The Irish National Land League was established in late 1879 with the republican and Fenian Michael Davitt as the prominent founder, and Charles Stewart Parnell, a radical, but parliamentary-oriented, aristocratic MP, as its President. The principal purposes were the reduction of rents, and the facilitation of land-ownership for tenant farmers. The founders quickly realized that a primary source of funding would be the emigrant Irish populations of the US. Both Parnell and Michael Davitt made fundraising trips in early 1880. An American branch of the League was established (the ) but a primary source of support was the Irish World newspaper, under the editorship of Patrick Ford, which successfully collected money and also established a Spread the Light Fund for the dissemination of the paper in Ireland.
The divisions within the Land League movement – between the moderate supporters of Parnell and the radical devotees of Davitt and the Irish World – were never far from the surface but the initial excitement and enthusiasm in 1880, at least in the public and media representations of the movement, did not make it obvious. For a while, the Catholic church, the Tammany Hall machine, and the Irish-American middle class rallied behind the Land League, seeing the constitutional and parliamentary nationalism of Parnell as acceptable. Those attracted by Michael Davitt’s more radical agenda and style would have looked instead to the Irish World, as well as sending money to them.
However, in reality, the mainstream Land League was tightly controlled by an alliance of nationalists and moderate, respectable representatives of the middle class, who were always united. They were also suspicious of, if not antagonistic towards what often seemed like communistic thinking in the Irish World, which saw the problem of land as important to international labor, and not just Ireland. One of their leaders, John Devoy, condemning Patrick Ford’s ‘humanitarian cant’ claimed, not without accuracy, that his followers were ‘men who want to use Ireland as a means of working out a social revolution in other countries’ and employ ‘the Land League in America for American purposes’.
However, Ford’s ability to promote the cause, and more importantly raise money, meant that it was difficult to dispense with him. Similarly, it was hard to ignore the support levered for the Irish cause through the commitment of other labor organizations, notably the Knights of Labor, to Davitt. Terence Powderly, elected to the Order’s office of Grand Master Workman the previous year but, given the ongoing secrecy of the Knights, better known as the Greenback Mayor of Scranton, argued that ‘an end to land monopoly was far more important than a reduction of hours or an increase in wages’. As the Irish World observed, Powderly represented ‘the joining of the Land League and American labor forces’.
Other allies were able to link the Irish cause to a more general labor radicalism. The economist (and for a short time the Irish correspondent of the Irish Times) Henry George, argued that ‘The land question and the labor question’ were ‘but different names for the same thing’.
As the Land league movement developed during the summer of 1880, it became increasingly evident that, neither in Ireland nor America, did the American Land League leadership follow policies acceptable to Ford and the radical groups supporting him and his paper, and that Parnell was steering the movement on a much more moderate course than the Irish World desired.
The large sums of money kept moving but as Parnell and Davitt themselves parted company through 1882, the American strands did as well and Ford declared in late 1882 that he was discontinuing his paper’s support for the movement.