Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland

By W. E. Vaughan | Go to book overview

8
Conclusion

Much had changed between 1848 and 1876. The law of landlord and tenant had moved towards freedom of contract, and then towards restricting it. The countryside had become more peaceful; rents in the 1870s were paid with a punctuality that would have impressed agents in the early 1850s. Housing was better absolutely and relatively; small farmers were holding their own; the land system had stood up to a number of shocks without falling into anarchy; famine was not impossible, but the use of Indian meal meant that another great famine was unlikely. Emigration maintained the existing structure of land occupation by permitting the relatively smooth removal of surplus children.

Much, however, had not changed. Poor areas such as County Mayo had shared in the prosperity, but their predicament had not been transformed. The land question had not gone away: an intellectual apparatus, sustained by rich administrative sources, had been built up, directing thought and criticism into well-worn paths. The land act of 1870 was not the inadequate measure that many of its critics imagined; but it did not solve the land question. If anything, it increased the tendency to argue in tenurial terms, confining discussion to narrow channels. The land question had not advanced intellectually. The need to cope with crises caused by accidents, bad harvests, or depressions was given little thought--debt moratoria, public works, or reserve funds for tenants in difficulties were not often discussed. Neither estate management nor the tenants' capacity for organizing themselves had apparently changed. Landlords were just as visible, just as contentious as they had been in the 1850s: they still operated a public system of law, open to scrutiny, and unassimilated by the state bureaucracy. The tenants had not organized themselves into anything that even remotely resembled trade unions, either in numbers or in effectiveness. Many of the land question's political rivals had vanished: the poor law, agricultural protection, the Irish church, the papal states, and even the Fenians had subsided or disappeared as public issues. As each problem receded the starkness of the land question appeared greater independently of any changes in relations between landlords and tenants.

What had the landlords achieved between 1848 and 1878? The landlords, with the exception of those who had discovered that Henrietta Street was the via dolorosa of landed wealth, had survived. They had continued to

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