Land Questions

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Land Questions

Conquest and dispossession are the keys to understanding the land-tenure disputes in Ireland from the late eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. While the intent of the series of conquests and plantations by which Ireland was colonized over several hundred years was to establish the principles of the Norman-derived English system of land tenure, this was done so imperfectly that traditional indigenous land-tenure practices persisted within the imported system. Thus, the traditional occupiers of the land—while they paid rent to the landed proprietors—continued to consider themselves owners of the land in ways incompatible with the theoretical basis of the landlord's own property rights. As in other premodern societies, there were mechanisms within the population by which traditional rights were defended and protected, and in Ireland such secretive bodies as the Whiteboys and Ribbonmen demonstrated the determination of the lower orders of society to protect what they saw as their rights, particularly in relation to control and use of land. The first in a long series of land questions was this contest between conflicting perceptions of rights, something not unique to Ireland. What distinguished this conflict in Ireland, however, was a combination of two factors: the memory of dispossession still present in the consciousness of the occupiers of the land; and the consolidation of a religious divide between landlords and tenants, due in part to the penal laws against Catholics that followed the vanquishing of the former Catholic landholding elites after the 1688 revolution. Notwithstanding these factors—or in part because of them—conflict was muted by the assumption of landlords that paternalism and protection were part of their function, as well as by a degree of ambivalence in asserting an authority that derived from an awareness of their colonizing origins. The aspiration, often unrealized in Ireland, for natural social bonds tempered landlord behavior and secured, to a limited extent at least, a sense of reciprocity in their tenants.

The Late Eighteenth Century to the 1840s

While these historical legacies continued to influence the course of land-tenure relations in Ireland, new elements emerging from the later eighteenth century through to the 1840s gave a sharper intensity to agrarian conflict. To a great extent these pressures grew out of the transformation occurring in British politics and society at that time. At the heart of the modernization of the British state was a series of new principles and attitudes deriving from, or in other ways closely related to, the newly fashionable ideology of laissez-faire and the economic and political imperatives associated with the consolidation of empire. Three factors in particular began to work against reciprocal relationships in the Irish countryside. In the first place, the new pressure on Irish landlords to manage their estates according to the new philosophies meant that—particularly where new owners were involved—a tendency to assert more strongly the rights of property (especially to evict, to increase rents, and to restructure farm boundaries) resulted in greater conflict. Secondly, there was a new morality about appropriate modes of behavior and management that were more distinctively English, and this increased the cultural tensions between the landlord class on the one hand and the more indigenous, largely Catholic classes of rural society on the other. Thirdly, while the transformation of the English rural economy was facilitated by a massive population exodus to the new industrial centers, in Ireland the opposite was occurring. There was a vast increase in the number of people dependent on land for survival, without alternative sources of employment through industrialization. Overarching and influencing all these factors was a growing triumphalist British imperial pride and determination to which unreformed Ireland represented a serious blot.

While changes in ideology and political outlook were causing landlords to intrude more assertively into the lives of the occupiers of the land, the occupiers themselves were becoming better equipped to use new methods to defend their own interests. The inability of the British state to address the grievances of the majority of the population, both as Catholics and as tenant farmers, encouraged the agitation that eventually transformed premodern forms of protest into modern political mobilizations. The failure of the British parliament to concede Catholic emancipation, despite a recognition of its political wisdom, led to an unprecedented popular agitation in which the techniques of political organization and tactics were introduced to vast masses of the rural populace. The equally potent grievance for Catholic farmers (and for all other farmers as well)—tithes for the support of the Protestant Established Church—provided yet another basis for a major political agitation, in which the cleavage between the landlord class and the rest of the population was again redefined. In these great movements, which culminated in O'Connell's Repeal movement, political habits were formed that would set precedents for the future pursuit of land reform.

Defining the Land Question

Whatever the continuities of political culture and ancient division, the actual defining of what constituted the land question in Ireland was subject to flux and change. As the conflict heightened between more assertive landlords and a more politically organized tenantry in the 1830s and early 1840s, there emerged different definitions of what it was that the tenantry wanted. One point of view, which acknowledged the legacies of dispossession and the tenantry's sense of its proprietorship in the land, was identified initially with the landlord William Conner. It was encapsulated in his slogan "a valuation and a perpetuity." Conner believed that peace could be secured only by recognizing in law the customary assumptions of the tenantry about their right to the land. He argued for a determination of rents based on a system of valuation and then, subject to the payment of such rents, a right to perpetual occupancy. This was the proposition that would be implemented in the 1880s under the term dual ownership. In the 1840s it received only limited support; Thomas Davis, James Fintan Lalor, and later John Stuart Mill were among those who argued for this approach, often under the label of "peasant proprietorship." Daniel O'Connell and his Repeal movement, eager to channel potential unrest on the land and enlist tenant support, equivocated on the issue, sometimes using the language of "fixity of tenure" but fundamentally committed to the currently acceptable principles of political economy and property rights. More carefully constructed was the defense of tenant right associated with the Ulster politician William Sharman Crawford, also a landlord. From 1835 onwards Sharman Crawford introduced bills in the House of Commons that were intended to legalize the practice of tenant right, best known to him in the form of "Ulster custom." Genuinely committed to securing a fixity of tenure, he sought, ultimately unsuccessfully, to draw Members of Parliament and the British public to an understanding of what that custom was and to convince them of its legitimacy. In his attempts, he contributed to its reinterpretation as "compensation for improvements," a notion more easily justifiable to British legislators. Political pragmatism rather than accuracy underlay this definition of tenant right.

This approach did not prove efficacious, either in achieving legislation or in adequately articulating the aspirations of the tenants. What tenant right actually was had already been defined, but in a form more accessible to historians than to contemporaries. The escalating attention given to the Irish land issue led the Peel government in 1843 to appoint a royal commission "to inquire into the state of the law and practice with respect to the occupation of land in Ireland." Although little came of the recommendations of the Devon Commission, it provided indisputable evidence of the nature and scale of the practice known as tenant right. Not only was it shown that this practice existed extensively outside Ulster, but the evidence disclosed that it was often practiced without the landlord's consent, and in many cases without his knowledge. It involved a payment by an incoming to a vacating tenant, determined by a formula and without any reference to the cost of improvements that the tenant may or may not have undertaken. The practice most closely correlated to the sale of an interest or of goodwill, but it can be better explained in the Irish context as a claim by the tenant to a proprietorship in the land, based upon tradition and custom. In many cases the practice was enforced by very powerful communal sanctions. Thus the evidence collected by this extensive government inquiry powerfully endorsed the understanding of Irish land-tenure usage on which the remedies proposed by William Conner, James Fintan Lalor, and other advocates of "peasant proprietorship" were based.

The Land Acts of 1870 and 1881

It was the exigencies of politics, and especially the need to reconcile solutions to the prevailing principles of political economy, that ensured that in the contemporary political debate "Ulster custom" or tenant right was reduced to the minimal concept of "compensation for improvements." In the final days of the Great Famine, stimulated by the tenant clearances undertaken by many landlords, the demand for legal recognition of tenant right became the focal point of a new land agitation and the basis of the Independent Irish Party. Sharman Crawford's proposed legislation became for this movement the touchstone of what constituted the land question. This largely remained so after the demise of this party, during a period in which there was little formal political structure at the national level through which the land-tenure grievance could be expressed. In part at least, the growth and relative popularity of the Fenian movement must be understood in the context of the political frustrations of the rural population over this issue. It was only with the application of the energies of William Ewart Gladstone, driven partly by Fenian disturbance and outrage, that new insights into the nature of the Irish land question began to influence policy. In a process that included sending the former Indian official George Campbell to Ireland to report to him, eliciting views from informed Irish opinion, and reading extensively himself, Gladstone concluded that central to a resolution of the land question in Ireland was recognition of the "idea of restitution." By this he meant that the tenant's demand was based on an historical and customary understanding that his interest in the land was a proprietorial one, that conquest had failed to obliterate this belief, and that this had to be taken into account in any attempted resolution of the issue. Gladstone sought to shape his land legislation accordingly, but the Land Act of 1870 failed to incorporate that dimension, largely because of opposition from his cabinet colleagues. One of those colleagues displayed a possibly unintentional insight by disparaging as "tribal tenure" Gladstone's desired outcome. Instead, the legislation was a somewhat unsatisfactory compromise between recognition of customary tenant-right practice and compensation for improvements. The tenant movement had been hoist on the petard of "compensation for improvements," which in the British political discourse of the day was interpreted in a more literal sense than its Irish proponents had ever intended.

But there had been for one rare moment a convergence of understanding between the tenant farmers and the British, albeit principally in the person of the prime minister. The importance of that development was consolidated by the influence of George Campbell's views, the essence of which was "that in Ireland a landlord is not a landlord, and a tenant is not a tenant—in the English sense" and that "the whole difficulty arises from our applying English laws to a country where they are opposed to facts" (Campbell 1869, pp. 5–6). The modified definition of the land question that emerged during the consideration of the 1870 legislation, together with the failure of that measure, clarified for the English the deeper dimensions of the Irish land issue, and it consolidated for the Irish—from emerging leaders such as Isaac Butt down to the ordinary farmer—a clearer sense of the question that had to be asked in order to secure an appropriate response. The "three Fs"—fair rents, fixity of tenure, and freedom to sell—became the accepted expression of what Irish tenant farmers took to be their rights in relation to their farms. This representation locked in all the aspects of Conner's "valuation and a perpetuity" in ways that the last of the three principles, diluted to compensation for improvements, had not. While no progress was possible during the life of a Conservative government, the combination of the mobilization of land agitation through the Land League begininng in 1879 and Gladstone's return to office in 1880 meant that this new formulation became the basis of a new act in 1881. Some of its provisions were deficient (again, partly due to opposition within Gladstone's cabinet), leaving a basis still for land agitation, but this act validated the central contention of the tenant demand. The system established by this measure quickly became identified as "dual ownership."

Land-Purchase Legislation

For landlords, the tenant success had come not as it might have earlier on the basis of accommodation, but through increasing acrimony and conflict, and the outcome epitomized the extent to which the landlord class had become marginalized in the agrarian economy and society. But an alternative path to resolving the land issue had emerged, opening up for landlords a line of escape from a situation that was economically and socially uncomfortable, if not intolerable. Both the act of 1869 to disestablish the Church of Ireland and the Land Act of 1870 had included provisions to facilitate purchase by tenants of their farms. These provisions were extended by the 1881 act. Although land purchase was for Liberals secondary to protecting the rights of tenants, it became extremely attractive to both Conservative politicians and landlords because it offered means for removing "dual ownership," an anomalous and for them undesirable form of tenure. In 1885 the Conservative government's Land Purchase Act (the Ashbourne Act) put purchase at the center of government policy on Irish land, and through a series of mainly Conservative land acts in the 1880s and 1890s, culminating in the comprehensive and highly effective Wyndham Act of 1903, the bulk of agricultural land in Ireland was transferred into the sole ownership of the occupying tenants.

The Legacy of the Land Question

The long struggle to establish the claims of the tenant farmers to proprietorship of their land, with changing definitions of how that demand was to be met, had become so intimately associated with the question of nationalism that by the 1880s it was difficult to separate the two issues, either ideologically or organizationally. Indeed, the one issue had effectively become a metaphor for the other. In this context the settlement of the central issue of proprietorship was bound to be of great significance, not only to the future direction of the nationalist movement but also to the way in which the legacy of the question of land affected social issues and class relationships thereafter. In the half-century after the Great Famine there had been major changes in the class structure of rural Ireland, and in particular a significant shift from tillage agriculture to grazing ranches. This had produced new contests for land between the graziers and the farmers that had been subsumed to a great degree by their common commitment to the struggle against landlordism, pursued as part of a wider nationalist mobilization. Likewise, that campaign had enlisted, and often very heavily depended on, the agitations of the poorest classes of peasant farmers, especially in the western areas of Connacht. The major beneficiaries of land purchase were the prosperous and substantial farmers; neither graziers nor poor farmers gained tangible advantage from these reforms. For those with little or no land there was now a demand that the grazing ranches be broken up and the lands redistributed. The consequence was a "ranch war" against the prosperous graziers, who by then had become the backbone of both the Irish rural economy and the nationalist movement. In this struggle the farmers who had acquired the ownership of their holdings took little interest in the plight of those on small, unviable farms, supporting land redistribution only to the extent that it might provide more land for themselves or their sons. This situation was extremely divisive, and the constitutional nationalist leaders equivocated over the principles involved, leaving it to the revolutionary Dáil Éireann to issue in 1920 an unambiguous condemnation of the demand for land redistribution.

What originally had been a negotiable problem of coexistence between an indigenous agrarian society and a colonizing ruling class had been turned by ideological ardor into a struggle for absolute control of the land. In the course of that combat the increasingly dominant economic ideology of the time came to be identified in Ireland as directed more toward serving the interests of the British state and English cultural dominance than toward economic progress. Ironically, the very objective to which laissez-faire was supposedly directed, the effective capitalization of Irish agriculture, was undermined by this struggle. From the time that William Conner articulated what he saw as the proper tenurial relationship between landlord and tenant in Ireland, it was clear that clarity in property rights was more important than conformity to a particular model of property law. Whether expressed as "valuation and a perpetuity," "Ulster custom," "tenant right," the "three Fs," "dual ownership," or "peasant proprietorship," these all represented a way forward toward a constructive relationship between the rural classes and a clear line of demarcation between the roles of landlord and tenant. Recognition of these rights, especially after the Great Famine, might well have provided the incentives for a more capitalist outlook among Irish farmers. John Stuart Mill identified this issue in the aftermath of the Great Famine, arguing that resistance to customary beliefs undermined economic confidence. Or as William Crawford later stressed, imposing one particular form of tenure—that favored by British opinion—was in this case to oppose the facts of what actually happened on the land in Ireland. In the long term, the attempt to negate Irish custom and practice so embittered the relationship of landlord and tenant that coexistence was impossible. The refusal of landlords to embrace accommodation ultimately led to the end of landlordism as an institution.

The question of land tenure in Ireland assumed such importance and so shaped political life over the better part of a century that it had lasting legacies. Although in economic terms the conflict was one between two classes, as the divide deepened it became also to a degree a synonym for religious and communal division. There had been those, Charles Stewart Parnell included, who believed that to concede to tenant farmers the rights they demanded was to pave the way for a reconciliation between the ruling elite and the majority of the people, thus strengthening national cohesion and nationalist aspirations. In reality, the dependency of nationalist politics on the land issue had become so entrenched that, despite the conciliation efforts of both some landlords and some nationalists after 1903, the cleavage set by the landlord-tenant conflict persisted into twentieth-century Irish life. Economically too, the obsession with land and its control tended to elevate the status of the small-tillage farmer to a point where the structure of Irish agriculture was arrested in the form that emerged after 1903. This outcome was less than constructive in terms of the competitiveness of Irish farming in the changing international climate of the twentieth century.

Between 1848 and 1935 there were approximately forty acts of the U.K. parliament that attempted either to clarify or to change the nature of agricultural-land occupation, with those after 1925 designed to finalize the process of land purchase in Northern Ireland. More than twenty more land acts, mainly concerned with the furthering of land purchase and consolidation of the principle of owner-occupation, were passed by the Irish Oireachtas between 1923 and 1992. Perhaps no other statistics better demonstrate both the intractability of the Irish land question through the nineteenth century and the long shadow that it cast over Ireland in the twentieth century. Originally it was a problem amenable to settlement by accommodation and conciliation and by recognition of the legacies of conquest. Indeed, in its essence the question was not fundamentally different from many of those addressed much later in other parts of the world where reconciliation between indigenous and colonizing peoples has become a testing issue. That was not, however, the way in which British opinion conceptualized the Irish land question in the nineteenth century, and Irish representations of the problem were insufficiently direct and forceful to avert what ultimately became an unnecessarily intractable conflict.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1690 to 1845; Congested Districts Board; Famine Clearances; Irish Tithe Act of 1838; Land Acts of 1870 and 1881; Land Purchase Acts of 1903 and 1909; Land War of 1879 to 1882; Oakboys and Steelboys; Plan of Campaign; Plunkett, Sir Horace Curzon; Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847 and the Gregory Clause; Population Explosion; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Rural Life: 1690 to 1845; Tenant Right, or Ulster Custom; Tithe War (1830–1838); United Irish League Campaigns; Whiteboys and Whiteboyism; Primary Documents: On the Whiteboys (1769); Resolutions Adopted at the Tenant-Right Conference (6–9 August 1850); Resolution Adopted at the Tenant League Conference (8 September 1852)


Bull, Philip. Land, Politics and Nationalism: A Study of the Irish Land Question. 1996.

Campbell, George. The Irish Land. 1869.

Clark, Samuel. Social Origins of the Irish Land War. 1979.

Donnelly, James S., Jr. "The Land Question in Nationalist Politics." In Perspectives on Irish Nationalism, edited by Thomas E. Hachey and Lawrence J. McCaffrey. 1989.

Gray, Peter. Famine, Land and Politics: British Government and Irish Society, 1843–1850. 1999.

Jones, David S. Graziers, Land Reform, and Political Conflict in Ireland. 1995.

Philip Bull

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