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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Irish Planchette, or, Last Night a Land Deal Saved My Life

Trying to unravel the mysteries of 110-year-old political satire can be trying at best, daring you, as it does, to enter the mindset of the common man of letters of a previous age to solicit the briefest chuckle of long-forgotten parliamentary machinations. Such is the case with this cartoon, published in the March 11, 1903 edition of Punch

The three men are, left to right, George Wyndham, the Chief Secretary for Ireland in the UK Parliament, John Redmond, an Irish Nationalist in the House of Commons, and Colonel Sanders, a member of the North Armagh parliament constituency, and disappointingly not the goatee-coiffed fried chicken magnate.

The cartoon satirizes the Wyndham Land Purchase Act of 1903. The act brought an end to contentious land wars waged between landlords and tenants in Ireland starting with the poor yields of the 1877 harvest. Exacerbated by falling produce prices and decreased demand, successive years saw tenant farmers seeking more control of their resources through boycotts, protests, no-rent campaigns, and legal action against their landlords. Attempts were made to quell the situation in a series of "Land Conferences," but it was finally Wyndham's legislation that led to Ireland's most important land reforms that allowed farmers to purchase their lands en masse from their landlords with government loans modeled to split the difference between what the farmers were willing to pay and what the landlords were willing to accept.

The humor is derived from the influence of Redmond and Sanders in the earlier land conferences leading up to Wyndham's act. Apparently their influence weighed heavily on the government-assistance scheme in favor of farmers, and yet with Wyndham's name ultimately being on the bill, some political machination must have occurred in which the Chief Secretary was credited for ideas largely springing from the pressure of other influential Parliament members, the implication being that the surprised and enlightened Wyndham is wielding the future-forecasting planchette, but his premonitions are influenced by the hands of other men.

Or maybe you just had to be there.

As for the planchette, which is the real focus of our interests, there isn't any information beyond what we can surmise. As anyone familiar with British boards from the galleries knows, most planchettes of the UK-persuasion carry the classic shape first illustrated in the 1867 "Once a Week" article, with a round nose and flat back. This item is decidedly clover-shaped, and brings to mind a later American plank, the ill-timed Psycho Planchette from 1914. And given the period accounts of the plethora of offered shapes as stationers sought to differentiate themselves in a highly-competitive market, it is quite possible that the depiction is of an actual planchette. Once the collector's heart stops pounding, however, it becomes increasingly likely that the shape is an homage to the Irish themselves, and the clover shape a clever nod toward that classic Irish heritage, though one would think that 4-leaves would have been more appropriate given the concessions to the nation's lucky farmers.

Irregardless of this being a realistic depiction or not, shapes were important to early planchette users, and many believed that the shape determined the personality of the board. The December 1, 1868 edition of the Spiritual Magazine even told in its "Planchette in the United States" article that a user had saw fit to deviate from the typical heart-shaped of American planchettes, and constructed himself a triangular planchette. This proved to be a mistake for, as the article claimed, "would write nothing but hearts strung together in every possible shape, as if protesting against the indignity put upon it for making it in any other form."

One can only hope the clover shape's "land purchase" revelations proved more worthwhile in the long run, with a board full of less protestations to its form.

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