Fictions of the Irish Land War

by Heidi Hansson (Volume editor) James H. Murphy (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection VIII, 229 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 58


The eruption of rural distress in Ireland and the foundation of the Land League in 1879 sparked a number of novels, stories and plays forming an immediate response to what became known as the Irish Land war. These works form a literary genre of their own and illuminate both the historical events themselves and the material conditions of reading and writing in late nineteenth-century Ireland. Divisions into ‘us’ and ‘them’ were convenient for political reasons, but the fiction of the period frequently modifies this alignment and draws attention to the complexity of the land problem.
This collection includes studies of canonical land war novels, publication channels, collaborations between artists and authors, literary conventions and the interplay between personal experience and literary output. It also includes unique resources such as a reprinted letter by the author Mary Anne Sadlier and a reproduction of Rosa Mulholland’s little-known play Our Boycotting. The book concludes with a detailed bibliography of land war fiction between 1879 and 1916, which should inspire further reading and research into the genre.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • JAMES H. MURPHY AND HEIDI HANSSON: The Irish Land War and its Fictions
  • WHITNEY STANDLEE: The ‘Personal Element’ and Emily Lawless’s Hurrish (1886)
  • DEREK HAND: George Moore’s A Drama in Muslin: Art and the Middle-Classes
  • FAITH BINCKES AND KATHRYN LAING: ‘Rival Attractions of the Season’: Land-War Fiction, Christmas Annuals, and the Early Writing of Hannah Lynch
  • JULIE ANNE STEVENS: The Irish Land War and Children’s Literature: Padraic Colum’s A Boy in Eirinn (1913) illustrated by Jack B. Yeats
  • HEIDI HANSSON: More than an Irish Problem: Authority and Universality in Land-War Writing
  • ANNA PILZ: ‘All Possessors of Property Tremble’: Constructions of Landlord-Tenant Relations in Lady Gregory’s Writings
  • CARLA KING: The Making of a Thoughtful Agitator: A Glimpse at Michael Davitt’s Books
  • JAMES H. MURPHY: Mary Anne Sadlier on the Land War
  • HEIDI HANSSON AND JAMES H. MURPHY: Introduction to Rosa Mulholland, Our Boycotting: A Miniature Comedy
  • ROSA MULHOLLAND: Our Boycotting: A Miniature Comedy
  • Bibliography of Land-War Fiction 1879–1916
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Acknowledgements

Heidi Hansson expresses her gratitude to Thomas McCarthy and to the editors of the Irish Review for permission to quote from Thomas McCarthy’s poetry sequence ‘Cataloguing Twelve Fenian Novels’. Carla King wishes to acknowledge her debt to Michael Davitt’s grandson, Father Tom Davitt CM, for kindly making available to her the list of books in Davitt’s library at his death. She also wants to thank the Board of Trinity College Dublin for permission to quote from the Davitt papers held in the Manuscripts and Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin. James H. Murphy expresses his gratitude to Shane Murphy for permission to reproduce the letter from Mary Anne Sadlier to Rosa Carney, 28 April 1884. Anna Pilz extends her sincere thanks to Colin Smythe on behalf of the heirs of Lady Gregory for copyright permission. Hitherto unpublished material: © 2014 the Estate of Lady Gregory. She also acknowledges permission from the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library to quote from the Lady Gregory collection of papers 1873–1965 and from Emory University, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library for permission to quote from the Gregory family papers. Whitney Standlee extends her gratitude to the governors and guardians of Marsh’s Library, Dublin for permission to quote from the Emily Lawless papers held in the library. Julie Anne Stevens gratefully acknowledges permission from A. P. Watt at United Agents (London) and the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations to quote from Jack B. Yeats’s letters to Padraic Colum. She also wishes to express her gratitude for permission to the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations to reproduce the artworks, ‘Sketch of Two Men’, Letter to Padraic Colum, 26 March 1913 © Jack B. Yeats/IVARO, Dublin (2014) and ‘At night when Finn sat by the Fire’, A Boy in Eirinn, 1913 © Jack B. Yeats/IVARO, Dublin (2014).

← vii | viii → Rosa Mulholland, Our Boycotting: A Miniature Comedy is reprinted courtesy of the National Library of Ireland. The image of Rosa Mulholland is reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The editors would like to express their deep gratitude to Dr. David Gardiner for his generous help in proof reading the text of this work.

The idea for a study of the fiction of the Irish land war originated when Heidi Hansson was a research fellow at the Centre for Irish Literature and Bibliography, University of Ulster in 1999–2000. The study was to have been conducted together with Dr. Anne McCartney, and although it never progressed beyond a title and a synopsis, Heidi Hansson would like to thank Dr. McCartney for her valuable input in the earliest stages of the project.


The Irish Land War and its Fictions

There is little doubt that the land war began in 1879. It is arguable that it did not end until 1984 when the Irish Land Commission ceased its activities.1 It was a conflict that took place in phases of agitation, the last of which ended in a campaign of land seizures and rent strikes, from 1917 to 1923. From the perspective of the subject matter of land-war fiction, the most relevant phases are the first two, the initial land war (1879–1882) and the ‘Plan of Campaign’ (1886–1891). Of course the land war had a prehistory in the events of the famine of the 1840s and in the later acceptance, in British liberal circles at least, of an Irish nationalist analysis that something was wrong in the relationship between landlords and tenants in Ireland and that somehow the fault lay with the landlords. Tories, on the contrary, believed that the problem of poverty in Ireland lay in continued over-population. W. E. Gladstone’s 1870 land act was a failed liberal attempt to resolve the issue. Amidst debate about the ‘Ulster Custom’ and the ‘Three Fs’ (fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure), it seemed to establish that tenants had an interest in the land and that if they were put off it for reasons other than the non-payment of rent they had a right to be compensated. And, in the ‘Bright Clause’, there was the harbinger of something more, the possibility that tenants might buy their farms with government loans.2

Although there had been some years of downturn, the quarter century after the famine was one of agricultural prosperity in Ireland and there ← 1 | 2 → was a particular demand for food during the Crimean War in the 1850s. Agricultural output increased by 70 per cent even though rents rose by only 20 per cent.3 Only around 700 farmers were evicted per annum, a fifth of one per cent of the total.4 Between 1879 and 1883 there was an agricultural slump, followed by an agricultural depression in 1896, leading some to see the land war as a classic case of the frustration of rising expectations. It has been argued that landlords ought to have used the prosperity of the mid-century to consolidate their position by increasing rents and creating an entrepreneurial class of tenant farmers.5 Instead, they allowed a diminished ‘feudal’ system to persist which left them vulnerable. On the one hand, with their ‘big houses’ and titles, they appeared to be the ‘fathers’ of their people. But, increasingly, landlords lacked the authority truly to fulfil such a role. They had little control over law and order, had diminished political influence over the local electorate and were facing an increasingly assertive force in the Catholic clergy. Unlike their English brethren Protestant landlords could not rely on a shared religion to bolster their position.

In fact, almost half of landlords were Catholics, although they tended to hold smaller estates.6 Although there were 6,500 landlords, half the land was held by 700 families, who overwhelmingly belonged to the Protestant (Anglican) Church.7 There were notoriously harsh landlords, such as Lord Leitrim, assassinated in 1878, but for the most part landlords were not the tyrants of popular legend. There was much criticism, within the ‘feudal’ vision of things, of the iniquities of absentee landlords. These constituted a quarter of the total, but in reality some of the best landlords, such as the Devonshires of Lismore, were absentees.8

Perhaps the greatest change in farming was the growth of pasture. Between the end of the famine and the First World War, the number of ← 2 | 3 → cattle doubled to five million.9 Indeed, in the first decade of the twentieth century, with landlordism increasingly a spent force, the focus of the ‘Ranch War’ phase of the land conflict, which resulted in the Birrell land act of 1909, was a dispute between smaller farmers, anxious for more land, and larger farmers, or graziers, intent on increasing pasturage.10 Of more moment for the first phase of the land war, a quarter of a century earlier, was the growing homogeneity of the agricultural classes after the famine. Pace the romantic picture of a united farming population facing down a villainous landlord class, much scholarly attention has gone into uncovering the class divisions within the farming community, with the poorer farmers of the west looking for land redistribution, the large and middling farmers seeking rent reductions and the labourers of the south wanting better wages.11 The politics of the land was therefore to a large extent that of competing groups on the ‘tenant’ side. One thing was clear, however. No matter the divisions, there was a greater degree of convergence in the agricultural classes in the late 1870s than there had been during the famine, with labourers’ numbers reduced by a third and farmers now the dominant force.12 For all the tensions, the agricultural classes were in a more formidable position to exercise collective action and throughout the 1870s their respect for and deference to the landlord classes was diminishing, not least because of the infiltration of more radical, Fenian ideas into mainstream constitutional politics during that time.

With the agricultural slump of 1879, relief measures, of both governmental and voluntary varieties, were quickly put in place.13 People feared ← 3 | 4 → a new famine but the potato crop improved in 1880; instead, there was a crisis of agricultural income with farmers unable to pay their rents and pressure on landlords to reduce them. The sequence of events in the first phase of the land war can be summarized as follows: a mass meeting in Irishtown, Co. Mayo, in April 1879 led to the founding of the Land League of Mayo by Michael Davitt on 16 August 1879, with the support of the rising nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. This in turn led to the Irish National Land League, founded on 21 October 1879. Various forms of resistance to the paying of rent or full rent were encouraged and support for evicted tenants instituted. The ostracism of those not cooperating led to the neologism ‘boycotting’, after the most famous victim of such ostracism, Lord Erne’s land agent Charles Boycott. Along with activities officially sanctioned by the Land League were other forms of traditional agrarian outrage, ranging from murder to cattle maiming. To what extent the activities of the Land League were in a supportive continuum with these other activities or were offering a less brutal alternative to them has long been a matter of dispute. There were 2,585, 4,439 and 3,433 outrages respectively in 1880, 1881 and 1882, three times the normal level. There were seventeen murders per year on average, though the vast majority of incidents consisted of acts of intimidation, such as sending threatening letters, rather than actual acts of violence.14 On the other side of the coin, during the first phase of the land war over 11,215 evictions took place.15 They were often dramatically reported.16

The new liberal government, under W. E. Gladstone, tried to introduce a compensation for disturbance bill in the autumn of 1880 but it was voted down by the House of Lords, and this led to the spreading of ← 4 | 5 → agitation from the west to other parts of Ireland. The authorities brought Parnell and others to trial for conspiracy but the case collapsed early in 1881. The government then responded to the crisis with a carrot and stick approach. The stick consisted of special legislation, or coercion, allowing for the suspending of habeas corpus. This resulted in the detention of large numbers of Land League leaders and the banning of the organization in the autumn of 1881. At the same time a land act set up land courts that reduced rents and, in spite of the issuing of a ‘No Rent Manifesto’ by the jailed Land League leaders, undermined the basis of the agitation. By the spring of 1882 the ‘Kilmainham Treaty’ resulted in the release of those detained and the end of agitation in exchange for a bill to bring those in rent arrears within the workings of the new land system. Thereafter attention turned to the struggle for home rule and Parnell ensured that new nationalist organizations were under centralized control; that those that were not, including the Ladies’ Land League, run by his sisters, were suppressed; and that Michael Davitt with his socialist views about land nationalization was sidelined. After the failure of the home rule bill in 1886 a new phase of agitation, the ‘Plan of Campaign’, was organized by some of Parnell’s lieutenants, although without his support. Tenants on 203 estates, mostly in Connaught and Munster, took collective action to reduce rents, though some believed its real aim was to bankrupt financially vulnerable estates so that they could be sold off cheaply. It led to further coercion legislation from the Tory government and the most notable incident during the conflict was the ‘Mitchelstown Massacre’ of September 1887 when three men were shot dead by police during a riot.

The 1881 land act had introduced the unstable notion of dual ownership of the land. During the latter years of the century, tory governments were in power and they preferred the farmers to become owners of their land rather than to see a situation continue which seemed to undermine the notion of private property. Various land acts, the Ashbourne (1885), Balfour (1891) and Wyndham (1903) among them, began the process of lending money to tenants to buy their farms. Though it was to take several decades, it would lead to the end of landlordism and to an Irish countryside of socially conservative, small owner-occupied farmers.

← 5 | 6 → Much late twentieth-century scholarship of the land war has focused on causes. The original explanation for the outbreak was three-fold: agricultural distress, the readiness of a nationalist-agrarian leadership and bad landlords. This tended to be replaced by a debate between proponents of the frustration of rising expectations theory and those who held that the key lay not in the countryside strictly speaking but in the adjoining towns.17 Many of the leaders of the Land League were townspeople: journalists, publicans, and shopkeepers. The land war could be seen as a conflict between two groups of creditors for the recovery of debts in a time of economic crisis: the landlords for their rent, and their shopkeepers for their bills. More recent research has moved in several directions, which ought to be conducive to those engaged in the literary study of land-war fiction. One direction is towards micro-histories of the land war in various localities, for example, the land war in Co. Kerry, where there were generational tensions between the middle-aged, land-holding leaders of the Land League and younger, landless men who took to illicit, agrarian activity under the rubric of moonlighting.18 This is of obvious interest to the study of land-war fiction where national conflict is often complicated by local and personal circumstances. A further trend focuses on the political and cultural discourses surrounding the land-war struggle. Again, this is relevant because of the propagandistic dimension to much land-war fiction. There had always been a challenge to the legitimacy of a landlord class that had come into the possession of the land largely through seventeenth-century confiscation. As the land war broke out in the west of Ireland, confiscation narratives painted landlords as oppressors: ‘The land system represented invasion, enslavement and the general misery suffered by the Irish people. Thus, through the land system, landlords and the British government were coupled together as the oppressive forces against Ireland.’19

← 6 | 7 → Land-War Fiction

Land and the relationship between landlords and tenants had long been important issues in Irish fiction.20 They are the themes of many of the novels of Charles Lever and the early Anthony Trollope, for example, and the 1870s saw important novels dealing with land such as Annie Keary’s Castle Daly: A Story of an Irish Home Thirty Years Ago (1875).21 There was however a remarkable change during the land war. Novels addressing the crisis were produced very rapidly and with an almost journalistic sense of immediacy. Letitia McClintock’s A Boycotted Household, for example, was published in 1881, within months of the ostracism of Captain Boycott, and the same is true of Rosa Mulholland’s play Our Boycotting: A Miniature Comedy (1881). Perhaps understandably then, few of these works, so rapidly produced in the heat of crisis, seemed to survive for very long in either the public imagination or scholarly memory. For most of the twentieth century, whatever canon of nineteenth-century Irish fiction there was, was decidedly skeletal. Only two novels from the land-war period, George Moore’s A Drama in Muslin and Emily Lawless’s Hurrish, a Study, both published in 1886, continued to receive attention. Each is the subject of a chapter in the present study, but though they are now properly thought of as land-war novels, neither is a very typical example. Both have complex and multiple perspectives and A Drama in Muslin, in particular, approaches the land situation in an oblique fashion.

In considering the early days of the land war and the fiction that resulted it is important to recover the sense that something close to a revolution was in progress. The alacrity with which land-war novels were produced is even more remarkable when we consider that many land-war novelists had never published a novel before. Were archival material available, it would be fascinating to conduct a prosopographical study of them, ← 7 | 8 → their backgrounds and motivation. Many more established novelists found themselves aghast at the developments and unable to respond. One such was Mary Anne Sadlier, a writer from Co. Cavan who had settled firstly in Canada and then in New York and who was married to a prominent Irish-American publisher. She was a popular and influential novelist of work set in both North America and Ireland which promoted attachment to Catholicism as a secure basis for Irish identity in a dangerous world. In 1884 she wrote that ‘the influence I once possessed over the hearts of my own people has probably died out or nearly so amongst the present red-hot patriots who are disgracing the name and fame of that Christian Ireland to which my services, such as they were, were loyally and lovingly devoted from my youth upwards.’ With Michael Davitt and his allies, ‘I have no affinity and for their cause no sympathy, as those individuals and their policy are too closely connected with the wild, anti-Christian, revolutionary spirit of this socialistic age to excite in my mind any other feelings than those of indignation and disgust.’ She thought they

are so changing the grand moral and Christian character of our beloved Ireland and her people and making of both a reproach amongst civilised nations. They are doing what England with all her imperial power was never able to do – degrading the holy cause of ‘the oldest Christian nation in western Europe.’ I often wonder, indeed, how the bones of Daniel O’Connell and so many other illustrious patriots of the truest type, whose glorious deeds elevated Ireland before the nations, can rest in their graves seeing the foul thing that Irish ‘patriotism’ has become in our day.22

The notion of the land-war novel is a recent one in terms of genre designation.23 Although dozens of novels concerning the land war were written from the 1880s onwards, no one at the time considered them as a group. These novels were the prelude to another group of novels which did come to be seen as a collective in the twentieth century under the rubric of the ‘big house’ novel, the largely sympathetic fiction of the plight of Anglo-Irish families as they faced the economically straightened circumstances which ← 8 | 9 → the loss of their landlord status had caused. To a degree this was because many scholars of what was then called Anglo-Irish literature were themselves Anglo-Irish. It is tempting to speculate that the reason why the ‘big house’ novel was described so early while the ‘land-war’ novel had to wait until the 1990s for its creation as a category was because the ‘big house’ novel was generally favourable to the Anglo-Irish and the ‘land-war’ novel was not, at least in terms of the nationalist narrative of the land war. For the most part, land-war novels were written from a point of view favourable to the landlord class and hostile to the tenantry. Of course there were a number of land-war novels favourable to the tenantry and further research may uncover more – for example, those serialized in Irish-American newspapers. M. H. Gill of Dublin published a number of anti-landlord novels, such as Ellis Carr’s An Eviction in Ireland, and its Sequel (1881) and William C. Upton’s Uncle Pat’s Cabin: Or, Life among the Agricultural Labourers of Ireland (1882). Most Irish fiction was however published in London with a British market at least partly in mind. Anthony Trollope had famously been warned decades earlier that the British interest in Irish fiction had waned. Now, with ever-increasing public fascination at the unfolding events in Ireland, interest in Irish fiction seemed to revive as novelists produced work from a variety of different perspectives, including attacks on Ireland, pleas for British understanding and proposals for reconciliation between the two sides.

There is as yet no agreed canon of land-war novels and perhaps such an undertaking is undesirable. Land-war novels, some of them written by English authors, continued to be written up to the First World War. Some of the most important that were written within the period of the first two phases of the land war itself might include, McClintock’s A Boycotted Household (1881), Elizabeth Owens Blackburne’s The Heart of Erin: An Irish Story of Today (1882), Anthony Trollope’s The Landleaguers (1883), Fannie M. Gallaher’s Thy Name is Truth: A Social Novel (1883), Moore’s A Drama in Muslin, Lawless’s Hurrish: A Study, Rosa Mulholland’s Marcella Grace: An Irish Novel (1886), Frances Mabel Robinson’s The Plan of Campaign: A Story of the Fortunes of War (1888), Edith Rochfort’s The Lloyds of Ballymore: A Story of Irish Life (1890), J. C. Jeffrey’s An Irish Landlord and an English M. P.: A Tale (1890), Alexander Innes Shand’s Kilcarra: A Novel (1891), ← 9 | 10 → and Priests and People: A No Rent Romance (1891). The latter is an obvious riposte to Mulholland’s novel in which she proposes a solution to the land turbulence in terms of the benefits of having Catholic rather than Protestant landlords. Jeffrey’s and Shand’s novels draw parallels between the Irish situation and circumstances in imperial India. Many of the novels have very proactive women characters and it is instructive to consider that many of the most important novelists of the New-Woman moment at the end of the century had Irish connections.24 Avenues for investigation into land-war fiction are numerous.


VIII, 229
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (June)
complexity personal experience literary output bibliography rural distress
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 229 pp., 3 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Heidi Hansson (Volume editor) James H. Murphy (Volume editor)

Heidi Hansson is Professor of English Literature at Umeå University, Sweden. Her publications include Emily Lawless 1845-1913: Writing the Interspace (2007) and the edited volume Irish Nineteenth-Century Women’s Prose: New Contexts and Readings (2008). James H. Murphy is Professor of English at DePaul University, Chicago, USA. He is the author of Abject Loyalty: Nationalism and Monarchy in Ireland during the Reign of Queen Victoria (2001), Irish Novelists and the Victorian Age (2011) and Ireland’s Czar: Gladstonian Government and the Lord Lieutenancies of the Red Earl Spencer, 1868-1886 (2014). He also edited The Oxford History of the Irish Book, Volume 4: The Irish Book in English, 1800-91 (2011).


Title: Fictions of the Irish Land War