Ráthcairn: Land & Language Reform In The Irish Free State

Barry Sheppard tells the story of the creation of a Gaeltacht community in County Meath.

It has generally been thought that after the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921 and barring the issue of partition the land question in Ireland had, in effect, been settled. However, when W. T. Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal party formed their government in 1923 it became apparent to the government that the challenge remained unresolved.

Land reform had been on the Irish agenda since the latter part of the nineteenth century. Bodies such as the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who conducted the disposal of Church lands after disestablishment under the 1869 Church Act, and the Congested Districts Board which had been instituted, under the 1891 Land Act, were established to address the problem.

The Congested Districts Board remained active until 1923 when it was replaced by the Land Commission under the Land Act of that year. Legislation passed in the Land Act of 1923 and the Land Act of 1933 gave the Land Commission the power to purchase large estates for division and redistribution to the landless. In keeping with issues regarding land in Ireland, the two Land Acts proved controversial. Terence Dooley described the issue of land division and its consequences in this period as ‘the lost politics of independent Ireland’[1]

The Gaeltacht Commission

Another large and not entirely separate problem facing the new government was the revival of the native language in the face of large scale decline. The Government recognised that this issue was of high importance, especially in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht areas. To tackle the on-going problem of linguistic and social decline of these areas the government set up the Gaeltacht Commission

To tackle the on-going problem of linguistic and social decline of these areas the government set up the Gaeltacht Commission.

Headed by a body of men who had lifelong commitments to the revival of the Irish language, most notably, General Richard Mulcahy, it conducted investigations in the designated Gaeltacht areas between August 7 and October 10, 1925 with the findings being published on August 23, 1926. Among the numerous recommendations in the report it was strongly urged that the expenditure on works of improvement which had previously been undertaken by the Congested Districts Board now be undertaken urgently for almost the whole Irish-speaking and partly Irish-speaking districts from both the point of view of language and social improvement. It recommended that it was a matter of vital importance for the preservation and development of the Irish language that the geographical area over which traditionally Irish Speaking families were prevalent should be extended as far as possible, and at the earliest possible moment[2]

While the majority of the Commission’s recommendations were not implemented, the urgent need for land reform in this part of the country could not be ignored. Under the Cosgrave administration, the charge of resettling families from congested districts in the west was a small scale resettlement programme which by 1930 had constructed seventeen farms ranging in sizes between 100 acres and 200 acres which were allotted to migrant families from the west[3] However, this small number was still met with resentment from some; perhaps due to the size of the plots and the fact that there were many landless local Meath families who it was thought should have first preference on any available land within the county. At the height of this phase of migration, April 1927, Meath Labour Party TD David Hall told the Dáil he had no problem with migrants but did have a problem with them coming in such numbers to ‘scrooge’ on the people of Meath. He said it was unfair that migrants were coming in ‘every day of the week’ and being ‘hawked in and thrown in on the people of Meath’[4]

While the majority of the Commission’s recommendations were not implemented, the urgent need for land reform in this part of the country could not be ignored.

In fact, the policy of the Land Commission was to give first preference to local congests and according to The Meath Chronicle there were many congested areas within the county of Meath[5] Fianna Fail, at this stage now in official opposition, had publicly agreed with the position of the Land Commission in their Ard Fheis of 1927[6] However, by the time they were in government in the 1930s their position had altered to such an extent that they surpassed Cumann na nGaedheal’s figures for land division within the State by some distance. According to The Irish Press, reporting in May 1937, in the five years since Fianna Fáil came to power the Land Commission had divided ten times as much land as their opponents had in the previous ten years[7]

Meath Labour Party TD David Hall told the Dáil he had no problem with migrants but did have a problem with them coming in such numbers to ‘scrooge’ on the people of Meath.

Chronic unemployment caused by the world wide depression of the 1930s had led to a substantial fall in Irish emigration and in some cases people who had immigrated to the United States were actually making their back to Ireland due to its effects. This brought the need for living space and workable land to the fore. Several Gaeltacht pressure groups came to prominence during the early years of the 1930s to demand action to save the Gaeltacht from decline after what was viewed as the failure of the previous administration to implement the majority of the Gaeltacht Commission’s recommendations. Organisations operating under the names of the Gaeltacht Defence League and Cumann na Gaeltachta were formed[8]

The Irish Press reported in November 1933 that a group named ‘Gaedheal’ had formed with over ‘one thousand eager Gaels’ dedicated to the hastening of ‘Ireland, Free and Gaelic’ among their ranks, their mission was the same, the regeneration of the Gaeltacht and the preservation of the language[9] However, it is argued that it was the radical left wing group Muintir na Gaeltachta, led by Máirtin O Cadhain, which made the most impact.

In a headlining publicity stunt a convoy of bicycles set out from Connemara to Dublin on March 29, 1934 with the intention of confronting the Ministers for Land and Agriculture and ultimately de Valera himself on the issues facing the Gaeltacht regions. They presented a petition highlighting a number of issues, one of which was supporting land acquisition outside of the recognised Gaeltacht areas for inhabitants affected by the world wide depression. Although the delegation received a typically non-committal response from de Valera, [10] this event, known as ‘an turas anair’ (the journey east) was seen by many as the catalyst for the formation of the first ‘Gaeltacht Colony’[11]

A Test Case

The first real sign of a new large scale settlement came from Land Commission officer Michael Deegan on June 15, 1934. An area of suitable size near Athboy, County Meath had been found for the purposes of resettling a colony of migrants from the Gaeltacht, the townland of Rathcarron (now known as Ráthcairn) was chosen and later further colonies were to be established in the nearby townlands of Gibbstown and Kilbride[12]

The new plots were to be on average 22 acres each, much smaller than the holdings set aside under Cumann na nGaedheal and indicative of Fianna Fail’s vision ‘to establish as many families as practicable on the land’. A meeting of Fianna Fáil Cumann in Athboy in April 1935 was called and the incoming migrants were wished every success and happiness. It was stated they were quite sure there was nobody in Athboy or the surrounding district that would not make every endeavour to make their lives happy and prosperous[13]

Before the successful migrants, all from Connemara, were due to take ownership of their new land, representatives of Muintir na Gaeltachta arrived to inspect the new sites. During this visit they were welcomed by a deputation from the Old IRA. One of the migrant’s leaders assured them that only Gaeltacht migrants ‘with sound Republican views and outlook’ be accommodated[14] While this meeting was an extremely cordial meeting not everyone was enamoured with the project.

In the early years of the Fianna Fáil migrations opposition came from many TDs within Fine Gael. It was described by Martin Roddy as ‘a mad policy’; [15] however, this language was quite tempered compared to other members of his party. Capt. Patrick Giles TD was vociferous in his condemnation of the scheme. Among his various outbursts he stated that disgraceful things had been happening since the establishment of the Gaeltacht with members of the colony acting as tinkers and tramps[16]. He called for more Guard patrols in the vicinity to protect the lives of local residents[17]

On November 2, 1936 The Irish Press reported that Giles had accused the migrants of being ‘fish out of water’, he stated that they had the best land in Meath yet they were to be found at the labour exchange every day[18] He further accused the scheme of being little to do with the spread of the Irish language and more to do with ensuring an increase in the Fianna Fáil vote in the area[19] He was not alone in this appraisal. Patrick Hogan TD for Galway had accused Fianna Fáil of ‘pandering to the small-farmer and labouring classes in an attempt to secure votes’[20] Furthermore, accusations of favouritism towards members of Fianna Fáil in relation to acquisition of land were banded about. However, accusations such as these were nothing new, Cumann na nGaedheal had been levelled with a similar charge from opposition members after the 1923 Land Act[21]


Another vocal opponent of the project who caused much controversy among migrants was Patrick Belton TD, a man described by the broadcaster and founder member of Cumann na nGaedheal, Séamus Hughes, as an able but erratic individual with no use for discretion. [22] Belton himself had many property interests; in the 1920s he built many houses in Drumcondra, Donnycarney and Santry areas, including the modestly named Belton Park. On one occasion he accused the Minister for Land of presiding over a ‘shocking waste of public money’ and that he ‘was simply trying to find homes for imbeciles on the land’[23] Perhaps his most slanderous outburst occurred when he accused the migrant population of being adverse to honest work, sleeping in until one in the afternoon and making poteen the rest of their time[24]

Vocal opposition to the colony project from some politicians was reflected on the ground by a small but noticeable section of the local Meath community, which on several occasions resulted in acts of intimidation towards the migrant community. Soon after the initial influx of migrants had arrived some of the houses which were due shortly to be occupied were attacked. Shots were fired into several houses while one was broken into and items stolen. Among the items stolen were paint and brushes which were used to paint inscriptions on the doors of the houses. The inscriptions read: “No more migrants wanted here”, and “This land is not for Connemara people – it is for Meath men”[25] A number of men were arrested over the incident but were released without charge[26] Another incident saw an attempt to burn down a house built for migrants in the Gibbstown colony[27]

Problems related to the influx of Gaeltacht migrants also spread beyond the immediate Athboy area. In Killeaney near the Kildare border, 36 kilometres away from Ráthcairn, six men were arrested for unlawful assembly on April 23, 1938 at the Braine estate which had recently been acquired by the Land Commission. The Irish Press reported that there had been some local agitation over the supposed intention of introducing Gaeltacht migrants to the estate, resulting in a large number of Gárdai being assigned to guard the property. The paper also reported that local Land Commission employees were jeered and booed by a crowd of local people as they tried to carry out their work, it was clear that feelings ran high among local people over this issue[28]

local Land Commission employees were jeered and booed by a crowd of local people as they tried to carry out their work

A more sinister incident was reported by The Meath Chronicle on April 27, 1935 when a local Meath resident was arrested for threatening the life of Land Commission employee Mr. Michael Lynam after he was overlooked for a plot of land by the Commission in favour of a migrant[29] There were also reports of migrant women being hassled by ‘gangs’ and told ‘to quit talking that gibberish here’[30]

Locals who were involved in the intimidation of migrants and Land Commission officials felt justified because many of them had found themselves unemployed since the Land Commission had taken over the running of their employer’s lands. After the Land Commission allocated migrant families their new land local landless men were taken care of. Locals who obtained these plots felt, with some justification, that they were given less favourable treatment by the Land Commission than their neighbouring migrants. The sizes of the plots were the same size, however, local ‘allottees’ were not entitled to the same add-ons as migrants had been entitled to, such as equipment, stock and additional payments. According to a Dáil debate on April 27, 1937 almost £300 more was spent on each migrant holding than on holdings allotted to local families[31]

In July 1938 a large event aimed at breaking down the barriers between the communities was organised in Gibbstown and was attended by Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, Minister for Education Thomas Derrig and Senator Peadar O’Maille among others. According to The Meath Chronicle:

‘Through the medium of that which both loved, the Irish language, the migrant found that the Meath man was not out for his blood and the native discovered that the colonist was a human being like himself, not a humourless, suspicious individual, but a cheerful, friendly fellow anxious to live amicably with his neighbours’.

Addressing the crowd Sen. O’Maille recognised there was some hostility towards the migrants but he was confident that the time would come when they would appreciate the fact that they had at their own doors an opportunity of learning the Irish language, and of helping on the great work of making Ireland Irish. The Chronicle reported that the day was a success in which ‘barriers were broken down and a new spirit pervaded’[32]

Despite the apparent success of this event tensions between the communities continued, although incidents of intimidation directed at migrants were rare. What is perhaps more surprising is the notion of local hostilities being carried outside the confines of Ireland. In his exiles diary, An Irish Navvy, Donail MacAmhlaigh describes an incident outside an English dancehall where a Meath Gaeltacht exile is goaded into a fight with another Irish exile over where he was from. MacAmhlaigh states: ‘There is enmity between those who were given new holdings in County Meath and those who had been there a long time – even in this country!’[33]

Press coverage of the project, on the whole, was fairly balanced and besides a few articles in which drunken disturbances involving young migrant men were reported, The Meath Chronicle, was generally supportive of the migrants. On occasions the paper reminded its readership of the benefits the migrants would bring to the area, particularly in reviving the native tongue[34]

While it may be wrong to suggest that the tone of reporting from the Chronicle contributed to a decline in friction between the communities, the mainly level headed reporting would certainly not have inflamed tensions. However, similar commendations cannot be given to The Drogheda Independent, who took a wholly different stance. Under the sensationalist headline ‘Reign of terror in part of Meath’ on Aug 31, 1946 it produced a report which compared the migrants to Corsican bandits and red Indians descending on peaceful people and disrupting their idyllic village life. It further denigrated the migrants as ‘poor advertisements’ for Gaelic culture and called upon whoever inflicted these colonists upon the law-abiding people of Meath to deal decisively with the situation[35]

compared the migrants to Corsican bandits and red Indians descending on peaceful people and disrupting their idyllic village life. It further denigrated the migrants as ‘poor advertisements’ for Gaelic culture and called upon whoever inflicted these colonists upon the law-abiding people of Meath to deal decisively with the situation.

Friction with locals was not the only negative experience migrant families were faced with in these early years. Some felt that despite their resettlement to better land they had in some ways been let down by the Land Commission. Part of their resettlement package entitled them to the communal use of equipment and livestock, however, there were complaints that the equipment needed to work the land arrived too late. Some complained that a horse and plough had only arrived six months after them, leaving it too late to successfully farm the land that season.

It was also reported that a donkey and cart which had been promised by the Land Commission had failed to arrive although the harness had! Some soon found themselves in financial difficulty and in some cases ended up appearing in court over rates arrears. One case which came before Meath District Court in 1936 heard that the defendants had been waiting for fourteen months on some vital farming equipment. They also claimed they had been promised that the rates in Meath would be much lower than were now being asked, leaving it difficult to make ends meet. A defence lawyer for fifteen migrants who were prosecuted by the County Council for rates arrears told the court that is clients had found out that Co. Meath ‘was not the El Dorado that they thought it would be’[36]


This phase of colony migration only lasted for a short period with the government calling for a rethink in strategy in 1939, citing the problem of spiralling costs. Under Fianna Fáil from 1935 to 1939 it was estimated that 660 people had been resettled to the Ráthcairn and Gibbstown areas from western Gaeltacht regions[37] The Land Commission report for the period April 1, 1938 to March 31, 1939 stated that this covered 99 holdings and cost £38,288 with additional costs for infrastructure bringing the total to £54,616.

It was stated ‘we are satisfied that the experiment, though somewhat costly, has been justified by the results obtained. The migrants generally have now definitely made good in their new holdings and are able to maintain themselves and their families at a higher standard of living than heretofore’[38] The Commission also suggested that one to four uneconomic holdings in the west were improved for every family that moved east under the scheme. Therefore it may be argued from the point of view of regeneration within western Gaeltacht areas that the ‘experiment’ was a success. Moreover, the fact that there is still a Gaeltacht region in the Meath area with an estimated population of 1,591 over seventy years after the first Fianna Fáil sponsored migrations may also be seen as vindication for the Land Commission’s statement.

It is clear that there were problems with the colony project, not least of which was the effect on relations between the local population and the migrant community. Speaking in 2010, on the 75th anniversary of the first migrant arrivals, one member of the Ráthcairn Gaeltacht said that tensions between the communities were noticeable up until the 1970s[39]

The fact that Irish speaking migrant applicants were given preferential treatment over local applicants with a lesser knowledge of the language suggests that there was a hierarchy of Irishman in the de Valera vision of ‘Irish Ireland’. However, as we have seen, this has also been explained as a vote securing strategy. And indeed the accusation of Fianna Fáil voters being given preferential treatment in the allocation of land through the scheme was something which was never far away from the surface. While it is unclear if this was a widespread practice it was suggested that it had happened on occasion. The president of Fianna Fáil cumann in Dunboyne Co. Meath admitted in 1937 that while all allocations were submitted to the Land Commission in the proper manner some Fianna Fáil members may have gotten preferential treatment ‘because the local Cumann looked after the interests of its members’[40]


[1] Terence Dooley, ‘Land and Politics in Ireland, 1923-48: The Case for Reappraisal’ in Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 34, No. 134 (Nov., 2004), pp. 175-197
[2] Coimisiun na Gaeltachta Report, Dublin 1926, p. 42
[3] Suzanne M. Pegley, The Land Commission and the making of Ráth Cairn (Dublin, 2011), p. 12
[4] Dáil Eireann deb. 7 Apr, 1927
[5] Meath Chronicle, 15 June, 1935
[6] Meath Chronicle, 21 Sept, 1935
[7] Irish Press, 12 May, 1937
[8] Irish Independent, 2 Dec. 1929
[9] Irish Press, 13 Nov. 1933. p. 2
[10] Pegley, The Land Commission, p. 26
[11] Irish Independent, 25 May, 2010
[12] Pegley, The Land Commission, p. 27
[13] Irish Independent, 16 April, 1935
[14] Kildare Observer 26 Jan, 1935
[15] Meath Chronicle, 25 July, 1936
[16] Westmeath Examiner, 8 Jan, 1938
[17] Dáil Eireann deb. 8 Nov, 1939
[18] Irish Press, 2 Nov, 1936
[19] Anglo-Celt, 8 May, 1937
[20] Dáil Eireann deb. (13 July, 1933)
[21] Dooley, Land and Politics in Independent Ireland, p. 185
[22] Dictionary of Irish Biography
[23] Meath Chronicle, 25 July, 1936
[24] Irish Press, 7 May, 1936
[25] Irish Press, 25 October, 1935
[26] Irish Press, 29 October, 1935
[27] Meath Chronicle, 20 June, 1936
[28] Irish Press, 25 April, 1938
[29] Meath Chronicle, 27 April, 1935
[30] Irish Press, 17 Jan, 1938
[31] Dáil Eireann deb. (27 April, 1937)
[32] Meath Chronicle, 16 July, 1938
[33] Donail MacAmhlaigh, An Irish Navvy: Diary of an Exile (London, 1964), p. 26
[34] Meath Chronicle, 19 Jan. 1935
[35] Pegley, The Land Commission, p. 51
[36] Irish Independent, 19 June, 1936
[37] Meath Chronicle, 5 June, 1971
[38] Coimisun Talmhan na hEireann Report, 1 April, 1938 to 31 March, 1939, p. 6
[39] Irish Independent, 25 May, 2010
[40] Meath Chronicle, 16 Oct, 1937

Secondary Sources

Dooley, Terence, ‘Land and Politics in Ireland, 1923-48: The Case for Reappraisal’ in Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 34, No. 134 (Nov., 2004), pp. 175-197
MacAmhlaigh, Donail, An Irish Navvy: Diary of an Exile (London, 1964)
Pegley, Suzanne, The Land Commission and the making of Ráth Cairn (Dublin, 2011)

Primary Sources

Official Publications
Coimisiun na Gaeltachta Report (Dublin, 1926)
Coimisun Talmhan na hEireann Report, 1 April, 1938 to 31 March, 1939

Newspapers and Periodicals

Irish Independent
Irish Press
Kildare Observer
Meath Chronicle
Westmeath Examiner

Online Sources

Dictionary of Irish Bibliography
Dáil Eireann debates

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