It is common practice for History to be misused by politicians. For the most part, those of us who respect History, grin and bear it. But there are times when History is so abused, it is a form of Blasphemy.
All this week, I have heard the name of the Land League taken in vain.
For the benefit of non-Irish readers, the Land League played a large part in the history of Ireland in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The man most associated with it (Michael Davitt) is a National Hero.
The nineteent century was eventful. Beginning with the Act of Union (making Ireland a part of the United Kingdom), thru Catholic Emancipation ((1829), thru the O’Connell Repeal Movement and Famine Years (1840s), thru the Young Ireland nationalist movement and later Fenians (1867), thru mass education (thank you England…we ARE grateful), thru increased franchise, thru Parnellite parliamentary action (1880s), thru railways, thru cultural movements like the Gaelic Athletic Association (1884) and the Gaelic (Language) League to the point at 1900 where there was a strong nationalist and republican movement. The Land League was about agrarian reform.
From the English conquest of Ireland, the ownership of Irish land was in the hands of the descendents of the Victors. Land was rented out to Irish (usually Catholic) peasants, who as the Great Famine had shown, lived a precarious life. One million died of hunger and disease. Another million migrated. Peasants agitated for three key reforms…fair rents, fixed tenure and the right to own land. The Establishment resisted and the Land League was set up to protect the peasants. While occasionally violent with people on both sides of the dispute losing their lives, the chief weapon was Resistance and Community Support. Perhaps the best remembered tactic was “boycott”. The word “boycott” originates with Captain Boycott, a notorious estate manager in County Mayo.The Land League eventually brought about change. But a group calling itself the “New Land League” is polluting a history that is honourable.
Ireland is much changed from Land League years. Indeed a century after the Land League was at its most active, Ireland was going thru a presumed Golden Age of economic prosperity…the so-called Celtic Tiger years. It was of course all crap. It was a property boom, all based on paper. The bubble burst and the country went bankrupt. The European banks moved in, depriving Ireland of financial and political sovreignty. It was a shaming and shameful experience. Individuals borrowed beyond their ability to repay. House prices plummeted. Individuals and families suffered and continue to do so. Many live with the threat of house repossession.
The political consequences of the Banks ruthlessly going after defaulters would be immense. Arguably the Banks are holding back, in part because the Taxpayer bailed them out in 2009 and in part because a glut of re-possessed houses would be bad for the market. Its a delicate balancing act…getting back the money that Banks/Taxpayer are owed, protecting individuals in distress and dealing with the so-called moral hazard of forgiving debt.
People are suffering. As part of austerity measures, there will be charges for using water. Protests have turned ugly in some working class areas of North Dublin.
And typically in small town Ireland, a couple who bought a house for €200,000 with a €150,000 mortgage just ten years ago might find that their house is worth €120,000 in 2015. Negative Equity and of course one of the happy couple might now be unemployed. They suffer too.
But at the top of the scale, people who…aided and abetted by criminally negligent banks have not suffered. Faced with bankruptcy, they proclaim that they are resident soomewhere that is advantageous…Britain or the United States. The paper trail of their assets across the world is a problem for forensic accountants to untangle. Their assets are out of reach of the creditors…owned by a wife or owned by children. Or the debtor is simply a tenant of a company that is run by members of his family.
It is hard to feel sorry for the Speculators. The Greedy.
Which brings me to Killiney in South Dublin. Ireland’s Beverley Hills and the case of Brian O’Donnell a lawyer, and his wife Dr Mary Patricia O’Donnell. Typical upper middle class couple who lived the Celtic Tiger dream. They bought property on borrowed money and as the value of the portfolio rose, they borrowed more, bought more…..they bought a building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC and in Westminster.
As my Auntie Sheila always said “Smart people are stupid people” and the O’Donnells seem very stupid or very greedy. They owe a staggering €700 million.
And there is that house in Killiney. Cliff top views of Dublin Bay, tennis court, swimming pool….and Bono, The Edge and Van Morrison as neighbours. The Bank want the housThe Bank has been granted the house. The O’Donnells wont leave. I think their constant court appearances to overturn rulings relates to that they claim they dont actually own the €7 million mansion.
Rather strange people calling themselves The New Land League have appeared, protecting the erstwhile millionaires mansion in the same way that Davitts Land League would have stood vigil over Brian and Mary’s rented hovel in County Mayo in 1880.
The sense of Entitlement that the O’Donnells and their supporters have….the decisions of the courts dont apply to them is in some way balanced by the sense of outrage that an reconstructed working class warrior like myself feels. There can be no law for the rich and another law for the poor. The rich ARE entitled to Justice. And to Dignity. They dont need people rejoicing in their misfortune.
No doubt their advisors will suggest by-passing the Four Courts and going directly to the only Court that seems to matter. The Court of Public Opinion. Brian and Dr Mary Pat might well go on the Late Late Show and tearfully explain that they only want to give their (adult) children a home…and a tennis court ….and a swimming pool. But Ryan Tubridy or Marion Finnucane would be best advised not to be overly sympathetic. To most people this looks like a straightforward case of “Fur Coat, No Knickers”.
The bottom line is that due to the negligance of Banks, politicians, courts, European and Irish regulators, a lot of Irish citizens have had to amend their aspirations…and the aspirations of their children. The 21st century O’Donnells of Killiney will not be left starving at the roadside like evicted tenants like the O’Donnells in 19th century Mayo. They gambled. They lost.
But I think of another business man, Sean Quinn. A speculator certainly…another burst bubble. And a byzantine property portfolio and a lack of candour about where assets are. He and some family members havebeen in jail for contempt of court. They are denying the Banks, the pound of flesh. But while the chattering classes in Dublin 4 and the bloggerati on Slugger O’Toole have a lot of vitriol for Sean Quinn, they dont seem to have the same vitriol for the O’Donnells.
Certainly Dublin 4 would identify with the property speculating O’Donnells. And its unlikely that anyone on Slugger would identify with a “culchie” like Sean Quinn. Yet a lot of people in County Fermanagh and County Cavan seem to identify with him. Why is that? Well…I suspect that in the case of the O’Donnells it was ALL about property. In the case of the Quinns, he had actually made a fortune first….and brought employment to County Fermanagh and County Cavan.
In that sense the mass protests we saw to support the Quinns were much closer to Land League legacy than the men who have hi-jacked and blasphemed the Land League in Killiney.