Postscript ‘Brothers at Law’

In the last couple of blogs, ‘Brothers at Law’, I told the story of brothers Alex, John and Richard, hoping to throw some light on the question as to how much this generation of the Davis family had a hunger to acquire land. Since posting these I have discovered a piece of work which gives considerable insight into the lives of Protestant tenant farmers at the time; the many pressures and influences that impacted them, and how they responded during those turbulent years.

Richard Davis, centre, and friends at Manorhamilton Agricultural Show circa 1959.

But firstly, a brief mention of Mary Jane Davis, the only female of that generation. She appeared, by local recollections, to be a very strong-willed character. While her influence on her brothers can only be guessed at, it is likely to have been significant. After Mary Jane’s mother died in early 1910, she was noted on the next year’s census form as ‘head of the household’. Later that year Richard and Alex inherited the farm after their mother’s death, while Mary Jane was left a sum of money. Her imagined voice can be read in previous blogs, and I sense her influence behind the actions of Alex and Richard.

In Miriam Moffit’s chapter entitled, ‘Protestant Tenant Farmers and the Land League in North Connacht’ published in the “The West of Ireland” in 2010 (see Notes), she examines the responses and reactions of this group to the sometimes-violent campaign for land reform during the period, roughly 1870 to 1920. Her initial question was posed thus: ‘The commencement of populist land agitation in the late nineteenth century created a dilemma for Protestant tenant farmers. Was it in their best interest to support their Catholic neighbours, showing solidarity within their social class, or were they better served by aligning themselves with the landlords, thereby demonstrating a religious cohesion?’ Moffit goes on to examine the various forces at play and specifically examines the support and opposition to the Land League in South Leitrim (where John Davis and his friend John McCordick were boycotted when they took up evicted farms) and in Riverstown in County Sligo.

If you are interested in the question as to how Protestant tenant farmers, like the Davis and Gillmor families managed to live through this campaign for land reform then the full article can be read here. Moffit states that ‘Evidence from north Connacht confirms that the majority of Protestant farmers, both tenant and owner-occupiers, obeyed the law of the UIL (United Irish League, formerly The Land League) with some taking part in its organisation.’ Police (RIC) records from September 1901 showed that rents were universally unpaid in some Leitrim estates in areas with considerable numbers of Protestant farmers. The Church of Ireland Bishop, Alfred Elliot, whose diocese included all of Leitrim, complained that some of his flock were won over to the League ‘through their pocket’, ignoring religious and political ties. He also said there was intimidation of some, forcing them into withholding rents.

A Land League poster.

The resistance to the League and their actions against the Protestant famers and their families in South Leitrim and Riverstown are described by Moffit in considerable detail. In South Leitrim, the League’s boycotts and campaign were primarily directed against two Protestant families who maintained their position for some ten years. These were the families of McNeils and McCordicks, the later most likely John Davis’ friend – John McCordick and John Davis were born in the neighbouring townlands of Boihy and Boggaun. However, by 1910 John had built a house and was living with his family on his farm in County Meath.

It appeared that counter to the efforts of the leaders of Church of Ireland, aligned with Irish Protestant political forces, and the leadership of Orange Order lodges, many Protestant tenant farmers supported the Land Leagues efforts for a greater access to land in Ireland, withholding rent from the landlords and not taking up the farms of evicted tenants.

However, Moffit notes in conclusion: ‘In spite of evidence of accommodation between the communities, political leaders on both sides imbued agrarian hostilities with sectarian influences and portrayed them to a wider audience in a manner that did not accurately reflect the more accommodating situation on the ground.”

It is impossible to say how this impacted on the motivations of my grandfather’s generation at Boggaun, or indeed if it was a factor in the rift between the brothers described in ‘Brothers at Law’. However, the League’s campaign led to changes in land laws in the early years of the 1900s which enabled tenant farmers to finally purchase their lands. At Buggaun, the Davis farms, previously leased, were purchased during this time. The Land Commission, set up some years earlier became more involved in the re-distribution of estate lands, and again Alex and Richard made use of this opportunity to add to their farm. While some of the holdings re-distributed were described as ‘uneconomic’, by the mid-1920s there was an overarching sense that a greater social justice had been achieved.

From my earliest memories of visits to my grandparent’s farm, I have a sense of the good relations between the Protestant and Catholic community in north Leitrim, likely an outcome of the ‘accommodation between the communities’ during this period of land agitation.



Print / pdf version here.

Miriam Moffitt, ‘Protestant tenant farmers and the Land League in North Connacht’ in Carla King and Conor McNamara (eds), The West of Ireland: new perspectives on the nineteenth century (Dublin: The History Press, 2010), pp 93-116. Chapter 5 here.

Wikipedia: The Irish National Land League.

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