‘Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything,” Gerald O’Hara shouts at his daughter Scarlett at the start of the epic American novel Gone with the Wind. “For tis the only thing in this world that lasts, and don’t you be forgetting it. Tis the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for.”

While ostensibly an American tale with a nod to the ‘Old Country’, the quote and tone is as Irish as Bull McCabe in John B Keane’s classic play, The Field. It captures in great detail the complex relationship Irish people have had with land for centuries.

It is exactly this struggle and how it shaped Irish history that is at the heart of a new volume, Land is All That Matters, by historian Myles Dungan, the presenter of RTE Radio 1’s The History Show, who will speak at Hinterland Festival in Kells from 27 to 30 June.

Land is All That Matters by Myles Dungan.

“It basically spans what I call the 300-year war—from the time of dispossession in the 17th century to repossession in the 20th century,” says Myles of his new book, which has been garnering very positive reviews for its scale and accessibility.

“I thought it was important to humanise it, to personalise it, so I begin each chapter with what I think is an attention-grabbing episode or incident which epitomises or summarises the essence of that chapter,” Myles adds.

It explores agrarian conflict from the famine of 1741, right up to the dawn of World War II, which encompasses several subsistence crises, insurrections and mythical figures of resistance like Captain Moonlight, the Caravats, White Boys, and many more.

Living off the land

It’s important to remember that in 18th and 19th century Europe, everyone ‘lived off the land’ in one way or another. In Ireland, almost everyone lived ‘on the land as well’.

Contrary to what many of us have been led to believe, the conflict is not as black and white as simply that of landlord and tenant. The writer argues that there is a class conflict between several different types of tenants, between tillage and pasture farmers, and even, in some cases, alliances between tenants and landlords against the Church of Ireland because of the payment of the tithe, an obligatory tax for those working the land.

“The story of the various insurrections that took place was, in the main, far more effective, far more bloody, and far nastier than the nationalist insurrections of the same period. A lot of them had nothing to do with the fight between landlord and tenant,” explains the Kells native.

Broadcaster, writer and historian Myles Dungan.

While there’s a notion that everyone in rural Ireland in the 19th century was impoverished on a couple of acres, that’s simply not true either.

“You had a whole class of what they called the squireens or the middlemen, who were renting thousands of acres and then subletting that onto the tenants and making their money by charging the tenants more than they were paying the landlord.”

“There is a lot of mythology, as there is with all elements of Irish history, and we have de-mythologised it,” says Myles. “On the other hand, I also point out that sometimes perception is more important than reality.”

A case in point is evictions, which Myles maintains were “actually very rare” outside the Famine period and the Land War, but that didn’t stop tenants from constantly feeling under threat.

Somewhat aware from previous research of the White Boys of the 1760s and the Rockites of the 1820s, what surprised him during his research was how effective these secret societies and rebellions actually were.

“There was no vehicle for political dissent at this time. There was no way you could oppose the landlord or Dublin Castle without breaking the law,” says the author, and to do so meant possibly ending up in jail or the gallows until later in the 19th century, post-Famine with the advent of the Land League. “They (the secret societies) were far more effective than the Fenians, than the United Irishmen, and the nationalist rebellions, which in the 19th century were a total joke and ineffective.”

For example, the Rockites, who sprung up initially in Limerick from the actions of a new agent, Alexander Hoskins, on the Courtenay estate, later spread into over a dozen counties in north Munster and south Leinster.

Initially localised, the Rockite rebellion broadened in the early 1820s. It grew to fierce attacks on Protestantism, seeking the elimination of the tithe and a reduction of rent.

With between 400-500 people killed over a three-year period during the Rockite conflict, the casualties were significant, says Myles.

With a strong family connection to land and its bloody history, the historian was asked to take on this sprawling agrarian history, after the publication of his previous book, Four Killings: Land Hunger, Murder and Family in the Irish Revolution, in 2021. It revolved around his extended family’s involvement in four murders between 1915 and 1921, after land seizures during the War of Independence in Meath and Cavan.

This largely unknown and murky chapter of the early 1920s will be the subject of his talk at the Hinterland Festival on 28 June, entitled, The last Land War: Land seizures during the War of Independence and the Civil War. “The IRA in Meath would have spent far too much time trying to control these gangs who were going around seizing land and chasing people off their property, so as a result, there wasn’t an awful lot happening when it came to taking on the crown forces.

“Can you imagine if this was happening in Cork or Tipperary? You wouldn’t have had much of a War of Independence,” he ends.

In short

Hinterland Festival takes place in the heritage town of Kells, Co Meath from 27 June to 30 June.

Now in its 12th year, it boasts over 50 events with interviews, theatre, life-affirming documentaries, street art and live music.

Festival highlights include Booker prize-winner Anne Enright, BBC investigative journalist Peter Taylor and soccer legend Niall Quinn.

There are also appearances by meteorologist Joanna Donnelly, co-creator of Father Ted, Arthur Mathews, and hairdresser to the Fab Four, Leslie Cavendish.

Check hinterland.ie for more details.