In the 1880s, an Irish physician immigrant to Argentina named John Creaghe sought to create a Land League movement in his adopted home. The Irish Land League appealed to him because of its impact in Ireland, but more important to him was the potential to deploy the same ideas and tactics to challenge the power of big landowners in Argentina, some of whom were themselves Irish. “Let it be known,” Creaghe wrote, “there are no worse landlords in the world than the ignorant Irish who once could buy land and are now millionaires.
The Irish Land War of 1879-1882 elicited a massive and diverse response from Irish emigrants around the world, with a level of diaspora mobilization not seen again until after the 1916 rising. The Land War took place at a time when the number of Irish emigrants was at an all-time high: by the 1880s, more than three million Irish-born people were living abroad, with nearly two million in the States -United. The population of Ireland itself was just over five million, meaning that nearly 40% of those born on the island made their living there.
Many emigrants paid close attention to events in Ireland, but the appeal of the Land League and Ladies’ Land League was not simply about reforming rural Ireland. After the economic downturn of the 1870s, “anti-landlordism” and protests against high rents and precarious housing deeply affected emigrant urban workers in several places in the diaspora.
A striking aspect of the Land League was its internationalism, spurred by links between Irish people and emigrants in different places, as well as an awareness of how the campaign overlapped with wider progressive causes, including reform liberalism, socialism, feminism and humanitarianism.
The response was strongest in the United States, from where emigrants sent both material support and ideological influences back to Ireland. New York’s Irish World newspaper had a large readership in the United States and Ireland and generated significant financial support for the Land League. He also sent the radical American economist Henry George to Ireland, ostensibly as a journalist but with the main purpose of radicalizing the agitation and advancing the doctrine of land nationalization. Scotland and England also saw high levels of Land League activity. Irish emigrant Land Leaguers played an important role in spreading George’s ideas in Scotland and co-operated with land reformers in the Highlands. In England, they shared platforms with trade unionists and socialists.
Argentina, a less familiar corner of the Irish Atlantic world, was geographically further away and less well connected to Ireland; nevertheless the Land War provoked fiery reactions there. It also raised uncomfortable questions about anti-landlord support in Ireland as some wealthy Irish immigrant families engaged in similar practices in Argentina.
John Creaghe claimed that in Argentina the Land League “taught us to see many things in a different light”, and he defended it as “the vanguard of the conflict which will soon agitate all civilized nations “. Creaghe read the Irish World and corresponded with Henry George, and he published a Spanish version of George’s pamphlet The Irish Land Question. He envisioned a radical movement for collective land ownership that would dismantle the vast ranches or estancias that stretched across the country. Letters from emigrants to the Southern Cross, the Buenos Aires-based Irish Catholic newspaper, confirmed that the same land tenure system that “took us away from our native hills” was developing in Argentina. Some Irish estancieros, along with their intermediaries, had become “poor extortionists” on sheep ranches.
This radical criticism of the big Argentine landowners, and of the Irish families among them, received a sharp rebuke from the editors of the Southern Cross. Patrick Dillon, Mayo-born newspaper founder and chaplain to the Irish Catholic community in Buenos Aires, promoted free-market capitalism and had an ambiguous attitude towards the Irish land war. The first attempts to foment the Land League in Argentina had come from an emigrant branch in New York, who wrote to Dillon encouraging him to build a branch in Buenos Aires. Yet his response was to take the letter to the British Ambassador, Horace Rumbold, assuring him that he had ignored it and that he believed the Irish community was generally uninterested.
Patrick Dillon saw the Irish Land War, first and foremost, as an opportunity to expand the Irish Argentine community through a scheme of assisted emigration which aimed to settle Irish people in border lands in Argentina. In 1880, with the support of President Julio Roca, he traveled to Ireland to promote Argentina as a destination for “honest and industrious emigrants”. Roca viewed Irish immigrants as desirable as Northern Europeans. He also believed the plan would benefit the British government by transferring disgruntled Irish tenants and potential agitators to Argentina. Dillon’s trip, however, turned out to be a failure. He could not convince those he met that Argentina was a preferable destination to the United States.
Dillon’s plan had envisioned new Irish immigrants settling on land in the Pampas and Patagonia regions from where native communities had recently been violently displaced. At the time of the Irish Land War, a violent land dispute took place in Argentina. In 1878, Julio Roca, then Minister of War and later President, led a gruesome campaign to kill and evict the native peoples of the plains and to seize territory to expand white settlement. The campaign made large tracts of land available to speculators and wealthy landowners.
One speculator who made a huge fortune acquiring some of this land was Eduardo Casey, a second-generation Irish immigrant. With the help of Patrick Dillon through the pages of the Southern Cross, Casey sold plots of land and encouraged Irish farmers to invest, promising favorable terms. By the early 1880s, Casey’s personal landholdings were larger than the area of Westmeath, the county from which his parents had emigrated. The expansion of frontier lands was cheered by Irish Argentine leaders at the same time as agitation against land ownership in Ireland intensified. During the Earth War, Eduardo Casey donated to the Irish Tenant Relief Fund.
The expansion of land ownership in Argentina led Creaghe to call for Irish-style land leagues, employing tactics of boycotts, rent strikes, and political pressure for reform legislation. He wrote to Henry George that “the land monopoly has been carried to such an extreme point in this country that the hope is that the very excess of it will provoke reaction”.
In letters to English- and Spanish-language newspapers, he denounced the plight of sharecroppers and warned potential immigrants not to believe emigration agents’ gilded descriptions of opportunity. A debate ensued, with the editors of the Southern Cross claiming that the land question in Argentina “did not take the form of a great national evil as in Ireland”. Creaghe replied that “the Argentine peon (worker) is much more degraded” than his Irish counterpart and, echoing Henry George and Michael Davitt, he advanced nationalization as the solution to the Argentine land question.
The debate sparked by the Irish Land War reveals tensions within the Argentinian Irish community and sheds light on the complexities, and sometimes contradictions, of emigrant relations with Ireland. Emigrant activism was not only directed towards reform in Ireland, but also overlapped with social movements in their adopted homes.
The Land War represented an important phase in the development of Irish nationalism, but a singular focus on nationalism often obscured how support for the Land League was also based on collective anger over universal issues of security. housing, sustainable rent, the value of work and democratic rights. These problems found an echo in Ireland, but also in the new homes of the emigrants.
This is an excerpt from Changing Land: Diaspora Activism and the Irish Land War (New York University Press, 2021). Niall Whelehan is an Irish historian based at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His first book The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900 was published in 2012.