Irish Land Acts

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The Land Acts were a series of measures to deal with the question of peasant proprietorship of land in Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Five such acts were introduced by the government of the United Kingdom between 1870 and 1909. Further acts were introduced by the government of the Irish Free State after 1922.

First Irish Land Act: 1870

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The Prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland William Ewart Gladstone had taken up the "Irish question" in an effort to win the general election of 1868 by uniting the Liberal Party behind this single issue. The shock of Fenian violence, especially in England, as well as the growing awareness of the potency of strong nationalist feelings in pan-European politics was a second reason to tackle the Irish Question. Gladstone had a very sincere desire to bring peace with fairness to Ireland, and by extension, the rest of the UK, which was then at the zenith of worldwide Imperial power. The Landlord & Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870 was partly the work of Chichester Fortescue, John Bright and Gladstone.[1] The Irish situation was favourable, with agriculture improving and pressure on the land decreasing since the Great Irish Famine. The Encumbered Estates' Court (1849) and agitation by the Tenant Right League had led to the sale of estates by debt-ridden mainly absentee landlords. Gladstone's Liberal government had no explicit mandate for the Act, unlike the 1869 Disestablishment Act and so could expect some opposition from the English landlord class in the House of Lords, fearful for the implications of property rights in England, many of whom were Whigs that Gladstone relied on for support in Parliament. Partly for this reason, Gladstone's approach was cautious, even conservative, since he was dedicated to maintaining the landlord class whose "social and moral influence", he said in 1863, was "absolutely essential to the welfare of the country." Furthermore, Gladstone met resistance from Whigs in his Cabinet itself, especially Robert Lowe, and the resulting compromise measure was so weak that it had little difficulty in passing both Houses of Parliament, with one significant amendment. As well as the Land Act, the Liberal government also passed the Irish Church Disestablishment Act and put forward the Irish University Bill that failed to pass both Houses of Parliament.

Policymakers made much use of the statistical data recently collated in Griffith's Valuation (1853–68).


1. The Custom of Ulster or any similar custom prevailing elsewhere, was given the force of law where it existed.
2. Tenants not enjoying this protection (the vast majority) gained increased security by:
a) compensation for improvements made to a farm if they surrendered their lease (these had previously been accredited to the landlord, hence no incentive to the tenant);
b) compensation for 'disturbance', i.e. damages, for tenants evicted for causes other than non-payment of rent.
3. The 'John Bright Clauses', which Gladstone accepted reluctantly, allowed tenants to borrow from the government two-thirds of the cost of buying their holding, at 5% interest repayable over 35 years, provided the landlord was willing to sell (no compulsory powers).

To prevent eviction by rack-renting, and so avoiding paying compensation to tenants, the Bill said that rents must not be "excessive", leaving this for the courts to define. But the House of Lords in a wrecking amendment substituted "exorbitant" in its place. This enabled landlords to raise rents above what tenants could pay, and then to evict them for non-payment without giving any compensation.


However well-intentioned, the Act was at best irrelevant, at worst counter-productive. Fewer than 1,000 tenants took up the 'Bright Clauses', since the terms were beyond most peasants and many landlords did not wish to sell. Many substantial leasehold farmers, who had led the campaign for land reform, were excluded from the Act because their leases were longer than 31 years. Legal disputes over customary rights and "exorbitant" rents actually worsened landlord-tenant relations. Figures do not indicate any impact of the Act on the rate of eviction, which was at a low level anyway. In the late 1870s when depression struck, evictions for non-payment of rent mounted, tenants had no protection, and in reply 'outrages' and the campaign by the Land League, led by Michael Davitt, became known as the "Land War". The government had to pass a Coercion Act as early as 1881 because of the increase in violence in Ireland; it lost support to the Home Rule Movement, which won 9 out of 14 Irish by-elections (1870–4), mainly formerly Liberal held seats.

Though relatively conservative, the legislation "had a symbolic significance far beyond its immediate effects."[2] The Land Act turned the tide of laissez-faire legislation favouring capitalist landlordism, and in principle, if not in practice, was a defeat for the concept of the absolute right of property. For the first time in Ireland tenants now had a legal interest in their holdings.

Bessborough Commission

The "Report of her Majesty's Commissioners of Enquiry into the working of the Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act of 1870 and the acts amending the same", under the chairmanship of the 6th Earl of Bessborough and hence commonly known as the Bessborough Commission Report, was published in 1881 after lengthy hearings in 1880. It reported that the 1870 Act gave the tenant no real protection because compensation for improvements could be claimed only on giving up the lease and because tenants saw themselves as forced to accept rent increases to avoid sacrificing what they had put into their holdings. It declared, "Freedom of contract, in the case of the majority of Irish tenants, large and small, does not really exist". By a majority of 4 to 1 (Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh dissenting) the commissioners declared in favour of the "Three Fs" as demanded by the Land League : fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tenure.[3]

Agricultural depression

From 1873 to 1896 farmers in Britain and Ireland suffered the "Long Depression" with its lower prices. Grain from America was cheaper and better, and was exported to Europe in ever-increasing amounts. Meat could be sent in refrigerated ships from as far as New Zealand and Argentina. For many tenant farmers in Ireland this meant lower net incomes with which to pay the rents they had agreed. This impacted most on the poorer, wetter western parts of the island that also suffered from the 1879 famine. This provided the context and arguments for further legal reforms.

Second Irish Land Act, 1881

The Land Law (Ireland) Act 1881 gave tenants real security, though by this time the Irish were demanding proprietorship. The Act established the principle of dual ownership by landlord and tenant, gave legal status to the Ulster Custom throughout the country, provided for compensation for improvements and created the Irish Land Commission and a Land Court. In Gladstone's words, the intention of the Act was to make landlordism impossible.[4] However it was a complicated piece of legislation though it did provide for land purchase, three-quarters of the money to be advanced by the Land Commission, and to be repaid over 35 years at 5% interest. Under the Act, 731 tenants became proprietors.[5] More important was the fact that tenants had the right to take their rents to the Land Court for reduction under the Fair Rent clause, where in most cases a reduction of 15 to 20% was awarded.[6]

Despite a short term reduction of rents (by about 20% by 1882) this act can generally be seen as economically ineffective. Instead of cutting costs or increasing productivity, Irish farmers increasingly turned to the Irish land courts to cut their rents and jack up their dwindling incomes. The land purchase element can be described as counterproductive because the conditions tenants now enjoyed under this act gave them no incentive to buy, furthermore, some economic historians dispute the effectiveness of land purchase as a solution to the Irish land problem. Land purchase significantly reduced the amount of capital in Ireland that could have been invested to improve efficiency and competitiveness of Irish farms. Therefore some headway is made towards lower rents but this is at the cost of lower rates of productivity growth in Irish farming.[citation needed]

The 1882 Amending Act, the so-called Arrears Act, was the result of the No Rent Manifesto and the subsequent Kilmainham Treaty made between Parnell and Gladstone by which the Land Commission was empowered to cancel arrears of less than thirty pounds due by tenants. Two million in arrears were estimated to have been written off .[7] The Act was further amended by Lord Balfour with the 1887 Land Act extending the terms of the Act to leaseholders.[8]


The flawed economics that lay behind these acts exposes a political aim on Gladstone's behalf, to destroy the raison d'être of the Land League (following the recent Land War). Although the second land act ushered in a period of tentative calm, it became clear further reforms were necessary.

The Act undermined the Land League by granting fair-rent control, fixity of tenure on leases, and freedom of sale: all to be overseen by the new government sponsored Irish Land Commission. The 1881 Act involved state participation in the redistribution of land-ownership. Because of attacks on landlords, the police and witnesses a new and controversial Coercion Act was passed on 1881, which added to the atmosphere of distrust of the authorities. An overview of the land war, the reforms and the effect of the Coercion Act was published in 1888 by the journalist WH Hurlbert, an Irish-American Catholic.[9]

A symbolic significance of these land acts are how far Gladstone had come from his starting point. Judicial control of rent levels and the establishment of many land courts was a change from Gladstone's policy of 'retrenchment' and his commitment to free markets.

An added consequence of the land acts was the gradual displacement of the Protestant Ascendancy during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries accompanied by the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869. Some "Ascendancy" land-owning families like the Marquess of Headfort and the Earl of Granard had by then converted to Catholicism, and a considerable number of Protestant Nationalists had already taken their part in Irish history. A survey of the 4,000 largest landlords in 1872 revealed that already 43% were Roman Catholics, 48% were Church of Ireland, 7% were Presbyterians, and 2% unknown.[10] The term "Protestant Ascendancy" was used from 1879–90 in the Land War and the Plan of Campaign as an accurate term in what was an economic dispute, but where religion was also a key factor in which 55% of the largest estates were held by Protestants or Presbyterians in a country overwhelmingly Catholic.

The pace for land law reforms quickened after the Representation of the People Act 1884, which gave a much greater number of votes to the Irish rural electorate.

Irish Land (Purchase) Act 1885

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Continued land agitations throughout the 1880s and 1890s culminated firstly with the passing of the Purchase of Land (Ireland) Act 1885, also known as the Ashbourne Act, named after Baron Ashborne, putting limited tenant land purchase in motion. The Act allowed a tenant to borrow the full amount of the purchase price, to be repaid at 4% over 49 years. Five million sterling were made available, and about 25,400 tenants purchased their holdings up to 1888, many in Ulster. In all 942,600 acres (3,815 km2) were purchased, which made an average holding of 37 acres (150,000 m2). The purchase price was equal to 17 ½ years rental. The Acts was amended by the 1888 Land Purchase Act providing a further five million to the amount granted for purchase under the Ashbourne Act.[11]

Irish Land Act 1887 (Balfour)

This was Arthur Balfour's major Land Act which came at the end of the Plan of Campaign agitation. It provided 33,000,000 sterling for land purchase but contained many complicated legal clauses so that it was not put fully into effect until amended five years later. At this point only 13,500,000 had been availed of. It substituted peasant proprietorship for dual ownership as the principle of land tenure. At the same time Balfour created the Congested Districts Board to deal with distress in the backward areas of the West of Ireland.

The act was amended by the 1896 Land Act increasing the amount available for purchase and removing the clauses which had made the Act unattractive. The Land Courts were empowered to sell 1,500 bankrupt estates to tenants. In all 47,000 holdings were bought out between 1891 and 1896.[12]

Local Government was introduced two years later under the revolutionary Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 which in turn contributed to the success of the United Irish League (UIL) in the 1900 general election, laying the foundation for a lasting solution in the land question.

Wyndham Land (Purchase) Act 1903

Under pressure from both government, UIL and IPP, the Chief Secretary for IrelandGeorge Wyndham gave his backing to a Land Conference in December 1902, comprising four moderate landlord representatives led by Lord Dunraven and four tenant representatives led by William O'Brien, the others John Redmond, T. W. Russell (who spoke for Ulster tenant-farmers) and T. C. Harrington. They worked out a new scheme for tenant land purchase, sale was to be made not compulsory, but attractive to both parties, based on the government paying the difference between the price offered by tenants and that demanded by landlords. This was the basis of the Wyndham Act – the Land Purchase (Ireland) Act (1903) – which O'Brien orchestrated through parliament.[13]

It differed from earlier legislation which initially advanced to tenants the sum necessary to purchase their holdings, repayable over a period of years on terms determined by an independent commission, while the Wyndham Act finished off landlordism control over tenants and made it easier for tenants to purchase land, facilitating the transfer of about 9 million acres (36,000 km2) up to 1914. By then 75% of occupiers were buying out their landlords under the 1903 Act and the later Augustine Birrell Land Purchase (Ireland) Act 1909 which extended the 1903 Act by allowing for the compulsory purchase of tenanted farmland by the Land Commission, but fell far short in its financial provisions. In all, under these pre-1921 Land Acts over 316,000 tenants purchased their holdings amounting to 11.5 million acres (47,000 km2) out of a total of 20 million acres (81,000 km2) in the country.[14]

The Acts provided Irish tenant farmers with more rights than tenant farmers in the rest of the United Kingdom. Munster tenants availed of land purchase in exceptionally high numbers, encouraged by their Irish Land and Labour Association's leader D. D. Sheehan after he and O'Brien established an Advisory Committee to mediate between landlords and tenants on purchase terms which produced a higher take-up of land purchase than in any other province.[15]

Labourers (Ireland) Act 1906

Original 1906 Labourers' Act cottage, as seen in 1977

Having largely settled the Irish land question, William O'Brien, convinced by the success of combining the "doctrine of conciliation" with "conference plus business", turned his attention in a Second Phase to the Irish Land and Labour Association's demands for the need to settle Irish labourers in the soil. His parliamentary engagement achieved the successful enactment of the unprecedented James Bryce Labourers (Ireland) Act (1906), followed by the Birrell Labourers (Ireland) Act (1911) and finally the Labourers (Ireland) Act 1919 which all together made provisions for a programme of large scale state-funded rural social housing, in which over 40,000 labourer-owned cottages were erected on 1 acre (4,000 m2) of land by Local County Councils. The Acts housed, at low annual annuities, over a quarter of a million rural labourers and their families, previously living in hovels, which thereby transformed the Irish countryside.[16]

Irish Land (Provision for Sailors and Soldiers) Act 1919

Following the Great War a further 5000 houses were built in both parts of Ireland for returning soldiers, under the Irish Land (Provision for Sailors and Soldiers) Act 1919 which was defined as "An Act to facilitate the provision of land in Ireland for men who have served in the Naval, Military, or Air Forces of the Crown in the present War, and for other purposes incidental thereto. (23rd December 1919)", and, "so far as it relates to the provision of holdings under the Land Purchase Acts, shall be construed as one with those Acts, and, so far as it relates to the provision of cottages, plots, or gardens under the Labourers (Ireland) Acts, 1883 to 1919, shall be construed as one with the last-mentioned Acts." It was effected by the "Irish soldiers' and sailors' Land Trust", which co-operated with the new Irish Free State, mostly building small new housing estates for veterans at the edge of towns.[17] The object of the Act was to facilitate the reinstatement in civil-life of ex-servicemen and their dependents with the provision of £800,000 sterling for housing accommodation by the Local Government Board.

Free State Land Acts

On the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the Commission was reconstituted by the Land Law (Commission) Act, 1923,[18] which also dissolved the Congested Districts Board. The Land Act 1923 adopted many proposals for a final land settlement from decisions reached during the Irish Convention in 1918 under the chairmanship of Horace Plunkett. The Convention's proposals formed the basis of the Act.[19]

The Land Commission had bought up 13 million acres (53,000 km2) of farmland between 1885 and 1920 where the freehold was assigned under mortgage to tenant farmers and farm workers. The focus had been on the compulsory purchase of untenanted estates so that they could be divided into smaller units for local families, some of which proved to be "uneconomic"; this policy was applied unevenly across the country, with some large estates surviving if the owners could show that their land was being actively farmed. Provision was made for compulsory purchase of land owned by a non-Irish person until repealed in 1966.

From 1923 the amounts outstanding under earlier acts were paid to the British government as "land annuities", accruing in a Land Purchase Fund. This was fixed at £250,000 annually in 1925. In December 1925 William Cosgrave lamented that there were already: "250,000 occupiers of uneconomic holdings, the holdings of such a valuation as did not permit of a decent livelihood for the owners".[20] Despite this, his government continued to subdivide larger landholdings, primarily to gain electoral support.

The Land Act 1933, passed on a vote of 70–39, allowed the Minister for Finance to divert the annuities for local government projects.[21] This was a factor that caused the "Economic war" in 1933–38, and was mutually resolved by a one-off payment of £10m. to Britain in 1938. From 1932 the government argued strongly that Irish farmers should no longer be obliged for historic reasons to pay Britain for Irish land, but when Britain had passed out of the payment system it illogically still required farmers to continue to pay their annuities to the Irish government as before.

The Land Act 1965 was designed to stop speculative purchases of land by non-Irish persons. The Succession Act of 1965 treated real estate owned by a deceased person as personalty for the first time.[22]

In 1983 the Commission ceased acquiring land; this signified the start of the end of the commission's reform of Irish land ownership, though freehold transfers of farmland still had to be signed off by the Commission into the 1990s. The commission was dissolved on 31 March 1999 by the Irish Land Commission (Dissolution) Act, 1992[23] and most of the remaining liabilities and assets were transferred to the Minister for Agriculture and Food. Many relevant historical records are held by the National Archives of Ireland.

Ground rents

A "ground rent" is a nominal annual rent paid where a property is held under a long lease. Legislation has reformed ground rents alongside the agricultural land laws (see above). While most tenancy reform legislation was enacted for agricultural land, urban and suburban occupiers / tenants have been allowed to "buy out" their ground rents from landlords, and so effectively can change a long lease into a freehold interest, most recently under Acts of 1978[24] and 2005.[25] Notably ground rents in Castlebar, County Mayo have been withheld following the controversial disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974.[26]

Paying ground rents is still considered by some to be an unresolved part of Ireland's history as a part of the United Kingdom; the Irish Government itself pays ground rents for iconic public buildings including Government Buildings, the Four Courts, Dublin Castle and the Botanic Gardens.[27]

Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act, 2009

After years of debate, the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act, 2009 comprehensively reformed the law of conveyancing, mortgages, registration of and claims to title, rights of way and easements. Some little-used interests relating to feudal tenure, life interests, leases for lives and fee tails were formally abolished.[28][29][30]

See also


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  2. F.S.L Lyons,Ireland Since the Famine (1985)
  3. McDonnell 1908, pp.61–62
  4. Hickey, D. J. & Doherty, J. E., A new Dictionary of Irish History from 1800, Land Acts p. 287 , Gill & MacMillan (2003) ISBN 0-7171-2520-3
  5. Hickey & Doherty: Land Acts p.287
  6. Hickey & Doherty: Land Acts p.287
  7. Hickey & Doherty: Land Acts pp.287–88
  8. Hickey & Doherty: Land Acts p.288
  9. Hurlbert 1888 vol.1 onlineHurlbert vol.2
  10. Perry Curtis paper, 2003
  11. Hickey, D. J. & Doherty, J. E., A new Dictionary of Irish History from 1800, Land Acts p. 288 , Gill & MacMillan (2003) ISBN 0-7171-2520-3
  12. Hickey & Doherty: Land Acts p.288
  13. Miller, David W.: Church, State and Nation in Ireland 1898–1921 Land for the People pp.77–94, Gill & Macmillan (1973) ISBN 0-7171-0645-4
  14. Ferriter, Diarmaid: "The Transformation of Ireland, 1900–2000", Profile Books, London (2004), pp. 62–63, 159 (ISBN 1 86197 443-4)
  15. Maume, Patrick: The long Gestation, Irish Nationalist Life 1891–1918, pp.74–75, Gill & Macmillan (1999) ISBN 0-7171-2744-3
  16. Enda McKay The Housing of the Working Classes 1883-1916 SAOTHAR, Vol. 17, 1992 pp. 27-38, Irish Labour History Society
  17. Article by FHA Aalen, 1988
  18. Land Law (Commission) Act, 1923
  19. Maume, Patrick: The long Gestation, Irish Nationalist Life 1891–1918, p.201, Gill & Macmillan (1999) ISBN 0-7171-2744-3
    Note 238, p.295: Joseph Sheehan, 'Killing Landlords by Kindness', paper read to conference of Irish Historical Students' Association, 1993.
  20. Dáil debate, 10 Dec 1925
  21. Land Act 1933 debate and vote
  23. Irish Land Commission (Dissolution) Act, 1992
  24. 1978 Irish Act
  25. Irish Act of 2005
  26. 2004 Article on Lord Lucan
  27. Sunday Tribune 8 August 2010


Further reading

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External links