For the latest episode of BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? our research into the family of Julie Walters found a most interesting character in her great grandfather, Anthony Clarke. According to his newspaper obituary, Anthony Clarke was present at the first meeting of the Land League at Irishtown in Co. Mayo. With this clue to follow, we investigated a connection between Clarke and the Land League in Mayo, which identified some interesting sources.
Land League Papers
The Ladies Land League, established by Parnell’s sisters, Fanny and Anna, had created a detailed and extensive catalogue of correspondence that identified all of the Land League branches and their officers across Ireland. This ledger was known as the ‘Book of Kells’. However, the papers of the Ladies Land League were given to Jennie Wyse Power (nee Toole) and were destroyed when her house was burned down in 1916. This represents a great loss of what would have been an valuable record of the rank and file of the Land League movement. However, further investigation found that there were surviving Land League papers in the National Library of Ireland. This collection is small and sparse, but does include documentation submitted from various branches around the country. In one of the folders for Co. Mayo, which included letters and reports from branches (NLI Ms 17709(11) we found two documents signed by Anthony Clarke, secretary of the Islandeady Branch of the Land League and Julie’s great grandfather.
One of the documents was an ‘Eviction Form’ printed on the stationary of the Ladies Irish National Land League and dated April 1881. Instructions on the form stated:
“Each Eviction in the district covered by the branch should be entered on one of these forms and returned as soon as possible to the central office, as above, signed by the secretary of the branch”
The form recorded the name of the evicted tenant, in this case James Lawless and his family of ten of the townland of Drimneen. The form also recorded the length of Lawless’ tenancy and the reason for eviction. Lawless was evicted not for non-payment of rent but because he was a member of the Land League. The form also recorded that his land holding, which he had occupied for 19 years, was taken over by James Killalea of Kilcolman.
These documents, as well as identifying local members of the Land League and the victims of evictions also offers insight into the operations of the League.
Land League Propaganda?
Another fascinating source that came to light during our research was a collection of evidence gathered by the Irish National Land League. Possibly for the purposes of propaganda, the Land League recorded testimony from tenants regarding land clearances, evictions, rack renting and other land lord abuses. This collection was deposited in the New York Public Library in 1886 and was rediscovered by Sean P. McManamon earlier this century. The collection consists of 68 hand written pages of witness statements organised by landlord and parish and pertaining to Co. Mayo. The collection has been transcribed and published in Cathair na Mart (No. 24 2004-2005).
Anthony Clarke appears in this collection, describing that he saw “twelve of the tenants of this townland fined £2 each for the building of other tenants houses. Saw Thomas Walsh fined a pound for not becoming an informer.”
The litany of abuses documented in this collection identifies not just the tenants and their experiences, but active Land League members as well as the landlords and their agents at whose hands these tenants were suffering.
These are not expansive sources and we were lucky to find mention of Clarke in both collections. However, his signature on the Land League ‘eviction form’ and his witness statement added fragments to the story of a man who was helped to challenge the lot of the Irish tenant farmer in the 1880s.
Details regarding Cathair na Mart can be found on the website of the Westport Historical Society
For details of the Who Do You Think You Are? episode featuring Julie Walters visit the BBC website