The fortunes of every country, when one comes seriously to reflect on it, are to a great extent dependent on these two vital factors - Land and Labour. In a country so circumstanced as Ireland, practically bereft of industries and manufactures, land and labour - and more especially the labour which is put into land - are the foundation of its very being. They mean everything to it - whether its people be well or ill off, whether its trade is good, its towns prosperous, its national economy secure.

The history of Ireland, ever since the first Englishman set foot on it with the eye of conquest, centres to a more or less degree around the land. We know how the ancient clans tenaciously clung to their heritage and how ruthlessly they were deprived of it by the Plantations and the Penal Laws and by a series of confiscations, the memory of which even still chills the blood. Conquest, confiscation, eviction, persecution - this was the terrible story of Ireland for seven centuries - and the past century worst of all. At the commencement of the nineteenth century Ireland was extensively cultivated. The land had been parcelled out amongst the people; holdings were multiplied and tenancies for life increased amazingly because it meant a larger rent-roll for the landlord and a great increase in the voting power of his serfs. But there came the Corn Laws, making cultivation unprofitable, and earlier the law of Catholic Emancipation, withdrawing the right of voting from the forty-shilling freeholders, and the crisis was reached when the Great Famine appeared and was followed by the Great Clearances. The Famine lasted for three years, the Clearances endured for over thirty. Houses were demolished, fences levelled, the peasants swept out and the notices to quit kept falling, as the well-known saying of Gladstone expressed it, as thick as snowflakes. Between 1849 and 1860, according to Mulhall, 373,000 Irish families were evicted, numbering just about 2,000,000 in all. "I do not think the records of any country, civilised or barbarian," said Sir Robert Peel, "ever presented such scenes of horror."

Legislation became necessary to counteract the appalling evils arising from such a state of things. It went on through the years with varying fortune, never providing any real solution of the intolerable relations between landlord and tenant, until the blessed Land Conference pact was sealed and signed and the country finally delivered from the haunting terror of landlordism. Now although the entire population may be said in Ireland to be either directly or indirectly dependent on the land, two classes were absolutely dependent on it for their very livelihood - namely, the farmers and the agricultural labourers. And through all the various agrarian agitations they made united cause against their common enemy, the landlord. There was also in the days of my boyhood a far friendlier relation between the farmers and labourers than unhappily exists at present. Their joint heritage of suffering and hardship had drawn them together in bonds of sympathy and friendship. The farmer often shared, in the bitterness of the winter months, something out of his own stock of necessities with his less fortunate labourer. And before the arrival of the Creameries the daily allowance of the gallon of "skimmed" milk was made to almost every labourer's family in the country by kind-hearted neighbouring farmers. In addition, in a land where few were rich, the ancient proverb held good: "The poor always help one another." And it is true that, in the darkest days of their suffering, the farmers and labourers shouldered their troubles and their sorrows in a community of sympathy, which at least lessened their intensity. It is only with the growth of a greater independence among either class that the old friendly bonds and relationships have shown a loosening, and newer and more personal interests have tended to divide them into distinctive bodies, with separate class interests and class programmes.

As a very little boy I remember trudging my way to school with children who knew not what the comfort of boots and stockings was on the coldest winter's day; who shivered in insufficient rags and whose gaunt bodies never knew any nourishment save what could be got from "Indian meal stir-about" (a kind of weak and watery porridge made from maize). And it was not the children of the labourers alone who endured this bleak and starved and sunless childhood; the offspring of the smaller struggling farmers were often as badly off - they were all the progeny of the poor, kept poor and impoverished by landlordism. This further bond of blood and even class relationship also bound the farmers and labourers together - the labourers of to-day were, in countless cases, the farmers of yesterday, whom the Great Clearances had reduced to the lowest form of servitude and who dragged out an existence of appalling wretchedness in sight of their former homes, now, alas, razed to the ground. My mind carries me back to the time when the agricultural labourer in Munster was working for four shillings a week, and trying to rear a family on it! I vowed then that if God ever gave me the chance to do anything for this woe-stricken class I would strive for their betterment, according to the measure of my opportunity. And it happened, in the mysterious workings of Providence, that I was able to battle and plan and accomplish solid work for the amelioration of the labourers' lot.

When Mr William O'Brien was labouring for the wretched "congests" in the West and founding the United Irish League to make the great final onslaught on the ramparts of landlordism, a few of us in the South were engaged unpretentiously but earnestly to get houses and allotments for the agricultural labourers, and to provide them with work on the roads during the winter months when they could not labour on the land. Ten years previously we had laid the foundations of what we hoped would be a widespread national movement for the regeneration of the working classes. The founder of that movement was the late Mr P.J. Neilan, of Kanturk, a man of eminent talent and of a great heart that throbbed with sympathy for the sufferings of the workers. I was then a schoolboy, with a youthful yearning of my own towards the poor and the needy, and I joined the new movement. Two others - the one John D. O'Shea, a local painter, and the other John L. O'Shea, a carman (the similarity of their names often led to amusing mistakes) - with some humble town workers, formed the working vanguard of the new movement, what I might term a sort of apostolate of rural democracy. Our organisation was first known as the Kanturk Trade and Labour Association. As we carried our flag, audaciously enough, as it seemed in those days, to neighbouring villages and towns, we enlarged our title, and now came to be known as "the Duhallow Trade and Labour Association." I was then trying some 'prentice flights in journalism and I managed to get reports of our meetings into the Cork Press, with the result that demands for our evangelistic services began to flow in upon us from Kerry and Limerick and Tipperary. But, even as we grew and waxed stronger we still, with rather jealous exclusiveness, called ourselves "the parent branch" in Kanturk. We are, by the way, a very proud people down there, proud of our old town and our old barony, which has produced some names distinguished in Irish history, such as John Philpot Curran, Barry Yelverton and the adoredfiancee of Robert Emmet.

In time we interested Michael Davitt in our movement, and we achieved the glorious summit of our ambitions when we got him to preside at a great Convention of our Labour branches in Cork, where we formally launched the movement on a national basis under the title of the Irish Democratic Trade and Labour Federation. The credit of this achievement was altogether and entirely due to Mr Neilan, who had founded the movement, watched over its progress, addressed its meetings, framed its programme and carried it triumphantly to this stage of success. Unfortunately, when all seemed favourable for the spread of the movement, though not in opposition to the National League but as a sort of auxiliary force, moving in step with it, the disastrous Split occurred. It spelt ruin for our organisation because I think it will not be denied that the workers are the most vehement and vital elements in the national life, and they took sides more violently than any other section of the population. After trying for a little while to steer the Democratic Trade and Labour Federation clear of the shoals of disunion, and having failed, Mr Neilan and his friends gave up the task in despair. Meanwhile, however, Mr Michael Austin of the Cork United Trades, who was joint-secretary, with Mr Neilan, of the Federation, succeeded in getting himself absorbed into the Irish Party, and, having got the magic letters of M.P. after his name, not very much was ever heard of him in the Labour movement afterwards.

In the pursuit of journalistic experience I left Ireland for a few years, and on my return I found that a new Labour movement had been founded on the ruins of the old, under the title of the Irish Land and Labour Association. Mr James J. O'Shee, a young Carrick-on-Suir solicitor, was the secretary and moving spirit in this - a man of advanced views, of intense sympathy with the labourer's position, and of a most earnest desire to improve their wretched lot. I obtained an editorial position in West Cork which left me free to devote my spare time to the Labour cause, which I again enthusiastically espoused, having as colleagues in County Cork Mr Cornelius Buckley, of Blarney, another of exactly the same name in Cork, my old friend Mr John L. O'Shea, of Kanturk, and Mr William Murphy, of Macroom - men whose names deserve to be for ever honourably associated with the movement which did as much in its own way for the emancipation and independence of the labourers as the National organisations did for the farmers.

It is not my purpose here to recount the fierce opposition that was given to the labourer's programme. It had at first no friends either in the Party or in the Press. I verily believe that there were otherwise good and honest men who thought the labourers had no citizen rights and that it was the height of conscious daring for anybody to lift either hand or voice on their behalf. But those of us who had taken up the labourer's cause were well aware of all the difficulties and obstacles that would confront us; and we knew that worst of all we had to battle with the deadly torpor of the labourers themselves, who were trained to shout all right for "the Land for the People" but who had possibly no conception of their own divine right to an inheritance in that selfsame land. Furthermore, since the Land and Labour Association was an organisation entirely apart from the Trade and Labour movement of the cities and larger corporate towns we received little support or assistance from what I may term, without offence, the aristocracy of labour. We nevertheless simply went our way, building up our branches, extending knowledge of the labourers' claims, educating these humble folk into a sense of their civic rights and citizen responsibilities and making thinking men out of what were previously little better than soulless serfs. It was all desperately hard, uphill work, with little to encourage and no reward beyond the consciousness that one was reaching out a helping hand to the most neglected, despised, and unregarded class in the community. The passage of the Local Government Act of 1898 was that which gave power and importance to our movement. The labourers were granted votes for the new County and District Councils and Poor Law Guardians as well as for Members of parliament. They were no longer a people to be kicked and cuffed and ordered about by the shoneens and squireens of the district: they became a very worthy class, indeed, to be courted and flattered at election times and wheedled with all sorts of fair promises of what would be done for them. The grant of Local Government enabled the labourers to take a mighty stride in the assertion of their independent claims to a better social position and more constant and remunerative employment. The programme that we put forward on their behalf was a modest one. It was our aim to keep within the immediately practical and attainable and the plainly justifiable and reasonable. In the towns and in the country they had to live in hovels and mud-wall cabins which bred death and disease and all the woeful miseries of mankind. One would not kennel a dog or house any of the lower animals in the vile abominations called human dwellings in which tens of thousands of God's comfortless creatures were huddled together in indiscriminate wretchedness. Added to that, most of them had not a "haggart" (a few perches of garden) on which to grow any household vegetables. They were landless and starving, the last word in pitiful rags and bare bones. They were in a far greater and more intense degree than the farmers the victims of capricious harvests, whilst their winters were recurrent periods of the most awful and unbelievable distress and hunger and want. The first man to notice their degraded position was Parnell, who, early in the eighties, got a Labourers' Act passed for the provision of houses and half-acre allotments of land. But as the administration of this Act was entrusted to the Poor Law Boards, as it imposed a tax upon the ratepayers, and as the labourers had then no votes and could secure no consideration for their demands, needless to say, very few cottages were built. With the advent of the Local Government Act and the extension of the franchise, the labourer was now able to insist on a speeding-up of building operations. But the Labourers' Act needed many amendments, a simplification and cheapening of procedure, an extension of taxing powers, an enlargement of the allotment up to an acre and, where the existing abode of the labourers was insanitary, an undeniable claim to a new home. Moderate and just and necessary to the national welfare as these claims were, it took us years of unwearied agitation before we were able to get them legislatively recognised. What we did, however, more promptly achieve was the smashing of the contract system by which the roads of the country were farmed out to contractors, mostly drawn from the big farming and grazier classes who, by devious dodges, known to all, were able to make very comfortable incomes out of them. We insisted - and after some exemplary displays of a resolute physical force we carried our point - that in the case of the main roads, particularly, these should be worked under the system known as "direct labour" - that is, by the county and deputy surveyors directly employing the labourers on them and paying them a decent living wage. In this way we removed at one stroke the black shadow of want that troubled their winters and made these dark months a horror for them and their families. But we had still to remove the mud-wall cabins and the foetid dens in the villages and towns in which families were huddled together anyhow, and in our effort to bring about this most necessary of social reforms we received little or no assistance from public men or popular movements. We were left to our own unaided resources and our own persistent agitation. As I have already stated, I was elected Member of Parliament for Mid-Cork on the death of Dr Tanner in 1901, and Mr O'Shee had been previously elected for West Waterford, but not strictly on the Land and Labour platform as I was. Nevertheless, we heartily co-operated in and out of Parliament in making the Labour organisation a real and vital force, and our relations for many useful years, as I am happy to think, were of the most cordial and kindly character.

In the Land Purchase Act of 1903 Mr Wyndham included a few insignificant clauses bearing on the labourer's grievances, but dropped them on the suggestion of Mr O'Brien, to whom he gave an undertaking at the same time to bring in a comprehensive Labourers' Bill in the succeeding session. When that session came Mr Wyndham had, however, other fish to fry. The Irish Party and the Orange gang were howling for his head, and his days of useful service in Ireland were reduced to nothingness. Meanwhile we kept pressing our demands as energetically as we could on the public notice, but we were systematically boycotted in the Press and by the Nationalist leaders until a happy circumstance changed the whole outlook for us. It was our custom to invite to all our great Labour demonstrations the various Nationalist leaders, without any regard to their differences of opinion on the main national issue. The way we looked at it was this - that we wanted the support of all parties in Ireland, Unionist as well as Nationalist, for our programme, which was of a purely non-partisan character, and we were ready to welcome support from any quarter whence it came.

Our invitations were, however, sent out in vain until, on Mr O'Brien's re-election for Cork in October 1904, a delegation from the Land and Labour Association approached him and requested him to come upon our platform and to specifically advocate the labourers' claims, now long overdue. Without any hesitation, nay, even with a readiness which made his acceptance of our request doubly gracious, Mr O'Brien replied that now that the tenants' question was on the high road to a settlement he considered that the labourers had next call on the national energies and that, for his part, he would hold himself at our disposal.

What followed is so faithfully and impartially related in Mr O'Brien's book, An Olive Branch in Ireland, that I reproduce it:

"One of our first cares on my return to Cork was to restore vitality to the labourer's cause, and formulate for the first time a precise legislative scheme on which they might take their stand as their charter. This scheme was placed before the country at a memorable meeting in Macroom on December 10, 1904, and whoever will take the trouble of reading it will find therein all the main principles and even details of the great measure subsequently carried into law in 1906. The Irish Land and Labour Association, which was the organisation of the labourers, unanimously adopted the scheme, and commissioned their Secretary, Mr J.J. Shee, M.P., in their name, to solicit the co-operation of the Directory of the United Irish League in convening a friendly Conference of all Irish parties and sections for the purpose of securing the enactment of a Labourers' Bill on these lines as a non-contentious measure. If common ground was to be found anywhere on which all Irishmen, or at the worst all Nationalists, might safely grasp hands, and with a most noble aim, it was surely here. But once more Mr Dillon scented some new plot against the unity and authority of the Irish Party, and at the Directory meeting of the secretary of the Land and Labour Association was induced without any authority from his principals to abandon their invitation, and thus take the first step to the disruption of his own association.

"I bowed and held my peace, to see what another year might bring forth through the efforts of those who had made a national agreement upon the subject impracticable. Another year dragged along without a Labourers' Bill, or any effort of the Irish Party to bring it within the domain of practical politics. The Land and Labour Association determined to rouse the Government and the country to the urgency of the question by an agitation of an unmistakable character. Mr Redmond, Mr Dillon and all their chief supporters were invariably invited to these demonstrations; but the moment they learned that Mr Harrington, Mr Healy and myself had been invited as well, a rigorous decree of boycott went forth against the Labour demonstrations, and as a matter of fact no representative of the Irish Party figured on the Labourers' platform throughout the agitation. This, unfortunately, was not the most inexcusable of their services to the Labourers' cause. When the Land and Labour Association held their annual Convention, the secretary, who had infringed their instructions at the Directory meeting, finding himself hopelessly outnumbered, seceded from the organisation and formed a rival association of his own; and sad and even shocking though the fact is, it is beyond dispute that this split in the ranks of the unhappy labourers, in the very crisis of their cause, was organised with the aid of the moneys of the National Organisation administered by the men who were at that very moment deafening the country with their indignation against dissension-mongers and their zeal for majority rule.

"It was all over again the dog-in-the-manger policy which had already kept the evicted tenants for years out in the cold. They would neither stand on a non-contentious platform with myself nor organise a single Labourers' demonstration of their own. It has been repeatedly stated by members who were constant attendants at the meetings of the Irish Party that the subject of the Labourers' grievances was never once discussed at any meeting of the party until the agitation in Ireland had first compelled the introduction of Mr Bryce's Bill. Then, indeed, when the battle was won, and there was only question of the booty, Mr Redmond made the public boast that he and Mr Dillon "were in almost daily communications with Mr Bryce upon the subject." The excuse was as unavailing as his plea that the finally revised terms of sale of his Wexford estate left him without a penny of profit. What concerned the country was the first announcement of 24-1/2 years' purchase authorised under his own hand which had 'given a headline' to every landlord in the country. In the same way, whatever obsequious attendance he might dance on Mr Bryce, when the die was cast and the Bill safe, the ineffaceable facts remain that neither he nor anybody in his party whom he could influence had stood on a Labour platform, or touched upon the subject at the party meeting, while the intentions of the Government were, as we shall see in a moment, undecided in the extreme, but on the contrary were (it may be hoped unconscious but none the less indispensable) parties to an organised effort to split the Labourers' Association asunder while their fate was trembling in the balance.

"Their war upon the Land and Labour Association was all the more wanton, because Mr Dillon's persuasion, which gave rise to it that the Association had been brigaded into my secret service for some nefarious purpose of my own, was as absurdly astray as all the rest of his troubled dreams of my Machiavellian ambitions. To avoid giving any pretext for such a suspicion, I declined to accept any office or honour or even to become a member of the Land and Labour Association, attended no meeting to which Mr Redmond and Mr Dillon were not invited as well as I; and beyond my speeches at those meetings, never in the remotest degree interfered in the business or counsels of the Association. A number of men on the governing council of the Association were to my knowledge, and continued to be, sympathisers with my critics. Beyond the fact that their president, Mr Sheehan, M.P., happened to be the most successful practiser of my Land Purchase plans in the county of Cork, as well as by far the ablest advocate the Labourers' agitation had called into action, I know of no shadow of excuse for the extraordinary folly which led responsible Irishmen, with the cry of 'Unity' on their lips, not only to decline to meet me on a common platform, but to make tens of thousands of absolutely unoffending labourers the victims of their differences with me.

"Despite their aloofness and their attempts to divide the Labourers' body, the agitation swept throughout the south of Ireland with an intensity which nothing could withstand. Demonstrations of amazing extent and still more remarkable resoluteness of spirit were addressed by my friends and myself in Charleville and Macroom, County Cork; Kilfinane and Drumcolliher, County Limerick; Tralee and Castle Island, County Kerry; Scariff, County Clare; Goolds Cross, County Tipperary; and Ballycullane, County Wexford; and by the time they were over, the field was fought and won. One last difficulty remained; but it was a formidable difficulty. So far from Mr Redmond's 'almost daily communications with Mr Bryce' reaching back to the critical days of the problem, we were already in the first days of summer in the session of 1906 when a communication was made to me from a high official quarter that the Irish Government were so deeply immersed in the Irish Council Bill of the following year that they shrank from the labour and the financial difficulties of a Labourers' Bill in the current session, and an appeal was diplomatically hinted as to whether there was any possibility of slowing down the Labourers' agitation so as to make a postponement to the following session practicable. My reply was undiplomatically clear: - that, if the Government wanted to deprive the Irish Council Bill of all chance of a hearing, they could not take a better means of making the country too hot for themselves than by proposing to fob off the labourers for another year, and that not only would I not, if I could, but could not if I would, moderate their insistence upon immediate redress.

"A short time afterwards, I met Sir Antony MacDonnell in the House of Commons, and he asked 'What is your labourers' minimum?' I gave him a brief outline of the Macroom programme. 'No rational being could object,' he said, 'but what does it mean in hard cash?' I replied, 'Roughly, four millions.' And the great Irishman - 'the worst enemy that ever came to Ireland' of Mr Dillon's nightmare hours - ended the interview with these laconic words: 'The thing ought to be done and I think can be.' At the period of the session at which the Bill was introduced, the opposition of even half-a-dozen determined men could have at any stage achieved its ruin. Thanks, however, to the good feeling the precedent of the Act of 1903 and the admirably conciliatory temper displayed by the labourers themselves in their agitation had engendered, the Bill went triumphantly through and has been crowned with glory in its practical application. I never pass through any of the southern counties now and feast my eyes on the labourers' cottages which dot the landscape - prettier than the farmers' own homes - honeysuckles or jasmines generally trailing around the portico - an acre of potato ground sufficient to be a sempiternal insurance against starvation, stretching out behind - the pig and the poultry - perhaps a plot of snowdrops or daffodils for the English market, certainly a bunch of roses in the cheeks of the children clustering about the doorsteps - without thankfully acknowledging that Cork was right in thinking such conquests were worth a great deal of evil speech from angry politicians."