'The county of Mayo had suffered more from the manifold evils of the landlord system than any ot
I travel the road between Irishtown, Co. Mayo and Milltown, Co. Galway regularly. On the roadside, just outside Irishtown village a plaque marks the site of a tenant rights meeting held on 20th April 1879 and declares the area the ‘cradle’ of the Land League. I often wonder what it was about this place that led it to become the heartbeat of a national land movement.
Irishtown village is a small place, occupying the townland of Ballinvilla in the Roman Catholic Parish of Kilvine. In 1641 Lord Bermingham owned the land and by 1670 Martin Kirrowan took over the lands as part of the area assigned to transplanted Catholics after the Cromwellian land settlement. The nearest big town is Claremorris and in 1837 Samuel Lewis described the place as an area principally under tillage and containing a large quantity of bog and waste land.
The actual site of that well-known tenant meeting was in the nearby townland of Quinaltagh located between Irishtown and Garrafraunns. The 1829-41 Ordnance Survey 6 Inch map shows that all the townland's homes were located along one small road that dissected the townland, probably reclaimed from the surrounding rocky, marshy bog land.
The area was particularly hard hit by the famine of 1847. Absentee landlords were not present to appreciate and react to the difficulties of their tenants and one commentator remarks that this caused the breakdown in landlord tenant relations. Small parcels of poor land could not sustain growing families and they could not pay the extortionate rack rents. The townland contained an area of 721 acres at the time of Griffith’s Valuation in 1855 and Richard Kirwan was recorded as the landlord. The area contained 210 acres of bog and 27 acres of rocky ground. Part of the townland was known as ‘Loughcull’ or Leath Choill meaning ‘half wood’.
In 1857 the Kirwan lands at Quinaltagh were sold to Walter Joseph Bourke. Michael Davitt referred to the sale and remarked that:
The new landlord doubled the old rent immediately on the twenty-two tenants of the property, and in addition fined each a half-year's rental with the alternative of eviction. Some of the land was of poor quality, and the increased rents could only be paid by the smaller tenants out of remittances from relatives in America.
Walter Bourke died in 1873 and his estate passed to his son, Joseph who lived in the UK, while his brother, Cannon Geoffrey Bourke acted as the executor of the will. Cannon Bourke was parish priest of Kilvine. Davitt suggested that the tenants come together and protest conditions and demand a free rent, fixity of tenure and free sale. Varying accounts exist citing the numbers who attended the protest in Irishtown but they record between seven thousand and thirteen thousand men mobilised to attend the meeting. Many came from Mayo as well as Roscommon and Galway as Irishtown is located at or close to the meeting point of these places.
The Land League was fully formed on 26th October 1878. So, at Quinaltagh the beginnings of the Land League emerged from the ashes of a poor, lost, starving and dispossessed population.