Irish Land and Labour Association

Irish Land and Labour Association

The Irish Land and Labour Association (ILLA) was a progressive movement founded in the early 1890s in Munster, Ireland, to organise and pursue political agitation for small tenant farmers' and rural labourers' rights. Its branches also spread into Connacht. The ILLA was known under different names -- Land and Labour Association (LLA) or League (LLL). Its branches were active for almost thirty years, and had considerable success in propagating labour ideals before their traditions became the basis for the new labour and trade unions movements, with which they gradually amalgamated.


Following the early formation of the Tenant Right League in 1850, which first demanded the adoption and enforcement of the Three Fs to aid Irish tenant farmers, namely ::* fair rent;::* fixity of tenure;::* free sale;all of whom lacked these rights, the first ineffective Irish Land Acts of 1870, 1880 and 1881 followed. By giving priority to farming interests, the Acts severely restricted labourers' cottage building, generally in the hands of landowners. The additional half-heartedness shown towards labourers' housing by the Acts was symptomatic of the fact that rural labourers had been little involved in the Irish Land League's Land War waged on behalf of small tenant farmers by Michael Davitt and William O'Brien from 1879 to 1882 in the poorer regions of Connacht and Munster, where conditions were especially severe. Together with Charles Stewart Parnell and his party lieutenants, they went into a bitter verbal offensive and were imprisoned in October 1881 under the Irish Coercion Act in Kilmainham Jail for "sabotaging the Land Act", from where the "No-Rent Manifesto" was issued calling for a national tenant farmer rent strike which was partially followed. Although the League discouraged violence, agrarian crimes increased widely.

In 1881, nearly 75% of Irish people lived in rural areas. About 38% of these comprised the agricultural workforce, of which nearly 70% were agricultural labourers, 25% of these forming a class of 'landless' labourers, an estimated 60,000 in number, together with their families amounting to nearly a quarter of a million of the rural population, struggling to survive in the squalor of 40,000 one room 'cabins' (together with their animals if they could afford them). Their simple twin demand was for a decent home and a small piece of land. The Land League was thus forced to also address labourer's issues.

The first phase of Irish Labourers Acts from 1883 to 1906 began with the 1883 Act which was cumbersome and amended in 1885, again in 1886. The Act was overshadowed that year by two events, firstly when due to falling prices for agricultural produce and bad weather tenants could not pay their rent and united in the Plan of Campaign to withhold excessive rents. At the same time Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) held the balance of power in the House of Commons. Their key concern in 1886 turned to Gladstone's First Irish Home Rule Bill, which was subsequently defeated.

Although Parnell had become converted to the labourers' cause whilst in Kilmainham Gaol, after he became leader of the IPP their cause fell victim to his distancing himself from the Plan of Campaign in the interest of pursuing Home Rule. Then further by his fall from power in 1891 and the ensuing Party split, aggravated by the rejection of the Second Irish Home Rule Bill by the House of Lords in 1893. Not least, from the middle of the 1890s less than 1,000 cottages a year were being built for small tenant farmers or privileged labourers.


The rural area of North Cork around Kanturk and Duhallow had been since the 1860s a centre of labourer agitation and strikes, forming a number of early trade unions. The most successful was the "Kanturk Trade and Labour Association" established in 1889 with the assistance amongst others, of a young man as its secretary, D.D. Sheehan who had experienced eviction with his family at the height of the Land League's Land War in 1880, when his father followed William O'Brien's "Pay No Rent" manifesto, their farm taken over by a "land-grabber" who paid their rent arrears.

The Kanturk Association spread to other districts under a new title, the "Duhallow Trade and Labour Association", in which Michael Davitt also became involved, until it broke up under the Irish Party's "Parnell split" in 1891. Finally at a labour convention in Limerick Junction, County Tipperary on 15 August 1894 the "Irish Land and Labour Association" was officially launched, its founders Sheehan together with a young Carrick-on-Suir solicitor, J.J. O’Shee as secretary, to pursue labourer's grievences as a labour lobby within the nationalist movement. It would prove to be the most enduring of the labour groups [Emmet O'Connor "A Labour History of Ireland 1824-1960 (1992),p.53] .


The passing of the revolutionary Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, a "grass roots home rule" Act, totally reorganised the old aristocratic landlord "Grand Juries", eliminating their power by transferring it to Local County Councils elected by tenant farmers, town traders and labourers. This coincided with William O'Brien founding the United Irish League (UIL), the wide expansion of the agricultural co-operative movement established earlier by Horace Plunkett and Sheehan becoming both President of the ILLA and editor of the Skibbereen based "Cork Southern Star" newspaper.

The Act was immediately recognised by the labourers, who for the first time held both active and passive electoral franchise, as a means to achieving their interests and facilitating those who desired to help them on local county councils.

Modelling themselves on Davitt’s concepts, the ILLA platform included demands for:
*::# - land for the people
*::# - houses for the people
*::# - work and wages for the people
*::# - education for the people
*::# - state pensions for old people
*::# - all local rents shall be paid by the ground landlords.

Its strategy was to achieve these through political action, pressure of the press and public agitation rather than by physical-force means or trade union action.


The name of the association was somewhat anomalous, as it strived to represent and pursue the twofold interests of small tenant farmers and rural agrarian labourers. Both were a deprived and down trodden class supporting each other in their common plight, tenant farmers paying excessive rents or suffering eviction, labourers "compelled to live in hovels not fit to house the brute beast of the field" (Sheehan, Commons speech). The objectives of the ILLA were therefore to achieve tenant land purchase, new and improved housing, welfare working conditions and access to land holdings for rural labourers.

ILLA concern for other labour issues developed after the Local Government Act transferred responsibility for cottage building, land reclamation, drainage, road building, their repair and maintenance, to the County and District Councils. This called for considerable ILLA involvement when it came to tenders for contract work and the fair employment of local contractors and labour, settling disputes and complaints, often arising out of local political patronage. The situation of previously evicted tenants, now reduced to landless labourers, was also on their agenda.

Land ownership

The ILLA organisation had grown to 98 branches by 1899, expanding to 144 branches in 1904 mainly in counties Cork, Limerick and Tipperary. By the turn of the century the working class segment of the electorate were a new power, a very worthy class to be courted and flattered with at election time. They displayed this by returning their President D.D. Sheehan, who stood on a labour platform when defeating the UIL candidate of the Irish Party at the selection convention for the Mid-Cork by-election in May 1901, as their Member of Parliament (1901-1918) in the House of Commons.

UIL agitation by tenant farmers continued to press for compulsory land purchase and resulted in the calling of the December 1902 Land Conference, an initiative by moderate landlords led by Lord Dunraven on the one hand and William O'Brien and Timothy Harrington representing tenant farmers on the other hand. It strove for a settlement by conciliatory agreement between landlord and tenant. After six sessions all tenant’s demands were conceded, O’Brien having guided the official nationalist movement into endorsement of a new policy of conciliation. He followed this by campaigning vigorously for the greatest piece of social legislation Ireland had yet seen, orchestrating the Wyndham "Labourers Land Purchase Act (1903)" through Parliament. The Act provided very generous bonus subsidy terms to landowners on sale. Purchases between tenants and landlords were negotiated by Sheehan and the ILLA branches, the Irish Land Commission overseeing the low interest annuities.

This effectively fulfilled the first important demand of the ILLA, the abolition of "landlordism", replaced by land purchase, to finally resolve the Land Question. The result was the formation of a new proud farmering proprietorship, and the steady extinction of the Anglo-Irish landed gentry. Whereas in 1870 only 3% of Irish farmers owned their land, by 1908, this jumped to nearly 50%. By the early 1920s, the figure was at 70%, the process being later completed.

Despite some deficiencies of the Land Act, O'Brien could take some pride in its working since its passage. The social effects of the Act were immediate The year 1903 alone saw a 33% drop in reports of intimidation, a 70% decline in boycotting cases, 60% fewer people needing police protection, and a 50% decrease in the number and acreage of grazing farms unlet or unstocked because of agitation. In the period 1903 to1909 over 200,000 peasants became owners of their holdings under the Act. [O’Brien, Joseph V.: "William O’Brien and the course of Irish Politics, 1881-1918", "The All-for-Ireland League" pp. 166-67, University of California Press (1976) ISBN 0-520-02886-4 ]

Cottage ownership

In 1903, O’Brien left the IPP when his policy of "conciliation" with landowners was rejected by John Redmond and John Dillon who feared O’Brien’s course and popularity would drive a wedge between the farming and labouring community allegiance to the Irish party.

O'Brien then joined forces a year later with Sheehan’s ILLA organisation, identifying himself with their demand for agricultural labourers' housing, who up to then were dependent on limited provision of cottages by local County Councils or landowners at unfavourable terms.

The Second Phase of the Labourers Acts (1906-1914) began with O'Brien achieving the unprecedented James Bryce "Labourers (Ireland) Act (1906)" which provided large scale state funding for extensive County Council erected accommodations for agricultural labourer-owned cottages. A major socio-economic transformation in rural state housing erasing the previous inhuman habitations, O'Brien saying that the Labourers Acts -- "were scarcely less wonderworking than the abolition of landlordism itself", in 1904 Davitt going so so far as to declare that the Labourers Acts constituted -- "a rational principle of state Socialism" .

In the next five years the programme produced a complete 'municipalisation' of over 40,000 additional commodious working-class dwellings dotting the rural Irish countryside. At first the compulsory surrender of an acre of choice land to each labourer who claimed it was resisted by the new land owning farmers. In due course they too reaped the benefits, gone the days when a farmer never knew when or where to find labour to work his fields. Either they were migrant or drink ridden. Now occupying their own proud family home and vegetable patch at the corner of his farm, they worked cooperatively for him all year round. This had enormous long-term consequences for rural Irish society.

Only 17 per cent of labourers had lived in houses with five or more rooms in 1841; in 1861 one rural family in ten still lived in what were classed by the census as fourth class accommodation, essentially meaning one room per family. By 1911 only one per cent of families did. The bulk of the labourers' cottages were erected by 1916 and tuberculosis, typhoid and scarlet fever were all declining as a result. Up to a quarter of a million were housed under the Labourers Acts by 1921. It is not an exaggeration to term it a social revolution, in a sense it was the first large-scale public-housing schemes in the country, a development neglected by historians, because the houses, rural based and more scattered, were not as evident as the urban tenements, that officialdom would not even look into. [Enda McKay "The Housing of the Working Classes 1883-1916"
SAOTHAR, Vol. 17, 1992 pp. 27-38, Irish Labour History Society

D.D. Sheehan maintained in 1921, [D.D. Sheehan "Ireland since Parnell" op. cit. pp. 176] that the labourers, as a result of these housing acts (particularly the landmark 1906 bill),

"were no longer a people to be kicked and cuffed and ordered about by the schoneens and squireens of the district; they became a very worthy class indeed, to be courted and flattered at election times and wheedled with all sorts of fair promises of what could be done for them".
The proportionally larger number of 7,560 cottages were erected in county Cork, known locally in the last century as "Sheehans' cottages".

Party dissension

The Irish Party having alienated O’Brien from the party tried by every means to curtail his activities after he became involved with Sheehan’s ILLA, regarding their conciliatory approach as a dangerous deviation from party policy. Just as the Party took control of O'Brien's UIL through the services of Joseph Devlin, Redmond and Dillon were determined to undermine O’Brien and "squelch that body by getting a few reliable Munster MPs to start a new Land and Labour group and claim it as the legitimate continuation of the original association" . In 1905, Dillonite ILLA secretary and co-founder J.J. O’Shee formed the break-away organisation. The remaining larger section, mainly in counties Cork, Limerick, Kerry and Tipperary , Sheehan renamed the LLA. Its members sat on most Rural and District County Councils. Splitting-off and in-fighting became symptomatic of all national movements after the Parnell split.

O’Brien and some others rejoined the IPP in 1907 for the sake of unity, but he was again driven out at the shameful Dublin "Baton Convention" of 1908 over the next stage of Bryce's "Land Purchase Act (1909)". By the January 1910 general elections, further ILLA groups had split off, in Cork city P.J. Bradley, building an empire on the title, and William Field, MP, as president of an LLL in Dublin, each claiming Irish Party credit for the earlier ILLA achievements. Sheehan resigned the LLA presidency in July 1910 , his colleague Cornelius Buckley taking over. Cork then had three LLA s from 1910 to 1915 [Dan Bradley: "Farm Labourers: Irish struggle 1900-1976, Ch.2 Farm Labourer Organisations in co. Cork before 1919" pp.24-37 (1988), Athol Books ISBN 0-850-34038-1] .

This greatly damaged the labourer’s movement as soon nobody knew to which organisation they belonged. In other counties where branches were long established, they remained independent with divergent local activities, in some cases in Connacht under R.A. Corr, with the dual title Trade and Labour Association (T&LA), as successor to Davitt’s Democratic Labour Federation.


Additional funding for the erection of a further 5000 cottages was won under the A. Birrell's "Labourers (Ireland) Act (1911)", Sheehan making the during the passage of the bill. He remained active in the labour movement as its leader in Munster. Around 1912, Ireland was economically one of the prosperous small countries of Europe.

Having successfully settled the main grievances of small tenant farmers and agrarian labourers, O’Brien and Sheehan turned their attention to the unresolved question of the Home Rule Movement, founding for this purpose a new organisation, the All-for-Ireland League, many LLA branches joining the League.

By the end of 1919, most ILLA and LLA branches had completed amalgamation with the expanding Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), some independent branches remaining active in outlying areas of Munster and Connacht into the 1920s, when they in turn fused with the ITGWU, all forming the basis of the new labour movement. [T. J. Murphy late Labour TD. north-Cork and former Minister for Local Government, in an interview published in an Irish Times article by Patrick Nolan (Series "State of the Unions") 18 November 1965, he expressed the view - "The Irish Labour Party was to benefit from the efforts of the local ILLA s"] . Later Irish governments continued rural cottage building well into the middle of the 20th. century, though at a much slower rate



* D.D. Sheehan "Ireland since Parnell" (1921)
* John Cunningham "Labour in the West of Ireland" (1995) Athol Books, Belfast
ISBN 0-85034-074-8
* Murray Frazer "John Bull's Other Homes" (1995) Liverpool University Press,
ISBN 0853236704
* Fintan Lane "The Origins of Modern Irish Socialism" (1997) Cork University Press. ISBN 185918152X

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