Between 1850 and 1950 the people living in rural Ireland participated in great political movements and saw sweeping social changes. These events directly affected their own lives and their relationship to the land.
The Irish Famine, Land Wars and Land Acts
After the Great Famine of 1845 - 1849, prospects were bleak for the poor people living in rural areas of Ireland, with families and communities broken and dispersed by death and mass emigration. The population of Ireland declined from 8.2 million in 1841, to just 5.4 million by 1871. Poor conditions for labourers continued, and some rural (and towns) people turned to the Irish Republican (Fenian) Brotherhood, a secret nationalist army with the aim of an Irish Republic.
The Irish National Land League was founded in 1879 by Michael Davitt in County Mayo, with Charles Stewart Parnell as its president. Its purpose was to lobby for lower rents and ownership of the land. The Land Wars of 1879 - 1882 saw mass demonstrations and civil unrest based on these issues. The Land Law (Ireland) Act of 1881 provided for fixity of tenure, free sale of interest and fair rent, and was the first in a series of Land Acts which revolutionised the landholding system from one of territorial landlord estates to that of owner occupiers. This, along with the establishment of the Congested Districts Board in 1891 and their support of cottage industries, led to greater prosperity for rural communities. The political campaign for Home Rule began in 1882, and organisations such as the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association were established in this period with the aim of promoting Irish language and culture.
The Road to an Irish Republic
From the 1890s Irish people benefited from British government policies; for example, the establishment of the co-operative creameries in this period regularised milk prices. However, the people were divided by the prospect of Home Rule, and the Irish National Volunteers and the Ulster Volunteer Force were both formed in 1913. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, men from both sides of this divide left the land and towns and joined the British Army to fight in Europe, impelled by poverty, patriotism, or a sense of adventure. Others travelled to Dublin and Britain to work in the munitions factories. At the same time, the war brought higher prices for all farm produce, benefiting even the small farmer.
The 1916 Easter Rising took place in the urban areas of Dublin, Wexford and Galway, However, the resulting upsurge in nationalist feeling spread across the country, and the War of Independence (1919 - 1921) was fought in nearly every county. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 established the Irish Free State – a 26 county self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth. This settlement led to a brutal Civil War (1922 - 1923), dividing families and communities, and only ended when those opposing the State called a ceasefire. The new state established official institutions of An Garda Síochána, the Army, and an expanded civil service administration. The Shannon Power Scheme provided electricity for some rural homes, as well as towns, and the redistribution of land from large landlords to individual farmers was finally completed.
The partition of Ireland in 1921 led to farm prices decreasing due to a trade war between Ireland and Britain. However, prices for farm produce rebounded during World War II, when neutral Ireland supplied food to Britain.
In 1948 the Republic of Ireland Act was passed, establishing the 26 county Free State as a fully independent republic.