The Irish Land Question

One of the earliest accounts of Arthur Desmond in the newspapers.

The Irish Land Question

One of the earliest accounts of Arthur Desmond in the newspapers.

Desmond responds to the Editorial column regarding "The Irish land Question."

Editor Column following Desmond's reply:


In your issue of Saturday, the 30th ultimo, you deal with the Irish land agitation and agitators in such a manner that calls for a few remarks on behalf of the tenantry.

I am not disposed to carp at the views taken since you wisely found them on the assumption that “the arguments used by the British Press are correct,” so that if I succeed in showing that they are not correct, you will admit that all deductions based on such arguments are incompatible with the true state of affairs. The first argument used by the section of the Press which you rely on for accuracy, consists in showing that “the anarchy and lawlessness of Ireland is a natural result of the reckless license which modern weakness or toleration allows to political agitators.

How wide of the truth this assertion is, may be gathered from the speech of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, when, in his place in the House of Commons, lie stated that there were two ways of looking upon the present agitation in Ireland, first by ignoring the existence of any cause and punishing the offenders, secondly by admitting the cause and removing the evil, and the latter was the view he took and shaped his course accordingly ; but we now well know how his designs were frustrated by the Peers.

During the debate on the Compensation for Disturbance Bill, Lord Oranmore and Browne unwittingly in his zeal for the protection of the landlords, pointed out how the Irish Land League may become powerful for evil in a way which previously had not been dreamt of by the most radical of the party, and which unhappily was only too quickly seized on by some to his own destruction.

To form a clear idea of the cause of the present disturbances, we must enquire how they arose, to do so requires little skill. During the last four years Ireland suffered much from bad harvests and American competition. Farmers’ returns decreased at least 50 per cent., but still there was no corresponding abatement of rents, which in many instances were fixed during the previous prosperous years.

Gaunt poverty stared them in the face, and a terrible famine was only averted by a generous influx of money and food from every part of the world. During all this time the Government did little, and the landlords less, to avert the dire calamity. In many cases the money intended to ameliorate their fate found its way into the pockets of the landlords.

The present harvest seems abundant, but the landlords claim it, and in some cases have sold it in demand of their rents even before collected; so that, if things are allowed to go on, a generous public will have to dip their hands deep into their pockets to avert another famine. The Government being baffled in their attempt to save the people from the rapacity of the landlords, the land agitators stepped into the breach to prevent their countrymen from again becoming beggars.

Their mode of operation was this: To unite all Irish farmers in one brotherhood in resisting the aggressive demands of the landlords. They advised the people to first pay all their trade debts, and then give what remained to the landlord; and in case any of their number was evicted after doing his utmost to satisfy the landlord’s demands, no one was to take the place of the evicted tenant. In England, any person preaching such doctrines would be looked upon as a fool, such being the general custom.

In Ireland, owing to the fact of laud being the only staple, it is generally more in demand, hence the necessity. Surely no one will look upon the engrafting of English customs in Ireland as visionary or seditious. No matter how this advice may be clothed in words, it formed the sum and substance of all the seditious (?) harangues delivered by Land Leaguers.

As to the action of the discontents in the House, it must be admitted that they have won more real and tangible concessions for their country than have been gained by the proverbial eloquence and grand arguments of the moderate party.

I quite agree with the view taken regarding Irish prosperity being looked for from other sources save their own industry, but it must he remembered that before that becomes an established fact their own industry must be protected from the rapacity of the landlords. At present such is not the case. If a farmer, by the outlay of capital and toil, improves his holding, say thirty per cent., the chances are that the landlord will confiscate all, unless he submits to a fine equivalent to the value of the outlay, and an increase of forty per cent, on the improvements.

Should the farmer decline this offer he may be ruthlessly ejected from his holding, and cast on the road-side with his shivering family beside him. Such eases unhappily occur so often that despite all our fine ideas about industry, the Irish farmer sees only ruin in the attempt.

If, smarting under the degradation of eviction, after having sunk all his capital and strength in the land, with a dying wife or father or mother beside him on the road-side, he should in face of the divine command of “vengeance is mine,” take the law into his own hands and remove forever the immediate cause of his distress, we should rather pity than upbraid him.

Ear be it from me to become the apologist of murder, but, sir, put the case as it really occurs before your readers, and then ask them individually what they would do under the circumstance?

I can assure you candidly I have not overdrawn the picture. I have, unhappily, seen too many [instances of the nature referred, minus the murdering. The Irish papers teem with instances month after month.

Should you do me the favor of inserting this in your open column, I will, with your permission, treat of the other phases of the question on a future day.

Arthur Desmond.

New Zealand Times, 09 November 1880

[The same letter appeared in the New Zealand Mail, 13 November 1880. Ed.]


The impeachment of the Irish members of the House of Commons, for conspiracy against the peace of their Sovereign Lady the Queen, must bring to an issue the question of “justice for Ireland.”

Assuming that the arguments used by the British Press are correct, there is little to justify either the Irish obstructive within the House of Commons or the Land League agitators without, in the obnoxious course they are pursuing. The arguments epitomised are these:—

The anarchy and lawlessness of Ireland is a natural result of the reckless licence which modern weakness or toleration allows to political agitators—public and private morality largely depend on the assumption that recognised principles and rules of conduct are beyond the range of discussion—the existence of property, which is probably indispensable to civilisation, is endangered when tho right of ownership once becomes the subject of controversy—no Government can listen to propositions from men with arms in their hands—Irishmen out of the House, peasants, tenants, ignorant agitators, will never be brought to entertain a becoming fear of the law so long as they see a portion of their representatives, turning law, order, and decorum inside the House into a farce, and a mere convenient machinery, whereby the minority may exercise intolerable tyranny over all who refuse their demands, however unreasonable — Ireland’s worst enemies are those who instruct the people to look for peace and prosperity in the action of the State, or from any other source than their own better industry, activity, and enlightenment.

It would be easy to multiply to almost any extent extracts from leading Home journals in perfect accord with the foregoing, while, except among the extreme radical and rabidly, democratic section of the Press, it would be difficult to find any plea in extenuation of the disloyal actions of the extreme Irish party.

Nor is any belief expressed that tho perpetration of agrarian outrages, now so prevalent, the defiance of law, the marshalling of armed men, or the blatant rowdyism of mad-brained agitators, will aid one iota in securing redress for the wrongs under which the Irish people, admittedly, have so long suffered. Indeed, as the Scotsman puts it, “Lawless disturbances, so far from promoting, will hinder the cause which the agitators pretend to have at heart. There is every probability that this Land agitation is confined to a noisy minority, even among Irishmen, and that the evils of which they complain arise, not from had laws, but from their own want of enterprise, and the too great pressure of population upon the land. Even the noisiest among them do not mean half what they say, but they require greatly to be disabused of the notion that they will make anything of bullying and blustering.”

The practical proof that the British Government hold the same opinion is now shown in the determination to prosecute by the stern hand of the law the political fanatics, or worse, who put faith in the efficacy of seditious utterances and the savagery of brute force. Their arraignment will hasten the crisis in Irish affairs. The subject of Ireland’s claims and Ireland’s wrongs will be debated in a far wider arena than the Legislative Chamber; the trial of the political prisoners, and the circumstances and pleas to be therefrom evolved, will bring the troublous subject within the personal consideration, and, haply, the understanding of the entire British people.

It has been averred by some political writers that the Irish nation is irreconcilable, that nothing but tho entire abandonment of public and private claims on the natives of the soil, and relinquishment of authority to govern them, the .establishment in fact of the autonomy of the Irish people, will calm the intense dissatisfaction and disaffection pervading that unhappy country.

This is verging to the extreme of hopeless prediction, and, indeed, insinuates that fair and kindly dealing has no impression upon a people, above all others, susceptible to such influences. The fact is, they have been dealt with in a blundering fashion, and have become imbued with the idea that more is to be got by exciting fear than by appealing to the British nation’s sense of justice. Permeating all with the leaven of discontent is the question of land tenure, before which every other grievance sinks into insignificance.

The Irish peasant claims, as Professor Newman says, “That God made the solid land for something else than to pay rent, and that the tenant who improves the soil, and not the landlord, has a right to every tittle of the increased value.”

Too long disregarding this opinion, which year by year has increased in deep-seated conviction, until it has, among the Irish people, become a cardinal point of political and religious faith, the landlords and the British Government now find themselves face to face with a formidable organisation declaring that it is a folly to pay rent at all.

Wild, visionary, and untenable as the manifesto of the Irish Land League may be it will necessitate the exercise of much consummate tact and conciliatory concession before even the semblance of peace in Ireland is again assured.

NEW ZEALAND TIMES, 30 October 1880