Duplicity of Irish Land Reform
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
derived from ownership of land must, somehow, be transferred out of
the hands of those who would sterilize it in prodigal living into
the hands of the productive men who will invest it in the modern
sector end then regularly plough back their profits as output and
THIS IS one of the preconditions for economic growth as expressed by
W. W. Rostow, who claims that it "is Adam Smith's perception ...
at the core of the Wealth of Nations."
Ireland failed to industrialise precisely because the land's rent was
in "the hands of those who would sterilize it." The reforms
which then settled the land question put the rent into the hands of
another set of unproductive men.
The system whereby the rent of farmland was the legal possession of
some 8,000 landlords (in 1848) diverted it from being invested in
mixed farming, which would have laid a sound foundation for the
This in turn stunted the generation of the capital necessary for
factory textile production to succeed the booming cottage industry of
the 18th century; and, indeed, caused the boat of the industrial
revolution to pass Ireland by.
The halving of agricultural prices after 1815 made less costly
livestock production more attractive and the recovery of livestock
product prices in the 1830s accentuated the change. The
disenfranchisement of the "forty shilling freeholders" in
1829, the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and the second railway boom
weighed further against tillage in Ireland.
"Capital in the form of livestock became once more a factor of
major importance in agricultural production," writes Raymond
Crotty. "Persons without capital could not compete successfully
for land and therefore could not get married and have families ...
"The tenure system went further: in pursuit of higher rents it
sought the clearance from the land of those of the proletariat who
were already in possession."
The potato blight did the landlords' work for them, withdrawing
nourishment from the million landless labourers and smallholders who
had shown themselves capable of physically resisting farm
By 1851 the number of agricultural holdings under 15 acres had halved
in six years. "On the other hand," writes L.M. Cullen, "the
Famine had scarcely affected the farmers at all." Holdings of
more than 15 acres increased slightly, so that there were
approximately 300,000 in each category.
During the 1840s the emigration rate was 2% of the whole population
each year, and it was still almost 1% by 1900.
Relative structural stability, however, followed the catharsis of the
1840s. By 1900 there were still well over half a million holdings, and
the rate of increase in livestock had averaged only 0.9% p.a. The rise
of rent at the expense of labour and capital (see figure) which had
accompanied the transition to a low input/low output pastoral economy
Landlords in Ireland may have begun investing in their estates for
the first time since 1815, but only at a low level, perhaps 5-6% of
their rents. Small tenant farmers were still resisting the main
form of improvement -- consolidation.
IRONICALLY, the new utilitarianism contributed to dampening
investment. "Free Trade in Land" spread to Ireland notably
through the Encumbered Estates Act, 1849, and the Land Act of 1870,
easing the sale of land and replacing custom by contract.
Between 1849 and 1860 one-third of Ireland changed hands. This
represented a huge dissaving, as buyers' savings financed sellers'
debts. After 1870, whatever landlord investment had been resurfacing
was strangled by the strengthened legal position of the tenants.
These reforms did nothing to tackle the underlying injustices of the
land system, so it was the potato, once again, that brought matters to
Potato yields, which were only at half pre-Famine levels due to soil
exhaustion, fell away by three-quarters through successive bad
harvests, 1877 to 1879.
At the same time, depression abroad was reducing seasonal emigration
by four-fifths, and a flood of cheap British goods was causing all
towns except Dublin and Belfast to decline. Railway building at home,
another safety valve, had also come to an end. The outcome was the
Land War of 1879-82.
"When landlords, faced with irreducible interest payments on
their debts, proved unwilling or unable to reduce rents sufficiently,
redress was sought."
The 3rd Earl of Leitrim was assassinated in 1878 as he endeavoured to
amalgamate farms. "Agrarian outrages" quadrupled hi 1879,
and evictions leaped from less than a thousand a year in the 1870s to
5,000 in 1882.
There were five main interests in the Land War:
- The Landlords. In 1870 there were nearly 20,000
proprietors. Just over 3% possessed half the country, whilst
four-fifths possessed one-fifth. 40% were Catholic. Half were
resident on or near their property.
Barbara Solow has broadly distinguished Old and New landlords.
Those who had purchased land since 1849 were more likely to have
to rack-rent, and hence free trade in land helped precipitate the
- The smaller tenants and labourers. Concentrated in the
west and southwest, away from the rich grazing areas. Mere access
to land was all that they required, a cause a century old. It was
in County Mayo, the poorest county, that the republican Michael
Davitt organised the tenants' movement that was in the vanguard of
the Land War.
- The larger tenants. Perhaps three-quarters of the land
was held by medium to large graziers. "The prosperity and
progress of Irish agriculture increasingly depended not so much on
the smallholding class but on this comfortable, educated,
self-confident rural bourgeoisie," writes Michael Winstanley.
This was the "nation-forming class" (Emmet Larkin) and
it saw itself as the future land-owning class. Indeed, it already
merged into the land-owning class. Daniel O'Connell had been a
Catholic landowner, and his electoral base those who swore
publicly that their farms were worth at least forty shillings more
than the rents they paid.
The Nationalist Party's rising star, a haughty Protestant,
Charles Stewart Pamell, was also a landowner, as was to be his
successor, John Redmond.
- The urban middle classes. The other mainspring of the
Home Rule movement. Like the farmers, they frowned on agrarian
outrages, but recognised in Davitt's peasant movement "the
engine which would draw Home Rule in its train." (Joseph Lee)
- The Westminster Government. The Richmond Commission on
agriculture, 1881, was not the first to call for active promotion
of development in Ireland (funding drainage projects, etc.) but
the Government was loathe to treat Ireland as more than a
storehouse. It only acted on recommendations that did not invoke
public spending, that is, the Devon (1844) and Bess-borough (1881)
Commissions' tinkering with the existing tenure system in an
effort to make it function more smoothly.
This official prediction was seized upon by the Irish Party, and what
we may call the Land Tenure Myth became the prime tool of Irish
nationalism in the nineteenth century.
THE LAND Tenure Myth held that an alien garrison of profligate,
Protestant, absentee landowners, backed by the British army, was
mercilessly rack-renting an overcrowded Catholic tenantry forced to
subsist on potatoes whilst the fat of the land was exported.
The tenants had no security from one year to the next and could not
improve the land because their efforts would be confiscated by rent
rises or by evictions. The landlords would not improve the land --
they spent the rents abroad. Hence, the whole of the economic problem
of Ireland was due to the landlord system.
The solution was to protect the tenants by enforcing the "Three
Fs", which were supposedly the custom in Ulster -- Fixity of
tenure, Fair rents, and Free sale of tenants' improvements and land
"The essence of the Irish Question was that rents offered ...
appeared to be altogether out of proportion to the productivity of the
land," notes Crotty.
The people who paid the high rents, and who stood to gain from rent
control, were the well-off graziers.
Of course, there was a core of truth in the Myth, which was why it
was so powerful. But the "Three Fs" were already customary
outside Ulster. The objective need was to restore the wide access to
land which had existed in the 18th century. This had been ensured by a
diversity of economic activity coupled with the rent-paying mechanism.
As the American, Henry George, who came over to report the Land War
for Irish World, pointed out, it only required that the rents
be ploughed back into production for those conditions to be
THE LANDOWNER class-elect, however, had other ideas. It fitted in
neatly with their aspirations that the removal of the existing
landowners would remove Britain's main interest in Ireland and thus
further the cause of nationalism.
The strategy for overthrowing the landlords was devised by Davitt and
inspired by James Fintan Lalor's letters to The Nation during
Lalor had written: "I hold and maintain that the entire soil of
a country belongs of right to the entire people of that country,"
and that the rents "should be paid to themselves, the people, for
public purposes, and for behoof and benefit of them, the entire
Accordingly Davitt sought to agitate for formal concession of the "Three
Fs", with emphasis on "fair rents", aided if necessary
by "rent strikes". This would undermine the finances of the
landlords and be "a legislative sentence of death by slow
process," as he later put it.
In October 1879 he founded the Irish National Land League and
persuaded Parnell to be its President, thus harnessing together for
the first time the rural poor, the graziers and the urban
By August 1881 Parliament had capitulated, in order to avoid a "social
revolution" as Gladstone told the Commons. A Land Act conceded
the "Three Fs", including rent tribunals to lower rents to
levels at which tenants would cease to agitate.
The next goal being unclear, however, the violence and boycotting
continued, and the Government hit back by throwing the Land League
leaders into Kilmainham Jail. At the same time a letter to the clergy
and laity in the graziers' heartland of Meath from its Bishop, Dr
Nulty, appeared. In it he wrote, under the heading "Land Rent for
the Community a Design of Divine Providence":
"A vast public property, a great national fund, has
been placed under the dominion and at the disposal of the nation to
supply itself abundantly with resources necessary to liquidate the
expenses of its government..."
But Parnell's view was in an entirely different direction. In a
private treaty in May 1882 he agreed to subdue the peasant movement
upon his release in return for the dropping of coercion, the release
of prisoners, and the inclusion of rent arrears under the Land Act.
The Land War was over. Landlordism was clearly dead, and the graziers
were now content to feast on its carcase in the land courts and await
their inevitable succession to the ownership of Ireland.
MICHAEL DAVITT obviously wished that smallholders and labourers
should also succeed to some of the land's rent.
He denounced the Kilmainham Treaty and immediately made a speech in
favour of land nationalisation in Manchester's Free Trade Hall. He
also happened to be sharing the platform with Henry George, so the
Parnellites accused him of having been "captured by Henry George
and the Irish World", and of splitting the nationalist
Down, but not out, he spoke out again a fortnight later in Liverpool.
A delighted Henry George wrote to the Irish World:
"At last the banner of principle is flung to the
breeze, so that all men can see it, and the real worldwide fight
begun ... Davitt proposes compensation. Of course neither you, nor
I, nor Bishop Nulty agree to anything of that sort; but that makes
no difference ... I don't care what plan any one proposes, so that
he goes on the right line..."
The Treatyites rallied, and within the month, for fear of making an
open break, Davitt was making conciliatory speeches.
Parnell's pact to restore order culminated in October in the
rededication of the National Land League to Home Rule, and the
dropping of the word Land from its title. He became its President on
the condition that Davitt kept his ideas to himself at the inaugural
In his opening speech, Parnell declared that "no solution of the
land question can be accepted as a final one that does not insure the
occupying farmers the right of becoming owners by purchase of the
holdings which they now occupy as tenants."
George's disgust had already been registered after Kilmainham in a
letter to his editor: "Parnell seems to me to have thrown away
the greatest opportunity any Irishman ever had. It is the birthright
for the mess of pottage."
"Peasant Proprietorship" -- that is, proprietorship mainly
by bourgeoise farmers -- proved to be the British Government's
favoured line of retreat from the defeated landlord system.
Lord Salisbury, head of the new Conservative administration of 1885,
and a wealthy London landowner, was aware of a general unease amongst
property owners, especially landowners, "because they have been
the most attacked," as he wrote in the Quarterly Review,
He appreciated the Free Trade in Land argument, most effectively put
by Emile de Lavaleye in the first series of Cobden Club essays, 1871:
"In the [Flemish] public-house peasant proprietors
will boast of the high rents they get for their lands, just as they
might boast of having sold their pigs or their potatoes very dear.
Letting at as high a rate as possible comes thus to seem to him to
be quite a matter of course, and he never dreams of finding fault
with either the landowners as a class or with property in land ...
"Thus the distribution of a number of small properties among
the peasantry forms a kind of rampart and safeguard for the holders
of large estates; and ... averts from society dangers which might
otherwise lead to violent catastrophes."
Salisbury's first major piece of legislation was therefore the
Ash-bourne Act, which raised the provisions in previous Acts for
subsidised land purchase to a new level, and encouraged Parnell to
instruct Irishmen to vote Tory.
The policy's climax was the Wyndham Act of 1903 in which A.J.
Balfour's Government pledged £100m "to bridge the gap
between the price the owners could afford to take and the price the
tenants could afford to give" (Earl of Dunraven), to be repaid
over 68-1/2 years at a rate a quarter below the judicially fixed
By World War One, two-thirds of farmers were owner-occupiers (from 3%
in 1870). A.J. Balfour, Salisbury's nephew, claimed in a speech in
1909: "There is no measure with which I am more proud to have
been connected than with that giving peasant ownership in such large
measure to Ireland, and I hope to see a great extension of such
ownership to England."
"These ideas of Tory democracy which were planted in the 1880s
were the germ of a social process which is still working itself out,"
observes economic historian Avner Offer.
THE LAST quarter of the century thus saw Irish efforts once more
concentrated on redistributing incomes rather than increasing
production. British hopes of "killing Home Rule by kindness",
however, were completely vitiated by the failure of the land reforms
to spur economic activity.
Winstanley concludes in his recent historical review that "in no
way" could Ireland's economic problems "be attributed to the
inadequacies or otherwise of the land system."
He is, of course, referring only to the system of the Land Tenure
Myth. Barbara Solow, who helped destroy that myth, has gone on to "argue
for reestablishing the economic importance of tenure arrangements
She indicates that communal and private property rights "coexisted
right into the 19th century", and that the 1881 Land Act halted
the shift towards the latter "when the State undertook to enforce
the alternative view of property rights and ended rent determination
by the working of free market institutions ...
"Thus no automatic mechanism exists for replacing an inefficient
tenant with an efficient tenant... there is no way for land allocation
to be completely efficient." (Solow, 1981) "Incentives to
readjust the economy in the face of new international conditions were
to some extent paralysed." (Solow, 1971).
But this was the very opposite of what was required to protect common
land rights. The problem had not been that commercial rent was being
paid but that it was not being received by its rightful owners, the
whole people, via fiscal policy.
Thus the baby (rent charging) had been thrown out with the bathwater
(rent receipt by private landlords) and the dirt remained (private
In the name of private property, market allocation of land among
users was hobbled (replaced mainly by inheritance). In the name of
communal rights, the labouring, crofting and artisan classes were
denied their common rights in land. And in the name of the Famine, the
graziers consolidated their power.
Land value taxation (public rent collection) would have transferred
the rent to the whole population, perhaps by relieving consumption
taxes which hit the disinherited hardest. The increased value of work
and investment, the greater parity of incomes, and the rental market
for land would have thrown open access to land.
Even the landlords could have been compensated as they were, or
perhaps by annuities equal to their judicial rents. Growth and
inflation would have made short work of that burden on the economy.
Instead, Ireland had to carry the burden of a particularly
unproductive system of land tenure into the 20th century.
- W. W. Rosiow. The Stages
of Economic Growth, Cambridge. 2nd ed.. 1971. p. 24.
- R. D. Crotty, Irish
Agricultural Production: Its Volume and Structure, Cork Univ.,
Press, 1966, p.38.
- L.M. Cullen, An Economic
History of Ireland Since 1660. Batsford, 1972, p. 136.
- W.E. Vaughan, in L.M. Cullen
and T.C. Smout, Comparative Aspects of Scottish and Irish
Economic and Social History, 1600-1900, John Donald, 1977.
- B.L. Solow, The Land
Question and the Irish Economy, 1870-1903, Harvard, 1971,
- M.J. Winstanley, Ireland
and the Land Question, 1800-1922, Methuen, Lancaster
Pamphlets, l984, p.30.
- B.L. Solow. "A New Look
a! the Irish Land Question", Economic and Social Review,
Vol. 12. July 1981.
- H. George, The Irish Land
Question, New York, 1881.
- R. Douglas. Land. People
and Politics, Alison and Busby, 1976, p. 33.
- Rev. Dr. T. Nulty, Back to
the Land, Melbourne, 1939. p. 38.
- H. George. Jr.. The Life
of Henry George, Robert Schalkenbach. 1960. p. 383.
- A. Offer, Property and
Politics, Cambridge, 1981, p.150.