Lord Lansdowne’s Triumph

26 May 1887

The nineteenth century was a miserable time for Ireland and its people. The potato famine and British misrule led to widespread starvation, and massive emigration. Millions of Irish immigrants left for North America during the mid-1800s, of which almost 500,000 came to Canada, with most stopping at the quarantine station at Grosse Île in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City. More than 5,000 would-be Irish immigrants are buried on that island, now the home of the Irish Memorial National Heritage Site. The influx of Irish settlers was so great that it had a big impact of Canada’s demographics. By 1871, roughly one-quarter of Canada’s population was of Irish descent.

5th Marchioness and Marquess of Lansdowne, Library and Archives Canada, 34449704.

Ireland’s pain didn’t stop with the end of the potato famine. Declining produce prices during the 1870s and 1880s led to a further wave of Irish emigration as tenant farmers, unable to pay their rents, were evicted from their homes, often forcibly with the help of the police and army. Irish nationalism began to exert itself, with growing agitation for Home Rule, under which Ireland would have its own Parliament. Some nationalists, such as the Fenians, wanted independence, and were willing to use violence to achieve that goal.

Part of Ireland’s problem was that few Irish farmers owned their land. In 1870, 97 per cent of Irish farmland was owned by absentee landlords, many of whom lived in England.  Their properties were managed by land agents, who had a reputation for avarice. In response to falling commodity prices, the British government in 1881 took steps to judicially lower rents by 20 per cent, lengthen tenant land leases, and provide aid for small Irish tenant farmers to buy their land. But the measures were insufficient. Produce prices continued to fall, and many tenant farmers were unable to pay even their reduced rents.

One might ask what this sorry tale has to do with Ottawa. The answer lies in the appointment of the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne as Canada’s Governor General in 1883. Lord Lansdowne was a very wealthy man with huge estates in England as well as in Kerry County and Queen’s County (today’s County Laois) in Ireland. He proved to be a competent and well-liked Governor General, active in promoting the sciences and charitable organizations. He was also an able diplomat, helping to settle a fishery dispute between Canada and the United States. A fluent French speaker, he was popular in Quebec. He also travelled widely, especially out West, and was sympathetic to the plight of the Indigenous peoples living there, including the Métis, and tried to improve their lot. The one black mark against him from today’s vantage point was his unwillingness to pardon Louis Riel in 1885 despite a plea for clemency from Queen Victoria. Civil war was not something he could countenance, however strong the provocation.

William O’Brian in 1917, Wikipedia

Given Lansdowne’s popularity, it came as something of a surprise to Canadians when William O’Brian, the fiery editor of the Irish nationalist newspaper United Ireland and member of the British Parliament, announced his intention of coming to Canada to denounce the governor general as a rapacious rake-renter—the term then used for a landlord who charged exorbitant rents. O’Brian claimed that Lansdowne was depopulating his Luggacurran (now spelt Luggacurren) estates in Queen’s County through his evictions. O’Brian said Lansdowne was “unjust, cruel and oppressive” and called him “the exterminator of 500 human beings.” His mission to Canada was to expose Lansdowne’s behaviour to Canadians and to oust him from his job as governor general. O’Brian added that he felt “assured that when the liberty-loving Canadians have heard the true account of Lord Lansdowne’s cruelty to the tenantry, they will not permit themselves to be governed by such a man.” He told the press that he wouldn’t be surprised if he were met with a warrant of arrest from the governor general once he arrived in Canada.

Even before O’Brian arrived in Canada, most Canadian newspapers across the political spectrum thought O’Brian’s trip was a mistake. Toronto’s Globe, which considered itself a friend of O’Brian, said it would do well if he turned around and went back to Ireland. The paper said that Canadians disapproved of attacks upon “the defenceless representative of the Crown,” who, given his position, was unable to respond to O’Brian’s accusations. Moreover, Lansdowne was not the ruler of Canada as O’Brian claimed, and didn’t have the power to arrest anyone. He was “simply a gentleman who represents Her Majesty,” and is “directed by his responsible constitutional advisers (i.e., the elected government).” Even American newspapers, typically pro-Irish, thought O’Brian’s trip was a mistake. The New York Times opined that O’Brian’s attempt at “showing up” Lord Lansdowne was a “tactical error.”

O’Brian arrived in New York after his cross-Atlantic trip on the Umbria in early May 1887, accompanied by Mr. Denis Kilbride, one of Lansdowne’s evicted tenants. They quickly took a train to Canada and began a series of anti-Lansdowne speeches in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa before returning to Ireland via Boston.

Many were apprehensive that O’Brian’s rhetoric would lead to unrest in Canada. The Ottawa Evening Journal likened O’Brian to “moral gunpowder” left lying around in quantities that might easily be set alight with the most serious results. The newspaper advised that O’Brian be allowed to come and go peacefully even though it felt that his attacks on the governor general were cowardly and totally unfair.

O’Brian’s speeches were very well attended, in large measure due to his prominence in the Irish nationalist movement. There was, however, trouble in Toronto where supporters and opponents squared off against each other. Rocks were thrown, and O’Brian was struck a glancing blow. An anti-O’Brian mob chanted “Pay your rent.” O’Brian blamed the unrest on Orangemen—Irish Protestants—who were put up to it, he alleged, by Lord Lansdowne who co-incidentally happened to be in the middle of a three-week visit to Toronto. O’Brian’s allegation, for which he offered no proof, riled Canadian newspapers still further. Subsequently, O’Brian faced another barrage of stones in Kingston.

O’Brian’s anti-Lansdowne speech in Ottawa, sandwiched between his visits to Toronto and Kingston, was fortunately marked by nothing worse than noisy demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. The event was held in the Roller Rink in front of 1,500 people. The stage was decorated with the Union Jack and the American Stars and Stripes. Banners with “Home Rule for Ireland” and “Cead Mile Failte [Hundred thousand welcomes] to Ireland’s Patriots” hung from the rafters. Pictures of the Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell and the former British Prime Minister William Gladstone who favoured Irish Home Rule, were positioned on either side of the stage.

Triumphal Arch of Evergreens at Sparks and Elgin Streets. The top of the old city hall can just be seen behind the arch. 26 May, 1887, Library and Archives Canada, 3422099.

Despite their best efforts to discredit the Governor General in Ottawa and elsewhere, O’Brian and Kilbride failed badly. If anything, their speaking campaign backfired; Lord Lansdowne’s popularity soared. There were several reasons. First, the attacks were widely seen as unjust. Second, Lord Lansdowne was good at his job. The Ottawa Daily Citizen opined that he was “one of the most painstaking, carful and conscientious administrators Canada has ever known.” Third, the Fenian threat and the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee were still fresh in the memories of many Canadians. O’Brian’s trip to Canada was seen as reviving grievances that were best left in Ireland.

In Ottawa, plans were put in place to welcome Lord and Lady Lansdowne on their return to the capital from their three-week trip to Toronto. A Citizens’ Committee organized the decoration of streets and a grand parade. As this was to be a citizens’ welcome, there was to be no military escort or parading societies which might dilute the civic emphasis or invite dissention. Mayor Stewart declared a half-day holiday for the event.

On 26 May 1887, Ottawa was en fête, its streets filled with people, many having arrived by carriage and train from outlying communities. The parade route was decorated with coloured banners, bunting and flags. A two-storey arch was built at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets out of evergreens. Somewhat oddly, high up on it was a moose head with immense antlers. Across the arch, two big banners saying “God Save the Queen” and “Welcome Lansdowne” were hung.

Lansdowne’s train puffed into the old Union Station in LeBreton Flats to the acclaim of some 6,000 people who had crowded in and around the station to greet the governor general. The vice-regal carriage was quickly uncoupled and pulled into a siding where Mayor Stewart in his robes of office, his wife, senators, MPs and members of the Citizens’ Committee, greeted Lord and Lady Lansdowne as they disembarked.

The vice-regal couple, along with Mayor Stewart and the chairman of the Citizens’ Committee, were driven off at the head of the parade in a “four-in-hand” carriage. Riding escort were 125 prominent members of the Ottawa community.  Musical accompaniment was provided by the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards, the Hull Band, the St Anne’s Band and the Hazeldean Band.

The parade went from the train station along Queen Street West, past the Pump House which was decorated with a welcoming banner. When the vice-regal carriage came near, a fountain of water shot high in the air. The parade wended its way down Wellington Street, rounded the corner at Bank Street. At the Sparks Street intersection, the Governor-General’s carriage was unhitched, its horses replaced by fifty “young men of muscle” from the Rifle Club.

Massed children and others at Cartier Square to greet Lord and Lady Lansdowne, 26 May 1887, Library and Archives Canada, 3422097. This photo is misidentified in the Archives as being taken at Union Station in LeBreton Flats.

At Cartier Square, the couple was greeted by a crowd of about 20,000 people, of which 2,500 were children waving tiny Union Jacks. After an official greeting from Mayor Stewart, Lord Lansdowne replied. He remarked that he didn’t think his trip home merited such a welcome.  He had not “suppressed a rebellion or annexed a new province to the Dominion” but had rather spent three agreeable weeks in the provincial capital. Alluding to O’Brian, he said that since he had last been in Ottawa, Canada had been invaded. He understood that the invaders had hoped “to put to flight a certain high official,” but unless he misunderstood the occasion, “the people of Ottawa are not particularly anxious to get rid of [him] just at present.”

Following laughter and cheers, the parade resumed its way to Rideau Hall, the Rifle team pulling Lord Lansdowne’s carriage the entire way. At the bridge into New Edinburgh was another arch of evergreens with a banner welcoming the Governor General. Arriving at his home, Lansdowne thanked Ottawa citizens from the bottom of his heart.

Looking back at the event, the question remains of whether Lord Lansdowne was the rapacious rent-racker who evicted hundreds of poor tenant farmers as O’Brian charged.

Some five hundred people were indeed evicted for non-payment of rent. According to O’Brian, some were old and infirm. A new mother and baby were also apparently turned out.

However, Lansdowne didn’t have a reputation as being a harsh landlord. In England, 504 Wiltshire tenants sent a public letter of support for Lansdowne that was published in Dublin’s Irish Times. They said that they were greatly satisfied by their treatment, and that Lansdowne had not only reduced their rents, he had built cottages for labourers, and spent a considerable portion of the rents on improvements. Lansdowne’s tenants in Kerry County, Ireland had also reportedly received rent reductions on the order of 30 to 35 per cent in 1886.

The dispute with Lansdowne’s Queen’s County tenants was over the size of reduction they deserved. They wanted the same rent reduction that was accorded Lansdowne’s Kerry County tenants. Lansdowne’s land agent refused since the Queen County estates were far more productive. In order to force Lansdowne’s hand, a rent strike was organized. The strike failed, and the tenants were evicted.

One of the organizers of the rent strike was the same Denis Kilbride who had accompanied O’Brian on his Canadian tour. O’Brian’s case against Lansdowne was not helped when it came out that Kilbride was a man of considerable means rather than some destitute tenant who had eked out a living on a hardscrabble plot of land. His rented 868-acre estate even had a gate house. Kilbride also admitted that he could afford to pay the rent due, but chose not to. As well, many considered him to be a rack-renter himself as he sub-let land at large mark-ups to sub-tenants.

An account by a local teacher, now in the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, written several decades after the evictions says that Lord Lansdowne had dealt fairly with his Luggacurren tenants. He had seen that they had “good slated houses” and had supplied them with free iron gates. “In fact the houses on the Estate were the best in Ireland.” But owing to the “Pay No Rent” policy started by Kilbride and others, the evictions took place. While some farmers subsequently paid their rents and returned, the majority did not.

Lord Lansdowne left Canada later that year to become the Viceroy of India, his reputation intact. In 1890, Lansdowne Park in Ottawa was named in his honour. He died in 1927. William O’Brian finally saw major Irish land reform in 1903 with the passage of the Wyndham Land Purchase Act which provided subsidized loans to farmers to buy land. By the 1920s, virtually all Irish farms were owned by their former tenants. Irish Home Rule finally arrived in 1920 when Ireland was partitioned. The southern portion became the Irish Free State in 1922. It became the Republic of Ireland in 1937. 


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——–, 1887. “A Word with Mr. O’Brian,” 6 May.

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——–, 1887. “Evolution of a Riot,” 20 May.

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————————–, 1887. “The Governor-General In Toronto,” 5 May.

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——————————, 1887. “Noise and Fighting,” 18 May.

——————————, 1887. “The Attack on Mr. O’Brian,” 19 May.

——————————, 1887. “O’Brian in Ottawa,” 20 May.

—————————–, 1887. “The Governor-General,” 26 May.

—————————–, 1887. “Welcome To Lansdowne,” 27 May.

——————————, 1887. “The Governor-General’s Supplementary Letter of Thanks,” 28 May.

——————————, 1887. “Yesterday’s Demonstration,” 28 May.

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