Julie Walters lives on a farm and loves the rural life. “I was drawn to the countryside, so maybe there’s some kind of link way back,” says the actress, famed for her roles in such films as Educating Rita and Mamma Mia!, and for her work with Victoria Wood.
As it turns out, the land is a recurring theme in Julie’s research, which takes her to County Mayo in the west of Ireland. This was the childhood home of her mother, Mary O’Brien, who left Ireland in 1938, aged just 23. “She apparently said she was going on a little trip to England and just didn’t go back,” laughs Julie.
But what kind of life did Mary leave? And why was Julie’s grandmother Bridget (“a bit of a snob”) so obsessed with “respectability”? Following a visit to her brother Tom, “the keeper of the family archive”, Julie heads west to learn more.
At first she thinks Bridget’s snobbishness might be down to owning land. However, at the family home in Mayo, now a partially ruined cattle shed, Julie meets genealogist Nicola Morris and discovers Bridget’s family, the Clarkes, were tenant farmers. Moreover, they didn’t have a lease so their landlord, Sir Roger Palmer, could have evicted them at any time.
The fact landlords had this degree of power caused much resentment in rural Ireland in the late 19th century and lay behind what’s known the Land War. This took place between the 1870s and 1890s, and can best be understood as a time of agrarian unrest, when tenant farmers demanded more rights, particularly the right to buy the land they worked.
Bridget’s father Anthony Clarke was a leading figure in his local Land League, an organisation that was a kind of rural trade union. Indeed, when the Irish National Land League was banned in 1881 because the authorities feared unrest, Anthony was on a list of those to be interned without trial. Bridget’s snobbery, it seems, may stem from her sense of belonging to an important family.
With the Irish National Land League banned, a new organisation, the Ladies Land League, briefly flourished. Another of Julie’s forebears, her great-grandmother Maria O’Brien, was a leading light in the organisation. However, Maria’s father Cummins Buchanan was a “landgrabber”, someone who sided with the landlords and was awarded farmland as a result, and would have been widely shunned. Julie refuses to judge Cummins too harshly. “Land was just so, so precious,” she says.
Anthony Clarke certainly knew this and there’s one final twist in his tale: he never went to jail. Instead, it seems he might have gone to the USA. On his return, he was arrested after allegedly assaulting “an old car driver” named James Joyce (not the novelist…), who subsequently died. Thankfully, it soon becomes clear Anthony wasn’t a murderer. An inquest reveals Joyce died following “an apoplectic seizure” – a stroke.
As for Anthony’s final years, the Land League’s campaigning was ultimately successful, but ironically he never bought the land he worked for so many years. Nonetheless, as Julie visits the graveyard where Anthony is buried, she’s clearly proud of her forebear. “He was brave,” she says. “He was there at the very beginning of the movement that changed the land laws in Ireland.”