Land Tenure in 19th Century Ireland – Impending Change & Resolution

Compiled by Seán Flanagan

The inflexible land tenure system, excessive rent demands and evictions were the prime causes of the social and financial hardships endured by tenants in 19th century Ireland.  Out of the resulting agrarian unrest, tenants’ rights groups evolved and then assimilated into one organisation, the National Land League, established in Castlebar on 21 October 1879.                                 

With two powerful political leaders, Michael Davitt and Charles Stuart Parnell, directing strategies for peaceful protest and resistance, the Land League was instrumental in convincing Government at Westminster that fundamental land structural reforms were essential for settling the ‘land question’ in Ireland.  The Land League campaign forced Government to concede a series of Land Acts passed by Parliament in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.  The application of these Land Acts eventually resolved the long standing agrarian problems and social turmoil embedded in rural Ireland for centuries. The Land Acts of most significance are listed here.

The 1881 Gladstone Second Land Act granted 3 demands:

  1. Fair rent – rent control decided by Land Courts and not by landlords.
  2. Free sale – a tenant could sell the interest in his holding to an incoming tenant without landlord interference.
  3. Fixity of tenure – a tenant could not be evicted if he had paid the rent due.

Under this act also, the Irish Land Commission was created as a rent fixing agency. Although the Act provided tenants with security, by this time the Irish were demanding ownership. 

The 1885 Ashbourne Land Purchase Act allowed tenants to borrow 100% of what they needed to buy their holdings, repayable over 49 years at 4%; £5m was made available; 25,000 land purchases were made.

The 1891 Balfour Land Act provided for the establishment of the Congested Districts Board. There was an uptake of land purchases by 59,510 farmers.

The 1903 Wyndham Land Act was a Land Purchase Act  that instigated the greatest changes. Chief Secretary for Ireland Lord Wyndham formulated a new scheme for land purchases by tenants.  A sum of £100m was allocated by Government to subsidise the scheme; 250,000 tenants purchased their farms. 

The 1923 Land Act established by the Irish Free State post-Independence 1922, also known as the Hogan Act (Patrick Hogan, Minister for Agriculture 1922-32). Most Irish farmers had become owners of their farms before 1921. The 1923 Land Act was primarily associated with the completion of land purchase that had been begun by the British land purchase acts listed above. The functions of the 1923 Act were: (1) to complete the transfer of tenanted lands by providing state funds to tenant purchasers in fee simple subject to purchase annuities; (2) to redistribute land through the acquisition of untenanted estates and their division for the provision of new holdings to persons qualifying under the Free State Land Acts or for the enlargement of uneconomic small holdings. This Act constituted an attempt to solve the land question once and for all, including the relief of rural congestion as a priority.

Summary: Overseen and implemented by the Irish Land Commission, the Land Acts transformed land ownership in Ireland. By 1909, 13 million acres of land were transferred to 330,000 new farmers. By 1916, 64% of farms were owned by their occupiers.

Sean Flanagan, November 2020