Home Page







Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Nine

                          The Primary Sector II

Summary of chapter. Other aspects of the Irish economy are described. Of the greatest importance was the recurrence of famines which had largely died out in the rest of Europe. Another was the tenure of land which had its origins in the Middle Ages. Despite the issue made by Catholic nationalist agitators, the tenure of property in Ireland was no different from that in Britain or the United States. Drainage and land reclamation was very important in a boggy country like Ireland.

(i) Agricultural Incomes

(ii) Fisheries

(iii) The Tenure of Land

(iv) Estate Management

(v) The Study and Improvement of Agriculture

(vi) Bogs and Land Reclamation

(vii) Crop Failures and Scarcities


 (i) Agricultural incomes 

            It was calculated in 1790 that an income of £30 a year could be obtained from 11½ Irish acres from mixed farming, i.e. £2 12/6 an acre. This calculation was probably optimistic. A cow in 1820 needed two Irish acres or two and a half statute acres of grass per year. It gave a profit of £8 a year from a yield of two gallons a day and a price of 8 pence a gallon. A lactation of 480 gallons is implied, this being the total quantity of milk given between calvings (IFJ 28 April 1820.) This would work out at £3 4/- an acre. Being a 'Forty Shilling Freeholder' did not imply a lease on a large number of acres. 

            Some figures were given in 1820 that indicated that the best return came from sheep. One claimed a gross return of £7 16/- an acre from wool, and another claimed that Lord Lismore got a return of £10 an acre gross from a merino cross (IFJ 17,24 June 1820). Wool brought about  £1 a stone but even at the intensive stocking of 11 sheep to the acre claimed a fleece of nearly a stone weight per sheep is indicated. The price of wool varied from 19/- to 26/- a stone, and the normal stocking rate was 6 sheep to the acre. Again the figures claimed seem optimistic.  

            In 1839 in Limerick it was estimated that the gross return was £7 an acre from land rented at £1 an acre (Limerick Leader 24.9.39). In 1880 it was estimated that the income of the poorest farmers in Mayo was between £30 and £40. It is clear that those with holdings of between 50 and 100 acres were quite comfortable. 

            These were typical incomes of tenant farmers holding directly from the landowner or at least from the head tenant. Where subletting went unchecked the amount paid in rent rose sharply with each letting until the traditional half-and-half shares of metayage was surpassed. A rent was accounted a rackrent when two thirds of the annual gross return was paid. 

            The cost of maintaining a family was estimated at £10 a year.  At the beginning of the century it was estimated that on average a farm labourer was employed for 200 days each year at 5d a day in winter and 6d in summer totalling £4 12/-. He had besides a potato patch. Those farm servants in more secure employment like grooms, gardeners, coachmen, etc. could get from £15 to £20 a year. Towards mid-century the wages of a farm labourer or ploughman in full employment were put at £15 a year. 

            Public attention was focussed on those who were not fortunate enough to get or inherit good leases. Where subdivision or squatting went unchecked the holding became tiny. So long as the potato could be relied on it was at least secure. The tragedy came when the potato could no longer be relied on. Those without any land at all, and their numbers seem to have been large, who survived by casual labour or by begging, were in the worst state of all. How they survived was a mystery to concerned observers.[Top] 

(ii) Fisheries 

            In the eighteenth century there was dismay at the huge amount of fish imported and every effort was made to develop the fisheries. The deep-sea fishery offered great scope for development. The Government had the Nymph Bank off the coast of Waterford surveyed early in the eighteenth century but only foreigners exploited it. A great fishing industry was developing in Donegal in the eighteenth century but it collapsed when the fish left the coast and the sand-dunes buried the fishing port. 

            Around 1800, Lord Cornwallis, the Lord Lieutenant, had the Nymph Bank re-surveyed, and a Scotsman established a company in Waterford to catch the fish on it for sale in London. Fishing interests in both Waterford and London opposed the venture and it collapsed. About 1818 some merchants in Dublin resolved to break the local fishing ring which was maintaining high prices. They were successful, and established an off-shore fleet. A similar attempt in Galway was frustrated despite the dispatch of a revenue cutter to protect its boats. In 1840 a fleet of twelve large boats was formed at Dunmore east, Co. Waterford and local fishermen were trained by trawlermen brought over from England. 

            The off-shore boats were between twenty and fifty tons. Trawlers had to have a deeper keel to enable them to keep to windward when trawling, and so weighed about seventy tons, costing about £600. Hookers were really cargo boats, clipper-built and cutter-rigged but could be used for line-fishing. On the Irish Sea there was the wherry, a very sea-worthy decked boat, used by the Post Office to carry the mails in winter.  

            The most popular rig was the cutter rig. A cutter had a single mast with a large mainsail on a gaff, and at least two triangular foresails. Cutters were used by the Revenue service because of their speed and their ability to sail close to the wind. Fishermen who had to tack frequently off the rocky western coasts appreciated this latter ability. The older lugger rig persisted in places. Luggers had four-cornered sails set on yards. Smugglers favoured the rig for the sail could be rapidly lowered making the boat invisible if there was a mist on the surface. The wherry rig consisted of lower sails, topsails and a jack. 

            There were no peculiarities about Irish nets. The inshoremen often used a seine in a manner unchanged from the time of St Peter. The fishermen rowed a U-shaped course out from the shore and in again paying out the net as they went. The ends of the net were then grasped and the net hauled in a purse shape. The trawl or beam-trawl net was shaped like a long narrow purse, with the mouth held open with a beam. It was dragged along the sea-bed scooping up everything in its course. Acts of the Irish Parliament forbade its used in inshore waters. Drift nets and stake nets were suspended vertically in the water, the latter in shallower waters, and caught the fish which swam into them by the gills. In very deep waters lines with multiple hooks were used. (SNL 7 March 1848). 

            Inshore and inland waters were intensively fished, and there was not a square yard of such waters which was not claimed but some person or group as their private reserve. Rivers and estuaries were clogged with nets and traps of all kinds. 

            The boats used by the inshore men were about twenty feet long, without decks, modelled on a Norwegian pattern or on whaleboats. On the western coast the building of the 'currachs' of timber or wickerwork frame construction without keel or deck continued. Among other things their shallow draught made them suitable for smuggling. 

             The fishing industry, though it employed thousands, was only geared to local needs, and fishermen were often part-time farmers. They would fish at night, sell their catch to cadgers (pedlars) on the shore, and retire to the local pub for the day. Usually no attempt was made to salt the fish or otherwise preserve them. The cadgers sold what they could locally, and then with the fish in panniers on their ponies' backs, they set off straight inland by the cadgers' paths often reaching inland for surprising distances before the fish went bad. When they did not arrive those who could afford fish for Fridays had to buy Scottish salted herrings. 

            When the Marquis of Stafford was developing his Sutherland estates he regarded harvesting the sea as important as putting a good breed of sheep on the mountains. He built piers and fishing villages, and brought in skilled fishermen and fish curers to instruct his tenants. In 1819 the Irish Government followed his example and encouraged the county gentlemen along the coasts to improve the local fisheries. A Fisheries Board was set up empowered to grant bounties for catches for several years. The price thus guaranteed would enable the fishermen to repay money borrowed to buy equipment. The numbers claiming to be fishermen shot up rapidly to an estimated total of 63,421 with 253,704 dependants, and a further 300,000 engaged in ancillary industries like boat and sail making, coopering, and fish curing. When the bounty was discontinued eleven years later many drifted out of fishing. Nationalists argued that these bounties showed what a native government could do. It was argued on rather better grounds that the bounties were paid for too short a period to allow the discharge of debts on major items like boats, and that in Scotland they had been continued for a longer period enabling the industry to become firmly established. On the other hand it may be claimed that many were only interested in the cash bounty and stopped fishing when it was no longer available. During the Famine it was noted that the farmer-fishermen first sold their boats. 

The numbers of those engaged in fishing could only be estimated roughly. One estimate in 1798 put the figure at 60,000, and another in 1820 put it at 30,000. When the bounty system came in the numbers claiming to be fishermen went over 60,000. Marmion gives figures of

64,771 with 13,119 ships and boats in 1830
54,119 with 10,761 ships and boats in 1836
93,073 with 19,883 ships and boats in 1845
64,612 with 14,756 ships and boats in 1851. 

            The Government in addition constructed roads and piers in remote places along the coast but refused to take over the duties of the county gentlemen on a permanent basis. The poor quality and bad siting of some of the piers was criticised, but this seems to have resulted merely from inexperience. The county authorities made no provision for their upkeep. Nor, more importantly, did to local gentry who stood most to benefit. 

            The further west one went the worse the system of markets became. Local fishermen complained that they could not get salt, or had to pay in advance, or could only get it in bulk. But often, it seems, local fishermen were more interested in forming rings to restrict catches and so keep up the price. They could thus get the same return for less work. The Government at one stage sent a revenue cutter to protect independent fishermen against the rings, but it proved to be too large to work close inshore and so was withdrawn. Co-operative associations were not formed until the end of the century. Just as the efforts of the Linen Board to establish the linen industry in the south of Ireland failed, so too did the efforts to establish an export-orientated fishing industry. Marmion, at mid-century was still deploring the imports from Scotland and the Isle of Man echoing the complaints of a century earlier. 

            River and inland waters were fished extensively for the markets. Numerous Acts were passed from the eighteenth century onwards to try to prevent over-fishing and to conserve stocks. Weirs were often built across the entire width of the stream, or nets were stretched from bank to bank. The opening of the rivers for navigational purposes greatly improved stocks. [Top] 

(iii) The Tenure of Land 

            Ireland was fortunate in that, apart from Church lands, and some common lands, almost the whole of the land was held under the clear title of estates in fee simple, or by leases in legal form from the holders in fee simple. This was partly due to the policy of successive monarchs of 'surrender and re-grant' by which Irish chiefs surrendered their families’ lands to the crown and received them back by royal grant to themselves effective in the courts of Common Law, and partly to the redistribution of confiscated lands following an unsuccessful revolt. In any case, when Brehon Law was abolished, older ideas of property and older titles ceased to have legal validity. (There was a long history stretching over several hundred years of the transfer from the allodial ownership of the land by the cultivators  to the personal ownership of estates by the great landowners. This transfer was mostly antecedent to any confiscations by the crown.) Considerable areas of common land existed around villages until 1800. It was notoriously unimproved, so in accordance with prevailing fashion it was enclosed and the co-owners compensated with their consent. 

            English law does not recognise strict, ownership of land, but only an 'estate' in the land, i.e. a legally defined series of rights regarding its use and disposal. These rights could therefore be removed by the crown, for adequate reason, following due process of law. Estate or real estate has come to mean immovable goods like lands, shops, factories, or houses, while personal estate means legal interest in moveable goods or valuables. When the owner of a piece of real estate such as land, a house, a mill, or a shop leases it (or lets or sets it) he is referred to as the landlord (landlady), and the person to whom it is let is called the holder or tenant. That is the meaning given to landlord and tenant in this section. 

            In Ireland, in the nineteenth century an estate was commonly understood as a large holding of land whether in fee simple or by lease in fee farm. Smaller holdings by lease in fee farm were simply called farms. The one was held by gentlemen, or gentlemen farmers; the other by working farmers.  The chief object of the 'Penal Laws' was to ensure that estates came into the hands of Protestants, thus preventing Catholic estate-owners from raising regiments of soldiers, becoming Members of Parliament, or sheriffs in counties. By 1800 there were few Catholic owners of estates left.

            The term 'tenant' or 'holder' applies to the person (or institution) holding the lease. (Legal terms were often derived in the Middle Ages from French; tenant simply means holder.)  The terms were ambiguous for the holder of a long lease could and frequently did sub-let. The original owner was called the head landlord, and the original lease the head lease. It is not always clear in Ireland who counted as the landlord. 

            The original grant of an estate in land implied a contract with the crown, a foedum (Latin) or fee (French). If no conditions were attached to it was called fee simple; otherwise in was called entailed, or in fee tail. As legal contracts strong and binding in law they could be called contracts in fee farm (French) (foedum firmum in Latin. From the common lease of land for agricultural purposes in fee farm was derived the name of the holding, namely the farm. (The history of the word given in the Oxford English Dictionary would seem to suggest that the essential point in fee farm was the paying of a fixed rent as opposed to sharecropping, metayage, or tithes, which were based on fractions of the actual annual crop.) Apparently only on Church lands, for reasons connected with canon law and the laws of Mortmain did older forms of tenancy like copyhold survive. 

            A tenant in fee farm might be a freeholder, a leaseholder, or a tenant at will. The first two were held for specified periods, the third for an unspecified one. Originally the term freeholder meant that the tenant had no customary dues to pay or services to render to the land lord or lord of the manor beyond what was specified in the lease for the renting of the land or other property. 

             By the nineteenth century in Ireland freehold was distinguished from leasehold only by certain peculiarities of the lease. A freehold lease could only be granted by one who was himself a freeholder, whether as head landlord or as middleman. A freehold had an element of indefiniteness about it, being for life or a number of lives. Three concurrent lives (regarded as being roughly 31 years) was a common lease. Such 'lives' might or might not be specified as 'renewable forever'. On the death of each person named in the lease another name could be substituted on payment of a renewal fine. (It is reported that one landlord, during a period of agrarian crime, always included his agent as one of the named persons in every lease!) One who had a lease, say for 999 years could not grant a freehold lease even for a short period. A leasehold was always granted for a definite number of years, 9 or 14, or 31, or 99 years being common. The distinction was only important for political reasons, for qualified freeholders could vote. 

            In England freehold meant ownership in fee simple, but Peel observed that gentlemen wishing to create freeholder tenants for voting purposes could always cheat, for example by giving the freehold of a piece of bog while reserving all rights of turbary, grazing and shooting to themselves. In Ireland, of course, freeholders could be manufactured by changing leases for 31 years into leases for three lives. The only benefit to the tenant was increase in status.  Catholics could take leases for lives since 1778 and could vote, and become jurymen since 1793. As fees were payable for registering as freeholders and taking the necessary oaths, up until 1829 at least the fees were paid by the landlord who also kept the registration documents. The expensive process of registration was normally only done if there was a likelihood of a contested election in the county. Such tenants were expected to vote in accordance with their landlord's wishes unless the latter allowed a free choice. If his rent was paid up-to-date, including the hanging gale, he need not fear eviction if he voted against the landlord's wishes, but he would not expect to have his lease renewed unless he could compose matters in the meantime. (The computation of the 'forty shilling freehold' required for voting or jury service is dealt with in a later chapter.) 

            An estate was normally divided into two unequal parts, the demesne lands and the lands leased to the tenants. The demesne lands were kept by the estate owner himself, and on it he built his house and farm buildings, and planted his woods, gardens and orchards. The farm and gardens were worked by hired labour, farmhands, stable boys, gardeners, shepherds, etc. whether the owner was resident or not. The numbers employed varied. The landowner might be interested in farming or estate improvements, or he might not. He might only require enough grass for his horses. The demesne lands on the Foster estate in Collon occupied about a thousand acres of which about half was given over to woods, shrubberies, waters, gardens, etc. Several thousand acres, nearly all of it recently reclaimed land, was leased out to tenants. Some estates, on the other hand, were small, perhaps not exceeding a hundred acres in total. This system had remained virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages. But because of subletting the holdings of individual tenants in some parts of Ireland became tiny. Improving proprietors objected to this but difficulties regarding evictions and the moral objections to this course made consolidation difficult. 

            The holdings of tenants too varied enormously in size. Some of the 'extensive graziers' might have thousands of acres of grazing land on long leases. Others might have only a few acres of potato ground. The backbone of the Irish economy, at least as far as exports were concerned, was formed by the tenant farmers with some hundreds of acres of tillage land, the strong farmers. 

            A lease specified in detail the duties of the tenant besides listing the nature and size of the holding and its term. The 'accates' due to the landlord were listed. These were extras, such as a calf at Christmas, to be given to the landlord. Subletting was excluded. If any landlord in the past had failed to evict every subletting tenant the courts regarded him as assenting to it. The result, as noted earlier, was that it could not be legally abolished until the head lease had to be renewed. The lease usually specified that no crops should be planted in the last year of the lease. In practice the landlord and tenant divided between them whatever crops grew of themselves. Grass therefore was the most likely crop planted in the second last year of the lease. 

            Owners of leases can ask for a renewal fine. This was not a punishment but a sum of cash paid in advance into the landlord's hand, with the annual rent lowered in proportion. Landowners resorted to this when the wanted large sums of ready money. An old man could virtually beggar his heir by this means. Fines were the rule on Church lands because the rents had been pegged in the seventeenth century, and the fine was a compensation for the low rent. At the beginning of the nineteenth century most land in Ireland was held under a tenure for lives renewable for ever, with low rents, and a renewal fine on the death of each named 'life' (DEP 9 Aug 1810). They were thus freeholds. When tenants took to voting against their landlords’ leases were again shortened and were granted as leaseholds rather than freeholds. 

            In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries before markets were developed long leases were granted at low rents, except to Catholics who were subject to legal restrictions. As prices for farm produce improved in the eighteenth century in the eastern part of the island landlords tended to shorten leases and raise rents both of which were for obvious reasons disliked. But improving landowners argued that they needed a fair return for their outlays.

            Leases could be granted to groups in common, the group being responsible for paying the entire rent. This was called a runrig lease, perhaps recalling common ownership of plough and oxen. In the nineteenth century such leases were invariably associated with spade cultivation. Each tenant however had his own patch of land, his own tools, seeds, and livestock, and profits were not pooled. Customarily the work was done in common, but on a strict basis of owing days of labour. A day's work assisting a neighbour brought a strict 'obligation' to repay it in kind. The phrase 'I am much obliged to you' meant the favour had to be repaid, perhaps at a distant date. Both landlord and tenant benefited to some extent by the system. The landlord had an assurance of sorts that the whole rent would be paid. The tenant had an insurance in case of sickness that his rent would be paid for him. The Irish system to some extent obviated the great drawback of communal system, namely that nobody particularly exerts themselves for the common good. The practice of working in common was probably a greater hindrance to personal exertions. The system also apparently lent itself to subdivision. From 1820 onwards landlords began to discontinue such leases. 

            Rents were paid at half-yearly intervals at the spring and autumn quarter-tenses. Tenants normally expected to have enough cash in hand for the Michaelmas quarter-tense, the last week in September. This involved selling the crop immediately, and every farmer doing this at the same time, with a resulting lowering of prices to the farmer. The rent was not demanded at the end of the first half-year but was always considered due. The rent for half a year was called a 'gale', and the suspended half-year's rent was called a 'hanging gale'. The landlord could call for the hanging gale at any time, and if it was not paid he could go to court to get a writ allowing him to auction the tenant's goods and chattels to realise the required sum. A lease was a legal contract binding on both sides. A tenant could not surrender his lease and try to make some composition with the landlord. If he could not pay he was liable for imprisonment for debt. If he absconded the landlord had to go to court to get a legal eviction order to secure the return of his property so that he could let out the land again. It would seem that most, if not all, the cases for eviction brought before the courts during the Famine resulted from this legal requirement. Unless a legal eviction were obtained the land would have to remain derelict. 

            Rents were not considered high by English standards. This reflected both low productivity and distance from markets. Some rents were very high and subletting caused this. If a tenant sublet he could live off the rents and did not have to work. Each subletter had therefore to let at a higher rent until the rack was approached. Strictly speaking, the rack was the annual return from a piece of land. In practice a rackrent equalled two thirds of the annual rack. 

            Evictions, apart from those caused by consolidation of sub-divided holdings, seem to have been fairly rare. Because of the general opprobrium in Ireland attached to the idea of eviction a landlord would only have resort to it if arrears were substantial and no effort was made to make repayments. But it is difficult to generalise. If there was an agrarian conspiracy against paying rents evictions might be fairly general. Again a Scottish land-agent might deliberately set rents low to ensure they were paid, and evict promptly if they were not. Or an intermediate landlord might evict a defaulting tenant if he himself were under threat of eviction. In extreme cases of subdivision with rents near to the rack eviction by the proximate landlord may even have been frequent as land-hungry peasants made wild promises they could not possibly fulfil to get a piece of land. But this was an abuse the head landlords were trying to stamp out. 

            When evicting, for whatever reason, the greater landlords usually remitted all arrears of rent, and allowed the evicted tenant to take all his crops, livestock, tools and implements, and even the manure from the farm to sell. Sometimes they gave a gratuity to allow the tenant to get to England to find a job, or else to establish himself in a trade. It was estimated that an evicted family thus usually had enough cash with which to sustain themselves for two years. The largess on the part of the landlord was not entirely due to benevolence; over-harsh treatment of the evicted was liable to result in an outbreak of agrarian terrorism. Many of the crowds evicted in the campaign against subdivision proved unable or unwilling to re-establish themselves elsewhere and led many to advocate a proper legal Poor Law.

            It is obvious that there was nothing unusual in Ireland either in law or in practice in the matter of relations between landlord and tenant. [Top] 

 (iv) Estate Management 

            Perhaps no topic in the whole history of agriculture was subjected to so much distortion and misrepresentation as estate management in Ireland and in Scotland. In Scotland the word 'clearances' is intended to conjure up a picture of pitiless lairds clearing the tenants from their estates to make room for the more profitable sheep. In Ireland the words 'absentee landlords', 'middlemen', and 'evictions' are added to convey the same impression. The allegations and imputations have long since been refuted but this does not prevent people both in Ireland and in Scotland continuing the smears and ignoring all evidence to the contrary. 

            One of the problems in Ireland was that improvement of estates was long associated with Englishmen or Scotchmen who received grants of confiscated land in Ireland and tried to improve their estates. Among these were Sir Walter Raleigh and Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork. These were not popular with the Irish gentry who were dispossessed. Some of those who received grants of Irish lands  (or purchased them from others) had other estates in England where they resided. These, who were called 'absentee landlords', were very unpopular with the Irish gentry and resident landlords for it was felt that they were draining wealth out of the country while failing to do their duty to Ireland by acting as magistrates etc.  

            As was customary in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, both in Ireland and Scotland, the absentee landlord leased his estate to a head tenant who in Ireland became known as the 'middleman'. He paid a fixed rent to the proprietor and sublet to other tenants. The absentee landlord could be a bishopric, an Oxford college, a livery company in the City of London, or any other body that could own real property.  

            In Ireland the grievances against the absentees seem to have been combined with a snobbery against the middlemen, tenants who by definition were not gentlemen, nor fitted by nature to act as gentlemen, but who nevertheless virtually owned large estates. This should be seen as the background to Maria Edgeworth's novels, The Absentee and Castle Rackrent. In England, the estates were let in large units to farmers who were called yeomen. These might have an income of £500 a year, but the were not gentlemen, and they knew their place. At times of revolution the Government and the magistrates felt they could be safely embodied into a yeomanry to keep the lower orders in control. Ireland's lack of a proper yeomanry was often deplored. Indeed many of the measures advocated for improving the lot of the poorer classes envisaged the establishment of a yeoman farmer class in Ireland, prosperous tenants rich enough to undertake improvements and to give employment. But this was precisely the type of person O’Connell had to eliminate if he was to succeed in dominating Irish politics. 

            It is not evident that absenteeism thus defined was worse in Ireland than in any other part of Europe. In 1797 it was estimated that there were 394 major absentees. 

            Those who advocated improvement of agriculture and of estates condemned the system of middlemen (or tacksmen as they were called in Scotland) but it has not been proved that they were on the whole better or worse than their contemporary resident landowners. In the seventeenth century the middlemen were often Gaelic-speaking Catholics, but by 1800 they seem to have been mostly English-speaking Protestants. In their favour it was argued that someone had to undertake the business of splitting up the land into small holdings and collecting tiny rents from each if every man was to have his own patch. They acted as 'retailers' whereas the proprietors were 'wholesalers' (IFJ 3 Mar 1821). As far as improvements of estates or the raising of the standard of living of the tenants, attacks on absentees and middlemen were really misplaced. 

            Estate improvement involved three major items, agricultural improvement on the demesne lands, re-structuring the tenancies into a smaller number of larger units, and the replacement of the traditional head tenant or 'middleman' by a land agent often trained in Scotland. 

            Improvement began on a large scale in Ireland in the eighteenth century at the time of the construction of the great country houses. Amenity was considered as much as utility. Roads were made, wetlands drained, tidewalls built, hedges and woods planted, artificial ponds and waters constructed, besides the enlarging of the houses and gardens themselves. Cottages might be built for the farm workers. Outlying farms might be sold off and the core estate consolidated by purchasing adjacent lands. Entire villages on the estate might be re-built. They often took up farming themselves as 'gentlemen farmers' to practise and teach improved husbandry. 

            As farm incomes increased in the eighteenth century the landowner usually tried to take advantage of this. Leases were shortened, and rents increased, and every effort was made to encourage the improvement of fertility of the soil and output. Rundale leases, where they existed were terminated. The prohibition of subletting was increasingly enforced. Better quality bulls were purchased for the benefit of the tenants. Quite often too the landowner applied to the Lord Chancellor for permission to hold a market in a village on or near his estate, for sales in a market increased the profitability of the tenants' farms. (For a well-documented example see Macartney of Lisanoure, P. Roebuck ed., Belfast, 1983. Roebuck mentions the increase in the second half of the eighteenth century of those skilled in estate management such as solicitors, surveyors and other consultants p 312. He also mentions that Macartney found that investment in Government funds gave a better return than investment in poor land in county Antrim.) 

            By far the greatest influence on estate owners and managers in the nineteenth century was however the enormous success of the Marquis of Stafford in improving his wife's unpromising estates in Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. His methods, for half-a-century, provided a model for improving landowners to imitate and for Governments to encourage. (It should be noted that criticisms of the Marquis centre on his rather high-handed manner of dealing with his tenants than with the improvements themselves. Whether he was any worse in this respect than later slum-clearing municipal authorities may be doubted.) 

            He first built roads into the Highlands beyond Inverness. He then drained, limed, fenced, and manured the more fertile soils along the coast. He built fishing piers and fishing villages at points convenient to both farmers and fishermen. His tenants were then forcibly re-settled, and this is the chief charge against him. The unprofitable black cattle had to be replaced by profitable sheep, with skilled shepherds brought in from outside to manage them, and the former tenants now re-settled on the coast prevented from returning. 

The former barren estates became very profitable and the new tenants too were able to earn a comfortable livelihood by the standards of the times. Paying the new higher rents meant much hard work that was not always popular. Nearly all landlords with estates in the Highlands hastened to follow the example of the marquis, though some preferred to provide ships to enable their tenants to re-settle themselves on better land in Canada. This too was to become a grievance with some who never experienced the crofter's (cottier's) life. 

            It is sometimes alleged that Irish landlords 'cleared' whole estates in order to devote the land to cattle ranching. This may have been done when all the tenants in a joint lease were hopelessly in arrears, especially if this latter was the result of an agrarian conspiracy against rent-paying and re-letting to outsiders. But a landlord would normally be reluctant to do this because he would have to forego revenue for several years while at the same time laying out a great deal of money. The process of changing over from intensive cultivation to profitable cattle-rearing was slow and expensive. The soils were almost always in an exhausted state and it was estimated at the time that several years manuring was necessary to produce sustained swards suitable for fattening cattle. It was easier to encourage the tenant to make the change that was also more profitable for himself. Tenants were not always willing to make the change. Firstly they would be faced with paying higher rents. Secondly, to re-establish the exhausted soil as a rich pasture it had to be heavily manured for several years. This manure could not therefore be spread on the other crops and output fell (IFJ 16 Oct 1819) 

            In fact, 'clearing' in Ireland meant something different from in Scotland. One great problem that faced Irish improving proprietors, unlike the Marquis of Stafford, was that their estates were densely settled, far beyond the capacity of unimproved land. This was the result of subdivision caused by letting and subletting, and sub-subletting, until there were as many as four 'middlemen' between the head landlord and the cultivator. As part of the improvement in estate management Lord Stafford had replaced the middlemen (or tacksmen) on his estates with land agents. The land agent both oversaw the cultivation of the landlord's demesne lands and dealt with leases to the tenants. Improving Irish landlords followed suit, often employing Scotsmen as agents. Before this, some Irish landlords and middlemen had employed 'agents' to collect the rents, and deal with leases, but these were lawyers whose chief function was to serve writs on the recalcitrant. The agents were charged with the long-term development of the estate, and not the short-term maximisation of profits. The idea was therefore to give leases to industrious tenants with capital rather than to the highest bidder. 

            In Ireland, nothing could be done until the head lease came up for renewal, for just before that all leases further down the scale expired. The tiny patches were consolidated into larger holdings, and strict clauses, strictly enforced, were inserted against subletting. (If the head lease was held jointly on the rundale system this was discontinued, as joint tenants rarely exerted themselves to improve the land.) Large numbers of tenants even of the most liberal and humane landlords thus had no chance of getting the lease on their tiny patch renewed. 

            In theory, the dispossessed could get jobs as day labourers on the demesne lands or on other farms, or take the cash they could realise and go to the towns, or to the manufacturing districts in England. In the event, many huddled in shanties on the outskirts of towns. Their obtrusive distress led to a call, from the Catholic bishops among others, about 1830, for a compulsory Poor Law. Such a law envisaged a 'labour rate' in the counties to provide public works like the making of roads, bridges, piers, and quays, by those who could find no other employment. Those, like Thomas Spring Rice, who opposed an Irish Poor Law, did so because they felt (with considerable reason) that if such existed landlords would not undertake the more effective remedy of improving their own estates. Indeed, as many examples during the Famine were to show, the 'public improvements' were merely nominal and the works undertaken were a test of poverty rather than genuine attempts at economic improvement. 

            By 1840 there came a shift in emphasis. It was noted on all sides that the tenants were not in fact making as much effort to improve their farms as their landlords wished. This was to some extent a matter of appearances for Irish tenants had for centuries deliberately cultivated a dilapidated appearance on their holdings, bushes in gaps instead of gates, etc. The fear was if the farm looked too prosperous the rent would be increased. 

             In England, the improving of the entire estate and the necessary investment to do this was the sole responsibility of the landowner. It was he who drained, fenced, manured, etc., and provided the farm buildings. The tenant provided seed, stock, implements, and labour. In Ireland the tenant was responsible for providing everything, so that rents (head-rents) were lower in Ireland. It began to be argued that a tenant with only a short lease had no incentive to improve, as he might not have his lease renewed. (By then, of course, renewal of leases to a good tenant by a land agent was much more probable than in the cut-throat days of subletting by middlemen, but old fears might persist.) 

            In Ulster there were some customs which had no precise shape or any binding force in law which had the effect of giving the tenant some recompense for any improvements. These were known collectively as 'Ulster custom'. In general, an outgoing tenant received compensation from an incoming tenant for improvements made. This could not be enforced in the courts but the tenants had their own ways of enforcing it, so that O’Connell had some grounds for regarding it as a form of intimidation and extortion. 

            In the 1840's many people, especially clergymen, set themselves up as experts on land improvement. Tenant right, a rather vague slogan or policy with innumerable variants became a popular bandwagon to jump on to. The most favoured option to encourage tenants to make improvements was 'fixity of tenure', by which was meant that a landlord should not be allowed to refuse a renewal of lease to a satisfactory tenant. Peel, when Prime Minister in the 1840's appointed a commission under the experienced improving landlord, the Earl of Devon, to examine the question. If Peel had not died prematurely earlier solutions might have been found to the problems of Irish landholdings. Thirty years later a terrorist campaign led Gladstone to attempt a solution. 

            As often in Ireland in the nineteenth century sectarian disputes were disguised as economic or social disputes. They tended therefore to be fought out exclusively in Catholic areas. The whole mythology of the oppressive evicting landlord is unknown in the Protestant parts of Ulster. Another point to be remembered is that it was the improving landlords who incurred the most opprobrium. Those landed gentlemen like Daniel O’Connell who left their tenants in squalor were regarded as 'real gentlemen'. If all landlords in the first half of the century had acted vigorously to stamp out subdivision and subletting the Great Famine would never have occurred.  The final settlement through the Land Acts enabled each tenant to purchase his holding. As many of these holdings were tiny it is not obvious that the change was beneficial or that it produced any of the good effects intended. [Top] 

 (v) The Study and Improvement of Agriculture 

            Ireland claimed to have in the Dublin Society, founded in 1731, the oldest society in the world devoted to the study and improvement of agriculture. (Some Scotsmen dispute this claim.) Earlier still the Government promoted the growing of flax, and in 1711 a lectureship in botany was established in Trinity College. The lectureship was raised to a professorship in 1785. In the 1790's the Dublin Society instituted 'botanic gardens' in Dublin to promote the scientific study of agricultural plants and weeds and the management of grassland. Around 1750 several local farming societies were formed to promote tillage, drainage, fencing, tree planting etc. 

            In the year 1800 a group of improving farmers, including John Foster of Collon and the Marquis of Sligo, founded the Irish Farming Society because they felt that the Dublin Society was not active enough. The new society imported improved farm machinery, new varieties of seeds, and the best specimens of livestock. It set up its own factory to manufacture the improved machinery. It held two shows annually, one in Dublin and the other in Ballinasloe, awarding prizes for the best samples of agricultural produce and the best ploughing. Local agricultural societies were organised in various counties, but after an initial enthusiasm appear to have become moribund. The Farming Society folded about 1830 but the Dublin Society was persuaded to maintain the Dublin Show. 

            Though the Irish Government considered it was the duty of the landowner to improve his estates it was not backward in giving additional assistance. To this end it formed the Fisheries Board in 1819, and began to construct roads in the far west and south. Government money was provided though roads were a responsibility of the counties. Some Irish landowners took their duty of improving the condition of their tenants seriously; other less so. A wealthy landlord like Lord Palmerston could afford to spend much on his Irish estates and did so. So landlords were heavily in debt. Under Irish law a mortgage even for a small sum was held against the whole estate, so that a part of it could not be sold to pay off the debt. The Encumbered Estates Act (1849) remedied this. 

            At the beginning of the century the Government was giving an annual grant of £21,000 to the Linen Board, under the direction of John Foster, for the advancement of the linen industry. Some maintain that Foster slowed down the introduction of machinery by his distribution of hand-looms. The grant was discontinued and the Board itself wound up after Foster's death in 1828. Co-incidentally, machinery was then introduced into factories in Belfast, paving the way for an enormous expansion of the industry. 

            In 1806 Sir John Newport got the Government to pass its Corn Interchange Act, which together with the Corn Laws gave Irish farmers a virtual monopoly of imports into Britain for the next forty years. Some argue that this retarded the development of the more profitable livestock and dairy industries. 

            In 1821, following the collapse of some private banks, the Government reorganised the banking system. It proceeded too with the dismantling of remaining tariffs against the importation of Irish goods into England. Just at this time the steam cargo-ship was introduced on the Irish Sea promoting an increase in the sale of agricultural produce. In 1826 the Government standardised all wet and dry measures, the measurements of distance and area, and the currency. It had been expected that the 'Winchester bushel', the most widely used dry measure, would have been adopted. Instead a system of 'Imperial measures' harmonised with each other was adopted. The Government did not go so far as to adopt the metric system as some advised. Irish currency was discontinued as legal tender. The Irish mile of 2240 yards was replaced by the statute mile of 1760 yards, but not retrospectively. Joint-stock banks were still excluded from places within 50 Irish miles from Dublin. Nor was the use of Irish or local measure prohibited. Irish acres were used until comparatively recently. The Irish still sold wheat by the 'barrel' of 280 pounds, while the English bought it by the 'quarter' of 480 pounds making difficulties for statisticians among others. 

            From time to time periodicals devoted to agriculture were launched in Ireland to give news about improvements. Such periodicals faced the problem that if farmers wished to buy one they often preferred the original British ones. 

            Farming Societies seem to have been in decline in the Thirties, but in the Forties were being revived. In 1840 the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland was founded by the Duke of Leinster and Peter Purcell the coaching contractor. New farming publications began to be issued. 

            During the Famine the Government employed special agricultural instructors to go into the most remote areas to explain and give practical demonstrations to the illiterate cottiers. [Top] 

(vi) Bogs and Land Reclamation 

            The fairly flat uneven surface of the country and the high rainfall produced many bogs most of which were not extensive. Drainage and land reclamation had been proceeding since the Middle Ages. The extent of bogs was reduced by an estimated million acres between the surveys of Sir William Petty in the seventeenth century, and the Ordnance Survey in the nineteenth. 

The problems of growing crops on reclaimed bog were well known. By the year 1800 many thought that the limits of feasible reclamation had been reached, pointing out that in wet years reclaimed bogland turned again to rushes, and that bogland lacked natural nutrients. Others said that nutrients could be supplied by burning the topsod, and if lime was need it was everywhere locally available. It was noted however that bog soil was naturally infertile and so the crops it produced did not repay the costs of drainage. Heavy manuring was also required. 

            Early in the century the Dublin Society commissioned a survey of bogs, and the Irish Government too appointed Bog Commissioners to carry out a more extensive survey. The Commissioners estimated that bogs covered 2.8 million statute acres of which 1.5 million acres were red or raised bogs which could be turned into fertile soils, and the remainder were mountain blanket bogs which could be drained for mountain pasture or forestry. By 1845 the Morning Register claimed that not less than 174 committees and commissions had studied the matter. Most of these, it is true, were routine committees set up to examine proposed legislation but the number reflects both the importance with which the problem was viewed and its intractable nature. 

            It became clear that while small local pieces of drainage were easy (and had already been done) more extensive drainage faced many problems. The bog might be caused by a cill of underlying rock that could only be removed by blasting. But it might be several miles distant on someone else's property. The landlord of that estate might not be interested, or have no cash, or the estate might be in Chancery. Again, the exact bounds of an estate might not be known if, as often happened, their boundaries were in the middle of a bog. The adjacent landlords would have to agree to the drainage, if they happened to be on speaking terms, and were solvent. Tenants might have common rights on the bog, or right of turbary might be included in their leases. Nor was it always easy to establish precisely who had such rights. Some rights, too, like those of water for a mill, might have been established centuries before. 

            Some of the difficulties were resolved in time. The Ordnance Survey determined boundaries and established the levels needed for drainage. The Encumbered Estates Act (1849) freed much land from the hands of mortgagees. 

            Archbishop MacHale strongly believed in the possibilities of reclaiming bogs. So too did the Bible Societies who made several attempts to form Protestant colonies on reclaimed bogland. Such colonies remained only marginally profitable even in Holland where they were also tried. [Top] 

(vii) Crop Failures and Scarcities 

            The prices of cereals reached probably an all-time high at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but by the time the Government had imported rice the crisis had passed. Prices were nominally higher later in the War, but inflation had eroded the real value of money. Napoleon's Milan and Berlin Decrees cut off traditional markets and caused some distress around 1810. The ending of high war prices and the exhausted soils caused considerable hardship when the War ended. It was several years before the sales of sheep at Ballinasloe, the barometer of the Irish economy, reached their wartime peaks again but the worst distress lasted only a few years. 

            In 1816 came the first of the partial failures of the potato crop. The ending of the war-prices had affected the commercial classes and their dependants; this affected chiefly the cottier class. They had no potatoes and there was no work locally to enable them to buy food. 

             It had long been recognised that gratuitous relief or simple hand-outs of food made a famine worse and longer-lasting as those near to destitution flocked to get the free hand-outs. The hand-outs too destroyed the fragile market system especially in the region of subsistence agriculture as people deserted the shopkeepers who had themselves bought at inflated prices in order to get free food. Many fled from areas of scarcity to centres where food was being doled out with the result that labour was not available at seed-time. These phenomena are observed during every famine. (In Ireland, during the Great Famine, some unwise revolutionaries even proposed seizing existing crops and distributing the food to the needy. This would have had many consequences.  Nobody would transport the stolen goods so horses and carts would have to be seized to carry the grain. The strong farmers, not getting a price, would the following year sow only enough for themselves.  If some goods could be stolen, any goods could be stolen, so widespread looting would break out. Imports would cease. In one year the situation could turn from having a famine with plenty of food in the country to the far worse one of a famine with no food in the country.) 

            It was early recognised in Ireland that normal markets and channels of trade should not be interfered with. The rise in prices would tend to suck in imports of food that would reduce them again. Peel, then Irish Secretary, decided not to interfere, though the Government would assist local efforts by advancing loans for the chartering of ships or the purchase of food. There would be no gratuitous relief, but schemes of public works could be organised locally to give work to enable the destitute to purchase food. Local relief works were envisaged as being of an improving nature. The resulting higher income from rents or rates would enable the loans to be repaid, and would also make a recurrence of the famine less likely. Relief of the infirm poor was left to local charities, and it was expected that people like mayors and bishops would organise them locally. These principles were applied in 1817, 1822, and 1831, and in 1822 a great collection for famine relief was organised in England. The fundamental problem, despite many efforts, was never cured before the great failure in 1845. This was the growth of the cottier class, dependant on the potato for a large part of their sustenance, in parts of Ireland where casual work, or any paid work, was almost impossible to organise.

            Fever was a great hazard associated with scarcities, and the Government took steps to see that local authorities and relief committees had all powers necessary to enable them to deal with fevers. A Fever Act (1819) was passed to enable mayors of towns to prohibit strangers from entering the towns when fever was prevalent. 

            Various relief schemes on the foregoing lines were passed during the Great Famine with the unanimous consent of the Irish members. Why the schemes failed so disastrously in parts of Ireland when they were effective in other parts, and also in Scotland, is very unclear. Part of the explanation seems to be the flight to America of those tenants able to pay the increased Poor Rate. There also seems to have been foot-dragging by local groups in some counties and Poor Law Unions who were anxious to shift the full cost on to the central Exchequer. 

            It has always been noted that Ireland, all through the Famine, was producing enough food to feed the entire population. The key to success lay in the prompt and adequate local provision of relief works for the able-bodied and soup kitchens for the infirm. Where these were provided, notably in Ulster, the famine was contained.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.