Subdivision and Subletting of Holdings

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Subdivision and Subletting of Holdings

Though closely connected, subdivision and subletting of lands were two different things. By the early seventeenth century, English tenure had been adopted everywhere in Ireland. The major landowners all subdivided their estates into smaller holdings, which provided them with rental income. In many cases the occupying tenants rented directly from the landowner, but some owners—especially absentees with property remote from markets or difficult to manage—preferred until the later eighteenth century to let large amounts of land to a few wealthy tenants who could guarantee them a steady income without much trouble. These middlemen, as they were called, lived by subdividing their holdings and subletting, at a higher rent per acre, to undertenants, some of whom sublet in turn to undertenants of their own. For example, the lands belonging to Trinity College had three or four layers of middlemen. Up to a point, subdivision suited both landlords and tenants and was not necessarily harmful.

Carried to extremes, however, it created on many estates a host of uneconomic small farms. Excessive subdivision of this kind had several causes, apart from careless management and the activities of middlemen. The population explosion during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, combined in the years before 1815 with high prices for agricultural produce, created an insatiable demand for land. This tempted anyone with a long lease to subdivide in order to accommodate family members or to make an easy profit. A typical eighteenth-century lease, for the life spans of three named persons and a concurrent term of years, lasted, on average, for up to half a century or more—what one landowner called "eternity in parchment." During all that time the head landlord could neither raise the rent nor easily prevent a tenant from subdividing and subletting. Some landowners themselves encouraged subdivision for political reasons, by giving small tenants the type of lease that (until 1829) qualified them to vote in parliamentary elections.

The report of the Devon commission (1845) shows the change that gradually took place after 1815. Landowners granted fewer leases, resisted subdivision, and began to reverse the process by consolidating small farms into larger units. Middlemen's leases were not renewed when they ran out. For most of the surplus population, emigration was the only answer. The Great Famine completely ruined the poorest smallholders. Actively encouraged by landlords who wanted to clear their estates, the survivors joined the exodus in huge numbers. The tenants who remained had a more cautious attitude to subdivision and subletting.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1690 to 1845; Agriculture: 1845 to 1921; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Famine Clearances; Great Famine; Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845; Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847 and the Gregory Clause; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Population Explosion; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Rural Life: 1690 to 1845


Donnelly, James S., Jr. The Land and the People of Nineteenth-Century Cork. 1975. Reprint, 1987.

Dowling, Martin W. Tenant Right and Agrarian Society in Ulster, 1600–1870. 1999.

Maguire, W. A. The Downshire Estates in Ireland, 1801–1845. 1972.

W. A. Maguire