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Social Origins of the Irish Land War

Social Origins of the Irish Land War

by Samuel Clark

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Arguing that social movements can be explained and understood only in a comparative historical perspective and not in terms of immediate social or political conditions, the author identifies the causes of the Land War in the evolution of social structure and collective action in the Irish countryside over the course of the nineteenth century.

Originally published


Arguing that social movements can be explained and understood only in a comparative historical perspective and not in terms of immediate social or political conditions, the author identifies the causes of the Land War in the evolution of social structure and collective action in the Irish countryside over the course of the nineteenth century.

Originally published in 1979.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Social Origins of the Irish Land War

By Samuel Clark


Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-10068-5



When the Irish talk about the "Land War," they have in mind either three phases of anti-landlord agitation in the late nineteenth century, or, more narrowly, the first of these phases, which lasted from 1879 until 1882. In this book, the term refers to this first phase. The movement emerged during a severe agricultural depression caused by crop failures and a sluggish market for farm produce. Economic conditions for farmers took a serious downturn in 1877, recovered partially in 1878, but deteriorated again in 1879. Unrest began on a small scale in late 1878, grew slowly during the early months of 1879, and then accelerated in the spring of 1879 when a series of public meetings were held in the western province of Connaught. With the help of nationalist politicians, a "Land League" was formed in County Mayo in August 1879 and the "Irish National Land League" was founded in October.

The agitation remained strongest in western regions, but at times it raged in almost all parts of the country, with the notable exception of the northeast. Tenant farmers resisted evictions, refused to pay their normal rents, and demanded that parliament make extensive alterations to the laws governing ownership and occupation of agricultural land in Ireland. Literally hundreds of public meetings were held during the years 1879-81, and more than five hundred branches of the Land League were formed. There was also more rural violence than at any other time in the second half of the nineteenth century, the chief victims being landlords, land agents, bailiffs, process servers, and tenants who took land from which the previous occupant had been evicted. Most celebrated of all was the organized and systematic ostracism of enemies of the movement, which became known as "boycotting" because it first gained notoriety in autumn of 1880 when the English and Irish press gave extensive coverage to the ostracism of Captain Charles Boycott of Lough Mask, County Mayo. In an effort to combat the agitation, the government enacted a major land-reform measure in 1881, outlawed boycotts, restricted the possession of arms, interned close to a thousand agitators, and eventually, in October 1881, banned the Land League altogether.

In what follows, an attempt will be made to explain this movement. The inquiry will be guided by certain theoretical and methodological assumptions, which are best stated explicitly at the outset, since they have led me to ask questions and explore subjects that most sociologists would not consider when trying to explain a social movement. There are several assumptions, in particular, that are essential for the reader to recognize in order to follow the argument of the book.

First, I believe that rebellions such as the Land War are variants of a broader and more common category of social behavior known as "collective action." By collective action is meant the pursuit of a goal or set of goals by a number of persons. It can refer to a wide range of activities. A band of thieves robbing a bank, a team of neighbors trying to find a lost child, a crew of workers building a bridge, a group of citizens organizing a petition — all are examples of collective action. As the term will be used here, participation may be voluntary or involuntary, so long as people engage in activities that are directed toward the same goal or set of goals. Even a gang of slaves harvesting a crop, or a troop of prisoners repairing a wall, is collective action.

It is ubiquitous. Every day, people join in collective action of some sort as they behave in ways that serve the goals of collectivities to which they belong, from small family units to large formal organizations or even nation-states. Since it is impossible to conceive of a society in which no collective action occurs, a student of social behavior is never called upon to explain the existence, as opposed to the absence, of collective action. What invariably does require explanation, however, are the characteristics of the collective action occurring in a society at a given point in time. Why do certain combinations of individuals rather than other combinations join together? Why do they pursue certain goals rather than other goals? And why do they pursue these goals in certain ways rather than other ways?

Placing rebellious behavior in a category by itself has encouraged most researchers to bend their energies primarily toward explaining this rebelliousness, and to neglect many other, equally fundamental, characteristics of the collective action they are studying. As a result, they frequently fail to appreciate the immense variety that can be found in rebellious behavior. Often social scientists will plot rates of social unrest covering different countries or different periods of time, always assuming that they are measuring the same thing. It is easy, for example, to find studies tracing the effect of modernization on rates of social protest, which most often show (at least by the measures used) that it increases in the early stages of industrialization and declines thereafter. The approach I have taken has been greatly influenced by a school of writers who argue that the effect of modernization on the magnitude of protest has been much less important than the effect of modernization on its character. These writers claim that modernization has changed the character of rebellion because it has changed the character of collective action, of which rebellion is simply one kind.

The advantage of treating social unrest as a variety of collective action is that one is led to compare the specific unrest one is studying with other cases of collective action. In the present study, the question "Why did the Land War occur?" becomes "Why did collective action take the form of the Land War?" For purposes of comparison, one could analyze collective action in several other agricultural societies and seek to account for the differences between these other examples and the Land War. The alternative, which is adopted here, is to compare rural collective action within the same society at different points in time. Such a comparison will necessitate an investigation of the nature and social basis of collective action in Ireland both in the late nineteenth century and during some earlier period. The earlier period I have selected is the first half of the century, before the Great Famine of 1845-51. By studying rural collective action in this period as well as during the Land War, it will be possible to demonstrate how the character of collective action changed over the course of the nineteenth century.

The premise that rebellion is a variant of collective action leads directly to the second major theoretical assumption of this study: that in order to explain and understand protest or rebellion it is necessary to study social relationships. Rebellion is not an individual enterprise; one rebels with some people and against others. By definition, the basic condition for the occurrence of collective action is that a number of people are persuaded to engage in the pursuit of a goal or set of goals. Usually, though by no means always, they must be persuaded that the goal is desirable, but other kinds of inducements are generally necessary in order to get them to assume their share of the cost of a collective effort. These inducements may be coercive, as when people are threatened with punishment if they do not go along. They may involve material rewards, as is usually the case when the collective action is aimed at an economic goal. They may consist largely of social approval from others who consider the activity to be important. Or the inducements may consist merely of the personal self-satisfaction that people get from doing what they perceive as their duty.

The strength of inducements varies greatly from one individual to another. It is extremely difficult to make generalizations about the reasons for which people join in a specific instance of collective action. The assumption on which this study is based, however, is that most often these inducements are channeled through existing social relationships, that is, through the regular interactions in which people are already engaged. Consequently, the character of collective action is generally determined by the prevailing social relationships in a society. Ideas, values and other states of mind are important, but are mediated by social relationships. People acquire beliefs through existing social relationships, and, as a rule, they act upon them through such relationships. This may seem almost obvious in the case of day-to-day collective action, such as the activities in which one joins as the member of a family or of a formal organization. Only recently have we begun to realize that the same is true of social movements. It helps to stop and ask the simple question: Exactly how do most people become involved in a social movement? The answer one invariably obtains, if one pursues this question, is that most people join through the influence of a friend or acquaintance. Like any form of collective action, social movements — and even crowds — are most often built on pre-existing social relationships, and so are inevitably shaped by these connections. It follows that if we want to understand a social movement, we should carefully study the patterns of social relationships prevailing in the environment in which the movement occurs. Sociologists refer to these patterns as "social structure." When they talk about kinship structure, religious structure, class structure and so on, they are discussing some of the more salient patterns of social relationships in a society.

I can now briefly outline the kinds of questions that I shall be asking and that should always be asked, in my view, in any attempt to explain a social movement. I shall also indicate some of the basic concepts to be used in this study. One begins by identifying the major social structures in the society and investigating how these structures determined which particular combinations of individuals were likely to engage in collective action. There are really two types of questions here, both of which need answering: First, how did social structures combine people and make it likely that they would engage in collective action? Second, how did social structures divide people, and make it unlikely that they would engage in collective action and perhaps even bring some of them into opposition? In answering the first question, we identify what can be called integrating factors — conditions that pulled people together into social groups, whether or not collective action actually resulted. In answering the second question, we identify segmenting or cleavage factors — those tending to separate people and restrict interaction among them, or if not separated, to set them at odds. We should also examine how these factors intersected with one another. Did different lines of integration and cleavage reinforce one another or did they crosscut? Did class, for instance, divide the society in the same way as religion or language? Or did it cut in a different direction creating a more complex pattern of social divisions? It is the final topography carved out by the major forces of integration and cleavage in a society that we must be able to describe in order to understand the social basis of collective action.

When we are identifying integrating factors we can make a distinction between those based on communal structures and those based on associational structures. As I use the term, the defining characteristic of a communal structure is that it results from frequent social interaction. Almost invariably communal structures are strongest when they are small, local, and relatively homogeneous (for example, kinship, neighborhood, or tribal groups), though it is possible for communal structures to develop over a wide geographical area on the basis of indirect social interaction. Associational structures, on the other hand, result from common interests. They often consist of groups formed for specifically stated purposes — occupational, religious, political, civic, or economic organizations, including special interest associations. In any case, the relationships are utilitarian. Like communal structures, associational structures may be local or supra-local. Unlike communal structures, however, they can be just as strong when they are supra-local. The distinguishing and most significant feature of an associational structure is that it can bring together people with common interests who are spread over a wide geographical area.

These distinctions are, of course, theoretical. Most social relationships in the real world contain both communal and associational elements. Indeed, it is quite common for bonds of one type to emerge on the basis of relationships that were, to begin with, primarily of the other type. Nonetheless, there are differences in the degree to which structures are communal or associational, and these differences are important. By extension, one can make a parallel distinction among cleavage factors between those based on isolation and those based on opposition. The former result from the absence or infrequency of social interaction; the latter result from conflicts of interest. Again, in the real world, one often finds the two combined. But not always. People may interact frequently and yet have conflicting interests.

Once we have identified the major integrating and cleavage factors in a society, we can then ask how these factors shaped the character of collective action. What social groups were formed by the direction and the intersection of the lines of integration and cleavage we have identified? What active collectivities emerged from these social groups? Who belonged to these active collectivities? What were their goals? And by what methods did they try to achieve those goals? In the final analysis, the measure of the theoretical model is how well one succeeds in answering these questions.

This theoretical model can be placed in the context of the current sociological literature on social movements by briefly reviewing some of the major approaches to this subject developed over the past several decades. For this purpose, three distinct approaches can be identified.

COLLECTIVE BEHAVIOR This has been the dominant theoretical interpretation in American sociology and is best represented in the works of Herbert Blumer, Ralph Turner, L. M. Killian, and Neil Smelser. The term "collective behavior" involves an unfortunate choice of words, since it is not at all synonymous with collective action. At the heart of this approach lies the distinction between "non-institutionalized" and "institutionalized" (or "routine") behavior. Whether one accepts the validity of the collective-behavior perspective depends primarily on whether one accepts the validity of this distinction. People are engaging in collective behavior, according to this perspective, when they collectively depart from or oppose some aspect of the prevailing institutional structure, that is, some established value, norm, and/or leader that they formerly accepted, and when they search for or advocate some alternative value, norm, and/or leader in its place.

In this sense collective behavior is less institutionalized than routine behavior. True, it may eventually become "institutionalized" or "routinized," but then we would no longer call it collective behavior. What distinguishes crowds, crazes, social movements, and other forms of collective behavior from more ordinary social phenomena is that they are comparatively less institutionalized. Not surprisingly, many of those who have taken this line have assumed that a precondition for collective behavior is a disruption of established institutions or a weakening of the integration of people into established institutions. This assumption has often been made at the psychological level, in which case one talks about "alienation" or personal "maladjustment"; it has also been made at the societal level, in which case one talks about "anomie" or a decline in "social control." These "breakdown" arguments have explicitly and implicitly pervaded much of the sociological literature, especially sociological writings on collective behavior.

The argument has been made most forcefully, however, in the theory of mass society, particularly as it appears in William Kornhauser's The Politics of Mass Society. Kornhauser has argued that the rise of mass movements is restrained by the integration of people into social institutions, the most important of which are "intermediate" institutions, such as community groups, occupational associations, religious institutions, and political parties. Mass movements occur, Kornhauser claimed, in societies where people are isolated and not well connected to social institutions; and these movements attract persons "with the fewest social ties."


Excerpted from Social Origins of the Irish Land War by Samuel Clark. Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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