Records of the Irish Land Commission

Published in Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Volume 22

The British government in Ireland, in their desperation to resolve ‘the Irish question’, ceded something they have yet to allow their own people—land reform; in the process, explains Fiona Fitzsimons, they created an institution whose records are an untapped resource for historians and genealogists.

The break-up of the big estates by the Land Commission created unprecedented social mobility. (Irish Examiner)

The break-up of the big estates by the Land Commission created unprecedented social mobility. (Irish Examiner)

In 1881 the Irish Land Commission was founded to establish fair rents. In 1885 the Ashbourne Land Act transformed the commission’s main function from fixing rents to breaking up estates and facilitating tenant purchase of their holdings. Between c. 1885 and 1920 the commission oversaw the transfer of 13,500,000 acres.

Following Independence, the commission’s records were divided between jurisdictions, and in 1923 the Irish Land Commission was reconstituted to recognise the Free State. Most of the records relating to estates in Northern Ireland were deposited in the PRONI and are now accessible to researchers with a valid reader’s ticket. After 1923 the commission continued to acquire and distribute an additional 807,000 acres, but its main business was to administer pre-Independence land purchase schemes. On 31 March 1999 the commission was finally dissolved, and its historic records were transferred to the Department of Agriculture.

The records of the Irish Land Commission are probably the single greatest untapped resource for studying the population of Ireland in the nineteenth century and a lodestone for academic and family historians. Despite this, the records relating to lands in the Republic of Ireland are under restricted access, shielded by data-protection and freedom-of-information laws, as they are deemed to contain ‘private sensitive information’. The lack of transparency extends to the fact that there is no full description of these historic records, a further impediment for researchers.

The Irish Land Commission archive has two main components, the Records Branch and the Administration records. The former comprises records of the estates bought out by the Land Commission. The records are the original owners’ evidence of land title and consist mainly of title deeds, but often include other documentary evidence of ownership, including family settlements and wills. They include some rentals and over 70,000 maps, some of them original estate maps but mainly Ordnance Survey maps marked up to show the extent of an estate. The Records Branch collection comprises approximately 50,000 boxes, but the records have never been conserved or arranged by archivists. A rudimentary listing is available in the National Library’s Records in the Irish Land Commission: Survey and Guide. In recent years the Records Branch material was deposited in a purpose-built archive in Portlaoise, unfortunately not open to the public.

We can say a good deal more about the Administration records, which contain precisely 70,526 items in 2,744 boxes, and an additional 7,012 bound volumes. Approximately 70% of these records document the acquisition and break-up of the large estates and all extant records of purchase. Of the remainder, there are some interesting subcollections, including records of the Church Temporalities Committee, the Congested Districts Board, and the largest map collection in the entire Land Commission archive, which includes estate maps on the Lucan, Domville, Berridge, Lord Sligo and Knox estates. The catalogue for the Administration records of the Irish Land Commission is available on a searchable database, held in the National Archive’s reading-room, which can be searched by keywords, including family name or townland. These catalogued records have been transferred to the same purpose-built archive in Portlaoise to create a single archival collection for estates in the Republic of Ireland.

So how does a review of the records of the Irish Land Commission correlate with my original intent to explore whether archival collections might call into question the received wisdom of Irish history? The big policy debate around the Irish Land Commission was on whether tenant purchase could deliver economically viable holdings. Before and after Independence this argument was resisted by successive governments, who understood that they could only garner mass support by extending the political nation to include the ‘men of little property’, thereby creating a nation of stakeholders. These records document the nuts and bolts of how this was achieved, but also how the system could be manipulated. To gain a clearer understanding of what happened, the Land Commission records need to be studied and should be made more freely available to the public.  HI

Fiona Fitzsimons is director of Eneclann, a Trinity College campus company, and of findmypast Ireland.

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