Appendix: Irish Land War Legislation [1958]

Laurence J. Kettle

The present generation of Irishmen has little, if any, knowledge of the revolutionary changes which took place on the land in Ireland during the nineteenth century. As this was a most important and vital period in Irish history, a brief view of the events and of the land legislation of that era will form an appropriate Appendix to the Memoirs of Andrew J. Kettle.



When Henry II, in the guise of a religious crusader, invaded Ireland with his Anglo-Norman barons they substituted, so far as they were able, their own feudal system of land tenure for the old Irish Brehon system. The old system did not altogether disappear until the reign of James I. In the sixteenth century Catholic Queen Mary started the “Plantation” policy of confiscating Irish land, and substituting Englishmen for the original inhabitants. She “planted” Leix and Offaly and they were renamed “King’s” and “Queen’s” Counties. Elizabeth followed, and confiscated Desmond Munster. In 1608 James I confiscated two-thirds of Ulster and brought over English and Scottish people to replace the original owners. Later on Cromwell confiscated 11,000,000 acres from Irish and Anglo-Irish estates, and planted on them his troopers and others to whom he owed money.

The Northern plantation was the most thorough and lasting. Elsewhere the “planters” became absorbed in the original population but in the North the newcomers retained their own characteristics as farmers, craftsmen and industrialists. The imported Scots were mostly Presbyterians, and they thus created a religious as well as an economic problem. Most of these Northern planters were thrifty, hard-working people who improved farming methods, started industries, and built houses, mills and chapels. They established the “Ulster Custom” of land tenure, and generally formed a way of working of their own.

The result of the various confiscations and plantations was that the planters became the “landlords” of later times, and the original owners became the tenants or labourers, or were pushed west to form the “Congested Districts.” The planters filled a double role, being from a political viewpoint England’s “garrison,” and from the economic point of view the owners of the land of Ireland.



The Land system which in 1800 had evolved from the confiscations, “plantations” and Penal Laws was not properly a system of land tenure, but rather a system of legalised robbery and oppression, which stands self-condemned under any code, Christian or barbarian. It is interesting to read the comments on this Land System of a few contemporary, well-known, and impartial people, nearly all of them being Englishmen.

JOHN STUART MILL, the famous economist, who knew Irish conditions and who took a friendly interest in the country, writing before the Famine, says: “A situation more devoid of motives to labour or self-command imagination itself cannot conceive. The inducements of free human being are taken away, and those of a slave are not substituted.”

SIR WALTER SCOTT, (in his Diary, Nov. 20th, 1825) says of the Irish tenants: “Their poverty is not exaggerated – it is on the extreme verge of human misery. Their cottages would scarce serve as pig sties – even in Scotland.”

ARTHUR YOUNG (Tour in Ireland) says: “The landlord of an Irish estate tenanted by Roman Catholics is a despot who yields obedience to no law but that of his will.”

SIR ROBERT PEEL (Prime Minister of Great Britain) says: “I do not think the records of any country, civilised or barbarous, presented such scenes of horror.”

JONATHAN SWIFT says: “The rise of our rents is squeezed out of the very blood and vitals and clothes and dwellings of the tenants who live worse than English beggars.”

W. E. GLADSTONE (Prime Minister of Great Britain) stated in 1881, when landlords were evicting tenants by the hundred, that every eviction amounted to a sentence of death.

A. J. BALFOUR (Prime Minister of Great Britain) stated in the House of Commons: “I can imagine no fault attaching to any land system which does not attach to the Irish system.”

The Penal Laws forbade Catholics to buy land. They were allowed to lease land for a period up to 30 years, at a rent not less than two-thirds of the value of the produce. This particular disability continued until 1782. There were few lease-holders, and the vast bulk of the farmers were yearly tenants on oral agreements, terminable at six months’ notice. As the rents were subject to yearly revision, and as the tenants’ improvements automatically became the property of the landlord, there was no inducement to the tenant to improve his holding.



The rents were invariably much too high. The main cause of this was the competition between the farmers for land. Agriculture was then the only way of making a living. There were no industries to balance out the country’s economy, because England had suppressed any industries which were likely to compete with her own. Consequently it was a matter of life or death to get some land, however dear. There were cases in which the rent offered exceeded the entire value of the year’s produce. The landlords knew how easy it was to get new tenants, and they exploited the position to the full.



The Irish landlord did not himself spend a shilling on improving his estate. All the draining, manuring, building, fencing, and making access roads, was done by the tenants, and this automatically became the property of the landlord, and became a reason for raising the rent. On their English estates the landlords did most of the improving, and at the beginning of the nineteenth century it was estimated that the English landlords had spent £700,000,000 on improving the farmers’ holdings on their estates.

From a national economic viewpoint it would be difficult to imagine a worse system than that which prevailed in Ireland, and from the personal point of view it would be difficult to devise a more inequitable arrangement. When the landlord had raised the rent to such a pitch that the tenant could not pay it the farmer could be evicted, without compensation for any improvements he might have effected. The only tenants who had any protection against this robbery were those who were working under the “Ulster Custom,” or some variation of it.



This “Custom,” although it was usual in the North, prevailed to a very limited extent in the rest of the country.

The “Ulster Custom” included the following “Rights” of landlord and tenant:

1. The right of the yearly tenant to continue undisturbed so long as he paid the agreed rent and behaved properly otherwise.

2. The right of the yearly tenant to sell his interest if he did not wish to stay on, or if he could not pay the rent.

3. The right of the yearly tenant to assign his interest, subject to the landlord’s approval.

4. The right of the tenant to hold at a “fair rent,” and the right of the landlord to get a “fair rent.”

The “fair rent” was fixed on the basis of a revaluation by a competent and accepted valuer who valued the land only, and did not include the buildings, nor the improvements made by the tenant.

It is evident that under this system of land tenure there would be inducements to the tenant to improve his holdings, and it was understandable that the farming in the North was in general better than in the rest of the country, although the original soil was poorer. There was no basis in law for the “Ulster Custom,” but both the landlord and the tenant found it was in their interest to maintain it.



During the greater part of the eighteenth century tillage in Ireland had declined and no inducement was given to the small farmer to rent land. The landlords let their land in large holdings to men who had capital. These people turned the land into pasture, as there was a good market in Great Britain for beef. The graziers were prosperous, but the people generally were not. The population had increased from some 1,500,000 to 4,500,000 in the eighteenth century and grazing gave little employment.



In 1784, “Grattan’s Parliament” passed the Foster Act. This Act gave a bounty of three-quarters of a barrel on exported wheat, so long as the home price did not exceed 27/- a barrel; and it imposed a duty of 10/- a barrel on imported wheat, when the price was less than 30/-. Parliament also granted bounties on exports of flour, barley, oats and rye.



The Foster Act had an immediate effect and, combined with the European wars, caused an increase of 700 per cent in the export of corn to industrial England. Tillage became more profitable than grazing, and small men were encouraged to take land at high rents. These rentings usually took place through the medium of middlemen or jobbers, so that the small farmer had to carry a middleman as well as a landlord.

For those who were in a position to benefit by it Grattan’s Parliament marked a period of great prosperity, the trading classes built up a great carrying industry, and farmers who had favourable leases made money. However, there was fierce competition between the small men for land, as there was not enough to supply the demand. Rents were increased to such a degree that there was a great deal of discontent and trouble and outrages and Coercion Acts, some 20 of which were enacted during this period. The population had increased from an estimated 5,000,000 in 1800 to 6,750,000 in 1821.

When the Continental wars ended there was a great change in conditions on the land. The demand for Irish grain for England ceased, and grain prices collapsed. The landlords did not make any corresponding reductions of the inflated rents, and there was great want and misery. Even large and well-to-do farmers became insolvent, and the middleman was starved out.



The landowners started to change back to grazing as there was still a good market for cattle in Great Britain. Other inducements to turn to grass were the fact that grassland was not subject to ecclesiastical tithes, and that the landlord had to pay the poor rate only on holdings valued at £4 or less. The political landlords had lost their interest in keeping the small tenants as they now had no votes. Under the Act of Union votes had been given to 4/- “freeholders” and the landlords had made the small tenant a nominal “freeholder.” The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 raised the franchise qualification from 40/- to £10, so that the small man would have no vote. There were 230,000 freeholders in 1829 and only 14,000 in 1830. The population had increased so much and the number of small holders was so great that implementing the grass policy meant wholesale evictions. The population reached a peak of 8,196,000 in 1841. There were only about 100,000 farmers who were reasonably well-to-do, and 90 per cent of the rural population was only just existing in a miserable fashion, with potatoes as their ordinary, or indeed only, food.



Between 1815 and 1845 evictions took place on a huge scale, and the only restraining influence was “Moonlighters” and other terrorist reprisal societies. England’s only contribution towards solving the land problem was coercion for the small holders and assistance to the landlords in getting rid of them.

The British people were well aware of the poverty in Ireland. Between 1800 and 1833, 114 commissions and 60 select committees investigated the state of Ireland.

The Devon Commission, appointed by the Government to inquire into the state of poverty and unrest in Ireland, reported in 1845. Lord Devon was a large landowner, and his main recommendation was to apply the Ulster Custom to all Ireland, but the Government made no effort to implement Lord Devon’s recommendation.



In September 1845 the potato blight made its appearance and continued for three seasons. This failure of the potato crop resulted in the Great Famine, the like of which had never been known in Europe. It was estimated 1,000,000 people died of starvation and disease, and a huge exodus took place, mainly to America.

At the time of the Famine there was plenty of food other than potatoes grown in the country, but this was exported, and the Famine was entirely man-made and artificial.

The Government employed belated and inadequate measures. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1847, and cheap Indian meal was brought in from America. This was distributed or sold to the starving people. Relief works were started on which those who were still strong enough to lift a shovel could earn nine pence a day to buy some Indian meal for their families.

The population dropped from 8,000,000 in 1841 to 6,500,000 in 1851, and continued to decline. Sir Robert Kane was of opinion that the country could support a population of 25,000,000, but assuredly it could not with the type of land tenure and farming which ruled in 1841.

The Famine did not put an end to the evicting of the tenants. In the period 1849-52, 58,000 families aggregating some 300,000 souls were evicted. The Irish economist, Mulhall, calculated that in eleven years, from 1849, 373,000 families were evicted. The census people reported that 355,000 mud cabins had disappeared. This was 70 per cent of the total, and each cabin had been the home of a family.



The evictions were carried out in the most inhuman and callous manner. Old people and young children, the sick and the infirm, were thrown out on the road in any weather. The hovels were then burned or levelled to the ground, so that the evicted could not return. Neighbours were forbidden to give the unfortunate people shelter under the penalty of being evicted themselves. It was no wonder that Gladstone stated in the House of Commons that every Irish eviction was a sentence of death. All this inhuman work was carried out under the protection of armed police and the soldiers of the Queen. The inevitable result of these evictions was constant turmoil and trouble, the formation of secret reprisal societies, the shooting of evicting landlords and their agents, and further coercion legislation which only fomented further trouble.



As a result of the Famine, many landowners were in financial difficulties, and about a third of them were ruined. Most of these old estate were tied up with entails and mortgages, and could not be sold. In 1849 the “Encumbered Estates Court” was set up by Act of Parliament. It was given power to cut the legal knots and to sell these entailed estates, to give the purchasers a clear title, to pay off the encumbrances, and to pay the residue (if any) to the original owners. By 1857 this court had sold more than 3,000 of these estates for prices less than half the original valuation. The new landlords were 90 per cent Irish, and proved to be much worse than the old landlords, amongst whom there were some decent men.




In 1850, Sir John Gray, who was the proprietor of the Freeman’s Journal, and was an Anglican, Samuel Greer, an Ulster Presbyterian and Frederick Lucas, the Roman Catholic owner of The Tablet, called a Conference of Tenants’ Societies. The conference met in Dublin in August 1850 and founded the “Irish Tenant Right League.” They adopted as their programme what was practically the “Ulster Custom,” i.e. fair rents, security of tenure, so long as the rent was paid, freedom of the tenant to sell his interest and improvements, and relief from the Famine rent arrears.

When in February 1852 Sir John Russell’s Whig Government went out of office, fifty “Tenant Right” candidates were returned to Parliament at the General Election. They were pledged not to accept any office, and to oppose any Government which refused their demands. Ten members of the Tenant Right Party deserted in consequence of Russell’s Tithe Bill. The party of 40 had the Parliamentary balance of power, and entered into negotiations with the Derby Government, which let them down. They then wrecked the Government but, a couple of years later, they were themselves wrecked by the Keogh-Sadlier place hunters.



All the Irish land legislation up to 1870 was passed by Parliaments in which the landlord influence was predominant. The “Deasy” Landlord and Tenant Act of 1860 purported to regularise legally the relations between landlord and tenant. Even where the full “Ulster Custom” did not prevail there were sometimes immemorial customs and understandings between some of the older landlords and their tenants. These were a protection for the tenant, but were abolished by the “Deasy Act,” and the tenant became only a contract signer, as in any other business. If one year’s rent was in arrears the landlord could evict the tenant and confiscate his improvements, and most tenants did owe one year’s rent. This Act was supposed to settle the land question, but left it still more unsettled, and evictions and reprisal outrages were the order of the day.

In 1860 the tenants were in a bad way and there were 160,000 seeking poor relief. By 1870 the number had increased to 289,000. In the ten years from 1860 to 1870 the cultivated land had decreased by 400,000 acres and 15,000 tenancies had been extinguished.



About 1870 some 13,000 landlords owned 15,000,000 acres of rural Ireland. Thirty per cent of them were not resident in Ireland, and many of them had never even seen Ireland. Three hundred of these landlords had estates exceeding 10,000 acres each. On the tenants’ side there were some 135,000 leaseholders, who had long-period leases, and there were over 400,000 yearly tenants who held by oral agreement, and who could be evicted on six months’ notice. Some of those tenants held under the “Ulster Custom” or other old “customs,” but most of them had no such protection. A large number of the holdings were of an uneconomic size.



In 1868 Gladstone came to office and recognised the necessity of doing something to allay the unrest in Ireland. He disestablished the Irish Church and passed the 1870 Land Act. This Act was intended to legalise the “Ulster Custom” and to provide similar protection for tenants who did not come under that Custom. The Act provided compensation for improvements, and for disturbance if unfairly evicted. It also made provision for tenant purchase of estates in the possession of the Encumbered Estates Court, two-thirds of the purchase money being advanced to the tenant at 5 per cent, repayable in 35 years.

The 1870 Act was a failure because no machinery had been provided for the fixing of a fair rent. The landlord simply pushed the rent up to a figure which the tenant could not pay, and then, under threat of eviction, forced the tenant to contract himself out of the Act by accepting a lease with new conditions. The purchase clauses were ineffective because the tenant could not put up one-third of the price, and also because the annuity payment worked out at more than the rent. Only 877 tenants availed of the purchase provision, the average price being 23 and a half years’ purchase of the rent.



Isaac Butt was a Protestant Tory, born in Glenfin in County Donegal, in 1813. He was an able lawyer and a good writer. He was educated in Trinity College, and came into prominence by his defence of the Young Irelanders. He was very interested in Home Rule, and also in the land question, on which subject he had written a great deal. He devoted his life and his fortune to the service of Ireland, and he did an enormous amount of work in an unsuccessful endeavour to rally the natural leaders of the people to the National Standard. In 1870 he founded the Home Rule League, and at the General Election of 1874 he was returned to Westminster as Chairman of a Party of fifty-nine “Nominal” Home Rulers. These had originally been hangers-on of the English parties, but were not pledged to keep clear of all party entanglements. The Party survived for seven years, but effected very little. Butt’s gentlemanly manners and methods suited his party of “Nominal” Home Rulers, but got no results at Westminster.



Parnell was elected in 1874, as a member of Butt’s Party. He knew how to deal effectively with Parliament, and he displaced Butt as Leader in 1878. Butt died in 1879, broken in health and in fortune.

For some years before 1877 agricultural prices were good, and there was not so much want and unrest amongst the agricultural community. But in 1877 the crops started to fail, and the potato crop, which in 1876 was valued at £12,000,000, was in 1879 valued at £3,500,000. Rents could not be paid, and evictions increased from 980 in 1877 to 2,110 in 1880. Agrarian outrages also increased – from 236 in 1877 to 2,590 in 1880. It became urgently necessary to organise the country to prevent another famine.



When Butt died in 1879 Kettle found himself in a responsible position as leader of the Tenant Righters. Davitt had held his big Irishtown meeting in April 1879 and had organised a second meeting at Westport, and had invited Parnell to speak at it. Kettle strongly advised Parnell to go on to the Davitt platform. Subsequently, he rallied the Tenant Righters to the meeting in the Imperial Hotel in Dublin in October 1879, at which the Irish National Land League was founded.



Kettle presided at this meeting, and the new organisation had Parnell as President; Davitt, Kettle and Brennan as Hon. Secretaries; and Biggar, O’Sullivan and Egan as Hon. Treasurers. Four of the seven officers were Fenians. Branches of the League were formed all over the country. The authorities arrested Davitt, Brennan, Daly and Killen for violent speeches but released them when they realised that no jury in Ireland would find them guilty.

In the West, famine seemed very near as winter approached. The Government did little to avert disaster. They delayed relief measures until they were useless, and then passed a Relief Act which relieved the landlords rather than the tenants.



The October Convention had asked Parnell to visit America, and in December 1879 he and Dillon sailed for New York to appeal for funds to save the western people from famine and to strengthen the union between the Irish in America and the Irish at home. They toured sixty-two cities in two months and collected £40,000. Parnell was invited to address Congress. His progress was a triumphal procession. He was honoured by great and small, civil and military, governors of states and public bodies, Fenians and non-Fenians. Parnell had to come home for the 1880 General Election and was seen off by the 69th Regiment. Before leaving America Parnell had formed an American Land League, and had left Dillon and Davitt to carry on the organisation work. By June 1881 they had formed 1,200 branches, and had sent £100,000 to the home organisation.



In 1880 a General Election was sprung on the country and Parnell hurried home. He persuaded the League to advance him £2,000, and without this he could not have won sixty seats for pledge-bound Nationalists.

After the election Parnell, Kettle, Egan, Healy and Davitt formulated a land policy. They proposed the setting up of a Land Department to transfer the land to the tenants. When there was voluntary agreement between tenant and landlord, the Department was to advance the necessary money to the tenant, repayable over thirty-five years. If the tenant offered twenty years’ purchase the transfer was to take place compulsorily. Meantime for a period of two years there were to be no evictions for non-payment of rent. Davitt disagreed with the programme because he considered twenty years’ purchase too high a price.

In June, 1880, Chief Secretary Forster brought in his “Compensation for Disturbance” Bill, in order to halt the evictions. In the 1870 Act no compensation was given to any evicted tenant if he owed a year’s rent, as most tenants did. The Forster Bill passed the Commons and was thrown out by the Lords. Then the disturbances and outrages in Ireland re-doubled, riots took place at evictions, “Emergency Men” who took evicted land were assaulted, their ricks were burned and their cattle maimed.



In September 1880, Parnell at a meeting in Ennis laid down a line of action. Outrages were discountenanced but the tenants were to stand firmly together and to hold on to their farms. If anyone was evicted the community must support him and no man was to take an evicted farm. Anyone who broke this rule was to be shunned and avoided. Captain Boycott, Lord Erne’s agent, was treated in this way and such action was afterwards known as “boycotting.” This added a new word to the English language.



In November, 1880, the Government decided to prosecute fourteen League leaders for conspiring to prevent payment of rent, to resist eviction, and to prevent the taking of evicted farms. The defendants included Parnell, Biggar, Egan and Brennan. The trial took place in December, and the jury disagreed, there being ten for acquittal and two against. The Government had merely strengthened Parnell’s position both at home and in America.

Forster then advised Gladstone that a Coercion Act would enable him to put down outrages. Gladstone decided to pass a Coercion Act, followed by a Land Act. The Coercion Bill was introduced in January 1881 and was opposed tooth and nail by Parnell, becoming law only in March.



On April 7th, 1881, Gladstone brought in his Land Bill. The bill conceded the Three Fs, or the “Ulster Custom.” The tenant could sell his interest, subject to certain conditions. Tenants under the Ulster Custom could sell their interest under the Custom or under the Act, and the landlord could buy. Every tenant could secure a fifteen-year tenure at a fair rent, subject to certain reasonable conditions. If the landlord and the tenant signed an agreement fixing a fair rent the tenant became a statutory tenant for fifteen years. If they failed to agree to a fair rent the courts fixed it on the application of either party. The courts could also annul any existing unfair lease or condition.

This Act also provided that if any tenant arranged to buy his holding the Land Commission, which was set up under this Act, could advance 75 per cent of the price, repayable at 5 per cent in thirty-five years. The Land Commission could also purchase whole estates and resell them to the tenants.

Parnell decided that he could not vote for the bill, because if he did the Government would think they were giving away too much and this would influence the Commissioners to fix the rents too high. Besides, his American allies did not want the bill passed, and Parnell did not wish to lose their support. On the other hand, he could not reject the bill because it marked a considerable step forward, and the tenants wanted it. Parnell decided not to vote either for the bill or against, and a Convention held in Dublin supported him. The Home Rulers were left free to vote as they pleased, but Parnell and about half the Irish Party walked out on the second and third reading divisions. The Land Bill received the Royal assent on August 22nd, 1881.



While the Land Act was going through, Parnell decided that it was necessary to have a newspaper under his control. Gray owned the Freeman’s Journal, The Nation and the Irish News belonged to the Sullivans, and Pigott owned The Irishman, The Shamrock and The Flag of Ireland. Parnell formed a company, bought out Pigott, and turned The Flag of Ireland into United Ireland and made William O’Brien editor.



After the Land Act had become law Parnell decided to advise the tenants not to avail themselves of the Act, pending the result of test cases which he would arrange. This procedure should secure better terms for the tenants from the Land Commissioners. The Government, however, regarded it as conspiracy to prevent the Act being worked, and decided to arrest the Land League leaders under the Coercion Act. Parnell was arrested on October 13th, 1881, and lodged in Kilmainham Jail.



The reply of the imprisoned Leaguers to the Government was the issue of the No Rent Manifesto signed by Parnell, Kettle, Davitt (per Brennan as Davitt had been sent back to Portland Prison), Brennan, Dillon, Sexton and Egan. Parnell, Kettle and Dillon were not satisfied that the manifesto would do any good. The Irish National Land League was suppressed, but its place was taken by the Ladies’ Land League, which was financed from Paris by Egan. According to Parnell, who later dissolved the Ladies’ League, it did much harm and some good.

When Parnell’s arrest seemed imminent some of his followers asked him who would take his place. His reply was, “Captain Moonlight will take my place.” And this is exactly what happened. When the restraining influence of the Land League was removed the extremists ran riot, and the number of agrarian outrages multiplied. In March 1882 there were in Ireland 20,000 police and 35,000 regular troops. In December 1881 Gladstone appealed to Rome for help, but did not get it. Criticism of the Coercion regime came from unexpected quarters in England. The Irish Land Commission issued an official publication, advocating peasant proprietorship, and paying tribute to the power of the Land League. The author, George Fottrell, Secretary to the Commission, as asked to resign. Gladstone decided to abandon Coercion, and Chief Secretary Forster resigned.



Parnell was released on May 2nd, 1882, after certain pourparlers with Gladstone. Parnell had suggested that if the small farmers’ arrears question were settled the agrarian outrages could be got under control. In Kilmainham a new Land Bill had been drafted, and the No Rent Manifesto had been practically withdrawn. Most of the tenants who could pay their rent had paid it, and had got good reductions under the 1881 Act, but there were some 100,000 small tenants who could not pay, and who owed arrears of rent and were threatened with eviction. If these evictions were to take place they would be the cause of great misery and a great increase in crime.




Whilst these matters were being discussed Lord Frederick Cavendish, the new Chief Secretary, and Mr. Burke, the Under-Secretary, were murdered in the Phoenix Park by the “Invincibles” on May 6th, 1882, and everything was again thrown into confusion.

A manifesto, written by Davitt, who had just been released from Dartmoor, and signed by Parnell, Dillon and Davitt, was immediately issued “to the Irish people,” condemning the murders. On May 11th Gladstone brought in a new Coercion Bill, abolishing trial by jury. This bill was strongly resisted by the Irish Party.



Later in 1882, Gladstone passed an Amending Land Act, giving the Land Commission powers to cancel the arrears of rent due by tenants of less than £30 rent, under certain conditions. The chief conditions were that the tenant should pay the 1881 rent, that of the further arrears the tenant and the State should pay equal amounts, but not more than a total of two years. The landlords were compelled to accept this settlement, and to forego the right to evict. The State money for these transactions was taken from the Church Surplus Fund. It was estimated that £2,000,000 arrears were written off under this Act.



In accordance with the Kilmainham “Treaty” Parnell slowed down the land agitation and concentrated more on Home Rule. This led to criticism from many quarters, the most important being the Irish in America. Davitt went to America and pulled things together again. As there was now no Irish organisation Davitt persuaded Parnell to become President of a new “Irish National League,” founded at a Convention held on October 17th, 1882. The programme of the new body, as stated by Parnell, was Home Rule first, and peasant proprietorship.



In handing over the funds of the old organisation to the new body Egan presented a report showing that £244,820 had been disbursed, including £50,000 to relief of distress in 1879-80, £15,000 to state trials and £148,000 in support of the Land War.

Egan and Brennan, who had disagreed with Parnell’s slowdown policy, left the country, but in the following year (1882) Egan became President of the Irish National League of America, which replaced the American Land League and which endorsed Parnell’s Home Rule policy.



The 1881 Act was revolutionary, inasmuch as it admitted that the tenant had a joint ownership with the landlord. Its immediate value was that every tenant could have a fair rent fixed, either by agreement with the landlord, or by application to the new Land Commission, or to the Civil Bill Courts. The tenant then became a statutory tenant for a period of fifteen years at the fixed “fair” rent. At the end of each fifteen-year period the rent could be revised for a further fifteen years. During the currency of the 1881 Act the applications for the fixing of a fair rent were so numerous that the Land Commission was regularly 10,000 in arrears. In forty years from 1881 there were 383,000 first term cases, and an original rent roll of £7,487,000 was reduced to £5,936,000, the average overall reduction being 20.7 per cent. Second term cases numbered 144,000 and involved a reduction from £2,523,000 to £2,031,000, or an average reduction of 19.5 per cent. The comparatively few third term cases gave an average reduction of 9 per cent.

To deal with the numerous applications the Commission appointed sub-Commissioners, and there being no fixed standard there were numerous complaints of a lack of uniform decisions. The landlords alleged that the Commission gave all applicants a reduction of from 15 to 20 per cent, without regard to the individual merits, and the tenants said that the reductions were quite inadequate on account of the fall of agricultural prices.

As a land purchase instrument the 1881 Act was a failure as only 731 purchases took place. There was no inducement to buy, as the repayment annuity would be higher than the rent, and the tenant would have to pay one-fourth of the price in cash.

In March 1883, Parnell introduced a bill, proposing, amongst other things, a land purchase scheme in which the State would advance the entire purchase price, repayable in fifty-two years. The Liberals rejected this bill and favoured mass emigration as the solution of the Irish land problem.



The Tories came to power in 1885, removed Coercion and passed the first real Land Purchase Act, known as the “Ashbourne” Act. Under this act the State was to advance the total purchase price, to be repaid in forty-nine annuities of 4 per cent. As the Act was more or less experimental, only £5,000,000 had to be provided. This sum was exhausted by 1888 and a second £5,000,000 had to be provided.

Under the Ashbourne Act 25,400 tenants purchased their holdings. The area amounted to 942,600 acres and the money advanced was £10,000,000. The average holding was some thirty-seven acres, and the average price was seventeen and a half years’ purchase.



In 1885-86 agricultural produce prices had receded by some 30 per cent and the price of cattle by 20 per cent. In consequence some landlords gave rent reductions, but many of them stood firm on the 1881 settlement, although there had been 20,000 evictions since 1881.

In view of this position William O’Brien started his “Plan of Campaign” in 1886. Under this plan tenants on rack-rented estates were to organise and were to make a collective offer to the landlord. If this offer was refused they were to retain the money as a fighting fund. Evicted tenants were to be supported from this fund, supplemented where necessary by the National League.

Parnell was not very enthusiastic about this new move, and the Vatican condemned it as “contrary to natural justice and Christian charity.” The Pope had apparently been misled by the report of his envoy. Archbishop Walsh and the clergy generally were not against the plan.



The Irish Chief Secretary, Hicks-Beach, could not cope with the agrarian unrest and resigned. He was succeeded by Arthur Balfour, whose main aim was to establish law and order. He passed a Coercion Act and instructed the armed police not to hesitate to shoot. He arrested William O’Brien and John Dillon for conspiring to prevent payment of rent. Whilst they were out on bail they went to America.




When the funds provided under the Ashbourne Acts were exhausted Arthur Balfour had a new Land Act passed providing £33,000,000 for land purchase. The Act was on lines very similar to those of the Ashbourne Act, but there were so many safeguards inserted to prevent any conceivable loss by the British Treasury that the Act was never very popular. It slowed down purchase transactions very much, and Gerald Balfour, who succeeded his brother as Chief Secretary, passed a further Act in 1896, removing most of the safeguards, introducing decadal reduction of the annuity and empowering the Land Court to sell to the tenants 1,500 bankrupt estates for which they had not been able to find other purchasers.

Under the Balfour Acts of 1891 and 1896, 47,000 tenants purchased their holdings for £13,000,000 or about £9 an acre.

The great importance of the 1891 Act was that it substituted peasant proprietorship for dual ownership as the principle of land tenure.



The Cowper Commission (1887) and the other authorities which favoured land purchase made an exception in the case of what came to be called the “Congested Districts.” In these districts the holdings were too small and too poor to support a family. In most of them the men folk emigrated seasonally to Scotland, England and the east and midlands of Ireland, to work at the hay, corn and potato harvests. In this way they earned and brought home the few pounds to pay the rent, and to keep their families from starving.

The original Congested Districts were the electoral divisions of Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Roscommon, Mayo, Galway and West Cork, in which the total rateable value, divided by the number of the population, gave a figure less than 30/-.

A. J. Balfour decided that those people should be kept where they were, but that their holdings should be enlarged by dividing up any large tracts which could be purchased in their districts.

The Congested Districts Board was set up under the 1891 Act and had very varied activities, including the purchase, sub-division, and sale of land, industrial development, instruction in agriculture, care of cattle and poultry, fish canning, and home industries. The Board also had charge of the construction of new roads and other public works, and assisted migration and emigration.

The money at first provided for the Congested Districts Board was the interest on £1,500,000 of the Church Surplus Fund, but this provision was increased by the 1896 Act. In all the Board dealt with 937 estates, aggregating 2,265,000 acres, at a cost of £9,437,000.

The Congested Districts Board was a very respected and reputable body and did much excellent work. It was abolished by the Free State Government in 1923.



The 1891-96 legislation did not give any general satisfaction, and evictions on the De Freyne estate led to the founding of the United Irish League by William O’Brien in 1898. Its main objectives were the restoration of the evicted tenants, the extension of land purchase, and the dividing up of large, tenantless grazing holdings. At the 1900 General Election the League won nearly all the 103 Parliamentary seats, and had nearly 1,000 branches. Boycotting and agitation was rife, not only on the De Freyne estate but also in many other places. George Wyndham, who became Chief Secretary in 1900, was urged to start coercion again. He did prosecute some of the leaders, but he did not believe that coercion would produce good results. He had drafted a new Land Bill, but this was held up ending the outcome of the Land Conference.



In a Landowners’ Convention in 1902, Colonel Talbot-Crosby proposed a joint conference with the tenants, but got little support. Later in 1902 Captain Shaw Taylor, the son of a Galway landlord, issued invitations in his own name to representatives of the landlords and the tenants to meet in conference, but the big landowners and Mr. J. E. Redmond rejected this proposal of an unknown man. Some of the southern landlords favoured the idea, and Lord Monteagle formed a committee with Lord Dunraven as chairman, which circularised all the landowners and found 75 per cent of them in favour of a conference with the tenants. The committee then invited the Irish Party to confer with the landlords, and William O’Brien, John Redmond and Tim Harrington were nominated. The Landowners Convention declined to nominate representatives, and Dunraven’s committee appointed Dunraven, Mayo, Colonel Hutchinson-Poe, and Colonel Everard. T. W. Russell represented the Ulster tenants.

The Conference met five times, and on January 3rd, 1903, they issued a unanimous report. It was evident from the report that the landlords had been much better briefed than the tenants’ representatives, and that they understood the position much better. Nearly all the recommendations in the report were calculated to make the landlords’ position safer.

The report declared definitely in favour of peasant proprietorship, and the sale of the land to the tenants. The main recommendation was that the landlord should receive not less than his then net income – this being generally the second term judicial rent, and that the tenant should obtain a 15 to 20 per cent reduction on the second term rent. This would leave an obvious gap between the buying and the selling price, and that gap was to be bridged by a free Government grant. The grant which would be needed was estimated at some £25,000,000.



In March 1903 Wyndham brought in his Land Bill which was based on the Land Conference Report, and which approached the subject from a landlord point of view. The bill stipulated that individual purchases would not be permissible, and that the landlord should sell large areas, including non-tenanted as well as tenanted land.

The landlord was to get a 12 per cent bonus, in addition to the price agreed with the tenants. The landlord could sell his demesne lands to the Estates Commissioners, and buy them back on the same annuity terms as the tenants. The landlords were to be paid in cash, and not in land stock, but the money was raised by the issue of 2¾ per cent guaranteed land stock. The maximum expenditure authorised was £150,000,000.

The tenant was to pay a price which would result in annuities 10 to 30 per cent lower than the second term rent and 20 to 40 per cent lower than the first term rent. This mean that the second term tenant would be paying 21½ to 27¾ years’ purchase of the second term rent – a price which was very much in favour of the landlord. The annuity was calculated at 3¼ per cent (2¾ per cent interest plus ½ per cent sinking fund) for 68½ years. Provision was made against subdividing and mortgaging.

An Irish Convention approved Wyndham’s bill, in spite of the opposition of Davitt, Dillon, Sexton and the Freeman’s Journal.

Under the Wyndham Act so many applications for purchase grants were received that in 1908 arrears of sales amounted to £56,000,000, and £28,000,000 had been advanced. The £84,000,000 covered 7,000,000 acres, giving an average of £12 per acre. Up to 1903 advances by the State for land purchase amounted to £24,000,000 covering 1,500,000 acres. In 1909, 9,000,000 acres remained to be dealt with.



By 1909, £33,000,000 land stock had been issued and the stock had fallen to 87. Financing the outstanding £56,000,000 would have involved a loss of over £8,000,000 to the British Treasury. The Government decided to ignore its obligations, and passed a new Act providing that in future selling landlords would be paid in 3½ per cent stock. Birrell also altered the basis of the landlord’s “bonus” and fixed a scale varying from 3 per cent to 18 per cent according to the purchase price. If the price was less than sixteen years’ purchase of second term rents the bonus was 18 per cent; if the price was twenty-three years’ purchase the bonus was 3 per cent.

Under the Wyndham-Birrell Acts 256,000 holdings were purchased for £82,000,000. Under the Evicted Tenants’ Act of 1907, 735 evicted tenants were reinstated at a cost of £390,000.



Northern Ireland

After Partition the area and population of the two sections of the country were as follows:

Area (Statute Acres)  Population Density of Population
S. Ireland 17,024,485 2,949,713 111
N. Ireland 3,352,251 1,279,745 244

Both the Irish Free State (1923) and Northern Ireland (1925) passed Acts for the compulsory expropriation of the remaining landlords. In Northern Ireland in 1935 the purchase position was that under all the Land Acts 122,054 holdings with an area of 2,715,727 acres had been purchased by the tenants. This constituted some 90 per cent of the original land. It was decided to wind up the Land Commission and this was done by the Northern Ireland Land Purchase (Winding Up) Act of 1935.


Irish Free State

When the Irish Free State took over the Government, the land purchase position was that under all the British legislation 316,000 holdings, aggregating 11,000,000 acres had been purchased by the tenants. A further 750,000 had been given to 35,000 allottees, most of this being in the Congested Districts.

There were 100,000 holdings to be dealt with, with an area of 3,000,000 acres.



Under the Land Law Act of 1923 the Congested Districts Board and the Estates Commission were abolished, and the Land Commission was reconstituted.



The 1923 Act (known as the Hogan Act) made compulsory the sale and purchase of all the land not yet dealt with. Rents fixed before 1911 were reduced by 35 per cent, and rents fixed later by 30 per cent. The annuities were based on 4¾ per cent payable for 66½ years. The vendors were to receive approximately fourteen years’ purchase of the rent originally paid. As this price was much lower than the prices received by the landlord under the 1903-9 Acts the State added 10 per cent, and made provision for the landlord’s legal and other expenses. Under the arrangements set out an original rent of £38, reduced in 1911 to £30, would under the 1923 Act be reduced by 35 per cent to £19 10s. This was later on cut in half by the 1933 Act, and became £9 15s and this payment was terminable.

It was also provided that all arrears due up to 1920 would be forgotten, and that arrears subsequent to 1920 would be reduced by 25 per cent.



The post-war depression and the general lawless atmosphere in the Irish Free State resulted in serious arrears of rent, annuities and rates. A number of the tenants did not pay, and hoped to avoid payment of arrears as they had already done in 1923. The Land Commission could not collect the arrears, and in 1927 a Land Law Act was passed. The arrears were funded and added to the annuities, and sub-tenants illegally in possession were confirmed in possession, but sub-letting was again prohibited.


LAND ACT, 1933

Industrious and conscientious farmers had been paying their commitments, but others had been taking advantage of the disturbed political conditions, and in 1930 the default on annuities amounted to 10 per cent of the total. The annuity arrears in 1933 were £4,611,381. The Government in 1933 passed a Land Act, forgiving all arrears up to 1930, and funding subsequent arrears. They also reduced annuity payments by half on account of the economic war which followed on the refusal of the Irish Free State Government to continue paying the land purchase annuities to Great Britain.

The 1933 Act also gave the Land Commission power to acquire land compulsorily for distribution to people who had no land, or who had land and wanted more. The Land Commission was actually given power to take back land which they themselves had already vested in the tenant.

The granting of this power of re-acquisition did away with the fixity of tenure – one of the “Three Fs” which the farmers had won from the British. The farmer in the Republic is not now assured of undisturbed possession, but holds his land subject to the sanction of a Government department. This could be a step towards the nationalisation of the land, and although “nationalisation” was Davitt’s original objective, it does not seem to work too well in countries which have tried it.



Under all the land legislation from 1870 to 1953 some 450,000 holdings had been transferred from the landlord to the tenant in the Twenty-Six Counties. This comprised 15,000,000 acres out of a total acreage of 17,000,000. The money involved amounted to £130,000,000, or an average of £8 13s 4d per acre. The current repayments by the tenants amounted to some £2,500,000 per annum in 1953.



The cost of the Irish Land War during the nineteenth century has to be measured in suffering and loss of life rather than in terms of money. In whatever way it is reckoned, it is difficult to put the cost into figures. However, it is safe to say that the number of lives which it cost Ireland was much greater than the total loss of life in all the European wars – or indeed, in all the world’s wars – during the nineteenth century.


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The Material for Victory: The Memoirs of Andrew J. Kettle Copyright © 2023 by Laurence J. Kettle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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