Land, and the ownership of land, was to dominate Ireland’s history in the Nineteenth Century. The problems caused by who owned the land was partly responsible for the terrible impact of the Great Famine from 1845 to 1847. Gladstone attempted to resolve the land issue but by the end of the Nineteenth Century not a great deal had been done which specifically improved the lifestyle of those who worked on the land.
Those who owned estates in England had realised that a well managed estate could be a source of considerable income. The Agricultural Revolution had shown landowners the way. Such interest was rarely shown in Ireland. Those who owned the land were frequently absentee landlords. This title accurately indicates the problem: those who owned the land were never there to see what was going on within their estates. Many of the absentee landlords lived in England. This left the system open to much abuse. Many landowners would leave agents behind to run their estates or they would lease their land out to middlemen for a set number of years in return for a set sum of money. These middlemen ensured that they got their money back – and more. They were motivated purely by profit.
Land prices were high in Ireland – up to 80% to 100% more expensive than in mainland Britain. Those who leased land from an absentee landlord, rented out small parcels of land to those who paid to farm it. Each estate leased out was divided into the smallest possible parcels of land and many families who worked the land had only half-an-acre to live off.
There were essentially no rules that controlled the work of those who had leased land from absentee landlords. They worked in conjunction with the Royal Irish Constabulary and it was the RIC and Army that enforced evictions if this was needed.
There were many abuses that were carried out by land managers:
Rundale was the name given to a system whereby land rented to a person or persons was scattered throughout an estate. Therefore, it was very time consuming getting to each parcel of land. The argument given for using this system was that everyone got a chance of getting at least some good land to farm. One man in Donegal had 42 pieces of land throughout one managed estate.
Hanging Gale was a system whereby a new tenant was allowed to delay his payment of rent for 6 to 8 months from the start of renting the land. Therefore, he was permanently in debt and had no security.
Conacre was a system whereby the landlord/manager prepared the land and then the tenant moved in. The tenant was then allowed to pay part of his rent using the crops he had grown. If there had been a bad harvest, then he had no crops to pay part of his rent. Therefore, he was gambling that he would get a good harvest. In 1845 to 1847, this was a disaster.
These three systems offered no security to the tenants. Those who could not pay their rent were evicted and landlords could call on either the Army or the Police (or both) to enforce this. Even those tenants who had done what they could to improve their land were not safe as it was common for landlords to evict these tenants on the slightest excuse, and then rent it out at a higher rate as ‘improved land’.
The situation was different in Ulster. Many of the tenants there were Protestant and they were legally entitled to compensation for improvements done to their land and they were generally better treated by their landlords. A specific procedure had to be gone through to evict someone and landlords and magistrates in Ulster tended to be more compassionate to those who had difficulty paying their rent. Such a situation created great resentment amongst Catholic tenants.
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