District Inspector Pepper knew that something was brewing amongst the rural class in the Balla area of County Mayo, he just couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He crouched behind the stone wall, with his 50 constables, two miles from Balla. There were plenty of troublemakers in this area, and he was going to get the jump on them. Pepper shivered; there was a hint of snow. He could think of better things to do than be out here in the middle of winter. As the first glimpses of daylight appeared, so did two shadowy figures, and soon after, he heard muffled voices. He stood up and motioned for his men to follow. As they got closer, Inspector Pepper recognised the men as John Barrett and Tom Brennan, confirming his expectation of trouble. Both men were active members of the National Land League.
The Land League had been formed in Mayo the year before, in 1879. The worst of an Irish economic crisis, intensified by a number of bad harvests prior to 1879 and considered by some as the impetus for the Land War, was centred in the western counties. Farmers, unable to pay their rents and fearing the starvation and destitution of the Great Famine of 30 years before, were encouraged by tenant rights advocates to fight together to break the control of the landlords. Mostly this was done by legal means – boycotting those who took up the land of tenants driven out, delaying or defeating judicial proceedings of evictions, and demonstrating when the evictions occurred. As well, tenant holders were encouraged to refuse to pay unfair rents.
A massive turnout of sympathisers, only weeks after the League’s formation, had gathered at Loonamore, the site of a threatened eviction of Anthony Dempsey and his family for their refusal to pay rent arrears. The recent arrest of three of the movement’s leaders, Davitt, Daly and Killen for their subversive speeches the week before, was fuel as well for the protest. Men from surrounding areas came on horse and foot. They gathered in Balla and marched as a banner-waving, unified force to Loonamore. The Dempsey farm overlooked the procession of thousands, four deep, spread out over a mile and a half, two hundred mounted men at the rear. In the fields surrounding the house were hundreds of armed policemen. The leaders of the procession approached and were informed by Dempsey that the sheriff had given him a reprieve and allowed more time to pay. The eviction was averted that day, but the gathering was not in vain. Charles Stewart Parnell, a Home Rule League parliamentarian and newly elected leader of the National Land League, addressed the crowd. Amongst those in the vicinity of the leaders were John Barrett and his brother Terence.
So District Inspector Pepper knew there might be trouble if John Barrett was involved. Tom Brennan, too, was very active in the Land League. His family had been evicted when he was twelve years old. And he never forgot it.
Eviction of an Irish family during the Land War 
The answer to Pepper, when he queried the two men, was that they were measuring out the foundations for a cottage. The measurements were being made across two properties, that of Lord Kilmaine and that of Lady Dunville. Tom Brennan informed the district inspector that he “expected to have his supper there on Christmas Night.” As that was only a few days away, Pepper dismissed the idea as absurd. Thinking he had plenty of time before too much harm could be done, he and the constables turned on their heels and marched back to Castlebar, so that he could consult the regulations on the legality of building on the border of two estates. This was a ploy by the builders, of course, to forestall any later eviction attempt. No sooner had Pepper left than the plan was implemented. Men came from everywhere, carrying their picks, shovels and trowels, intent on building a house for their friend Tom Brennan and his new bride. According to Tom, “not a stone was quarried, not a shovelful of land lifted, nor a sheaf of corn threshed for the thatching of it on the previous day.” By the end of the day the cottage was built and whitewashed.
The Land League Cottage in recent years 
The men were provided with food during the day by the ladies of the area, probably some who became members of the Ladies Land League the following year. A ladies league had been formed in America by Fanny Parnell, sister of Charles Stewart Parnell. Michael Davitt, founder and honorary secretary of the Irish National Land League, persuaded another sister, Anna Parnell, to form a Ladies League in Ireland, which she did in early 1881. Later that year, when the male leaders of the National Land League, including Parnell and Davitt were imprisoned for ‘sabotaging the Land Act,’ the Ladies Land League came to the fore in Ireland. They carried on the work of the men’s organisation, which had been outlawed by the British Parliament.
The Ladies Land League provided financial support for the evicted tenant farmers. As well, they were responsible for organising the building of many ‘land league houses’ for those evicted. The houses were often built on public land, verges, or sympathetic neighbours’ properties. In later years, Michael Davitt and his American wife were presented with a Land League Cottage in Ballybrack, County Dublin by his grateful supporters.
Tom lived in his land league house until his death in 1925 and then his married daughter until her death in 1946. The Land League Cottage, half a mile from the property in Lisnolan where the Barretts lived in the 1800s and early 1900s, still stands today, a tribute to the cause of the Irish tenant farmer.
1. “The Land Agitation,” Nation 1842-1897, Saturday, 29 November, 1879; Page: 2 [back]
2. This image is licensed under Creative Commons [back]
3. Mitchel O’Grady. “An Historic Cottage” Irish Independent June 15, 1912, Page 3 [back]
4. Image from Google Maps, retrieved 19 February, 2015. [back]
Brian Hoban. “The Land League Cottage.” History of Balla Co. Mayo, in the West of Ireland. http://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/towns-villages/balla/balla-history-land-league-cottage.html.
Movements for Political & Social Reform, 1870–1914. Retrieved from http://multitext.ucc.ie/d/Michael_Davitt
National Folklore Collection – The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0095, Page 246 – The Land League Cottage. Retrieved from http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427834/4348606/4435935
P J Kenny. “The History of Balla.” in Western People, 30 January, 1909, page 5.