The real roots of Irish politics

Defying the law of the land: agrarian radicals in Irish history edited by Brian Casey (The History Press Ireland)

J. Anthony Gaughan

Newspaper proprietors and journalists were prominent in the agrarian radicalism which developed into a national movement in the 19th Century.  Chief among them was James Daly (1836-1911).  A tenant farmer and Poor Law Guardian in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, he purchased the Connaught Telegraph in 1876 “to advocate the cause of the poor struggling peasantry”. 

In editorials and in speeches at public meetings and demonstrations he urged small holders to unite and organise against threatened eviction and oppressively high rents.  He was the principal organiser of the pivotal land-demonstration at Irishtown, Co. Mayo, at which he and Michael Davitt founded the Land League of Mayo in August 1879. 

This prompted the establishment of the Irish National Land League in the following October.  In this collection of essays Gerard Moran’s contribution on the significant role of Daly in the land agitation from 1879 to 1882 vindicates Joseph Lee’s contention that the Land League movement should be examined from the local level rather than from the top down.


Daniel Desmond (DD) Sheehan (1873-1948) was a champion throughout his life for the rural labourers – ‘the poorest of the poor’.  A native of Kanturk, Co. Cork, he was inspired to that end after witnessing the ragged poverty of labourers’ and small holders’ children who attended the local primary school with him.  An influential journalist, he helped to establish a number of associations to agitate on behalf of agricultural labourers and small tenant farmers.  He was elected MP for mid-Cork in 1901.  His single-minded campaigning for the rural poor caused him to be at odds with the leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party.  However, the people in his constituency appreciated his efforts and for many years houses built for labourers in the constituency were known as ‘Sheehan’s cottages’. 

Occasionally priests and even archbishops became involved in the struggle between landlords and tenants.  Well-versed in the newspaper coverage of the period, Felix M. Larkin records the role of Fr Daniel Keller in the land war.  Born in 1885 at Inniscarra, County Cork, and educated in the Irish College, Paris, Keller was appointed parish priest of Youghal in 1885. 

Following a series of bad harvests, the tenants on the Ponsonby estate, near Youghal, applied for a reduction in their rents.  Negotiations broke down.  With the assistance of the Land League over 200 tenants then paid reduced rents into a ‘Fund’. 

The authorities suspected that Keller was a key figure in the organisation of the ‘Fund’.  He was arrested and on his way to court in Dublin was formally greeted by Archbishop Croke of Cashel.  He refused to answer any questions relating to the ‘Fund’ and was jailed for contempt. 


In another dramatic gesture of support, Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin accompanied Keller from the court to the entrance of Kilmainham Jail. 

The influence of ‘agrarian radicalism’ continued into the 20th Century.  Pádraig Ó Máille, TD and Leas Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann, was a native of Connemara, where he held a farm of over 300 acres.  In 1928, on failing to persuade his colleagues in the Cumann na nGaedheal government to improve the economic condition of the small holders of the West, he joined Fianna Fáil who had a land distribution policy.  No mere theorist, subsequently Ó Máille, to facilitate that policy, exchanged his large farm for a smaller one in County Meath. 

The struggle for the land had a defining effect on how our nation has been shaped, hence these essays, which provide accounts of some of the key figures who were involved at local level in that struggle, are to be warmly welcomed. 

The volume is well edited by Brian Casey, who himself contributes an essay on Matt Harris a Co. Galway agrarian.