Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland

By W. E. Vaughan | Go to book overview

4
The Tenant-Right Custom

i. What Was Tenant Right?

Tenant right was, according to the lawyers Ferguson and Vance, 'a phantom that melts away under every attempt to define it and that, chameleon- like, appeared to assume a different aspect every time it presents itself'.1 Contemporary definitions ranged from the simple right of an outgoing tenant to sell his improvements to what became known as the three Fs-- fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale. Mountifort Longfield, a judge of the landed estates court, told a select committee in 1865 that tenant right was 'the custom of a tenant holding from year to year at a moderate rent and with security of tenure depending upon the honour of the landlord': when such a tenant 'wants' to quit, he may sell his tenant right 'for sometimes as much as £800'.2 The tenant-right custom, according to W. D. Henderson, was the three Fs.3 Even landlords and agents went beyond the right to sell improvements. Fitzherbert Filgate, Lord Downshire's agent, thought that tenant right included 'fair' rents;4 Robert Russell, a County Donegal agent, thought that it included fixity of tenure.5

There were enough contradictions in definitions of tenant right in the 1850s to justify the cautious, but capacious, definition put forward by Ferguson and Vance: the right of a tenant to continue in possession as long as he paid his rent or until the landlord required possession; the right of an outgoing tenant to sell 'all the interest in the farm recognized by custom to belong to him'.6 But what did this mean? The first right conferred nothing remarkable on a tenant; the second did not explain what the custom allowed him to sell. Was it his improvements, or something more? William Neilson Hancock, brother of Lord Lurgan's agent John Hancock and professor of political economy in Dublin University ( 1845-51), argued that

____________________
1
William Dwyer Ferguson and Andrew Vance, The Tenure and Improvement of Land in Ireland, Considered with Reference to the Relation of Landlord and Tenant and Tenant Right ( Dublin, 1851), 300-16; we also B. L. Solow, The Land Question and the Irish Economy, 1870-1903 ( Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 24-32.
2
Sel. Comm. on Land Tenure, 1865, 190.
3
W. D. Henderson, Lecture on the History and Origin of Ulster Tenant Right, Delivered before the National Reform Union, Manchester, 20 March 1877 ( Manchester, 1877), 8.
4
Lords' Sel. Comm. on Land Tenure, 1867, 190.
6
Ferguson and Vance, The Tenure and Improvement of Land in Ireland, 302; see 300- 1 for several different definitions of tenant right.

-67-

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