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The Ladies' Land League and Feminism in Ireland in the 1800s

Updated on April 27, 2013
Original painting by Osman Hamdi Bey, late 1800s; Painting is in the Public Domain.
Original painting by Osman Hamdi Bey, late 1800s; Painting is in the Public Domain. | Source

The Ladies Land League (LLL) was formed by the Parnell sisters Fanny and Anna (siblings of Charles Stewart Parnell, prominent Irish politician and a member of the original Land League) to aid poor tenant farmers who were facing eviction from their homes after several harvests failed in the 1870s, which had left them unable to pay what were seen by the Land League as excessive rents to their landlords.

The demands of the original Land League were 'The Three Fs' – Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure, and Free Sale. These demands were based on informal agreements already in place in the North of Ireland, known as the 'Ulster Custom' or 'The Custom of Ulster'.

The LLL was originally an auxiliary organisation to the male-led Land League - to raise funds and to carry on the work of the League when some of the members of the Land League were imprisoned.

What marks out the LLL is that it was the first large-scale women’s political organisation in Ireland. It was the first to publicly break taboos of the general idealised perception of a woman’s role, and it fought the battles of both gender inequality and the Land War itself on its own terms with intelligence and a sense of social justice.

Although the Ladies’ Land League ‘was the first time Irish women became formally involved in nationalist politics’ (C. Clear, in The Oxford Companion to Irish History, p.308), women had nonetheless been involved informally in nationalism, and both informally and formally involved in other areas of politics earlier in the nineteenth century. The Ladies’ Land League did not appear out of nowhere in the political landscape, but was rather a culmination of a tradition of women’s protest in Ireland.

The Bold Tenant Farmer's Cottage, Ballinascarty

The Bold Tenant Famer's Cottage, Ballinascarty. Photo by Mike Searle (photographer's profile at geograph.ie/profile/10423). CC-BY-SA 2.0
The Bold Tenant Famer's Cottage, Ballinascarty. Photo by Mike Searle (photographer's profile at geograph.ie/profile/10423). CC-BY-SA 2.0 | Source

Several historians have traced this last thread. In Women in Ireland, 1800-1918 Maria Luddy writes that Irish women were organising anti-slavery societies ‘from the 1830s’ and that ‘[i]nformal committees of women were organised from the 1860’s to campaign for change in women’s access to secondary and higher education, and to change the laws relating to the property of married women’ (Luddy, p.240).

More formal was women’s response in 1870 to the Contagious Disease Acts: the Irish branch of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Disease Acts, which was ‘an organised and extended campaign based on a perception of … gender oppression [a campaign that] operated on a national scale’ and which continued until the suspension of the Acts in 1883 (Luddy, p.240-41).

Suffrage societies were also formed in the 1870s: Anna Haslam’s Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association, and Isabella Tod’s Northern Ireland Society of Women’s Suffrage Society. Janet TeBrake highlights that ‘hundreds of peasant women were fighting the Land War on a daily basis long before the formation [of the LLL]’ (TeBrake, ‘Irish Peasant Women in Revolt’, p.63).

Land War Eviction

Public Domain Image. Family being evicted in County Clare, 1879.
Public Domain Image. Family being evicted in County Clare, 1879. | Source

However, what marks the difference between the LLL and earlier political involvement of women in Ireland is scale, influence, and organisation, three qualities that also contributed to its successes and significance in its original political aims outside of a purely feminist analysis. Marie O’Neill notes that ‘Anna Parnell later reported a total of 3688 cases in which the women organised relief’, and that ‘there were 321 branches [of the LLL in Ireland] by May of 1881 [as well as] branches in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand’ (O’Neill, p.124).

Ladies' Land League - Anna Parnell, and 'The Book of Kells'

Much of the credit for the organisation’s recruitment success both in Ireland and internationally must go to the Parnell women - sisters Anna and Fanny and their mother Delia: Fanny and Delia in the United States and Anna in Ireland. Equally, Anna was responsible for the tight organisation of the LLL: Adrian Mulligan quotes a newspaper report of ‘an address delivered in April 1881 at a rally in Charleville, County Cork:

There is a great deal of practical work for the ladies of Ireland to do now. If you do your duty, and let us know in Dublin of every writ and every process that is served in your district you will have plenty to do

(Anna Parnell, quoted in Mulligan, pp.165-6)

In similar highly organised fashion, they also kept:

a detailed register known as the “Book of Kells”. This was a record of every estate, the number of tenants, the rents paid, the official valuations, the name and character of the landlords or their agents, he number of evictions which had taken place and the number that were sill pending

(O’Neill, p.124)

Eviction During the Irish Land War

Public Domain Image. Eviction in Ireland (Vandeleur Estate, County Clare. Circa 1880s or 1890s).
Public Domain Image. Eviction in Ireland (Vandeleur Estate, County Clare. Circa 1880s or 1890s). | Source

A Woman's Role: Public and Private Spheres?

A Paper by Adrian Mulligan: The Ladies Land League and the Development of Irish Nationalism (PDF) attempts to break down the notion of strictly divided public and private spheres in which women and men operated differently – women largely, in this notion, in private. ‘since they can already be found in attendance at these public rallies, albeit watching from a respectable distance’ (Mulligan, p.166). This observation dovetails nicely with TeBrake’s research showing that large numbers of peasant women were active participants in the Land War prior to the formation of the LLL.

Organising the Tradition of Women's Protest in Ireland

What the above points towards is that the successes of the LLL in aiding thousands of tenants and agitating these to withhold rent and practice techniques such as ‘Boycotting’ were in large part due not to conjuring a spirit of women’s protest from nowhere, but in drawing together and organising a group – women – who were already politically aware and active, but who were not working together in large enough numbers and in a sufficiently organised manner to achieve political visibility and thus effect change.

The figure provided by Anna Parnell above, of 3688 cases of relief organised by the LLL is testament to their success in the sphere of socially-oriented work, and perhaps Mulligan’s assessment is the best one: that ‘[t]hanks to the activities of the LLL, Irish nationalists such as Anna’s brother, Charles Stewart Parnell, secured a number of important concessions from the British government’ testifies to their political success, albeit in a capacity auxiliary to their male counterparts (Mulligan, p.159).

References and Further Reading

Books

Groves, P., Petticoat Rebellion, The Anna Parnell Story (Cork: Mercier Press, 2009).

Luddy, M., Women in Ireland, 1800-1918: A Documentary History (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995).

McCarthy, C., Cumann Na mBan and the Irish Revolution (Cork: The Collins Press, 2007).

Journal Articles

Mulligan, A.N., ‘”By a Thousand Feminine Devices”: The Ladies’ Land League and the Development of Irish Nationalism’, Historical Geography, Volume 37 (2009): pp.159-177.

O’Neill, M., ‘The Ladies’ Land League’, Dublin Historical Record, Volume 35, Number 4 (September 1982): pp.122-133.

TeBrake, J.K., ‘Irish Peasant Women in Revolt: The Land League Years’, Irish Historical Studies, Volume 28, Number 109 (May 1992): pp.63-80.

Reference Works

Clear, C., ‘The Ladies’ Land League’ in S.J. Connolly (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to Irish History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007): p.308.

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