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Land-holding in Ireland 1760-1880

Much of this document is taken from Michael Winstanley's excellent exposition, Ireland and the Land Question, 1800-1922 (Lancaster Pamphlets, 2007)

As in many instances of Irish history, there is a myth and a reality.

The myth

In the case of land holding, the myth is that Ireland was under the domination of the English aristocracy and that the country had been divided up into huge estates. These had been handed over to English and Scottish Protestant supporters of the English monarch since Elizabeth I, in the attempt to subdue Ireland and abolish Roman Catholicism in Britain. Most noble landowners were absentees, employing agents in Ireland. The Irish could rent farms - they became "tenants at will": i.e. they had no security of tenure. They could be (and were) evicted as soon as their rents fell into arrears. After 1780 rack-renting became very common because of population growth. Estates were often poorly managed, with much sub-letting of land. Tenants had no incentive to improve their land or houses because then the rent would be raised and if they could not pay or fell into arrears, they would be evicted without compensation for the work they had done.

The reality

Although substantially correct, the view that Irish land was owned exclusively by English Protestants or by families with strong personal and material connections with England also needs to be qualified. At the very least, it must be appreciated that many of the great landed estates owned by Protestant absentees were in Ulster and the east of Ireland and not all of these men were grasping landlords. For example, the Marquis of Rockingham - who owned vast estates in Wicklow - was a caring man who did his best for his Irish tenants.


Until about 1900 the greater part of the land in Ireland (97% in 1870) was owned by men who rented it out to tenant farmers rather than cultivating it themselves. As in England, the individual wealth of members of the land-owning class varied considerably, depending on the size, quality and location of properties. Smaller landlords in the east, in Ulster or on the outskirts of towns were more favourably placed than the owners of tracts of infertile bog in the west. There were probably fewer than 10,000 proprietors of 100 or more acres in 1830 but this number included many who owned relatively small estates and a few aristocratic magnates.

In 1870 302 proprietors (1.5% of the total) owned 33.7% of the land, and 50% of the country was in the hands of 750 families. At the other end of the scale, 15,527 (80.5%) owned between them only 19.3% of the land.

Absenteeism is also commonly accepted to have been a universal practice in Ireland and detrimental to the country's progress. Its alleged universality and supposedly unfavourable consequences can be queried. Absenteeism was prevalent in England too: large tracts of the north of England were devoid of resident landowners, and in parts of Lincolnshire in the mid-Nineteenth century only 7% of parishes had permanently resident substantial landowners. If a man owned several estates, by definition if he was living on one of them he was an absentee on all the others. Before 1845 an estimated 33% to 50% of Irish landowners were absentees, and a substantial portion of these were internal absentees (i.e. landlords who lived elsewhere in Ireland). Half the country was owned by men who lived on or near their estates.

Absenteeism did not necessarily bring about inefficient estate management or rack-renting. Most substantial proprietors employed land stewards to manage their lands. When these men's enthusiasm for efficiency, maximisation of rental income or both overcame their caution or humanity, aggrieved tenants could and did turn to the absentee as an appeal judge. Permanent absentees were usually the larger and possibly more financially secure landowners who may have had less reason to raise rents and more funds to improve their estates. Some of the most infamous landlords who experienced the full force of tenant opposition during the Land War crisis of 1879-82 were permanently resident on their estates. The fiercest critics of absentees for much of the century were not farmers but resident landlords who felt that they were unfairly expected to shoulder unpalatable, time-consuming, local, social and political responsibilities for which they received no reward and scant recognition.

During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries the British government had confiscated a great deal of land owned by Catholics and enacted penal laws restricting land-ownership to Protestants. Although some of these Acts had been repealed, starting in 1778, few Catholics purchased land before the famine because estates were too expensive. The situation was eased somewhat by the 1849 Encumbered Estates Act. Almost without exception landowners were in debt. During the famine, landlords' incomes collapsed as thousands of small tenants defaulted on their rent, and this was accompanied by a huge rise in outgoings.

The system of poor relief introduced into Ireland in 1838 was financed out of local rates, a tax levied on occupiers of property. The poor were exempted from paying this if the property they inhabited was valued at less than £4 p.a. for rental purposes; the landlords were committed to paying their rates. Consequently the cost of relieving the destitution after 1845 fell on the landlords. In an attempt to reduce the number of paupers in areas for which they were responsible, landlords resorted to eviction.


It is commonplace to portray Ireland as a country of peasants, poor subsistence farmers eking out a precarious existence on small patches of land, generally planted with potatoes, and uninvolved in the market economy except in so far as they were obliged to pay rent to landlords and taxes to Church and State. In reality rural society was far more complex than this, with no clear distinctions between classes and significant variations between regions and time.

The majority of the population in pre-famine Ireland had little or no access to land. They lived in appalling conditions. 40% of Irish houses in 1841 were one room mud cabins with natural earth floors, no windows and no chimneys. Furniture and cooking facilities in these hovels were primitive. Their inhabitants' diet was monotonous and increasingly inadequate. Apart from beggars and paupers, virtually landless labourers (cottiers) occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder: there were 596,000 of them in the 1841 Census, and they comprised the largest single occupational/social group in the country. They faced a shrinking demand for their services after the French Wars as domestic industry declined and corn-growing contracted. Before 1838, irregularly employed married men relied on small potato plots for survival. These were often rented on a yearly basis from local farmers and paid for by labour services, a system known as conacre.

Smallholders numbered 408,000 in 1841. Of these 65,000 had holdings of less than 1 acre, and were virtually indistinguishable from the cottiers. Many had to rely on access to income from elsewhere, such as peat-digging or using waste-land for common grazing, domestic industry (which was declining anyway), kelp collecting, fishing (where possible) or seasonal work on large farms. Smallholders with between 6 and 15 acres were classed as small farmers. Whatever the size of their holdings, virtually none had written agreements with their landlords to give them legal security of tenure. The sad plight of these groups dominates contemporary and much historical writing, but they did not constitute the entire population, and their numbers and economic significance declined from the mid-century.

Some 453,000 were returned in the 1841 Census as "Farmers" and ranked as men of some standing and wealth. They had a comfortable standard of living, participated in local and national politics, supported and financed the Catholic Church, arranged beneficial marriages for their children and provided social leadership in the absence of local landowners. Sometimes they were also landlords to the smallholders and cottiers, subletting land which they rented on long leases from the landowner.

Examples of how small the holdings became:

Throughout the Nineteenth Century, Connaught and Ulster had much higher proportions of smallholders than Munster and Leinster. The land in the west was infertile and had unreliable communications, and conditions there closely matched the popular image of peasant Ireland.

Anti-landlord propaganda which portrayed tenants as powerless victims of landlord oppression had been a major influence on both political and historical approaches to the subject. Landlords traditionally have been found guilty of several related crimes against the Irish tenants. The rents they charged have generally been considered to have been excessively high, bordering on legalised robbery. Even if their tenants paid these extortionate rents they are reputed to have lived under permanent threat of eviction, without notice or reason, since landlords regularly resorted to widespread and indiscriminate clearances. Such practices were not only morally indefensible but also economically ruinous, starving the countryside of capital, eroding the tenant farmers' incentive to invest. Ireland's poverty, even the famine itself was, therefore, the ultimate responsibility of the land-owning class.

However pastoral farming offered less scope for investment, and investment was restricted by landlords' indebtedness and the persistence in some areas of small-scale, uneconomic holdings. By making the financial transactions between landlord and tenant one-directional, it gave credibility to the image of the landlord as a non-productive parasite. There is insufficient information of the level of evictions in the first half of the Nineteenth Century from which to make generalisations. Evictions were not frequent until after 1815, and many were probably carried out by the larger tenant farmers who had sub-let their holdings. Landowners often found it difficult or distasteful to resort to massive evictions. Concerned landlords realised that in the absence of other employment, those deprived of access to land would have no means of survival. Some offered dispossessed tenants free of subsidised passages to North America, or attempted to encourage local industry. Others simply tried to stop sub-letting.

It now seems that the wholesale clearances and forced evictions which occurred in the Highlands of Scotland at this time were not repeated in Ireland. During the famine years and the Land War of 1879-82 evictions were common, although at other times the widely reported threats of ejectment were intended to be, and were generally accepted as final demands for payment, and were treated as such. Few were actually translated into eviction.

Although tenants had no legally binding, written agreements which guaranteed security of tenure, most came to expect to be able to retain possession of their farms so long as they paid their rents. The legislation of 1870 and 1881, therefore, effectively gave legal backing to practices which already existed.

While it is impossible to refute the findings of such detailed official enquiries as the Devonshire Commission of 1844 which stressed the poverty and misery of the majority of the Irish people, it would be wrong to assume that all of the population suffered or that conditions remained unchanged in subsequent decades. The tenant farmers for whom Gladstone sought justice after 1870 were far from exploited or impoverished.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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