Michael Davitt, Fr. McFadden & Land Reform

Michael Davitt, Fr. McFadden & Land Reform

Rev. John Kinnear, the popular Letterkenny Presbyterian minister, was elected as a Liberal MP for Donegal in 1880 in a bid to improve the rights of tenants in Donegal and indeed throughout the whole country. However, he was soon to discover the fickle nature of politics. Nine months following his election, on January 19th 1881, amidst heavy snow and biting cold winds, a monster meeting for the Irish National Land League was held at the Market Square at which ten thousand people were present. It was at this huge event that the founder of the Land League, Michael Davitt, openly attacked Kinnear’s position in government. Rev. Kinnear had recently voted against Charles Stewart Parnell at Westminster and for doing so, was verbally attacked by several speakers at this meeting with groans being reported from the crowd whenever his name was mentioned. Davitt told the crowd:

I am sorry to find your representative, elected by the tenant farmers at the last election, has gone against the people of Ireland in the present emergency, and has given his vote in favour of coercion and of the Whigs, who are trying to rule Ireland by police and dragoons and flying columns. I am very reluctant to talk about this, as your representative is a minister of religion, and I shall never stand on any platform in which a single offensive word is said against a minister of any religion, Catholic or Protestant. (Cheers.) But as he is one of your representatives, elected by you, and fails to carry out your views, I hold you are perfectly justified in claiming an account of his conduct, and that he place in your hands the trust you gave him at the last election.”

With attacks such as these, it is no surprise that Dr. Kinnear did not seek re-election in 1885. Disillusioned at the increasingly Nationalist aspect within Irish politics, he concentrated instead on the religious needs of his parishioners.

By 1888, a new strategy for land reform was under way in County Donegal with Fr. James McFadden of Gweedore and Fr. Daniel Stephens of Cloughaneely to the forefront of the Plan of Campaign. The idea of the plan with its ‘No Rent Manifesto’ was to cause so much cost to a landlord in evicting a tenant that it would be better for the landlord to reduce the rent for the tenant instead. Both priests were arrested by the authorities for their involvement in the plan on the Ards estate and sentenced to three months imprisonment at Dunfanaghy in January 1888. In April of that same year, their appeal was heard at Letterkenny Courthouse where a large reception of townspeople was awaiting them. Heavy police and military force patrolled the streets to keep order amongst the thousands of people from the district that had arrived in the town from early morning. At the hearing, John Dillon M.P. sat with his old school friend and newly appointed Bishop of Raphoe, Dr. Patrick O’Donnell, to hear their sentence of six months imprisonment in Derry jail.

On their return to the town in October, both priests were hailed enthusiastically by almost three thousand people who met them at the train station and, unhooking their horse from their wagonette, many townspeople carried them triumphantly to the Market Square through the flags, banners and arches that decorated their route. Fr. McFadden, now dubbed ‘The Patriot Priest of Gweedore’, addressed the large meeting at the Square:

I have had on many occasions abundant proof of the patriotism of the good people of Letterkenny and the surrounding parishes, and their eternal hatred of the wicked class laws that misgovern the country. But I may safely say that no demonstration in the past has approached either in numbers or in enthusiasm the vast multitude gathered in from every point of the compass, which I see before me here today. (Cheers)”

The land question in Donegal and Ireland was eventually defused by a series of Land Acts, which culminated in the 1903 Wyndham Land Purchase Act.