The Athy Land League had Dr. Patrick O’Neill as Vice President, Timothy Byrne as Treasurer and John Cantwell as Secretary. It had its own flag made of green silky material which was held aloft at the head of each Land League march and which stood over each Land League platform in Athy. A portrait of Parnell was on one side with the inscription “United we stand. Divided we fall” on the reverse. The flag was last known to have been in the possession of Peter P. Doyle of Woodstock Street, Athy in or about 1948.
On 8th January 1881 The Kildare Observer reported a Land League meeting in the Market Square Athy during which Michael Boyton burnt a copy of the Leinster Lease. However, within a few weeks local public support for the Land League was seriously undermined by a clerical instigated tenants’ agreement to accept a 20% rent reduction offered by the Duke of Leinster. The Land League was not mentioned at the meeting chaired by Rev. Dr. Kavanagh which accepted the new rents and Dr. Patrick O’Neill, the League’s Vice President, resigned because “the acceptance of the Duke’s offer had broken the backbone of the local Land League”.
During the period of the Tenants’ Defence Association and the Land League one finds no evidence in the Minutes of Athy Town Commissioners of support for the tenant farmers. The Commissioners silence probably owed much to the servile attitude adopted by successive Commissioners over many years to the town’s landlord - the Duke of Leinster. The first indication of a change from the subservience of their predecessors was the passing of a resolution on 6 June 1881, requesting the extension of the provisions of the Land Bill to Leaseholders as well as yearly tenants. The innocuous enough request was to be followed on 2 January, 1882 by support for Charles Stewart Parnell in a resolution which called on the Government to release Parnell “and the other prisoners confined under the Coercion Act”. Further evidence of the more independent and nationalistic line adopted by Athy Town Commissioners was given on Sunday, 5th July 1885 with the presentation to Michael Davitt of an address by the Commissioners Chairman Michael Doyle, on the occasion of Davitt’s visit to Athy. This address is now housed in the Davitt Museum at Straide, Co. Mayo which I had occasion to visit same some years ago as Chairman of Athy U.D.C. in the Company of Councillor Frank English.
While Land League activity throughout the country went on a pace throughout the 1880’s, Athy, which in 1872 had given Ireland the first of the new wave Tenants’ Defence Association, was little concerned with the nation’s struggle. All was to change with the advent of land problems in the little village of Luggacurran in 1886.
The Luggacurran evictions had their origin in the refusal of Lord Landsdowne to grant his Laois tenants rent reduction similar to those he had given tenants on his Kerry estates in 1886. As a result of his refusal almost 70% of the tenants adopted the Plan of Campaign which brought them into sharp conflict with Landsdowne’s local agent, Mr. Townsend Trench. The leaders of the campaign were Fr. John Maher C.C. Luggacurran, Denis Kilbride and John W. Dunne, two local tenants of Lord Landsdowne who had large tracts of land sublet to local tenant farmers. Dunne held almost 1,200 acres while Kilbride had over 850 acres.
In November 1886 the Luggacurran tenants decided to withhold Lord Landsdownes rents. The half year rents due that month were collected in Kavanaghs Hotel, Athy by Fr. Maher, John W. Dunne, Denis Kilbride and Patrick Kelly. Kavanaghs is now the Leinster Arms Hotel Evictions soon followed, the first tenant chosen was Denis Kilbride who was evicted on 23 March, 1887. The evictions were to continue throughout the following year and into 1889. A number of those evicted came to live in Athy including John W. Dunne, the Carberys, the Crannys and the Rigneys. Over the three year period 1887 to 1889 nearly seventy families were evicted from their homes. Some of these families were allowed to return to the Luggacurran area following a settlement of the dispute in 1903.
James Dempsey who lived at No. 3 Emily Row, Athy and was the last weighmaster of the town scales, located at the rear of the Town Hall recalled in 1948 a land League Meeting held in Luggacurran on 24th July 1887 at which the legendary William O’Brien spoke.
“Every cart, brake and vehicle capable of carrying people left Athy for Luggacurran that day, he says. ‘The Procession, headed by Athy Fife and Drum Band, extended from Ballylinan to Athy.’ When they reached Luggacurran thousands of people from several counties were assembled there. He recalled how the crowd opened its ranks to let the Athy band march past.”
William O’Brien had arrived at Athy Railway Station at 10.30 a.m. on the morning of the meeting where he was met by the Athy Fife and Drum Band. He had breakfast at the home of Mr. Kilbride Solicitor at Athy Lodge before proceeding to the meeting place in Luggacurran. As the evictions continued throughout 1888 and 1889 collections were taken up throughout the country to finance the League’s opposition to Lord Landsdowne. Once again a local branch of the Land League was formed in Athy and the ladies of the town also formed themselves into a womens branch of the Land League. Local ladies prominent in the League included Mrs. Ann Doyle, Woodstock Street, Ms. Kinneen, Stanhope Street, Mrs. Maher and Mrs. Anthony. Extra police were drafted into the Athy area and the Town Hall was used to billet these men. A regular early morning and late evening scene around Athy was the police marching with rifles to and from the scene of the agrarian troubles in Luggacurran. Boycotted by the evicted tenants and local sympathisers Lord Landsdowne’s agent was forced to call upon the services of the Land Corporation, the organised arm of Irish Landlordism, to cultivate the Luggacurran lands. Those men who were mostly of Ulster stock continued to work on the Luggacurran estate up to 1903. From 1890 onwards new tenants arrived to take the place of those evicted. This, understandably, created much bitterness amongst the former tenants, the legacy of which is never far from the surface, even to this day.