As a student in U.C.G., as it was then, we often had a break in lectures between ten and twelve in the morning. Often the money was tight and we could not even afford the paltry cup of coffee our salubrious Coffee Shop offered us for six pennies and so to kill the time and ignore the study, we would often repair across the Salmon Weir bridge and sit in the Public Gallery of the Courthouse and listen to the cases before the judge. It was a more educational interlude than we had anticipated. Personally, I could never understand how, in so many cases, Land could unleash such passion and hate among erstwhile close friends and neighbors. There was one particular case where a dispute over a pathway had led to a family dispute over two generations of such enormity that it split the community in two. When the judge finally made what seemed to be a reasonable judgement, it was obvious that fuel had only been added to the fire and that the dispute was far from settled.
In fact, I soon came to realise that Land played a central role in Irish history but that for some reason or other, Historians seemed to play down its importance. Michael Davitt, one of the great figures of modern Irish history barely gets a mention. Yet, a savage murder committed in Lough Nafooey in 1882 over land resulted in a public hanging in Galway city, two parliamentary enquiries, which eroded confidence in Gladstone's government, and inspired the only political article that James Joyce ever wrote. Yet, with one exception, the only reference ever made to the Maamtrasna Murders was folkloric until Jarlath Waldron's ground breaking study in the early nineties, "Maamtrasna: The Murders and the Mystery".
Again, it does seem somewhat strange that, as far as the History of Ireland is concerned the main input of the West of Ireland is negative, non-existent and confined to footnotes. There are times when one could justifiably wonder did Connaught exist at all or was it merely a figment of Cromwell's imagination?
In the last fifteen years or so, however, the focus of historians seems to have shifted somewhat and books have been published that have focused on the events of the nineteenth and twentieth century as they have impacted on such counties as Cork and Clare, but the perspective has remained the political struggle between England and Ireland and the role played by the national leaders therein. Outside of Liam Swords's magnificent three volume study of the Diocese of Achonry, "A Dominant Church: The Diocese of Achonry 1818-1960", and John Cunningham's more recent study of Galway in the nineteenth century, "A Town Tormented by the Sea: Galway, 1790-1914" there has been little that tells us of the life, history and culture of the people who lived west of the Shannon.
Fergus Campbell's new, comprehensive and exciting study "Land and Revolution Nationalist Politics in the West of Ireland 1891-1921" goes a long way to fill the gap and perhaps also offers an explanation for the paucity of reference to the west up to now. The author manages to successfully negotiate a myriad of sources to bring us a clear picture of what exactly happed in Galway over those thirty crucial years and fully explains why in terms of the general histories of the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, Galway remains only a footnote while, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Taking as his starting point the Founding of the United Irish League in Westport by William O'Brien, Campbell succinctly explains the social conditions of the vast majority of the population living in Connaught at that time and the constant battle for survival. In order to avoid constant starvation and the emigrant ship, they needed fixity of tenure and the book describes how over the next thirty years the landless tenants managed to get some grip on the land.
What becomes amazingly clear as you read the book is that the struggle in the West of Ireland was not necessarily an Irish/English conflict but more often than not one between an Irish Catholic Landlord and his Irish Catholic tenant and that, often, this struggle was frowned upon by the Nationalist powers-that-be in Dublin. What is quite extraordinary is the constant fluctuation of policy from Dublin and how, for the most part, the Galway protagonists totally ignored them. There are some wonderful passages where the author successfully guides us through the local nuances and we watch how legislation in London affects people on the ground in Craughwell and Loughrea and their quality of life. It is also clear why the struggle in the West of Ireland was different from the rest of the country in that the independence sought for in Galway was the right to own land, while the rest of the country sought political sovereignty.
This book not only clarifies a crucial period in the history of County Galway but also illustrates the point that the needs and aspirations of the people of the West of Ireland did not always match those of the rest of the country. It brings wonderful insight into the cut and thrust of rural politics at local level and is an invaluable source for the social and cultural historian.