Land Acts of 1870 and 1881

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Land Acts of 1870 and 1881

The Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act of 1870 and the Land Law (Ireland) Act of 1881 were both products of the Liberal governments of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. The first act, largely ineffectual, came in the second year of Gladstone's first government, the product of his famous statement that his "mission" as prime minister was "to pacify Ireland." The second act, more mature and substantial, came in the wake of two years of intense agrarian and parliamentary protest that shaped the bill and the debate over it.

Gladstone's hope for the 1870 bill was to give the force of law to the "Ulster Custom." This ambitious plan would have given tenants an interest in their holdings that was recognized in law, and would have legalized state intervention in the rights of landowners. The compromise that was passed did legalize the Ulster Custom where it was already in place, primarily in northern Ireland, and recognized similar customs elsewhere in the country. However, the majority of Irish tenant farmers received little more than the right to claim compensation from their landlord if they were evicted from their holdings for any cause other than nonpayment of rent, and landlords were allowed to deduct back rents from any compensation ordered. In addition, tenants who quit their holdings could claim compensation for any permanent improvements that they had made to the land. Lastly, the treasury was authorized to advance two-thirds of the purchase price of a holding to those wishing to buy their holdings, to be paid back over thirty-five years at a rate of 5 percent for each 100 pounds loaned. At this rate few tenants took advantage of the purchase provisions of the act, which overall had little impact on landlord-tenant relations during the 1870s. Although the 1870 act fell short of Gladstone's initial goals, it did establish the precedent for both government-assisted purchase and state intervention into landlord-tenant relations in Ireland that would produce more far-ranging legislation during the 1880s.

The most momentous of these laws came in 1881. Central to the new legislation was the granting of the "Three Fs" and the establishment of a Land Commission with the power to enforce its provisions, most notably the determination of what constituted a fair rent. This legislation recognized the notion of "dual ownership" of the land between landlord and tenant and firmly placed the government in the position of regulator of tenanted land in Ireland. The government was now empowered to prohibit landlords from factoring in tenant-made improvements when determining rent levels. The act also included a land-purchase scheme similar to that in the previous bill, and a provision that empowered the government to loan money to farmers to build cabins for their agricultural laborers.

The initial response of the Irish National Land League was to view the bill with skepticism and to caution its members not to rush into the Land Commission courts. The League leadership argued that the bill fell far short of the goal of expropriating landlords and establishing peasant proprietorship in Ireland, and that by excluding tenants in arrears and leaseholders, the bill exempted a significant proportion of Irish tenant farmers from its provisions. In addition, the League was aware of Gladstone's wish that such a far-reaching bill would lessen the power of the League. To the degree that farmers ignored League cautions and rushed into the courts, where their petitions for rent reductions were most often successful, Gladstone's gamble succeeded. And it was not long before all observers realized that despite its limitations, the act set into motion the slow, but irreversible end to landlordism in rural Ireland.

SEE ALSO Butt, Isaac; Davitt, Michael; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891; Ladies' Land League; Land Questions; Land War of 1879 to 1882; Parnell, Charles Stewart; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Tenant Right, or Ulster Custom; Primary Documents: Establishment of the National Land League of Mayo (16 August 1879); Land Law (Ireland) Act (22 August 1881)


Kolbert, C. F., and T. O'Brien. Land Reform in Ireland: A Legal History of the Irish Land Problem and Its Settlement. 1975.

Solow, Barbara L. The Land Question and the Irish Economy, 1870–1903. 1971.

Steele, E. D. Irish Land and British Politics: Tenant-Right and Nationality, 1865–1870. 1974.

Vaughan, W. E. Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland. 1994.

Donald E. Jordan, Jr.