How the law achieved a revolution in land ownership

Gladstone and the land acts

Much of Irish history has involved struggles over land. Yet these were more commonly legal struggles, rather than military ones. The law was sometimes used to dispossess, and other times used to grant ownership to tenants long denied a secure holding.

The earliest system of Irish law was Brehon law, which gave each of the sons of a deceased landholder equal portions of his estate. Any sons born outside marriage, if recognised, could inherit on equal terms. However, disobedient sons were barred from inheriting.

Daughters had only very limited rights to inherit land, and then only if they had no brothers. Families were complex, not least as Brehon law allowed for polygamy - and concubines were also common. Clans and extended families were very important and kin often had certain rights to use their relative’s land.

The Normans pushed aside the practise of brehon law. In Norman-controlled areas, polygamy was banned and strict feudal systems were established, with the Norman lord at the top, naturally. Brehon law made a brief comeback, until the imposition of Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367. The surrender and regrant of land, saw the brehon law system come to a final end.

Vast estates were forfeited to the crown after the Desmond rebellions. More land was redistributed to loyal Protestants under the Adventurers Act of 1642. Penal laws were then established barring Catholics from land ownership altogether. Ownership of the vast majority of land fell into the hands of a small number of families. The vast majority of the Irish population became tenants and sub-tenants.

For example, in 1843 there were 12,529 tenants on the Trinity College estate. However, just 1 per cent of were directly tenants of the college. Some 45 per cent were sub-tenants of the 1 percent, and another almost 7,000 were sub-tenants of the sub-tenants. Such widespread sub-letting led to the creation of thousands of small and uneconomic landholdings, which contributed to the famine.

From 1778, the penal laws began to be repealed, but few Irish Catholics could afford to purchase land until prices plummeted during the famine. Also, large estates were often tied up legally so that it was very difficult to sell the freehold. Many landlords were absentees who employed unscrupulous agents to rent out their land for the maximum profit, known as rack rents. Most tenants had no security of tenure, and so had no incentive to improve their land. Plots were subdivided through the generations. A failed harvest meant eviction, starvation or emigration for many. Others survived off tiny plots which were rented for eleven months, and paid for by a mixture of labour and money. This was known as conacre, from the term “corn-acre.”

Land agitation saw Gladstone introduce the first of the Land Acts in 1870. These gave Irish tenants greater security of tenure, and enabled some to borrow from the government over 35 years to purchase the land they were renting. These acts culminated in the Wyndham (Land Purchase) Act of 1903, which largely finished off landlordism in Ireland and facilitated the transfer of some 9 million acres to Irish tenant farmers.

By 1920, the Land Acts had enabled over 316,000 tenants to buy 11.5 million acres - over half of Ireland’s total land area of 20 million acres. By independence, Irish tenant farmers enjoyed more rights than tenant farmers in England, Scotland and Wales. The Free State Land Act of 1933 diverted land-purchase annuities to local development projects, and the last estates were broken up and sold to tenants. A series of legislative reforms over 150 years had accomplished a revolution in land-ownership in Ireland.

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