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Captain Moonlight Revived: Ireland’s New Land War?

The revered Home Rule constitutional nationalist, aristocrat, and Protestant, Charles Stewart Parnell, was imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail in late 1881 for his leading role in the Land League, an organization that had been underway for the previous two years. Since 1879, when the threat of starvation loomed in the West once more, the League had been mounting a grassroots agrarian and political campaign against the landed Ascendancy class in an attempt to pry the land from its clutches.

Evictions of tenant farmers by bailiffs, agents, and sheriffs, with the backing of the Royal Irish Constabulary, were commonplace during this period. As were organized blockades, rent strikes, social ostracism, and other forms of civil disobedience to resist them. Upon his arrest in October 1881, Parnell predicted that the political vacuum opened up by his and his fellow leaders removal from the equation would be filled by the violent acts of ‘Captain Moonlight’ – a moniker adopted by Irish agrarian rebels at the time.

Resistance in Roscommon

During this past week, near Strokestown, County Roscommon, a usually tranquil corner of rural Ireland, events have unfolded that exhibit undeniable echoes of the Land War of 1879-82. On 11December, three siblings in their fifties and sixties were brutally evicted from their homestead and family farm by private security goons backed by An Garda Síochána (the ‘Guardians of Peace’, aka the police) at the behest of KBC Bank, or by a receiver acting on behalf of the bank. The family had evidently incurred a sum of debt – as many Irish farmers and families had as a result of the toxic loan culture of the Celtic Tiger years – and the bank deemed it best to evict them to make good on its ‘investment’. Footage of the eviction, in which the thuggish behavior of the expulsion squad is clear, has gone viral across social media.

During the summer, Dublin also bore witness to the sight of hired and masked goons employed by a security company and supported by the Gardaí, evicting with disproportionate viciousness a number of Take Back the City activists who had justifiably occupied a building on the city’s Northside to highlight its vacant status. Indeed, evidence of such activity in recent years by the banks, landlords, and their henchmen right across the state is not hard to come by.

One thing is clear now, however; people in some sections of Irish society have reached breaking point and are prepared to utilize violence to support their neighbors and halt evictions. On 16 December, several days after the initial eviction near Strokestown, the situation escalated considerably. In the early hours of the morning, a large group of unidentified individuals entered the home and physically ejected the eight mercenaries who had been lodging there to prevent the family returning. In the confrontation that followed, a number of the security goons were hospitalized, several of their cars were set ablaze, and a dog unfortunately had to be put to sleep due to injuries it sustained during the commotion.

Whatever the ideology behind such resistance, it has deep historical roots in the region. Between 1879-82, many US newspapers carried reports of the Land War, some of them relating to events in Roscommon specifically. The Los Angeles Herald of 14 January 1882 reported that an ‘Emergency Committee’ in Dublin had dispatched an agent from the city with numerous writs for eviction or to quit that were to be enforced in Roscommon and surrounding counties. ‘While the train was travelling at a rapid speed’, however, ‘a gang of men attacked the messenger in the railway carriage, seized the bag and destroyed the writs.’ Previously, The St. Landry Democrat of Louisiana reported on 12 November 1881, that 500 additional British troops had been sent from Portsmouth to Athlone as ‘orders have been received … to have a flying column in readiness to proceed immediately to any part of Westmeath or Roscommon.’ Several months later, and following Parnell’s eventual discharge from prison, The County Paper, of Oregon, Missouri, recorded on 21 April 1882 how:

‘during illumination at Roscommon, in honor of the release of Parnell, windows and houses not illuminated were smashed. The house of Major Warring was attacked and windows broken. Serious riot ensued, and the military turned out. Three rioters were seriously injured.’

‘The Tans’ return

The mercenaries who left the Strokestown farmstead with their tails between their legs last week are suspected of being members of unionist paramilitaries in the Six-County statelet, as were those thugs who carried out the Dublin eviction last September. In the post-ceasefire ‘dispensation’, these reactionaries have found employment with unscrupulous security firms in the North. If true, another historical parallel with the years of the Land War is evoked. In 1880, an English land agent named Charles Cunningham Boycott, who carried out his lordship’s bidding on the Lough Erne Estate near Lough Mask in Mayo, was socially ostracized by the Land League. The agricultural laborers employed on the estate he managed also withdrew their labor. In response, fifty Orangemen from counties Monaghan and Cavan travelled west to the Erne Estate to harvest the crops and a British Army regiment and over 1,000 RIC men protected them as they undertook their noble work. The episode gave the English language the word ‘boycott’.

Yet, galling as it is to witness the potential involvement of loyalists in these recent events in Dublin and Roscommon, the acute outrage of many who refer to the ‘Tans’ – the British Black and Tan terror squads deployed to Ireland during the years 1920-21 to suppress revolt – returning to wreak havoc on Irish homesteads is misplaced.  According to the Irish Times, Roscommon-Galway Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice declared that:

‘Ordinary people right around the country were infuriated to see people coming from another place [my emphasis] to put people out of their house, at a time when we are struggling with homelessness.’

The implication here seems to be that those being evicted would feel less hard done by if it were good, honest Catholic Irish skins from the same jurisdiction doing the evicting and not heretical Protestants from over the border, or, worse still, foreign Eastern Europeans and so forth. But as Ireland’s foremost Marxist thinker, James Connolly, noted in The Worker’s Republic in 1899, in a ‘free’ Ireland:

‘the evicting party, under command of the sheriff, will wear green uniforms and the Harp without the Crown, and the warrant turning you out on the roadside will be stamped with the arms of the Irish Republic.’

It is the courts of the so-called republic that have sanctioned these evictions, and the Gardaí attend at all times to ensure that the immoral deed is done. Moreover, if northern unionists had not been hired as private muscle, then, given the appropriate financial inducements, ‘our own’ would be persuaded to carry out these coldhearted tasks. Rarely has there been a shortage of scabs, informants, and mercenaries from within the ethnic Irish Catholic community in times gone by to do the dirty work of the bosses, state or landlords.

Opportunists

Numerous chancers have come to the fore both within – and on the peripheries of – the anti-eviction ‘movements’ in Ireland in the last decade. In 2015, Vincent Browne, who presented his own current affairs show on TV3 at the time, famously told one such chancer named Jerry Beades to ‘shut up’ after the self-appointed head of the ‘New Land League’ described a multimillion euro mansion in Dublin’s Dalkey neighborhood as a ‘bog standard house’.

Beades had been attempting to resist the eviction of solicitor Brian O’Donnell and his family from the property when Browne highlighted the glaring contradiction. O’Donnell himself was a landlord who owned an international property empire worth tens of millions of euros. He was categorically not the class of person defended by the Land League of the late nineteenth century. Thankfully, Beades has faded into obscurity.

Others continue to lurk around, however. Not least of them Ben Gilroy, who heads up Direct Democracy Ireland, a small group of headbangers who use ‘freeman of the land’ tactics to attempt to halt evictions and other court proceedings. In a complete misinterpretation of capitalist ‘rights of property’, these individuals believe that they can simply reject the law of the state by non-consent, and they hold that the only ‘real’ law is their own interpretation of ‘common law’.

Essentially, DDI are dangerous conspiracy theorists, who, instead of urging the public to build a grassroots movement demanding a ban on economic evictions and the building of public housing, divert otherwise well-intentioned people down the direction of utilizing these loophole and quick fix tactics. A report in The Irish Times several months ago noted how Gilroy had accused a judge of being a member of a satanic cult and how his ‘affidavits to the court are littered with often irrelevant Latin phrases … as well as quotes from Thomas Jefferson.’ According to the same report, Gilroy is also suspected of accepting payments from litigants in exchange for dubious legal advice. At a Yellow Vest demonstration in Dublin last Saturday, which amounted to a damp squib, Gilroy attended and relished giving a speech despite it having been generally understood in advance by those participating that no such speechifying was to take place.

At the critical juncture, the class interests of these figures will always diverge from those of the working class at large. Without seeking to compare Ben Gilroy and Charles Stewart Parnell, further parallels with the Land War are clear. In 1882, once the Parnell leadership had secured some benefits for the wealthier farmers following the Kilmainham Treaty of May of that year, the Irish National Land League was recast as the Irish National League. Parnell opportunistically turned towards constitutionalism, electoralism and the uninspiring demand of Home Rule, while land nationalization and the goal of an independent Republic, which had been advocated by Fenians like Michael Davitt, was shelved. The Avondale native was able to do so, at least partly, because the slogan of the Land League, ‘The Land for the People’, had always been purposefully vague.

Resolutions?

In 1903, just as the era of the Ascendancy class of landlords was eclipsing – a feat which had been set in motion by the Land War some two decades earlier – Davitt published his magnum opus, The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland. The study looked back on Irish agrarian society and the success of the Land War in undoing the feudalistic landlord-tenant relations that had defined the country since the time of the colonial conquest and plantations.

As one rapacious system was being swept aside by the tide of history, however, another was swiftly replacing it. Agrarian capitalism, where the farmer owned his own plot and was his own ‘entrepreneur’, though more democratic than that which had gone before it, still tended towards monopoly. We need look no further than the dominance of Irish farming by the large grazier class and companies like Moy Park up to this day. In the US, the dominance of agricultural corporations like Cargill, Foster Farms and Tyson Foods is also plain to see. These companies invariably control the market, and, when the banks facilitate a boon in the rural economy through excessive lending, it is not the large agri-conglomerates that loose out during recession. Instead, it is the small and medium sized farmers who are threatened with eviction.

Nevertheless, despite the difficulties in challenging such power, a similarly broad-based movement to that spearheaded by Davitt is necessary – and achievable – in the Ireland of today. One that can forge a connection between urban and rural dwellers and bring together renters, the homeless, those in mortgage arrears, those on council waiting lists, and unify them around coherentand radical demands for public housing and an end to economic evictions.

Such a movement will not materialize overnight, or simply as a result of the leading opposition parties forming a tenuous coalition and marching in the capital a couple of times a year, giving orations, and then returning to their daily political work. There is a proverb in Irish, is de réir a chéile a thógtar na caisleáin, gradually are the castles built. To draw a final analogy between the Land War and modern times; the Land League did not miraculously spring to life in 1879 when a series of bad harvests threatened the economy. Since the Great Famine – beginning with the Tenant League of 1849-52, through to the Fenian influenced Tenant Defence Associations of the 1870s – agrarian campaigners had mobilized people and spread radical ideas from town to town and from parish to parish. Prior to being organized on a national basis from late 1879, even the Land League was directly prefigured first by the countywide Land League of Mayo of 1878-79.

In 2018, moving into 2019, a broad-based campaign capable of affecting transformative change in Ireland on housing must be built from the grassroots up. Without such a movement, ‘Captain Moonlight’ may continue to plug the gap. It is imperative local communities organize right across the country – north and south – in opposition to economic evictions, forpublic housing, and with radical tactics such as occupations, protests and a variety of forms of civil disobedience. Promising headway has already been made in the past few years in several localities where various housing action committees have emerged. But, for a national movement to coalesce, more and more people need to adopt a similarly radical style – a style that will ultimately provide those involved with the necessary experience, discipline and determination to operate on a national basis.

Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His most recent publication, Rathcoole and the United Irish Rebellions, 1798-1803, charts the emergence of radical Irish republican thought, and consequent military action, in his hometown.

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