 1879. The meeting, which was attended by a crowd variously estimated at from four to fifteen thousand, arose out of a threat to evict a number of tenants for arrears of rent from the estate of a local absentee landlord. The meeting led not only to the cancellation of the proposed evictions but to a general reduction of rents. Of far greater consequence, however, were the wider political effects of the meeting, whose reverberations were to be felt throughout the whole of Ireland over the next quarter of a century.

On 1 June 1879, the Fenian leader, John Devoy, Michael Davitt and the county Wicklow landlord and MP for Meath, Charles Stewart Parnell, met in Dublin, and apparently agreed on 'the new departure', whereby the Fenians and the constitutional nationalists agreed to combine in a struggle to reform the Irish land-system. One week later Parnell urged a meeting of tenants in Westport 'to hold a firm grip on your homesteads and lands'. His call came as potato blight was spreading once more through the west, and the number of evictions for non-payment of rent was rising steadily. On 16 August, under Davitt's leadership, the National Land League of Mayo was founded in Castlebar, and two months later the campaign moved well beyond the borders of Mayo with the inauguration in Dublin of the Irish National Land League, with Parnell as its President, and Michael Davitt, its acknowledged father, as one of its secretaries.

The story of the 'Land War' over the next two decades is part of Irish history rather than of the Mayo story specifically. Mayo, however, played a prominent, and sometimes violent, role in the struggle. Almost half of what were termed 'agrarian outrages' (maiming of cattle, destruction of property, wounding and even killing of land agents, landlords, and those who were considered 'land grabbers') in the early 1880s occurred in Mayo, Kerry and west Galway. At the same time, Mayo attracted international attention, and in the process gave a new word to the English language, by initiating a rather novel form of non-violent protest. This involved a campaign of ostracisation against Lord Erne's Mayo agent, a Norfolk man named Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, whose efforts to secure the harvest from the estate on the eastern shore of Lough Mask necessitated the importation of some fifty Orangemen, mostly from Cavan, and a force of about a thousand soldiers and police to protect them. The campaign against the 'Boycott Relief Expedition' was orchestrated by Father John O'Malley, parish priest of Kilmolara (resident in the Neale), and it was he who suggested the term 'boycotting' as being easier for his parishioners to pronounce that 'ostracisation'. The unfortunate Boycott realised by late November 1880 that all his efforts had been in vain (the harvest had cost over 10,000 - 'a shilling for every turnip dug' said Parnell), and so, taking his family with him, he returned to England until the agitation had subsided. The land agitation was gradually resolved by a scheme of a state-aided land purchase, under which the tenants became full owners of the land. A series of land purchase acts provided the finance which enabled the tenants to purchsae the land from landlords and repay the loans with interest over a number of years. Tenant farmers became owner-occupiers within a generation and in the process created the foundations for the politically stable society we enjoy today.

Thanks to the vision of Mother Agnes Morrogh-Bernard (1842 - 1932), the Foxford Woollen Mill was established in 1892. She made Foxford synonymous throughout the world with high quality tweeds, rugs and blankets.

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