Few might recognise the name nowadays, but exactly 80 years ago this month a Mayo politician named Joe Blowick was setting the national headlines and creating a new path – or so many hoped – for rural Ireland.
In 1939, Blowick, from Belcarra, Castlebar, co-founded Clann na Talmhain – the party of the land – with Michael Donnellan of Galway, patriarch of what was to become a famed footballing dynasty.
The party came about because of disaffection among the smallholders of the west of Ireland, and the seaboard counties of the south, with the dominant Irish Farmers’ Federation.
The federation was campaigning strongly for the abolition of rates on agricultural land, but the smallholders objected to this policy on the grounds that it would mainly benefit the wealthy farmers of the midlands and east, more than those struggling with small uneconomic holdings. The result was the formation of Clann na Talmhain – Donnellan its persuasive, energetic, grassroots promoter, Blowick its strategist and political tactician.
Clann na Talmhain was an immediate success, attracting support not only from the farming community, but from urban voters who had grown tired of the politics of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It fought its first general election in 1943, winning ten Dáil seats, two of them – Blowick and Dominick Cafferkey – in the then south Mayo constituency. Donnellan was named leader of the party, and under his influence it began to adopt social-democratic policies, such as access to free education and healthcare.
Donnellan had always been more radical, given to left-wing leanings, and espousing robust land agitation during the ’40s, when land ownership was a burning issue. But probably because much of the party’s support came from a conservative background, wary of socialist ideas, Donnellan ceded the leadership to the more moderate Blowick for the general election of the following year, where it took nine Dáil seats with Blowick and Cafferkey repeating their success of the previous year.
Clann na Talmhain was now beginning to be a force to be reckoned with, and the pinnacle of success came in the 1948 general election when it became part of the first inter-party government, with Blowick being appointed Minister for Lands, and Donnellan a Parliamentary Secretary. This was indeed the heyday of Clann na Talmhain, with Blowick and his new running mate, Bernard Commons, taking two out of the four seats in Mayo south in consecutive elections. Blowick regularly headed the poll, taking a record 18 percent of the first-preference votes in the general election of 1951.
But, as was to happen time and again to small parties whose star burned bright for a few short years, the party began to lose popularity after its two spells in government. The economy was still sluggish; farming remained unprofitable, especially for the impoverished smallholder. Support began to ebb away and back to the mainstream parties. By 1961, Clann na Talmhain representation in the Dáil had been reduced to just two seats – Blowick and Donnellan.
The bell was tolling, and when Donnellan died suddenly in Croke Park on that September Sunday of 1964, just as his son John prepared to lift the Sam Maguire trophy for Galway, the dream was over. In the ensuing by-election, John took his father’s seat, but this time running on a Fine Gael ticket.
A chapter had come to an end. Joe Blowick, who had been re-elected six times to the Dáil following his first success in 1943, decided he had had enough. In 1965, he announced his decision to retire from politics.