Fr Kevin Hegarty
Whenever I’m on The Mall in Castlebar, my eye is drawn to a fine though now dilapidated building. It is the Imperial Hotel, closed for business for almost a decade. Here took place, 140 years ago, one of the most significant meetings in 19th-century Ireland: the founding of the Land League on August 16, 1879.
Michael Davitt, dubbed the father of the Land League, became its president. James Daly was chosen as vice president. Davitt has been the subject of two magisterial biographies by TW Moody and Carla King. The historian, Joe Lee, has described Daly as ‘the most undeservedly forgotten man in Irish history’. Who was he and what was his achievement?
James Daly was born in 1838 in the village of Boughadoon, near Lahardane, the second of eight children. The family was comfortable. His father was a substantial farmer, a hotelier and a poor-law guardian. Shortly after his birth they moved to Belcarra, Castlebar. James was educated locally and at the Francisan monastery in Errew. He followed his father’s interest in farming. He held stock farms throughout Mayo until the 1900s.
The 1860s and 1870s were a time of political change in Ireland. This change was helped by the growth of literacy. Illiteracy rates fell from 79 percent to 45 percent between 1841 and 1871. Landlords, through absenteeism and bankruptcy, had ceded some of their political authority. In their place, politically aware farmers were elected as guardians in the Poor Law Unions.
The Dalys were among them, and James’s father was a guardian for the Ballina Union. In 1869, James won a seat in the Breaffy Electoral Division on the Castlebar Board of Guardians. He was a strong defender of the cause of impoverished tenants. As a constitutional nationalist he did not support the Fenian movement. He preferred to work within the system to effect change.
In 1876, he expanded his public profile by buying, with Alfred O’Hee, The Connaught Telegraph. They turned the ailing paper into a feisty publication, promoting tenant rights.
A political contemporary, William O’Brien described Daly as ‘a rough spoken giant with an inexhaustible fund of knowledge of the people and of the quaintest mother wit’. A flavour of his polemical style is contained in his report of Dublin journalists arriving to cover 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 during the Great Famine, after living on nettles and asses flesh and the world never said as much as ‘God be merciful to them’.”
The late 1870s was a difficult time in the west of Ireland. There was a poor potato crop in 1878. High rainfall in 1879 caused blight and reduced grain harvest. There was an economic recession 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 evokes how perilous the situation had become:
“As I was attending a sick call in a distant port of the parish yesterday, a poor woman came up to me and begged of me to give her something to buy meal, for, said she, ‘My children are all screeching with hunger’, and true enough on going into the house, I found her sad story but too true.”
In January 1879, the tenants in Canon Bourke’s Irishtown estate asked Daly to publicise their plight. He arranged a meeting attended by 10,000 people, which forced Bourke to reduce rents by 25 percent.
This successful meeting proved a model for the Land League of Mayo. The support of a rising young political leader Charles Stewart Parnell gave a further impetus to a movement that was at the centre of Irish life for the next decade.
So began the campaign that resulted in the destruction of landlordism in Ireland. Under pressure of the Land War in 1880, the British government set up a commission under Lord Bessborough to examine land law in Ireland. Daly’s evidence to the commission was comprehensive and impressive. It strongly influenced Bessborough to recommend radical reform. Prime Minister WE Gladstone responded in the 1881 Lord Act by granting tenants the three ‘f’s – fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure. Though landlordism lingered until the early 20th century, its power had been broken.
It is to be hoped that Mayo County Council, which now owns the Imperial Hotel, can find the funding to turn it into a civic space worthy of its heritage.