Landlordism in Ireland

Joseph Hyder: The Case for Land Nationalisastion
Chapter XIV Landlordism in Ireland

The history of the land question is the history of Ireland.
Arthur James Balfour.

Want keeps pace with wealth, poverty with progress, the discontent of the many with the affluence of the few. We have millions of paupers, land going back to a state of nature, crowded cities and depopulated acres, Highland and Irish clearances, and crowded emigrant ships. All these attest in unanswerable language that private property in land is public robbery of the nation – that land monopoly is an economic disease, a social rinderpest, that is rapidly inoculating the organism of society with the deadly virus of discontented poverty.
Michael Davitt, speech at St. James’s Hall,
October 30, 1883.

The whole code relating to landlord and tenant in Ireland was framed with a view to the interests of the landlord alone and to enforce the payment of rent by the tenants. The interests of the tenants never entered into the contemplation of the Legislature.
Lord Chief Justice Pennefather, in 1843.

We have simplified the law against the tenant. We have made ejectments cheap and easy, and notices to quit have descended upon the people like snow-flakes.
William Ewart Gladstone,
Speech in the House of Commons,
April 30, 1870.

IT would be difficult, if not impossible, to name any country in the world where the evil results of private property in land have been so disastrous as they have been in Ireland. The clan system was bad enough, but that which succeeded it was far worse. For, under the clan system, although the chief of the clan had enormous power, yet the land was never regarded as his own absolute property, and the humblest member of the clan was recognised as having a definite right to use it, and to get his living by it. And, at any rate, the chief was of the same religion and nationality as the people over whom he ruled. But when the clan system was destroyed by the English Government, a far worse system was established. The land was seized, the chiefs of the clans were expelled, the common people were treated as if they had no rights at all, and the country was given over to men of another race and another religion.

The whole of the sufferings of the Irish people are plainly traceable to that great iniquity. It is true that in England exactly the same thing was done at the time of the Norman Conquest. The land was given to the alien conquerors, who relentlessly ground the people down, and treated them as inferior beings. But, in course of time, the races mingled as one, and the conquered people secured a certain measure of liberty and recognition.

The English Conquest of Ireland never worked so smoothly. Governed from a distance, it was governed without sympathy and understanding. The strong and pitiless hand of England was ever ready to crush the natural aspirations of the people for better things, and every rising was put down with the utmost barbarity.


To understand the peculiar difficulty of the Irish problem it is essential to keep in mind the outstanding fact that practically the whole of the Irish people were disinherited by confiscations of so extensive a character that they are hardly to be paralleled in any other country.

“The whole power and property of the country,” said Lord Clare in the Irish House of Lords, on February 10, 1800, “have been conferred by successive monarchs of England upon an English colony, composed of three sets of English adventurers, who poured into this country at the termination of three successive rebellions. Confiscation is their common title; and from their first settlement they have been hemmed in on every side by the old inhabitants of the island, brooding over their discontents in sullen indignation.”

From the very first conquest of Ireland the aim of the English kings was to govern it by settlements of English landowners, as England was governed by the Normans. The scheme was interrupted at various times by the wars with Scotland and France, and by the Wars of the Roses, but it was always kept in view, and was acted upon whenever opportunities offered themselves. Henry VIII. projected the clearing of Ireland westward to the Shannon, but the chief seizures and clearances came in the reign of his children.

In the reign of Queen Mary the lands of the O’Connors, the O’Moores, and the O’Neils, were seized and settled by the English.

In the reign of Queen Elizabeth the whole of the Desmond Estates, measuring 295,379 acres, were similarly seized and settled.

Referring to the Elizabethan settlement, Sir John Davis, Solicitor-General to James I., said: “There was no care taken of the inferior septs of people. There was but one freeholder made in a whole country, which was the lord himself; all the rest were but tenants-at-will, who, by reason of the uncertainty of their estates, did utterly neglect to build, to plant, or to improve the land. And therefore, although the lords were to become the King’s tenants, the country was no whit reformed thereby, but remained in the former barbarism and desolation.”

In the reign of James I. the plantation of Ulster and Leinster was carried out –2,836,837 acres in Ulster, and 450,000 acres in Leinster, being wrenched from the natives and handed over to English adventurers. But the greatest of all the confiscations was carried out by Cromwell after he had crushed the people with a ruthlessness that has never been excelled in the whole barbarous annals of war. No less than 11,000,000 acres of land (reduced at the Restoration to 7,800,000 acres) were wrested from their ancient proprietors, and the people were thrust under the iron heel of the Cromwellian soldiers, and other Englishmen and Scotchmen, who gathered for the plunder.

“The captains and men of war of the Irish,” says Mr. Prendergast in The Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland, “amounting to 40,000 men and upwards, were banished into Spain, where they took service under that king; others of them, with a crowd of orphan boys and girls, were transported to serve the English planters in the West Indies; and the remnant of the nation, not banished or transported, were to be transplanted into Connaught, while the conquering army divided the ancient inheritance of the native and naturalised Irish by lot.”

“The intention of Cromwell,” said Professor Froude [Nineteenth Century, September 1880), “was to cover Ireland with a race of Protestant Saxon freeholders who would permanently take root. … The small freeholds were absorbed in the overgrown estates of the peers and county families; the Protestant landowners became, like the Spartans, a privileged aristocracy in diminishing numbers surrounded by a nation of helots.”

Edmund Burke [Letter to Richard Burke on Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland) said: “One would think they would wish to let Time draw his oblivious veil over the unpleasant modes by which lordships and demesnes have been acquired in theirs, and in almost all other countries upon earth. … It might be imagined that they would permit the sacred name of possession to stand in the place of the melancholy and unpleasant title of grantees of confiscation … The miserable natives of Ireland, who, ninety-nine in a hundred, are tormented with quite other cares, and are bowed down to labour for the bread of the hour, are not, as gentlemen pretend, plotting with antiquaries for titles of centuries ago to the estates of the great lords and squires for whom they labour. But, if they were thinking of the titles which gentlemen labour to beat into their heads, where can they bottom their own claims, but in a presumption and a proof that these lands had at some time been possessed by their ancestors?”

Petition after petition was sent up to the Government by the former proprietors, anxious, after years of weary exile in Connaught, or beyond sea, “to behold the smoke of their own chimneys, and to sit again at their own hearths,” but all to no purpose.

Further confiscations of 1,060,792 acres followed at the fall of the last of the Stuart kings, when the Irish again espoused a lost cause, and a Court for the Sale of Estates forfeited in the war of 1690 was set up. The lands could only be purchased by Englishmen or Scotchmen. No Irishman, high or low, could purchase an acre of them, or even occupy more than two acres as a tenant. Irishmen were forbidden to buy land anywhere, and where any land was already held by them it had to be subdivided at their death. They were further forbidden to settle their property either by deed or by will.

Further, the longest lease which could be granted to an Irish Catholic was for thirty-one years, and. as Edmund Burke pointed out, “A tenure of thirty-one years is evidently no tenure upon which to build, to plant, to raise enclosures, to change the nature of the ground, to make any new experiment which might improve agriculture, or do anything more than what may answer the immediate and momentary calls of rent to the landlord, and leave subsistence to the tenant and his family.”

“Multitudes of proprietors,” said Mr. Lecky (Macmillan’s Magazine, January 1873), “were driven as beggars from the land. A new and bitter cause of resentment was planted in the minds of the people, and the first great step was taken in producing that insecurity of property, and that smothered war between landlord and tenant, which was destined for so many generations to be the bane of Irish life.”

“Rooting out the Irish” was the settled policy of the English Government, and no considerations of humanity were allowed to stand in the way.

“No inherent want of respect for property,” said Professor Goldwin Smith, “is shown by the Irish people, if a proprietorship which had its origin within historical memory in flagrant wrong is less sacred in their eyes than it would have been if it had its origin in immemorial right.”

At the end of the confiscations only 7 per cent. of the land was left in the hands of the ancient inhabitants. The new masters of the land ruled them with a rod of iron. The heart of one of the most lovable and generous people on the face of the earth was broken. They became hewers of wood and drawers of water for the usurpers. They were as sheep whose only purpose was to be regularly shorn.

But, besides the confiscation of their lands, and the penal laws passed for the suppression of their religion, England repressed their industries, and made them almost wholly dependent upon agriculture for their living.

In 1634 Lord Lieutenant Strafford wrote to Charles I.: “All wisdom advises to keep this kingdom as much subordinate and dependent upon England as is possible, and holding them from the manufacture of wool (which, unless otherwise directed, I shall by all means discourage), and then enforcing them to fetch their clothing from thence, and to take their salt from the King (being that which preserves and gives value to all their native staple commodities), how can they depart from us without nakedness and beggary? Which is of itself so mighty a consideration that a small profit should not bear it down.”

This brutal and wicked spirit was consistently manifest in all England’s dealings with Ireland, and in 1698 both Houses of the English Parliament addressed King William:

“The growing manufacture of cloth in Ireland, both by the cheapness of all sorts of necessaries of life, and the goodness of materials for making all manner of cloth, doth invite your subjects of England, with their families and servants, to leave their habitations and settle there, to the increase of the woollen manufacture in Ireland, which makes your loyal subjects in this kingdom very apprehensive that the further growth of it may greatly prejudice the said manufacture here, by which the trade of the nation and the value of lands will greatly decrease, and the number of your people be much lessened here.” They prayed the King, therefore, to take action if necessary to prohibit and suppress the Irish woollen trade, so that Ireland might be confined to the linen trade only.

As a consequence of this appeal the Act of 10 and 11 William III. c. 10 was passed: “That wool and the woollen manufacture of cloth, serge, bays, kerseys, and other stuffs made or mixed with wool, are the greatest and most profitable commodities of the kingdom, on which the value of lands and the trade of the nation do chiefly depend; that great quantities of the like manufactures have of late been made and are daily increasing in the kingdom of Ireland, and in the English Plantations in America, and are exported from thence to foreign markets heretofore supplied from England; all which inevitably tends to injure the value of lands, and to ruin the trade and woollen manufactures of the realm; and that for the prevention thereof the export of wool and of the woollen manufactures from Ireland be prohibited under the forfeiture of goods and ship, and a penalty of £500 for every such offence.”

In this and other ways the landlords of England, in a spirit of greed run mad, kept Ireland from becoming a manufacturing nation, and condemned her to dependence upon one industry almost entirely.

And now let us see what was the condition of the landless people engaged in agriculture. Their history is one long record of unrelieved poverty and recurring famine. Whereas in England and Scotland the landlords generally defray the first cost of farm buildings and other permanent improvements, charging for them in the rent, the Irish landlord usually did nothing of the kind.

“It is admitted on all hands,” said the Devon Commission, “that, according to the general practice of Ireland, the landlord builds neither dwelling-house nor farm offices, nor puts fences, gates, etc., into good order before he lets land to a tenant. The cases in which a landlord does any of these things are exceptions.”

Every improvement was made by the tenants, and yet they were persistently denied any right of property in the results of their own labour. In spite of this they reclaimed the bog, and covered even the bare rock with soil and manure and seaweed, laboriously toiling from morning till night, only to find the rent raised on their own improvements. In the sacred name of the law, in the making of which they had absolutely no voice, this unspeakable robbery went on for generation after generation.

And so the time came, when, denied the protection of law, the people took the law into their own hands. The Russian Government was once described as a despotism tempered with assassination. The tyranny of landlordism in Ireland was at length tempered in the same way. Crimes of indescribable ferocity were committed, but it must never be forgotten that they were provoked by the almost incredible heartlessness of the landlords themselves. For rack-rents drove the people into desperation, and evictions depopulated the country.

The Devon Commission, appointed in 1843, in referring to the agrarian outrages which were rife throughout Ireland, said, “The whole nature of Christian men appears in such cases to be changed, and the one absorbing feeling as to the possession of land stifles all others, and extinguishes the plainest principles of humanity.”

The landlords, and their agents, were apparently deaf to all reason and common justice, and were only amenable to fear. The real responsibility for the outrages rested upon their shoulders, as truly as the excesses of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution were due to the previous oppression of the peasants by the territorial despots of France.

Writing in 1776, Arthur Young, in his Tour in Ireland, said: “The landlord of an Irish estate, inhabited by Roman Catholics, is a sort of despot, who yields obedience in whatever concerns the poor to no law but that of his own will. A long series of oppressions, aided by many ill-judged laws, have brought landlords into a habit of exerting a very lofty superiority, and their vassals into that of an almost unlimited submission. Speaking a language that is despised, professing a religion that is abhorred, and being disarmed, the poor in many cases find themselves slaves, even in the bosom of written liberty.”

“A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, labourer, or cottier dares to refuse to execute. Nothing satisfies him but an unlimited submission; disrespect, or anything tending towards sauciness, he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security. A poor man would have his bones broken if he offered to lift his hand in his own defence.”

But it was inevitable that such tame submissiveness could not last, and the people were at length goaded into crimes that were foreign to their nature, their natural kindliness destroyed by exactions, and transformed by oppression into vindictiveness.

Mr. Wiggins, agent to the Marquis of Headfort, visited the most disturbed districts, where the people were sheltering murderers, and were often themselves murderers, and when his sympathies with them in their troubles were known he met with nothing but kindness.

Writing in 1823, he said: “Goaded by distresses of the laws, irritated also by rents too high even for war prices, by the fallen prices of produce without corresponding reduction of rents and tithes, and by severities which have increased with the difficulties of their collection, the peasantry of Munster yielded to the influence of these, and probably of other less apparent causes, and, in the winter of 1822, insurrection and outrage became so extended as to require a large army to check its progress.” For human patience has its limits after all.

Before the Lords Committee, in 1825, the following important evidence was given by Mr. Nimmo, an eminent engineer who had carried out some extensive works in Ireland. He said: “The Irish tenant being in debt, it is in the power of the landlord to drive his cattle, under the form of distress, to the pound, by way of making him pay his rent; but this form of distress is applied, not only to the raising of rent, but to the doing of anything else the landlord wants. For example, if I want a parcel of people to work for me at eightpence a day, and they insist on being paid tenpence, I complain to the landlord that the people are demanding exorbitant wages; that we cannot go on; we will not pay them these wages; the landlord, whose interest it is to have the work go on in order that money may be paid to his tenantry for the purpose of paying his rent, sends instant notice that, unless they go to the work on the road at eightpence a day, all their cattle will be driven to the pound.

“Now, I conceive, the object being not to pay rent, but to do the roads, this is an illegal use of their power; and, supposing the landlord wanted them not to work on the road for me, they would have a like notice for that. Notice has been sent to a man that, if he went to work on the road, his cattle should be driven next morning to the pound; consequently he may be made to do anything the landlord pleases.

“I conceive the peasantry of Ireland to be in general in the lowest possible state of existence. Their cabins arc in the most miserable condition, and their food, potatoes, with water, without even salt. I have frequently met persons who begged of me on their knees to give them some promise of employment, that from the credit of that they might get the means of support.”

When the Committee asked him what he thought was the cause of the poverty he had been describing, Mr. Nimmo said: “It is unquestionable that the great cause of the miserable condition of the people, and of the prevailing disturbances, is the management of land. There is no means of employment, and no certainty that the peasant has of existence for another year, but by getting possession of a portion of land on which he can plant potatoes. The landlord has, in the eyes of the peasant, the right to take from him in a summary way everything he has, if he is unable to execute those covenants into which he has been obliged to enter from the dread of starvation.

“I conceive there is no check to the power of the landlord. Under cover of the law the landlord may convert that power to any purpose he pleases. When he pleases he can extract from the peasant every shilling, beyond bare existence, which can be produced by the peasant on the land. The lower order of peasantry can thus never acquire anything like property; and the landlord, at the least reverse of prices, has it in his power to seize, and does seize, his cow, bed, potatoes in the ground, and everything he has, and can dispose of the property at any price.”

A few years before this, the effects of the villainous land system of Ireland were thus described by an eminent Irish judge, named Fletcher, in a charge to the Grand Jury of Wexford, at a time of many agrarian outrages.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “the moderate pittance which the high rents leave to the poor peasantry the large county assessments nearly take from them. Roads are frequently planned and made, not for the general advantage of the country, but to suit the particular views of a neighbouring landowner, at the public expense. Super-added to these mischiefs are the permanent and occasional absentee landlords residing in another country, not known to their tenantry but by their agents, who extract the uttermost penny of the value of the lands.

“If a lease happens to fall in they set the farm by public auction to the highest bidder. No gratitude for past services, no preference for the fair offer, no predilection for the ancient tenantry (be they ever so deserving); but, if the highest price be not acceded to, the depopulation of an entire tract of country ensues.”

The absentee and alien landlords lived safely in England and bled the people white, and the British Parliament was always on their side, sympathising with them as innocent property owners who had the misfortune to be bothered with a lot of ‘troublesome Irish’ for their tenants.

Again and again eye-witnesses from England were constrained to remark upon the patience of the people. Said the Devon Commission, in 1845:

“We cannot forbear expressing our strong sense of the patient endurance which the labouring classes have generally exhibited under sufferings greater, we believe, than the people of any other country in Europe have to sustain.” And they urged upon Parliament the need for improvements in the land laws so that the tenants might be given greater security of tenure, and compensation for their own improvements.” The uncertainty of tenure is constantly referred to as a pressing grievance by all classes of tenants. It is said to paralyse all exertion, and to place a fatal impediment in the way of improvement. We are convinced that no single measure can be better calculated to allay discontent and to promote substantial improvement throughout the country.

Lord Stanley brought in a Bill with that object, but the landlord opposition in both Houses was so strong that it had to be abandoned. Two years later Ireland was in the throes of another famine, the worst in her mournful experience. Nearly a million of the people died of starvation, and yet, in that very year, as Culloch says, 3,251,000 quarters of grain and meal were exported, the absentee landlords having the first charge upon the produce.

And again the marvellous patience of the people is testified to, as in the following speech by Lord George Bentinck, cited in O’Rourke’s History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847:

“I can only express my great surprise,” he said, “that with the people starving by thousands – with such accounts as we have read during the last two days, of ten dead bodies out of eleven lying unburied in one cabin, of seven putrid corpses in another; of dogs and swine quarrelling over and fighting for the dead carcases of Christians; of the poor consigned coffin-less to their graves, and denied the decencies of Christian burial, that the price of the coffin saved might prolong for a few days the sufferings of the dying – I, for one, look with amazement at the patience of the Irish people.”

Four years later the Census revealed the awful havoc, which had been wrought by the famine upon a people who had been driven by landlordism to depend upon one crop, and who died when that crop failed. “But,” says the Census Report, “no pen has recorded the numbers of the forlorn and starving who perished by the wayside, or in the ditches, or of the mournful groups, sometimes of whole families, who lay down and died, one after another, upon the floor of their miserable cabins, and so remained uncoffined and unburied till chance unveiled the appalling scene. …

“And yet, through all, the forbearance of the Irish peasantry, and the calm submissiveness with which they bore the deadliest ills that can fall on man, can scarcely be paralleled in the annals of any people.”

But the Pharaoh of landlordism hardened its heart, and still would not let the people go. At the very time of the famine there were 4,000 processes entered for rent at the quarter sessions of the barony of Ballina, and they nearly emptied the district, for the people fled.

The emigrant ships were filled with people escaping from their native country, no inch of which belonged to them, and carrying with them a hatred of England that was perfectly justified by the circumstances. Humane and enlightened men there were in Parliament, but they were outnumbered, and when reform measures passed the Commons, they were either destroyed altogether, or mutilated beyond recognition in the House of Lords. No part of the black record of that abominable anachronism is blacker than the record of its action in regard to Ireland. In the eyes of the overwhelming majority of its members the rights of landed property are sacred, even though they involve, as in the case of Ireland, the robbery (no milder word is suitable) of a nation. War has slain its thousands, but Irish landlordism has slain its tens of thousands.

Never once did the House of Lords delay for a single hour any Coercion Bill, or temper the harshness of its provision with mercy. Never once did it fail to oppose any Bill that aimed at giving justice to the people. If the greed and selfishness of some men in relation to others are the root-causes of nearly all the troubles which afflict mankind, they are indeed personified and enshrined in the Legislative Chamber whose members have their grip of lordship over nearly one-fifth of the British Isles.

Twenty-three years after the Great Famine had done its deadly work, and after nearly three millions of the Irish people had left their native land for ever, the principle was at length permitted by the Lords to pass into law that the Irish tenant was entitled to be compensated for his own improvements; and even Lord Salisbury was constrained to say, “I only wish, for the credit of Parliament, that our machinery acted somewhat less slowly, and that the principle of compensation for improvements had been adopted directly after the Report of the Devon Commission.” Unquestionably, the main reason why the machinery moved so slowly was the opposition of the Lords themselves, and the blood of hundreds of thousands of the Irish people lies on their heads.

Eleven years later, the State stepped in to put an end to the systematic rack-renting which still went on, and, in a few years after that, the dual-ownership system began to be broken up, and to give place to the one that is now being established, the credit of the State being employed to get rid of the big landlords and to install the tenants as freeholders.

That system is not the best – it has serious defects; but it is immeasurably better than the one it displaces, and, in any case, it was the only one which the Irish people and public opinion generally were ripe for at the time. In conclusion, it is obvious that the whole of the Irish trouble, the whole of the sufferings of the Irish people, and the whole of the embitterment of the relations between England and Ireland, are traceable to the one gigantic injustice which was perpetrated when the land was wrested from the people to whom it rightfully belonged, and parcelled out among men of an alien race and an alien religion in order to secure them in an utterly unjust ascendancy over the natives of the country. Not Ireland alone but England also has suffered, and is suffering, from the inevitable effects of that criminal blunder, and must continue to do so until that ascendancy, under whatever guise it may show itself, has been absolutely destroyed.