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The Irish Ladies Land League Was the First Ever Political Association of Irish Women

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L.M.Reid is an Irish writer who has published many history articles online and in magazines.

An Irish family that was evicted from their land in Donegal during the Irish Famine in 1848

An Irish family that was evicted from their land in Donegal during the Irish Famine in 1848

The Irish Land League

The population of Ireland was approximately 8 million in 1845. The majority of these Irish were poor farmers and laborer's. They relied mainly on the potato crop to feed themselves and other crops to pay the rent. So when the potatoes rotted in the ground in 1845 because of the potato blight their main food supply was gone. They had to sell any animals they had and other goods to buy food to survive.

The Potatoes Rotted in the Ground

In 1846 for the second year running the potato crop failed again. It was impossible to salvage any potatoes to eat because they were black and rotten through in the ground. There was not anything left to sell either because of the year before. Typhus and Dysentery were two diseases that attacked the Irish people then as well because they were too weak with starvation. These were collectively known as Famine Fever.

By 1847 there were not many seed potatoes to plant and many could not afford to buy them. It is estimated that there were at least 70,000 families evicted during those years, which meant over half a million people thrown out of their homes and land. They were left by the British landlords to starve in the ditches and fields of Ireland. Other crops were grown successfully during this time but these were shipped to Britain along with livestock under armed guard.

Over 1 million people died and an estimated 2 million emigrated.

In 1879 The Potato Crops Failed Again

In the West of Ireland about half of the potato crop failed in 1879. This was due to weeks of very wet weather and the poor land that the farmers were renting.

So yet again there were more Irish families evicted from their land and left to starve. In 1879 alone over 1,200 evictions had already taken place.

Charles Stewart Parnell was the President of the Irish National Land League. This had been set up in that year to help those who were under treat of being evicted. It was lobbying the British Government to get the evictions stopped. But the men of the Irish Land League were being imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail.

An Irish family is evicted from their home  in 1880 in Mayo in Ireland.

An Irish family is evicted from their home in 1880 in Mayo in Ireland.

Irish Ladies Land League

Charles Stewart Parnell knew he would soon be in prison too. His two sisters and other women of Ireland set up and ran the Irish Ladies Land League, This was to carry on the fight for the tenants and poor Irish families while the men were in prison.

At first the women were ridiculed by the Irish and British newspapers and the Catholic and Protestant priests. By their actions of practical help and good organisation they had proved themselves to be worthy of being allowed to take part in Irish Political issues.

Anna and Fanny Parnell

The first time in Irish history that women were allowed to do this. So Irish Ladies Land league headed and ran by Anna and Fanny Parnell became very successful, too much so for the men and especially Charles Stewart Parnell.

When Charles Stuart Parnell was released from prison and concessions won from the British Government he closed down the Ladies Land League. He treated his sisters in such a terrible way that Charles Stewart Parnell broke his sister's heart. Anna Parnell never spoke to her brother again.

A Wealthy Catholic Family

He was the eldest son of eleven children and inherited the family estate in Avondale when his father died. The remainder of the lands and properties went to the other sons. Anna and Fanny, two of the Parnell sisters in the family received a very small allowance which was at the discretion of the brothers. They were disgusted at the injustice of this.

Anna Parnell was a painter who had studied in Paris and England and Fanny Parnell was a poet. During the time of the mass evictions Anna and Fanny were in America publicizing the fight for Irish freedom from the English landlords. They had formed a Ladies Land League in New York. This was to organize funds for the starving people back home and to publicize the terrible conditions the Irish were living in.

Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Land League

Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Land League

Anna Parnell

Anna Parnell returned to Ireland at the end of 1880. The Irish Land League of Charles Stewart Parnell had been so successful in reducing the amount of evictions that it alarmed the British Government. In March 1881 the Protection of Persons and Property Bill was introduced.


It was obvious that the men of the Land League would soon be arrested. Anna and Michael Davitt discussed the idea of a Ladies Land League being set up in Ireland. It took a lot of persuading from Michael Davitt to get the leaders of the Irish Land League to agree to let the women take over the running of the Land League once the men were imprisoned.

Charles Stewart Parnell in Kilmainham Jail

Charles Stewart Parnell in Kilmainham Jail

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Women and Politics

Women could not possibly grasp the complexity of politics. This was the first time in Irish history that men had asked women to take over the running of a political organisation. The men had their own prejudices against the women. The belief in the 1880's in England and Ireland was that women could not possibly grasp the complexity of politics. But eventually the men agreed.

The men did not realise they would be in prison for eighteen months. Nearly one thousand men had been arrested with Charles Stewart Parnell being imprisoned himself in Kilmainham Jail on 13th October 1881. They set about organising the files but after too much resistance from the remainder of the men in the office they decided to create their own League.

Irish Ladies Land League

The Irish Ladies Land League was formed in January 1881 with Anna Parnell as its President. The women decided to open their own office down the hall. They opened branches all over Ireland. The women in the country towns had more resistance from the men but the organisation soon had thousands of members. This did not stop them being ridiculed by the press.

The papers would not accept that women could be equal to men and they could not understand how these women thought that they could run a political organisation. The Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, were even more hostile to the idea. They stated that the women had no right to be away from the home and their domestic duties. They were there to look after their husbands and children not to stand up and make speeches and protests.

Charles Stewart Parnell Cell

Charles Stewart Parnell Cell

Political Prisoners

But the press soon changed their mind when the women organised and ran the organisation even better than the men. They helped the people in practical ways when an eviction could not be stopped. They supplied clothes and food for the evicted families and built huts beside the land they were just thrown out of, this way they could have some form of shelter.

They also raised money to support the men in prison and their dependants. The men were treated very well as political prisoners in Kilmainham Jail. They could have their own food brought in and associate with one another. Charles Stewart Parnell had a very large cell which he was allowed to make comfortable by bringing in his own furniture and food. He could have as many visitors as he liked. The only thing he did not have was his freedom.

The Women Are Arrested

The Ladies Land League was made Illegal on 16 December 1881. As the women were getting on with the work outside the publicity in England and America about the conditions in Ireland was making the British Government very worried. More women joined the Irish Ladies Land League. Now it was the turn of the women to be arrested. By January 1882 the women were being imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail too.

They received sentences of between one and six months. Their crime was for having leaflets about the banned Ladies Land League, talking to people who were evicted and attending meetings. They were not given political status like the men and were treated like ordinary prisoners. They had to stay in the tiny damp cells and were only allowed to have prison food. They were not even allowed to talk to one another in the exercise yard. This treatment in prison did not deter the women in fact more and more women joined the movement.

Women's cells in Kilmainham Jail

Women's cells in Kilmainham Jail

The Men Took Control

The men took over again. Anna Parnell was heartbroken. They made it impossible for the women to continue to work alongside them. The money that the women had collected was now withheld from them. The women continued on by getting an overdraft from the bank but when this reached £5,000 the bank demanded payment. They assumed the men would now hand over the money that they had raised. But Parnell refused to pay the bank unless the women agreed to dissolve the Ladies Land League.

The women tried to continue with their work under very difficult conditions and held out for a few more months until September, but in the end they had to give in. Anna Parnell was heart broken that her brother had betrayed her. But he was not any different than most of the men of his time. In the late 1800’s women were believed to be too delicate for such things as political organisations.

It is not surprising when they had the likes of the philosopher Herbert Spencer writing that women should not be educated because ‘such brain forcing could lead to nervousness, anemia, hysteria, stunted growth and excessive thinness.’ And Charles Darwin wrote that ' the less evolved female brain was characteristic of the lower races and of a past and lower state of civilisation.'


Anna Parnell never spoke to her brother again. While all this was going on Anna Parnell had to deal with the sudden death of her sister Fanny, who died on 20th July of a heart attack. By this stage she was completely worn out and could not accept the betrayal of her own brother.

He had broken his sister's heart and she was never to forgive him. She never spoke to him again. If she met him by accident she would ignore him completely. On 6 October 1891, Charles Stewart Parnell died at Brighton. He was only forty-five years of age. Anna went to live in England and started painting again. She kept in touch with the political happenings in Ireland, but was never to live there again.

Anna Parnell drowned while swimming in the sea in September 1911.


  • Enigma A New Life of Charles Stewart Parnell. Paul Bew
  • Charles Stewart Parnell. Biography of the Uncrowned King of Ireland. F.S.L. Lyons
  • Captain Boycott. Philip Rooney. 1966.
  • Women of Ireland, A biographic Dictionary. Kit and Cyril O Ceirin. 1996
  • An Age of Change. The 19th Century. Ray Rivlin. School and College Publishing Ltd. 1982
  • Unmanageable Revolutionaries. Women and Irish Nationalism. Margaret Ward. 1983
  • Women in Ireland. A documentary History. 1800 - 1918. Maria Luddy. 1995
  • General Prisons Board Suffragette Papers ca. 1907 - 14. National Archives Dublin.
  • Suffragettes and votes for Women. L.E. Snellgrove. 1964
  • Women Power and Consciousness in 19th century Ireland. Mary Cullen & Maria Luddy.
  • Ireland Since The Famine. F S L Lyons. 1973
  • Ghosts of Kilmainham. Kilmainham Jail Restoration Society. 1991
  • The Insurrection in Dublin. James Stephens. 1966
  • Kilmainham. Kilmainham Jail Restoration Society. 1982
  • The History of Kilmainham Gaol. Government of Ireland 1995
  • The Great Hunger. Cecil Woodham Smith. 1981

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


L M Reid (author) from Ireland on May 13, 2020:

Hello Kate, yes over a million Irish people were forced to leave Ireland during these years. Otherwise they too would have starved to death in a country with plenty of food. The Irish people were kept away from the food by the British army as it was loaded at the docks on its way to Britain. I am delighted your ancestors managed to survive the journey to America.

Kate on March 23, 2020:

I’m American and of Irish descent. My ancestors came from County Mayo and Roscommon Ireland. I’ve heard of the abuse and mistreatment of my ancestors and the Irish as a whole while under English control. Very sad and I’m happy my ancestors were able to make a new home in America.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on February 07, 2020:

Thank you Chris, much appreciated

Chris Fogarty on February 06, 2020:

Bravo, Prof. Silbar, for posting an honest report of Ireland under British rule. The Internet is full of falsehood, denial, and evasion posing as academic rigor on this subject.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on January 19, 2020:

Hello Chris, thank you for the excellent extra information on this subject. It was a very dark era of our Irish history. It should never be forgotton.

Chris Fogarty on January 17, 2020:

Congratulations Ms. Reid, for your obviously honest articles.

A few decades ago while at the then Public Record Office in Kew researching the life of my grandfather Kieran Fogarty (1839-1923) I was shocked to find that the 40th Regiment of Foot that he joined in 1857 had, when he was small, removed the food crops from south Co. Galway.

Pursuing this line, I discovered that the starvation of Ireland had required more than half (67 regiments) of Britain’s 130-regiment Army

(in addition to 12,900 constables, 37 landlord-commanded militia regiments, revenue police, Castle police, and Coast Guard).

I subsequently discovered that England-born General Sir Edward Blakeney was the commander-in-chief of the sixty-seven regiments from the beginning to end of the food removal. Later I learned that as Blakeney and his troops neared the successful completion of their mission of genocide a grateful Queen Victoria conferred on Blakeney a prestigious Order of the Bath.

My book, “Ireland 1845-1850: the Perfect Holocaust, and Who Kept it ‘Perfect’” is available in the States, Australia, and Ireland.

For the past few decades November 3rd has been Irish Holocaust Commemoration Day. It was on that day in 1845 that Britain’s Viceroy in Ireland officially started two historic events; the Holocaust itself, and the “Irish Potato Famine” lie. It was due to the potato crop failure that Britain’s army were deployed into Ireland to remove Ireland’s other abundant food crops.

Ireland’s gov’t, academia, and news media are fiercely hostile to these facts and have organized groups to keep the “famine” lie alive.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on January 07, 2020:

Hello Joseph, thank you for your comment. I read over the article again and I agree with you about not stating clearly the sequence of events. I have rectified this now.

Joseph Emmet on January 04, 2020:

I find fault with your sequencing. You seem to imply the land wars and the formation of the land Leagues began were simultanious with An Gorta Mor, when in fact the potato crop failures of 1845-48 were 35 years prior to the land wars, Though conditions for the peasant class had not changed in the interim the inherintance laws and going way back to the Penal Laws were the largest factors for the land ownership conditions in Ireland of the 1870's.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on November 25, 2019:

Hello Eileen, Parnell was a forward thinker but I think he was jealous of their success. They could not believe it themselves really and had such a very bad faliing out. Herbert Spencer was not alone in his attitude to how women should be 'protected' from themselves.

Eileen O'Shea on November 12, 2019:

That was so sad to hear about Charles and his sisters having a falling out. Why did he treat his sisters like that after all the good work they did. That's a ridiculous statement by Herbert Spencer about women and their brains!!

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on October 19, 2019:

Hello Patrick, yes it was a shame that he broke his sister's heart like that but it how women were treated then.

Patrick James White on October 05, 2019:

If this old memorie serves me right think it was Fanny that wrote the Poem on An Gorta Mor by lonely Lough Shelling not to far from my Great-grandfathers White home in Co.Cavan.

My grandmother was called after Avonsdale Proud Eagle her father Thomas Martin was with Charles Steward Parnell in the Home Rule Hall Newry, the night she was B: Sarah Parnella Martin.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on March 27, 2010:

Yes Anna was a victim of the times really. She did meet her brother quite a few times at functions later but would always ignore him completely.

Thank you for your comment. I love writing about Irish history and it is great that so many people can read them here too.

Iðunn on March 27, 2010:

so much here. I had read of Parnell and the Land Leagues but never in such detail. I tend to relate best to personal factors for historical information... I need to have an emotional investment to remember details.

Your Hub brings these people to life wonderfully.

I applaud your respect for our women heroines. I can see Anna now, with her great compassion and with her love for equality and her bravery and I love finding her to be a painter, that creative element you find so often in political geniuses.

I am sad with you with her on the loss of her sister Fanny. I am sad for her that the times and thought at that time led to a situation in which she was so wounded by her brother. I am sad they never talked again.

Lovely work, thank you.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on March 27, 2010:

Thank you for reading and your comment, much appreciated

thevoice from carthage ill on March 27, 2010:

well hubbed long write good thanks

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on March 27, 2010:

Yes the British laws on women were unbelievable at the time too. Ireland was under British rule so it applied to Irish women too. I have a lot more on that subject which I will be writing in another Hub soon.

Thanks for your comment I appreciate it. Nice to know people are reading what we write lol

SALVAONEGIANNAOLCOM from south and west of canada,north of ohio on March 27, 2010:

A sad and enlightening story to say the least.I never heard or read the comments by Charles Darwin concerning his uneducated view of women.

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