The Land League in North Antrim 1880-1882 by JR McMinn

This article first appeared in The Glynns Volume 11 (1983).  It is reproduced here in full.

The general election of 1880 resulted in the formation of William Ewart Gladstone’s second Liberal administration.

W E Gladstone (1880)

In Ireland the new government was immediately confronted with an extremely serious situation requiring remedial action. The continuing agricultural depression, which had begun in the 1870’s, had generated waves of agrarian unrest and agitation. In particular it had given birth to the National Land League, founded by Michael Davitt in October 1879.  

Michael Davitt (1882) The sign reads “Land League, The Land for the People”

By 1880 the league, under the presidency of Charles Stewart Parnell, had become a large and well-organised movement and was active throughout the island. In the western counties of Ulster the League attracted support from Protestant and Catholic farmers.

                                                             Charles Stewart Parnell (1880)

The Impartial Reporter in Fermanagh remarked that ‘one of the signs of the times is the union of the Orangemen, Protestants and Catholics in accepting the League in Derrygonelly’. 1 Indeed in the same county two Orange Lodges had their warrants cancelled because of the Land League activity by some of their members ! 2

Michael Davitt addressed a meeting in County Armagh shortly before his arrest in 1881, and a local observer consequently noted that ‘Orangemen that day joined the League in vast numbers.’ 3 The Liberal Tyrone landlord Hugh Montgomery wrote to Gladstone from the peaceful security of Cannes to warn him that some Fermanagh farmers, Protestant as well as Catholic were joining the Land League, believing this to be the best way to lend support to Gladstone’s proposed Land Legislation. ‘When this organisation once gains a footing it is likely to spread with all its attendant evils through hitherto orderly and peaceful parts of Ulster.’ 4

Land league Poster from the early 1880’s

Montgomery’s alarm was perhaps premature. The Ulster Protestant participation in the Land League was restricted almost entirely to the western half of the province.

In order to explain this phenomenon it is important to bear in mind Robert Kirkpatrick’s argument that mid-Ulster had suffered considerably as a result of the 1879-80 agricultural crisis, although conditions were certainly not as bad as on the western seaboard. Even so, the Erne basin and large areas of Armagh had experienced widespread flooding which had lasted several months. In consequence, crops were destroyed, rents were unpaid, and arrears mounted and this in an area where, according to Kirkpatrick, landlord-tenant relations had been steadily deteriorating over a period of years as rents were raised and the practice of tenant-right eroded. Add the further ingredients of American competition, falling prices, not to mention unemployment, and we have an adequate explanation for the enthusiasm of tenant farmers, both Catholic and Protestant, for the Land League in Armagh, Cavan, Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Indeed three of its principle speakers in the area – Jeremiah Jordan, Thomas Little and Reverend Harold Rylett – were Protestants. A large number of evictions, occasioned by the increasing financial difficulties of many landlords, further fuelled the discontent towards the end of 1880. Although mid-Ulster was spared serious agrarian crime during these months, the landlords accused the League of encouraging tenants to withhold rents at a time when some still appeared to be able to keep up interest on loans for the payments of tenant right and even meet their obligations to local shopkeepers. 5

However, this Protestant support for the Land League was to be short-lived. By the end of 1881, a combination of factors had convinced most Protestants to sever their links with the movement, which was in any case soon to evaporate, to be replaced with Parnell’s Irish National League in 1882. Serious differences arose over both aims and methods and undoubtedly sectarian tension played its part. Indeed some mid-Ulster landlords, through the Orange Order, organised a series of anti-league meetings and speakers such as Captain Mervyn Archdale, Lord Charlemont and Lord Annesley exploited Protestant fears at these meetings. Davitt’s demand for the abolition of landlordism seemed to be too extreme in the eyes of many Protestants, while the penumbra of illegal activity and violence surrounding the movement in the south and the west alienated them also, especially since most of the victims were Protestants.

Many northern tenant farmers, loyal as they were to the Liberal party, resented Parnellite obstruction in the House of Commons. The Tyrone by-election of the 1881 had divided the League’s support in the county and beyond. Some branches, because of their traditional Liberal connections, could not bring themselves to support the Rev. Harold Rylett, opting for the Liberal Thomas Dickenson instead, thereby defying Parnell’s instructions. Finally, Gladstone’s land act of 1881 was to prove divisive. Most northern Protestant farmers gave it a qualified welcome, while the Land League officially condemned it. This welcome was partly due to traditional goodwill towards Gladstone and Liberalism, but also resulted from an awareness of the potential value of the legislation. 6

The League, on the other hand, was irritated by Liberal policy on law and order and Gladstone’s refusal to accept a Compensation for Disturbances Bill. 7 Parnell was also forced to look over his shoulder in the direction of more extreme supporters in Ireland and north America, and in August 1881 he publicly denounced the Land Act, indicating his belief that effective land reform depended on the achievement of legislative independence. Shortly afterwards Parnell was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol and the League was suppressed. On his release in October 1882, Parnell formed the Irish National League with self-government as its principal objective. But long before this, widespread Protestant support for the Land League had long disappeared in Ulster. Even in Co. Fermanagh this was the case by the end of 1881. 8

We have already noted that such Protestant support as the Land League did enjoy in Ulster was geographically limited. In north Antrim, S.C. McElroy, editor of the Ballymoney Free Press, and his colleagues in the Route Tenants Defence Association (R.T.D.A.) were consistently hostile to the movement. Its objectives were too extreme for McElroy’s taste, as he made clear on 7th October 1880:

“Not long since the demand was for tenant-right. The demand is never heard now at meetings of the Land League. Part proprietorship, as is the Ulster custom, is denounced as undesirable and impractical, and Parliament is told that nothing but the exportation of the landlords will satisfy the people. With this extreme demand we hope the farmers of Ulster will not become identified. It is the dream of men who are aiming at objects beyond land settlement.”9

By 4th November 1880, he had become so alarmed by the ‘reckless speeches of prominent Land Leaguers’ that he was even suggesting a united Liberal/Conservative front to protect the Union.

“Much as we dislike Toryism, we would prefer it to connivance at revolution.”10

He welcomed Orange support for tenant-right and denounced the Belfast Catholic newspaper the Morning News for its advocacy of the Land League’s policy. 11 Parnell’s arrest in October 1881 was regarded as an unfortunate necessity.

“Our earnest desire is that the farmers of Ireland will draw a proper distinction between real interests and the schemes of men who aim at breaking up the Union between Ireland and England.” 12

The suppression of the League itself was, predictably, welcomed.

“It is an undoubted fact that the League stood in the way of fair trial of the land law act.” 13

This hostility fits in with the essentially Protestant character of the tenant-right movement in Antrim. Throughout the 1870s McElroy and the R.T.D.A., despite their often-repeated pleas for north-south co-operation on the land question, had been unable to shake off the suspicion of Roman Catholic intentions. Their demands had always been studiously moderate and their connections with Liberalism firm and close. Nor were they facing a crisis as severe as that confronting their counterparts living beyond the Bann to the west.

But the Land League did succeed in establishing a foothold in north Antrim despite the strictures of Presbyterians of the Ballymoney district. In November and December 1880 meetings were held in Ballycastle and Loughguile to establish local branches. 14 The latter meeting was attended by approximately 2000 people and was addresses by two well-known Parnellite members of Parliament, Joseph Biggar and Thomas Sexton. Roman Catholic clergy were present at both meetings, and indeed it is noteworthy that the locations were in the hearts of predominantly Catholic areas of the county.

One Protestant did, however play an important role. John Pinkerton, a Unitarian tenant farmer of Seacon, Ballymoney, made the first significant move in what was to be a lengthy and highly individualistic political career by appearing as a platform speaker at the Ballycastle meeting. 15 Pinkerton had previously been connected with the Ballymoney Agricultural Society, the Route Tenants Defence Association and Antrim Central Tenant-Right Association. 16 But as he made clear to his Ballycastle audience, he could not endure the timid hesitant policy of these organisations any longer:
He had very little sympathy for the lukewarm resolutions moved lately at meetings under the auspices of tenant-right associations.

It was a sort of Holloway’s pill, supposed to cure all diseases of the land in question. It was about equally efficacious with Holloway’s pills. It would require a great number of them to have the same effect as a ha’porth of salts.

While endorsing Land League objectives as the best means to free ‘the white slaves of Ireland’, he was careful at the Loughguile meeting to condemn violence and to advocate the acceptance of the modern Liberal land bill as ‘an instalment of justice’. He warned against captious opposition, which would:

“paralyse the hands of the only men who, as members of the English Cabinet, ever made an effort to redress the wrongs of our country”.

Pinkerton’s career, from this point onward, was to diverge sharply from the path trodden by his Ballymoney contemporaries. He was the only member of the R.T.D.A. prepared to fully identify himself with the demands of the Catholics of north Antrim and ultimately to embrace Home Rule with enthusiasm. 17

In November 1882, Pinkerton’s political isolation was dramatised and underlined by the circumstances of Michael Davitt’s visit to Ballymoney. 18 The visit on the 17th November seems to have been largely organised by Pinkerton, and certainly the R.T.D.A. had nothing to do with it. The only local Protestant clergyman present was the Rev. David Matts, a Unitarian, while significantly three Roman Catholic Priests and a number of significant catholic laymen were involved.

A group of local Liberals had made an unsuccessful approach to the Town Commissioners to try to prevent the meeting being held in the Town Hall, an ‘unsavoury mission’ undertaken by men who were ‘very illiberal Liberals’ in Pinkerton’s opinion.

Orange opposition was much in evidence outside the Town Hall and in the Protestant Hall opposite. Pinkerton, who chaired the meeting, and the two principle speakers, Davitt and John Ferguson of Glasgow, had to compete against the sound of drums being played outside. Serious disturbances ensued after the meeting ended, and the 50 extra police, drafted into the town for the occasion, experienced some difficulty of getting Davitt safely back to the railway station.

Pinkerton in a lengthy and characteristically colourful speech denounced the landlord class and the inadequacies of the 1881 act, in particular the work of the central Land Commission, and also of the valuers acting for the sub-commissioners:
“Landlordism is doomed; it may continue to drag out a miserable existence through curative potions administered by quack politicians and strengthening plasters, in the shape of a land bill, applied to its rickety old back, but sooner or later it must go. Every day is making more apparent the fallacy of double ownership . . . The present state of things is equally undesirable, for while the landlords and tenants are pulling each other’s ears in the land courts, the lawyers are making away with the cream. Landlords should either sell out or buy out.”

Davitt developed his usual themes – the necessity for land nationalisation with, or without, compensation from the Landlords and the desirability of self-government for Ireland:
“The land of a nation in the hands of a class to the consequent poverty and social discontent of the people, and a people ruled by a party of fear contrary to every principle of constitutional government, constitutes the Anglo-Irish difficulty – and the mere definition of such difficulty points out the only remedies for its removal, which English statesmanship must recognise and English legislation be made to sanction, if social disquiet and political discontent are ever to be banished from the public life of Ireland.”

Undoubtedly, such plain speaking was embarrassing to the R.T.D.A. and to S.C. McElroy in particular. Although the meeting was fully recorded in the Ballymoney Free Press, his editorial column was uncharacteristically silent on the subject. The meeting was well attended but Davitt was interrupted and challenged by a number of individuals from the floor. These objectors claimed, not without some justification, that the meeting’s real object was not the promotion of land reform, but rather the promotion of Home Rule. It was left to the Belfast News Letter to opine that:

“Ballymoney is too far north for the emissaries of National Leagues or Land Leagues, or conspiracies of the kind . . . We may remind the public that Ballymoney is a great tenant-right centre; yet the tenant righters of the Route district have no sympathy with revolutionary movements.” 19

Thus, in the light of evidence outlined above, one can but agree with R.W. Kirkpatrick’s argument that “the areas which most strongly support the tenant-right movement, particularly in County Antrim, were never deeply affected by the Land League Campaign.” 20



  1. Quoted in P. Livingstone. The Fermanagh story: a documented history . . . from the earliest times to present day. (Enniskillen, 1969), p. 260.
  2. Aiken McClelland. ‘The later Orange Order’ in T.D. Williams (ed.) Secret societies in Ireland (Dublin, 1973), p. 130.
  3. Person unknown to Francis O’Neill, 19 January 1882 (PRONI., O’Neill papers. D1481).
  4. Hugh de F. Montgomery to W.E Gladstone, 30 November 1880 (British Museum, Gladstone papers, Add. 44467/78).
  5. R.W. Kirkpatrick, ‘Land estates in mid-Ulster and the Irish land war, 1879-85’ in Irish Economic and Social History, V. (1978). pp. 73-5; R.W. Kirkpatrick. ‘Origins and development of the land war in mid-Ulster, 1879–85’ in F.S Lyons and R.A.J. Hawkins (eds.) Ireland under the Union: varieties of tension: Essays in honour of T.W. Moody (Oxford, 1980), pp. 201–35.
  6. For a discussion of these various factors see Kirkpatrick. Landed estates in mid-Ulster, p. 74; Thomas MacKnight, Ulster as it is, or twenty-eight years as an Irish editor. 2 vols (London, 1896, I, pp. 398–9). The reaction of Ulster Liberal Society to the Land Act of 1881 is reported in the Northern Whig, 21 November 1881.
  7. Ulster Examiner, 1 September, 1881.
  8. Livingstone. The Fermangh Story, p. 261.
  9. Ballymoney Free Press, 7 October, 1880.
  10. Ibid., 4 November, 1880.
  11. Ibid., 6 January, 1881.
  12. Ibid., 20 October, 1881.
  13. Ibid., 27 October, 1881.
  14. The meetings were reported in full in Ibid., 2 and 30 December, 1880.
  15. For a biographical profile of John Pinkerton see J.R.B. McMinn. ‘The Reverend James Brown Armour and Liberal Politics in North Antrim, 1869-1914’ (Ph.D. thesis Queens University of Belfast, 1979), pp. 415-6.
  16. He was in fact elected as member of the committee of the ACTRA on 14 September, 1880.
  17. For a fuller treatment of the political attitudes of Liberals in North Antrim see my article ‘the myth of “Route” Liberalism in County Antrim, 1869–1900’ in Eire-Ireland, XVII: 1, spring 1982, pp. 137-49.
  18. See BFP., 23 November, 1882; Belfast News-Letter, 18 November 1882.
  19. BNL., 18 November, 1882.
  20. Kirkpatrick, Origins and development of the land war in mid-Ulster, p. 203.

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