Between 1879 and 1882 a mass agrarian movement, led by the Irish National Land League, became a strong, all-encompassing force in Irish life for a brief but crucial period. This movement, one of the largest agrarian movements to take place in nineteenth-century Europe, has been treated as a nationalist movement, with emphasis of study placed on the role, contributions and aims of the league’s national leaders. These men, seeking their own varieties of self-government, saw the land movement as means to a political end. To them the land agitation provided a stepping-stone to national independence. It was the Irish peasantry, however, motivated primarily by economic considerations, that provided the driving force behind the movement, and at this level Irish peasant women made major contributions to the agrarian revolt. In this study the Land League movement is viewed as an agrarian protest movement; its purpose is to examine in particular the roles played by the Irish peasant women during the Land League period.
These contributions have not been adequately recognised in historical literature. Recently the role of the Irish peasant has been duly acknowledged, but in these discussions a male image usually appears. When the Irish women’s role in the land movement is examined, it is done so in the context of the organisation known as the Ladies’ Land League. These studies concentrate on the activities of the upper- and middle-class urban leaders, particularly the Parnell sisters. But to dwell only on the Ladies’ Land League as the focus of women’s participation in the Land League movement is far too narrow, for it obscures the fact that hundreds of peasant women were fighting the Land War on a daily basis long before the formation of the women’s organisation. The papers of some of the local branches of the Land League provide evidence which shows that Irish rural women participated in the Land War from its beginning. Although the archival sources of the Land League period are biased towards men, enough material regarding the peasant women’s activities, admittedly limited and somewhat sparse, does exist to allow a strong argument to be put forward that peasant women performed effectively in the Land War.