Landlords and tenants in mid-Victorian Ireland

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 2 (Summer 1995), Reviews, The Famine, Volume 3

Landlords and tenants in mid-Victorian Ireland
W.E. Vaughan
(Clarendon Press, £40)

This scholarly work is the result of long, methodical research based on an impressive range of primary sources, most notably estate papers. It is delivered free from irritating jargon with the econometric analysis lightened by a varied array of anecdotal backup. Vaughan questions conventional views on land-related events in nineteenth-century Ireland and in the process offers a revised version, but limits himself to certain aspects of relations between landlords and tenants: evictions, rents, tenant right, estate management, conflict and agrarian violence. Relations between tenants and sub-tenants, the owners of great estates and middlemen, farmers and labourers and town tenants and their landlords are occasionally referred to, but they are not part of the main theme. The author’s obvious sympathies lie with the large number of agricultural labourers whose grievances were ‘palpable and present’—a group much neglected in Irish historiography.
Eviction statistics are meticulously documented as are ejectments, rent movements and arrears. Fluctuations as well as regional variation in evictions are well highlighted as Vaughan shares the well-aired views of the revisionists that, all things considered, it is surprising there were not more evictions. The author makes no secret of his admiration for Solow’s ‘breezily iconoclastic’ approach. Kiernan is singled out for his scepticism of Solow’s work but there is now a growing recognition that aspects of this American historian’s findings must in turn be questioned not least the matter of families being treated as singular units when drawing on tabular evidence. During the Famine and its aftermath 70,000 families were thrown out of their homes by legal process which amounted to hundreds of thousands of people given the size of an average Irish peasant family. While we are told that between the mid-60s and mid-70s there were on average fewer than 500 evictions annually or only one tenant out of every thousand, Vaughan recognises the drastic effects of eviction on individual localities. Even hardened veterans like Sir Robert Peel doubted ‘that the records of any country, evil or barbarous, present materials for such a picture’.
Ultimately eviction for arrears is seen as too drastic an exercise of personal power to be entirely desirable. In addition, landlords’ special powers are not considered a source of strength because they were weak property owners who could be separated from other creditors in rural society. Rents are considered the most important aspect of landlord-tenant relations since ‘few tenants were evicted, or even threatened with eviction, but all paid rent.’ Nevertheless, even a low rent was a large proportion of a tenant’s income and falling prices or a farming disaster would make punctual payment difficult—a point readily conceded. Yet the debate does not end here because rents in Ireland were lower than England and ‘allegations of rackrenting must be treated with caution’.
The reader is taken on a journey through the various regions at the end of which it is confidently claimed that ‘something like’ tenant right was known outside Ulster although administered by landlord favour or acquiescence rather than established custom. For Vaughan tenant right worked remarkably well before 1870 aided by the power of landlords and agents to supervise it although whether it could be turned into law and transferred to the rest of Ireland was another matter.
Lack of improvement is scrutinised. Family settlements—whatever the effects on the ownership of estates—are not blamed for the low rate of spending. Likewise in the absence of strong evidence showing that Irish landlords were more encumbered than British ones, indebtedness is dismissed for variation in spending; smallness of holdings is also not accepted as a complete explanation. Alternative reasons are suggested—the nature of Irish agricultural production, inferior quality livestock and the absence of cleanliness—but no simple single answer emerges. Strikingly low figures are presented for agrarian violence which appears to have responded to a variety of causes unconnected with landlord and tenants, notably tenant disputes and family feuding. The decline in serious crime is attributed in the main to greater prosperity, literacy, punctual payment of rent and the Summary Jurisdiction Act which set new standards of behaviour on the roads.
Obviously the tenants’ ability to organise themselves was crucial to the history of landlord-tenant relations since resistance both legal and illegal between 1879-82 played an important part in changing landlordism. Ribbonism is difficult to quantify because it is difficult to classify but more importantly why was there no mass movement before 1879? Explanations offered include the difficulties involved in organising something analogous to a trade union among a tenantry that had no corporate traditions, institutions and leadership. Important obstacles were the constabulary who ensured peaceful eviction and the Catholic clergy who refused to admit ribbonmen to the sacraments. Furthermore, Irish public opinion was preoccupied with a legislative solution to the land question while ‘churches, education and the Fenians attracted men who might have been good rural leaders’.
The usual authorities on the causes of the land war including Samuel Clark, James S. Donnelly and Andrew Orridge are paraded out for inspection before Vaughan concludes that in one sense everything that happened between the Famine and late 1870s was responsible. More specifically, ‘if the land war is seen as the culmination of this period, its teleological force will draw everything into its ambit’. And the role of the ‘war’ in destroying landlordism is seen as limited because the crisis—the gap between rents and output—was already great in the mid-1870s. The importance of the Land Act of 1881 to the equation is likewise discarded—’on its own it would not have destroyed landlordism and might have strengthened it by giving it a new institutional base’. Indeed it is confidently predicted that if Irish agricultural prices had picked up again in the early 1880s and continued their upward movement ‘landlordism would have revived’.
Vaughan sees power as the key to landlordism but the view that landlords could do virtually what they liked is not accepted because they were bound by law and in addition had failed to build up reservoirs of informal power of their own. What then had the landlords achieved in these thirty years? They continued to extract a large surplus from agriculture far greater than collected by any other agency in Ireland and had remained politically powerful although not dominant. Difficulties arise in arguing that they were vigorous or constructive after the Famine since ‘they had not fully exploited their estates, either by extracting full economic rents, or consolidating holdings, or by investment’. Essentially they failed to be a real aristocracy, whose success depended on the ability to rule. Their greatest achievement along with their tenants seems to have been to create the impression that they were the only parties to the land question. The author’s obvious flair for his subject is reflected in this thoughtful, well written book and if the work has a preoccupation, as opposed to a theme, it is with power. This survey, almost a third of which is taken up with statistical tables and bibliographical information, undoubtedly enhances the sources of reference for students involved in unravelling the complexities of the Irish land question.

Clare Murphy


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