Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Eye on the Past 750

I have often wondered to what extent farm labourer militancy (if I could call it such) in South Kildare was due to the influence of William Conner of Inch or for that matter Benjamin Pelin of Ballindrum. Neither of their names are likely to be recognised today but in their time they were leaders of agrarian movements which for a time gripped the attention and the support of a great number of Irish people.

William Conner lived at Inch just outside Athy. He was a cousin of Fergus O’Connor, the Chartist and it’s not surprising that despite being a wealthy individual he devoted the best part of his life and a considerable amount of his personal fortune in furthering the cause of Irish tenant farmers.

He first came to public notice when he published a pamphlet in 1822 on agrarian disturbances in County Cork. Ten years later he delivered a speech on Rack Rents which he later published in pamphlet form under the title the “Speech of William Conner Esquire against Rack Rents, etc.”. In 1840 another Conner pamphlet was published which he called “The Axe Laid at the Root of Irish Oppression” in which he expressed similar views as those outlined in the earlier publication. Two years later at a public meeting in Mountmellick, Conner attacked Irish landlordism and subsequently found himself facing charges at the Maryborough sessions. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment which he served in the local jail.

In 1843 the Devon Commission was set up to examine the state of the law and procedures relating to land occupation in Ireland. Conner published another pamphlet, “A letter to the Right Hon. the Earl of Devon on the Rack Rent Systems” in which he set out his now well established views. The Commission reported two years later but its principal recommendation that outgoing tenants be compensated for improvements was not passed into law. Around the same time Conner was expelled from Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association for advocating a strike of tenant farmers and the withholding of rents until rents were adjusted downwards. Undeterred William Conner published two letters addressed to the Times newspaper on the subject of Rack Rent, but included in it’s introduction a bitter denunciation of Daniel O’Connell and the other Irish politicians. Conner was apparently not prepared to accept criticism of his long held views as to the best way forward for tenant farmers. This lead to a split between himself and that other great agrarian agitator Fintan Lalor which culminated in a dispute between them at a public meeting in Holy Cross, Co. Tipperary in 1847. Conner was described by Lalor as a mischief maker, while Lalor was in turn accused by Conner of having “rack rented his tenants”.

Within two years Lalor was dead. Conner continued to publish his well expressed views on rack renting and freedom of tenure which he referred to as “perpetuity of tenure”. His ideas were subsequently adopted by the Tenant League of 1850 and within time formed the basis of Gladstone’s legislation which gave the Irish tenant farmers the three, fixity of tenure, fair rents and freedom of sale. Conner’s later years are shrouded in mystery. I have been unable to unearth any information of when or where he died. He is not mentioned in the Irish history books. William Conner is the forgotten agitator who born to wealth spent his life fighting for the cause of Irish tenant farmers.

Almost 50 years separate the Inch resident William Conner from another agrarian agitator, Benjamin Pelin of Ballindrum, Athy. Pelin who was born of farming stock was 40 years of age when on Sunday, 19th June 1892 he called a meeting for Narraghmore to address issues relating to tenant farmers and landless labourers. He later explained that the meeting was arranged at the request of a large number of local farmers and labourers concerned at the poverty of the former and the low wages, uncertain employment and bad housing of the latter. Patrick Byrne, a local man, was appointed chairman of that meeting. He described himself as a laboring man with a wife and seven children who during “the past 45 years has been working as hard as I am able. I have had to send away one of my children because employment was scarce in the neighbourhood and now at the turn of life if I happen to be laid up with sickness for three or four weeks, unless I get assistance from neighbours my little house will be broken up”. Continuing, Byrne claimed that within 100 perches of where he lived was rich fertile soil which as long as he could remember had been “a walk for sheep and bullocks, if my family had the privilege of cultivating this soil I would not have to send away my son for want of employment”.

He then called upon Benjamin Pelin to explain the purpose of the meeting. Pelin who received a warm reception from those in attendance posed the questions, “Ask a farmer with 20 acres of poor land trying to support a wife and large family and he will tell you if he got a reduction in rent and security of tenure, all would be well. Ask a large farmer and he will tell you that what the country wants is a Land Purchase Act that will enable the farmers to become owners of their farms. A labourer in Narraghmore will tell you that a cottage and a whole acre is what the poor man wants.” In a lengthy speech Pelin made a case for founding “The Knights of the Plough Union” claiming that “every additional plough set going in this parish means permanent employment for three more men, every additional man means an addition to the wages of the toiler and as the competition for labour increases the social conditions of the people must improve.”

The meeting unanimously agreed to establish the Knights of the Plough and Benjamin Pelin was appointed as its first president, M. McDonald its secretary and John Shannon as treasurer. The principal objects of the Knights as outlined at the meeting were “to gain possession of the 15 million acres of rich lands of Ireland robbed from the toilers by the landlords and graziers and given over to bullocks and sheep while the people are driven to the roadside, the city slums, the emigrant ship and the poorhouse.”

The final resolution of that first meeting of the Knights of the Plough which was passed unanimously read “that we the working farmers, labourers and artisans of Narraghmore Parish form an organisation to reduce our rents, to compel the rich lands of the parish to be cultivated, to increase the wages of labourers and provide a pension for all labourers over 65 years of age.”

The name of the organisation established at that Narraghmore meeting was obviously prompted by the American Union – The Knights of Labour. Founded in 1869 the Knights of Labour was initially a secret organisation and one of the earliest American labour groups which in the 1880’s was successful in expanding its operations to become a nationwide union with membership open to all workers. Under the slogan “an injury to one is the concern of all”, the Knights of Labour unionized labourers and skilled workers and after much success in having labour legislation passed into law, sought a reduction in working hours to eight hours a day. Agitation for the eight hour day included strikes in Chicago in 1886 which lead to serious conflict between strikers and police, resulting in the death or injury of six strikers. A strikers meeting called to protest against police brutality ended when a bomb was thrown into the ranks of policemen, killing seven and injuring many more. That awful incident contributed to the delay for a generation of the adoption of the eight hour day and to the subsequent demise of the Knights of Labour which within a few more years was virtually non existent.

However, when Benjamin Pelin called a meeting for Narraghmore in June 1892 the Knights of Labour were still active in organizing American labour and undoubtedly Pelin’s choice of name, “Knights of the Plough” was influenced by the American Union.


I would be interested in hearing from anyone who may have information on the final years of Benjamin Pelin’s life.

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