( An account of the inaugural meeting of the Knights of the Plough, held in Narraghmore, Co. Kildare on Sunday 19 June 1892. The report is from the Leinster Leader, Saturday 25 June 1892, p.7. The reference to the meeting was sourced from Fintan Lane, ‘ Benjamin Pelin, the Knights of the Plough and Social Radicalism, 1852–1934’ in Brian Casey (ed), Defying the Law of the Land: Agrarian Radicals in Irish History. History Press Ireland, 2013.)
THE LAND AND LABOUR QUESTIONS. INTERESTING ADDRESS OF MR BENJAMIN PELIN, AT NARRAGHMORE
“A meeting to form a society in the interests of the labourers and working farmers was held at Narraghmore, on Sunday evening last, and was largely attended by farmers and labourers of every shade of political opinion. The meeting originated in a requisition extensively signed being presented to Mr Benjamin Pelin, Ballindrum, who immediately called the meeting by printed posters.
Amongst those present were – Messrs P. Byrne, B. Pelin, T. Hickey, J. Doyle, E. Dempsey, Martin Heffernan, T. Ryan, J. Casey, T. Brien, J. Dempsey, T. Murphy, N. Maher, D. Brennan, W. Hickey, J. M’Donald, M. Cassidy, P. Connor, P. Nolan, P. Morrin, M. Travers, J. Rooney, P. Kenny, J. Halleron, E. Doyle, P. Nolan, M. Hickey, P. Wall, D. Nolan, T. Lawlor, P. Halleron, T. Moore, P. Kelly, P. Maher, M. M’Donald, N. Murphy, H. Mulhall, P. Behan, P. Moran, M. Coogan, James Kelly, &c, &c.
On the motion of Mr T. Murphy, seconded by Mr. Wm Hickey, Mr Patrick Byrne was moved to the chair.
The Chairman thanked the meeting for calling upon him to take the chair. He said it was not usual to ask a labouring man to preside at a meeting like the present, composed, as it was, of working farmers, labourers, and artisans, but still it was a sign they were all on the side of the working man. He said in one sense perhaps he was well suited for the position of chairman of this meeting, called to consider the grievances of those who tail and spin; for during the past 45 years he had been working as hard as he was able, and be would now tell them the position he had realised after those weary years of toil.
He had a wife and seven children; wages, 9s per week. He had to send away one of his children because employment was scarce in the neighbourhood, and now at the turn of life if he happened to be laid up with sickness for three or four weeks, unless he got assistance from neighbours, his little home would be broken up; his family, which should be his support in his old age, would be a drag upon him, as profitable employment cannot be found for them. Chairman continued to say that within one hundred perches of his own door lay land – rich, fertile soil, and as long as he could remember it had been a walk for sheep and bullocks; and if he and his family had the privilege of cultivating this soil for their own benefit he would not have to send away his son for want of employment, nor would his family be a drag upon him, but, instead, a source of wealth, and surely it could not be God’s law which keeps him or any man like him off this rich soil in order to make room for bullocks and sheep (applause). He would now call upon Mr Pelin, who would explain the objects of the meeting.
Mr Pelin, who was warmly received said:
This meeting has been called at the request of a large number of farmers and labourers to inquire into the cause of the poverty of the working farmers, and the low wages, uncertain employment, and bad houses of the landless labourers. At first sight it seems easy enough to give an answer to the inquiry, but when you make the experiment of questioning a half a dozen farmers and half a dozen labourers you will find that these dozen men will give you ten reasons all quite different as to the cause of the bad times.
Ask a farmer with twenty acres of poor land, trying to support a wife and large young family, and he will tell you if he got a reduction in his rent and security of tenure all would be well. Ask a large farmer, and he will tell you what tbe country wants is a Land Purchase Act that will enable the farmers to become the owners of their farms. A labourer in Narraghmore will tell you that a cottage and half an acre of ground, or since Dr Tanner came to the front with his spoon, a whole acre is what the poor man wants. A worker by the sea coast will advocate the building of harbours to enable him to catch herrings, and the toiler in the neighbourhood of a coal mine would wish to see the minerals of the country worked.
Thus you see each man forms his own opinions on the subject from his immediate surroundings. All are a little in the right, but considerably wrong. There have been three men whose writings show they stood above all the narrow views on this important question: Dean Swift, Arthur Young, and Sir Robert Kane.
Dean Swift, who wrote about the beginning of the 18th century, when the population was something under three millions: “ That the sheep, although the gentlest animal in existence was devouring the people of Ireland.”
The meaning is that the landlords and graziers, finding mutton profitable, were clearing out the people to make way for the sheep. They were squaring their farms, and the landlords and graziers and capitalists and all the superior classes advocated emigration as the cure.
The people might go to the bush of Australia, the backwoods of Canada, the prairie of America,Terra-del-Fuego, or to… but out they should go, as mutton was more profitable than the people. So that people who complain of the landlords evicting the people at the present are most unreasonable, considering that the landlords allow nearly five millions more human beings to remain on the island. The people should be continually on their marrowbones to thank them for their goodness. Gratitude must be fled from this island.
Arthur Young visited this country about the year 1780, and he declared that in no country could the cultivation of the soil be carried on more successfully.
Sir Robert Kane, in the year 1844, made an elaborate examination of the soil, mines, minerals, etc, etc, and as a result he published a work called “ The Industrial Resources of Ireland.” In this valuable work it is shown that as a manufacturing country (on a large scale) Ireland can never achieve much success, as she does not possess coal of a suitable character, and coal is the foundation of successful factories. As to the other mines, a company was formed more than fifty years ago to work the mines of all description, and a short time since this company had to cease work for want of profit.
But the best proof on the subject is [that] since 1782, we have had perfect liberty, and as capitalists are animals who have no country, their money would be invested in the mines and factories of the country if one per cent more could be obtained [here] than elsewhere. ls not the sale of Guinness’ s porter factory a proof positive, when Irishmen complained they were not allowed to invest their capital for Englishmen got the preference. So that when certain wandering politicians tell us when certain changes take place the mines of Ireland will be worked, factories started, the people all employed, and all will go “merry as a marriage bell,” these individuals only show by this kind of talk they do not understand what they are [speaking] about.
But the sheet anchor of the politicians of tbe year of Our Lord, 1892, is Land Purchase.They may be weak on other subjects, but they are all-powerful on this, and they maintain, with an energy which admits of no discussion, that as soon as the graziers and farmer get the land as their own private property, by paying for forty-nine years a sum much less than they now pay their landlords, then the farmers will be prosperous, then they will pay the labourers much better wages, so that poverty will disappear, the poor-houses will disappear, emigration will cease, and Ireland will become a second edition of the Garden of Eden.
Now, let us come down from the giddy heights to which these feather-pated gentlemen have raised us, and enter the house of a fifty acre farmer in this parish, for what land purchase will do there it will do all over the country.
Now, let us suppose this farmer has his farm at a moderate rent, say £35 per year, and after purchase his annual payment for forty-nine years will be £17 10s, and afterwards he will hold his fifty acres free. I do not believe any farmer hopes to get more favourable time.
According to the views held by present political leaders, the man not alone will, but must, increase the pay of his labourers, lighten their toil, and improve their conditions; in fact the labourers are set at the farmer’s throat if they do not do so.
Let us examine his power to make all these changes. A wife, four children, and three labourers make up his household. This is a thorough honest patriot, and he is determing at any cost to carry out the programme. The only difference in his position for four years to come will be a saving of £17 10s a year in his rent, and this he proceeds to divide, share and share alike, between himself, wife, four children, and three labourers, in all nine human individuals, which gives to each about £2 per annum, or 1½ d per day.
Now this is the extreme of the improvement which can be effected in the position of the labourer and working farmer under any conceivable scheme of land purchase, and not one farmer in one thousand will get this, nor one labourer in ten thousand.
Turn now to the change that will be brought about by a tax of £1 per acre on the uncultivated land. At present 12,000,000 acres of the soil of Ireland is let at 17s 4d per acre. A direct tax on land will not increase the value of land, therefore the 12,000,000 acres will be at once given up, and as this land is in every province, county, parish and townland in Ireland, every working farmer and labourer will find at his door the means of employment – idle land and his social condition will be exactly the measure of his industry, intelligence and economy; there will be no unfair advantage; if a man don’t wish to work for another he can work for himself.
The amount produced by the rich land which will remain in grass, about £8,000,000, will be sufficient to meet all Government expenses and procure a pension of £25 per year for all labourers over 65 years of age, and as the young will be employed and the aged pensioners, there will be no necessity for poorhouses, almshouses, or the other evidences of poverty which come as a natural consequence of handing the land over as private property to individuals; for, as Henry George truly observes, “private property in land drives cultivation to the poorest soils and wages to the starvation point.” So taxing the uncultivated land will send cultivation to the richest soil and wages to the highest point.
I trust I have made out a case for founding “The Knights of the Plough Union.’’ Every additional plough set going in this parish means permanent employment for three more men; every additional man required means an addition to the wages of the toiler, and as the competition for labour increases the social condition of the people must improve (loud applause).
At the conclusion of Mr Pelin’s speech the following resolution was unanimously adopted: “That our society be named the “Knights of the Plough,” and that Mr B. Pelin, Mr John Shannon, and Mr M. M’Donald be president, treasurer, and honorary secretary respectively.”
The following were unanimously adopted:
- That we, the working farmers, labourers, and artizans of Narraghmore parish form an organization to reduce our rents, to compel the rich lands of the parish to be cultivated, to increase the wages of the labourer, and provide a pension for all labourers over 65 years of age.
- That all workers are eligible for membership.
- For all members who are in a position to contribute, the sum of three pence is sufficient as an enrollment fee.
The principal objects are:
- To gain possession of the fifteen million acres of rich lands of Ireland robbed from the toilers by the landlords and graziers and given over to bullocks and sheep whilst the people are driven to the roadside, the city slums, the emigrant ship and the poorhouses
A considerable number of members were enrolled, after which the chairman adjourned the meeting to the second Sunday in July.”
Leinster Leader, Saturday 25 June 1892, p.7