Irish Land Question

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Irish Land Question

Irish Land Question, name given in the 19th cent. to the problem of land ownership and agrarian distress in Ireland under British rule. The long-term result of conquest, confiscation, and colonization was the creation of a class of English and Scottish landlords and of an impoverished Irish peasantry with attenuated tenant rights.

In the 18th cent., under the Penal Laws, Roman Catholics—the vast majority of the Irish population—were prevented from acquiring land. Tenants' improvements were discouraged because they led to higher rents. Eviction on short notice was also a problem. The securing (1829) of Catholic Emancipation brought into the British Parliament Irish Catholics who sympathized with the miserable tenantry, and the terrible Irish famine of the 1840s focused attention on the land question. In 1849, Parliament passed the Encumbered Estates Act, which provided for the sale of mortgaged estates. However, its liberal purpose was defeated by speculative purchasers who made the rents even more extortionate from the tenants' point of view.

The Irish Tenant Right League, established in 1850, demanded the "three F's" —fair rent, fixity of tenure, and freedom of sale. The violence of the Fenian movement, the extension of the franchise by the Reform Act of 1867, the movement for Home Rule, and assistance from the Liberal party, headed by William Gladstone, furthered the cause of the tenant. Gladstone's Land Act of 1870 protected the tenant from arbitrary eviction and provided some compensation for improvements.

A major agricultural depression beginning in the 1870s brought a new crisis. The National Land League, founded under the leadership of Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, conducted a campaign of boycott and violence that influenced the passage of the Land Act of 1881, called the "Magna Carta" of the Irish farmer. It recognized the three F's and provided a land commission to fix a "fair rent." Thereafter land purchase by the tenant became the predominant issue. The Ashbourne Act of 1885 and supplementary acts of 1887 and 1891 provided a loan fund of many millions of pounds for tenants who wished to purchase their lands.

Difficulties remained because the Anglo-Irish magistracy, which favored the landlords, did not satisfactorily implement the new laws. The Irish National League, an outgrowth of the suppressed National Land League, advocated withholding of rents from extortionate landlords. Its activities, too, were suppressed. The Irish Agricultural Organization Society, fostered (1894) by Sir Horace Plunkett, began to encourage agricultural cooperation and improved farming methods; this led to the establishment (1899) of the Irish Dept. of Agriculture.

The agitation of the United Irish League, under William O'Brien, demanding compulsory sales by landlords, led to the Wyndham Act of 1903 and the Amended Land Purchase Act of 1909. The Wyndham Act, which provided loans to tenants at reduced interest for the purchase of land and gave bonuses to landlords who sold, proved, in effect, a solution to the Irish Land Question. In 1907 the Evicted Tenants Act provided for the compulsory sale of land needed for evicted tenants. By 1921 two thirds of the land in Ireland had become the property of Irish tenants, and a compulsory law transferred the remaining portions soon after the establishment (1922) of the Irish Free State.

See J. E. Pomfret, The Struggle for Land in Ireland, 1800–1923 (1930, repr. 1969); N. D. Palmer, The Irish Land League Crisis (1940); P. Bew, Land and the National Question in Ireland, 1858–82 (1979).

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