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Politics, Revolution & Civil War
By John Burke
The History PressCopyright © 2015 John Burke
All rights reserved.
Athlone, the United Irish League and Parliamentary Politics
After the reunification of the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond, Ireland's constitutional nationalists focused their efforts on concerns outside the party. Though Home Rule was its overriding goal, the issue of land distribution and property ownership, the 'surrogate for nationalism', preoccupied the IPP for the first decade of the twentieth-century. In the case of Athlone, and other provincial Irish towns, there were both urban and rural aspects to the issue. The substantial number of lease-holding urbanites wanted fairer tenancy arrangements, while land purchase preoccupied most rural tenant farmers whose acres bordered the town, and whose produce supplied its markets. Both groups relied primarily on the IPP's grass-roots organisation, the United Irish League (UIL), to progress their claims, yet, in Athlone, tensions were to arise as both the league and IPP concentrated on rural issues. Such tensions could not but impact on the support for constitutional nationalism in the town, with factors such as the efforts of individual activists, local MPs and the effect of new legislative changes all influencing the relationship between Athlone's populace and constitutional nationalist organisations.
As already noted, the issue of property ownership in Ireland had both urban and rural resonances. In towns such as Athlone, urban tenants' rights were greatly attenuated by existing legislation, which provided landlords with much freedom in rental agreements. Tenants had no guarantee of tenure, no say in rent increases or power of compulsion over landlords with regard to maintenance or upgrading of properties and, given their fiscal situation, no real hope of purchasing their dwellings. The issue of providing suitable housing for local labourers was a contentious topic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and while there had been an improvement in the quality of some dwellings, it was still recognised that the deficiencies were such that they handicapped the economic development of the town and its people. The nineteenth-century Land League's aversion to dealing with disaffected urban dwellers had really set the tone; politicians concentrated on the pursuit of rural land redistribution as it offered greater political benefits.
Outside Athlone's urban boundary, rural dwellers were dealing with a different basic problem: a minority of people, landlords and graziers, controlled the majority of the land. Tenant farmers in south Westmeath and south Roscommon were expected to eke out a living on plots whose economic viability was at best uncertain. The region around the town had not seen an appreciable fall in the proportion of large farms since the end of the Famine, when depopulation allowed landowners and large farmers to retain or consolidate their land holdings. Small farmers were also frustrated in their efforts to enlarge their holdings by the existence of numerous part-time farmers. Census returns show that among the latter were auctioneers, grocers, magistrates, merchants, publicans, shopkeepers, blacksmiths and carpenters. These men often leased lands from men such as Lord Castlemaine and Charles O'Donoghue, neither of whom appeared interested in selling any portion of their estates. There was also a minority of small established landholders around Athlone who had, over a protracted period, purchased small tracts of land, thus becoming more extensive landowners. These men were considered even less likely to sell. Existing land legislation brought in after the Land War of 1879-82 was deficient, Home Rule and internal conflict had preoccupied the IPP since then, and it was not until the establishment of the UIL in 1898 that an influential political body again made the land issue its main focus.
Formed in Mayo mainly through the work of former Irish Party member William O'Brien, the UIL provided much of the motivation that led to IPP reunification. While its work has often been, as Roy Foster puts it, 'written out' of history, it is apparent that the league was to provide a forum for the nationalist grass roots in Athlone, as O'Brien sought to re-establish a direct link between the IPP and its supporters. The exceptional growth of the organisation was a cause of some concern for the IPP which initiated, as Patrick Maume has noted, 'a process of reunification among MPs, led from above, to counter the UIL threat ... from below'. By June 1900 the IPP had agreed to adopt the UIL as its official grass roots organisation, and set about re-establishing a large, unified nationalist political force in Ireland.
However, unsurprisingly, the adoption of the UIL was not a smooth process, even after the official endorsement. The success of the newly unified group in Athlone was to hinge on number of factors, one of the most important being the support provided by the two local MPs. Both were IPP members, though they worked for different factions during the IPP split and had contrasting opinions on the league. The South Roscommon MP was Parnellite John Patrick Hayden, who had gained the seat after the death of his brother Luke in 1897. His South Westmeath counterpart was anti-Parnellite Donal Sullivan, IPP joint secretary, who had first gained his seat in 1885, retaining it in 1892 running on an INF ticket. Like his brothers, A.M. and T.D. Sullivan (both also former MPs), he was a religious man whose election victories were often ascribed to support he gained from the Roman Catholic clergy.
Hayden was supportive of the league from the start. Roscommon had forty-seven branches by the time of the June 1900 adoption, with the land problems in the county (primarily in the densely populated north, where the Congested Districts Board (CBD) operated) ensuring that the UIL found ample support. Hayden met with O'Brien early to convey his support and his backing ensured that other prominent local nationalists followed suit.
In south Westmeath the situation was somewhat different. It was noted by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) County Inspector (CI) in March 1900 that most 'held aloof in a very marked way from the league' with the number of branches bearing testament to that; just ten. UIL organiser James Lynam attempted to establish branches in the region after unification, with Moate, Ballinahown, Drumraney and Mountemple targeted in July and the possibility of an Athlone branch first mentioned in August. Lynam's efforts, and those of local league enthusiasts, saw the number of branches grow to twenty-six by the end of 1900, with the vast majority founded in November and December after a divisive debate on the selection of the South Westmeath IPP general election candidate had been resolved.
The main source of the division amongst south Westmeath nationalists centred on the loyalties of Donal Sullivan. Sullivan's association with the INF, whose founder, Timothy Healy, was a harsh critic of the UIL, was highlighted as an indication of antipathy towards the new nationalist movement. Additionally, Healy's marriage to Sullivan's niece was used against the South Westmeath MP, a man the O'Brienite Irish People described as 'faithful to monopoly'. Admittedly, Sullivan's response to the league had not been positive; he had avoided the National Convention and stated that his involvement with the league required the direction of 'the priests and people of South Westmeath', who, in the case of the clergy at any rate, had not provided much support either locally or nationally by this point. Lynam disliked Sullivan's standpoint and publicly questioned the MP's suitability. However, momentum behind a drive to pressurise Sullivan was dealt a blow when influential local landowner and UIL supporter Charles O'Donoghue (who had contested the South Westmeath seat in 1892 against Sullivan) stated that he would ensure no one was hounded out of his position on the basis of inferences drawn from familial ties.
John Redmond, the IPP leader, was also drawn into the controversy. The Mullingar Rural District Council (RDC) had complained to him about Sullivan (despite not being in his constituency), and Redmond, in reply to a letter written by O'Donoghue to the Freeman's Journal, stated that he was not a party to any efforts to oust Sullivan; indeed, he rebutted the charge that a meeting had been held to plan for doing just that. He admitted that Sullivan had been a critic of his for nearly a decade but stated that it would be almost 'criminal' if the IPP orchestrated attempts to get 'between him and his constituents with the object of getting him deprived of his Parliamentary seat'. Redmond additionally noted that the UIL did not engage the services of paid organisers for the purpose of 'fomenting trouble and disorder, organising opposition to harmless and useful Irish members'. O'Donoghue, for his part, thanked Redmond for the clarification, though he iterated that he and others in the constituency were still not convinced that 'wire-pulling' was entirely absent.
O'Donoghue's support did not arrest efforts to oust Sullivan. Both he and William Smith (managing director of the Athlone Woollen Mills (AWM), Athlone's largest private employer) were proposed as alternatives, but upon being informed of the proposition, O'Donoghue reiterated that he would not contribute to a split in the party ranks and would neither stand, nor encourage others to do so. The Westmeath Independent noted how the situation appeared to bear out one of the problems the UIL encountered nationally: 'The apprehension ... is that the league may be worked for unworthy motives, and as a means of wreaking vengeance on those who do not see eye-to-eye with its founder.'
The south Westmeath convention in Moate in the first week in October saw Lynam propose that Sullivan be replaced. The ensuing debate heard the incumbent restate his faith in the people and clergy of his constituency, who were even less inclined to support the UIL when their candidate was being victimised. In an attempt to dispel the notion that he was anti-UIL, Sullivan stated that he did not attend the National Convention due to his 'honest poverty'. Support from a number of Athlone men, such as the prominent Protestant businessman Thomas Chapman (Dublin-born managing director of the Athlone Printing Works and Westmeath Independent owner), the Roman Catholic Administrator of St Mary's parish, Revd Dr D. Langan, and William Smith, assisted in seeing him returned, more aware now that a closer relationship with the UIL was a necessity for a man in his position. The 'former apathy and indecision borne of internecine strife' was dispelled, according to the local press. Nationalist energies were now free to focus on the creation of new league branches.
With the Sullivan debate resolved, nationalists in Athlone looked to establish a local UIL branch, assured that they would not be working against one of the local representatives. A foundation meeting was held on 12 November with J.P. Hayden and E. Haviland Burke MPs in attendance, along with UIL organiser R.A. Corr. Charles O'Donoghue chaired and was elected president with, significantly, given the local clergy's hitherto poor support, the Roman Catholic Dean of Elphin, J.J. Kelly, elected as vice-president. Other committee positions were occupied by Thomas Chapman, as well as a number of former, current and future urban district councillors. The Irish People spoke optimistically of the foundation, stating that the meeting was redolent of 'the days when Athlone stood to a man under the banner of the Land League'. The organisers emphasised that the establishment of a branch would feed into national moves to reunite Irish nationalists, and though they highlighted the needs of labourers and urban tenants, nationalist duty, rather than social or economic issues, was the most compelling argument presented to would-be members.
Despite the auspicious start, the branch quickly withered away. Just two meetings, which discussed urban grumbles (such as fixity of tenure, fair rents and reasonable complaint mechanisms) and party unity (some were still unsure of Sullivan's loyalties) were held after that of 12 November and while Dean Kelly promoted the league in neighbouring districts and four members travelled to the inaugural meeting of the South Westmeath UIL Executive in December, the inability of John Redmond to attend a rally in Athlone in January 1901 impeded promotional efforts. By April, a meeting of the local executive noted general apathy in the region and heard that '... the Athlone people seem to have done nothing at all ... and have displayed no interest ... in the National Movement'. The local press offered a similar, if more qualified remark: '... as far as the general [my italics] body of nationalists [in Athlone] are concerned ... it seems next to impossible [to] make them recognise their obligations'.
Local apathy with regard to the UIL was not to be lifted in the short term as reports on the 'desolate county of Westmeath['s] ... fertile wasted acres' did little to motivate the urban members. RIC reports cited factors such as good crop prices locally, a lack of support from the clergy – Dean Kelly excepted – emigration and numerous 'worries other than politics', as contributing to the indifference to the league. Other problems encountered included the perception that the UIL (whose relationship with the IPP was still not well defined), like the earlier Land League, appeared dedicated to the land struggle; that it was a rural organisation, uninterested in urban complaints, despite UIL protestations and some historiographical evidence to the contrary. Additionally, reports from Roscommon detailing volatile encounters between members and landowners may have dissuaded timid nationalists from engaging with the organisation, even though it was known that its leadership espoused passive resistance or 'moral force'.
The latter half of 1901 saw the apathy begin to lift around Athlone, if not in the town itself. Charles O'Donoghue in his numerous chairmanships espoused the idea that land was for the people, even though this stance required that he would have to divide up his own extensive landholdings. The Westmeath Independent spoke favourably of the move towards 'national agitation' and noted that 'Westmeath is waking up'. Donal Sullivan joined the Ballinahown branch of the UIL, the presence of Canon Columb on the committee easing his fears on the lack of clerical involvement. Nationally the organisation was described as 'decidedly active' in providing a more structured approach to the land issue. Both Westmeath and Roscommon gained additional branches and witnessed concerted efforts by politicians to motivate people to adopt a virile approach to achieving land redistribution. At a meeting in Mullingar in October, Athlone nationalists heard John Redmond speak of the aims of the IPP and, mindful of the poor urban participation, he also spelt out what the UIL intended to do for urban labourers and town tenants. However, it appears that despite reports of much interest locally in what Redmond had to say, there was no effort to hold a follow-up meeting in Athlone to promote the cause, unlike other towns and villages in the region.
Athlone's apathy aside, calls for an escalation in agitation were heeded in neighbouring districts, and greater pressure was put on landowners to sell. Practices such as boycotting and physical intimidation were introduced, as were United Irish League Courts, giving the UIL, as Heather Laird has put it, a 'de facto governmental role'. Alarmed at the increase in agitation, Conservative Irish Chief Secretary George Wyndham applied the 1887 Coercion Act (or Jubilee Coercion Act; it was introduced in the fiftieth year of Queen Victoria's reign) to parts of the country in December. Despite this, the Inspector General (IG) of the RIC, Neville Chamberlain, believed the league in January 1902 to be 'stronger than it has ever been ... and steadily increasing its influence'. Research has shown the IG's opinion was well founded, as UIL branch numbers increased by 18 per cent from July 1901 to March 1902, boycotting rose by over one third in the six months to March 1902 and the number of meetings held more than tripled.
Despite growth in support in both Roscommon and Westmeath generally, the UIL continued to encounter indifference in Athlone. The local newspaper editor, Limerick man Michael McDermott-Hayes, decried this, and, not for the first or indeed last time, suggested that Athlone was just apathetic rather than uninterested:
The committee of the local branch ought to be called together ... and the necessary arrangements made. Athlone is not out of harmony with the national movement, but it ... suffers from an apathy which should be shaken off.
Movement on reorganisation in local UIL circles did not, however, occur. Even the arrest of J.P. Hayden for unlawful assembly amongst other charges, though apparently of great annoyance to local nationalists, elicited just tacit support for a banquet to be held upon his release.
Often it requires an event with more obvious local resonance to arouse people's interest and the 1902 local authority elections appeared to do just that. The elections were the first that the UIL targeted in an attempt to place members in positions of authority, positions that would allow the UIL to not only exert a direct influence on policies, but also reassert itself in the wake of its adoption by the Irish Party. The run up to polling day saw the UIL expand its influence in Westmeath where, for local authority purposes, Athlone was located in its entirety. League candidates and their supporters canvassed vigorously for their interests while actively opposing those from outside UIL ranks. Chief Secretary Wyndham's first steps towards creating a new Irish land bill ensured additional interest in the elections, for if league members secured representation on County and District Councils, they could assist supporters when the time for applying Wyndham's scheme came.
Excerpted from Athlone 1900â"1923 by John Burke. Copyright © 2015 John Burke. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations,
1. Athlone, the United Irish League and Parliamentary Politics,
2. Supplementing the Nationalist Debate,
3. The Search for Home Rule and the Development of Militancy,
4. The Opportunities of War,
5. Confirmation of Change: The Move to Sinn Féin,
6. Recourse to War: Politics and Conflict 1919-21,
7. Former Allies, Future Foes: Civil War,