A New Approach: The Land League and Home Rule
In 1878 word arrived from home that John’s father, Christopher, was dying. When John headed home, he found the country gripped by fear of another famine, as it headed into the third summer in a row of heavy rain and poor crops.
But John quickly realized that the prevailing attitude in Ireland was different from that of the Irish
in America. The idea of using constitutional means to change things, rather than armed rebellion, was gaining popularity. A young man named Michael Davitt, recently released from British prison, was gaining followers with his message of land reform. After spending seven and a half years in solitary confinement for having smuggled guns for the I.R.B., Davitt emerged from prison convinced that that answer to Ireland’s problems lay in land reform, not in armed rebellion.
Charles Stewart Parnell
Charles Stewart Parnell, a wealthy Anglo-Irish landlord who had entered Irish politics, was also gaining in popularity. Parnell championed Home Rule for Ireland.
John’s father died July 16, 1878. When John returned to New York, the Clan na Gael decided to sponsor Davitt on a lecture- and fund-raising tour of the United States.
Devoy christened this new approach, in which the Clan na Gael would support the fight for constitutional change and land reform, “The New Departure.” He still believed in Irish independence, he said, but what good would independence do if the Irish were still in the control of foreign landlords?
The “New Departure” was well-received by the press and by moderate Irish Americans, but was deplored by the I.R.B. leaders-in-exile in Paris. Devoy travelled to Paris to meet with them but despite his best efforts, the I.R.B. did not back his new approach. However, while Devoy was in Paris, Charles Stewart Parnell contacted him to say he would travel to meet him. The two men established a relationship, although Parnell had to carefully maintain his distance, in public at least, from anyone who had ever advocated armed rebellion.
The Fall of 1879 produced another poor harvest, and panic set in. Davitt formed the Land League, using rent strikes, intimidation and ostracism to press for land reform. Feelings ran high on both sides, and violence by both tenants and landlords broke out. Fearing that an armed rebellion would result prematurely, as they did not yet have enough arms, organization or training, the Clan na Gael and Davitt asked Parnell, with his calming presence, to act as president of the newly formed Land League. Parnell accepted.
In early 1880, the Clan na Gael’s sponsored a lecture and fund-raising tour of Parnell across America. It was wildly successful, tapping the large population of moderate Irish Americans and pulling in over £70,000.00. When Parnell returned to Ireland, the Irish National Land League was formed in the United States, with John Kenny as secretary in New York. Over 1,500 branches were created, collecting over £500,000.00 to send to Ireland. Back in Ireland, Parnell had enough backers that he could offer his support to Gladstone in his bid to become Prime Minister, in exchange for Gladstone’s support for land reform. In April 1880 Gladstone was elected Prime Minister, thanks to Parnell’s support.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and the action men, meanwhile, were becoming more and more impatient with this “New Departure.” Rossa started his own newspaper and organization, naming both “The United Irishmen.” The Clan na Gael expelled Rossa. Out from under the control of the Clan na Gael, Rossa and his group began bombing missions in Britain.
John Kenny was president of the New York branch of the Clan na Gael in the early to mid-1880’s, the years when the Clan na Gael embraced the new efforts at constitutional change instead of armed rebellion. During those years, the conflicts between the competing sectors of the Clan na Gael were heating up.
There were worse problems ahead for the Clan na Gael, and personal tragedy for John Kenny.