Meet the researcher: Patricia Groves

By Jon Bauckham, 7 August 2014 - 10:54pm

Patricia Groves, one of the experts who helped with the research on Julie Walters’ episode, tells us more about the background to the Land War and the Ladies’ Land League

Researcher Patricia Groves told Julie Walters about the history of the Ladies' Land League at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin

Researcher Patricia Groves (pictured) told Julie Walters about the history of the Ladies' Land League at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin

The Ladies’ Land League: can you tell us a bit about its history and why it’s so important?

The Ladies’ Land League was a hugely controversial organisation, which divided opinion both in the UK and in Ireland throughout its brief lifespan – January 1881 to August 1882.

To avoid confusion, I should point out that there were actually two Land Leagues. The first was the original Land League, a men’s political organisation established by Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt among others, to fight back against hunger through advocacy and campaigning.

The Ladies’ Land League was set up in response to the threat of the arrest of the men, and to continue their practical work of supporting the tenants of Ireland who were withholding their rents, if the men were imprisoned. At the time, women had no role in the political arena; this was before the days of women’s suffrage.

Ireland had suffered a terrible famine from 1845-1848, and when a second famine threatened to cause mass starvation in Ireland in the autumn of 1879, a Land League was set up to try and prevent this. The Land League also fought for tenants’ rights, seeking the ‘three Fs’ – Fair Rents, Fixity of Tenure and Freedom of Sale.

Tenants had no real security to remain on their land, they could not sell it on if they wanted to leave, and rent increases were often unfair. For example, if a tenant improved the drainage on his land, the rent would be increased based on the value of the improvements. This was called ‘rack renting’.

When times were hard, tenants had to choose between buying food, or paying their rents. Back in 1845, tenants had paid their rents and starved. In 1879, the Land League called for a national rent strike, advising tenants to withhold their rents, buy food, and worry about their rent arrears later.

Rents were paid twice yearly, in April and October, known as Gale Day. Missing a rent payment meant that landlords were immediately six months out of pocket. Irish lands were highly prized in the UK at the time; Irish tenants were renowned for obediently paying their rents, regardless of the personal hardship this may have caused them.

Queen Victoria had a fondness for Ireland, and had spent part of her honeymoon in County Kerry with Prince Albert. She was horrified when she discovered the extent of the potato famine of 1845-1848, as she had been informed that there ‘was no notable distress in Ireland’.

The famine was a catalogue of disasters – soup kitchens which had been established and running successfully, and which saved hundreds of thousands of lives, were shut down, due to the prevailing ‘laissez-faire’ approach to the free market, as the government argued that it was the duty of the landlords to prevent their tenants from starving, not that of the government.

The landlords, who were mostly absent and did not see what was happening, left everything to the Poor Laws and the workhouses, which were unable to cope. Families who chose to buy food instead of paying their rent were evicted. Eviction too was a death sentence, as thousands died of exposure in the freezing winters with no shelter.

When the second potato famine threatened Ireland in 1879, the British government needed to take a different stance. The Ladies’ Land League provided humanitarian assistance to those in need, doing the work that the landlords did not do in the 1840s. The ladies were also seen as doing their Christian duty to help the poor, and [Ladies’ Land League leader] Miss Anna Parnell was described as a Joan d’Arc, and her ladies as ‘les vierges de sang’ (‘blood virgins’). It is for this reason that I believe the Ladies’ Land League was permitted to continue its work.

Can you tell us a little about Mary’s ancestor, Maria O’Brien?

Julie’s ancestor, Maria, took up her role as local branch treasurer in the final few months of the Ladies’ Land League’s existence. This was the most dangerous time of all. There were hundreds of men already in prison for Land League activities – in fact, most known leaders had been arrested.

The only people carrying out Land League business were women in the Ladies’ Land League and so the government began arresting them too. The men had been arrested under emergency legislation known as the ‘Coercion Acts’ for encouraging civil disobedience through the rent strike, but of course the women could not be arrested for this as they were not political actors.

Instead, they were charged with vagrancy and loitering: the legislation which was used to arrest prostitutes. Even something as innocent as waiting outside an office for a Ladies Land League meeting could result in arrest. In Victorian times, a criminal charge like that could ruin a woman’s reputation, and her marriage prospects if she was single. Arrest was hard to avoid, as the local constabulary would know when, and where, the Ladies’ Land League branch meetings were held.

Indeed, Miss Anna Parnell deliberately made sure that all their activities were very public, an act of defiance to let the authorities know that the women were not afraid of them. This publicity was a form of protection for the ladies too, as they had massive popular support. When the constables interrupted the meetings, they would intimidate the ladies by taking down their names in their notebooks.

Maria was an educated woman. Would this have been unusual?

Levels of literacy were quite low in Ireland at that time, so Maria must have had schooling of some description to be able to fulfill the role of treasurer. Maria’s father was a farmer with around 30 acres, which is not a massive holding, but would have been sufficient to fund a basic education for his children. We do not know much about him, but we can deduce from the fact that Maria was an active participant in the Ladies’ Land League, that she had his blessing to do so – and the support of her husband, which, at the time, is remarkable, given the very real danger that Maria would have faced on a daily basis.

Maria would have been responsible for accounting for donations made to her branch, for banking them, and for disbursing them. The two pounds mentioned in the minutes of the meeting which Julie read about [in the episode] was most likely their subscription fee to the Ladies Land League. It is a very round figure, and Miss Anna Parnell was astute enough to know that subscriptions were important to keep the organisation running, during times when the main funds were held up in Paris.

The ladies also personally delivered the relief. It was summertime when Maria was involved, so there would have been better light in the evenings. Although there was no risk of freezing, the roads were seldom paved, and the work was hard, and heavy. The ladies received donations of goods and clothing as well as money and, at their meetings, they would agree a distribution plan.

How should we regard Ladies’ Land League in the wider context of the campaign for Irish independence? Do they play a significant role?

Yes, if a celebrity like Julie discovers a dark past with an ancestor, it can be tricky! And Julie does discover some members of her family have a tainted past!

The Ladies Land League caused controversy, with everything they did, and everything they did not do. Heads of state, heads of churches and newspapers around the world all had their opinions. Sir William Gladstone and Queen Victoria were divided on how to deal with them, as indeed were the Land League themselves.

Patricia Groves was speaking to Jonathan Wright

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Meet the director: Minoo Bhatia
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