Fr Kevin Hegarty
MAYO County Council and our local papers deserve commendation for sponsoring a bursary in honour of James Daly, land league agitator and editor of the Connaught Telegraph from 1876 to 1888. Third level students are required to compile a media presentation – written, audio or visual – on a topic which might have concerned Daly. Application forms are available in local newspapers and on the Council website, www.mayococo.ie.
The historian, Joe Lee, a man not given to hyperbole, described Daly as ‘the most undeservedly forgotten man in Irish history’. He was born at Boughadoon, near Lahardane, in 1838, the eldest of eight children. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Belcarra, Castlebar. By contemporary standards the family were comfortable, having interests in four farms. He was educated by the Franciscan Brothers at Errew Monastery.
The late 1860s and early 1870s was a time of quiet but significant political change in Ireland. This change was aided by the expansion of literacy. Illiteracy fell from 79 per cent to 45 per cent between 1841 and 1881. Landlords, through absenteeism, had ceded some of their political authority. In their place a number of politically aware farmers found a niche in the local political framework by succeeding in their election to Poor Law Unions in the west.
The Dalys were among them. James’s father was a guardian for the Letterbrick district in the Ballina Union. James began his political career in 1869 when he won a seat in the Breaffy electoral division on the Castlebar Board of Guardians. He was a strong defender of the cause of the tenants. In 1875 he attended a meeting in Louisburgh to establish a local tenant association. He broadened his experience in 1876 when, with Mr Alfred O’Hea, he purchased the Connaught Telegraph. They turned it into an organ which enthusiastically supported land reform.
Though he helped to effect the most revolutionary change in Ireland in the 19th century by breaking down the landlord system, James Daly was not a revolutionary. He preferred to work within the law to bring about change. He did not support the Fenian movement. He was a constitutional nationalist and a conservative social reformer. He told a government commission: “If you give facilities to create peasant proprietorship, you would make the peasants more conservative than the Conservatives. I am a land leaguer myself, and I would not be a land leaguer if it had anything behind it like revolution. I would fight against it.”
Daly was a colourful character. William O’Brien, a contemporary, described him as ‘a rough-spoken giant with an inexhaustible fund of knowledge of the people and of the quaintest mother wit’. A flavour of his journalistic style is contained in his response to the arrival of representatives of the Dublin papers to cover the land agitation in Mayo:
“It is the first time they ever discovered the unfortunate County Mayo on the map of Ireland. They were never done poking at the famine pits of Skibbereen, because there was a smart doctor who wrote them up. Two hundred thousand people died of hunger in Mayo, after living on nettles and asses’ flesh, and the world never said as much as ‘God be merciful to them’!”
In 1879, the man met his moment. There had been a poor potato crop in 1878. High rainfall in 1879 produced a blighted crop and a deficient grain harvest. There was an economic depression throughout Western Europe. As a result there was little demand in England for seasonal migratory labourers from the west of Ireland. A letter from the parish priest of Carracastle in March 1879 telescopes the reality that many people in Mayo were on the abyss between starvation and death: “As I was attending a sick call in a distant part of this parish yesterday, a poor woman came up to me and begged of me to give her something to buy a little meal, for, said she, ‘My children are all day screeching with hunger’, and true enough, on going into the house, I found her sad story but too true. I know for a fact that many mothers have fasted here on one meal for the entire week in order to give their dear little ones as much as would keep them from crying from hunger.”
In January 1879, tenants of Canon Bourke’s Irishtown estate asked Daly to publicise their grievances. He arranged a meeting which was attended by 10,000 people and forced Canon Bourke to reduce rents by 25 per cent.
This successful meeting provided a template for the Land League of Mayo, set up in August 1879. Daly was elected Vice-President. The support of Davitt and Parnell gave a further impetus.
So began the campaign that resulted in the destruction of landlordism in Ireland. Under pressure of the ‘land war’, the government in 1880 established a commission under Lord Bessborough to examine land law in Ireland. Daly’s evidence to the commission was impressive. His evidence strongly influenced Bessborough to recommend radical land reform in Ireland. Gladstone, the Prime Minister, responded in the 1881 Land Act by granting tenants the ‘three Fs’ - fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure. Landlordism lingered into the 20th century, but its power had been broken.
The young students of Mayo are heirs to the liberation that Daly wrought in the 19th century. It will be fascinating to see what they will make of him.
* Fr Kevin Hegarty is on holiday for the next week and will return to this space in a fortnight.