Irish Land Acts

Irish Land Acts
   British legislation passed between 1870 and 1909 to benefit Irish tenant farmers. As a result of wars, confiscations, and anti-Catholic laws, Ireland ’s wealthy landlords almost always were Protestants of English descent. Fewer than 800 families owned half of Ireland. Except in the northeast, tenant farmers were mostly Roman Catholic. Tenants argued that their insecure status discouraged them from making improvements on their land such as draining marshes. Landlords might respond by imposing higher rents and evicting tenants unwilling to pay them. Economic historians have questioned that many landlords extracted the maximum or rack rent.
   In 1870, William Gladstone, Britain’s Liberal prime minister, persuaded Parliament to pass the first of his Irish land acts. It safeguarded the tenant from arbitrary eviction and compensated the tenant who made improvements. Unfortunately, cheap imports from North America depressed agricultural prices in the 1870s. Frustrated tenants flocked to the National Land League, organized by Michael Davitt. In a context of agrarian violence and intimidation, Gladstone passed a second land act in 1881. It put on the statute book the so-called three Fs that already were customary practice for tenants in Ulster: fair rent, fixity of tenure, and freedom of sale (of the tenant’s lease to a new tenant). A land commission established what qualified as fair rents. The 1881 legislation created what was virtually dual ownership by landlord and tenant, but the agenda of Irish land reform quickly moved on to a new demand: land purchase. Conservative ministries played the decisive role. First, in 1885 Parliament passed the Ashbourne Act that provided a loan fund to help tenants buy the land that they leased. The Congested Districts Board, established in 1891, also helped smallholders acquire land. Most important, in 1903 Parliament adopted the Wyndham Act. It reduced the interest rate that tenants paid loans and offered bonuses to landlords who agreed to sell. After the Liberals returned to power, they made sale compulsory in 1907 and reduced the landlord bonuses in 1909.
   By 1921, when Ireland was partitioned and an Irish Free State created, two-thirds of land belonged to working farmers and big landlords were rare. Political motives explain this rapid transfer of ownership. Both Liberal and Conservative politicians hoped to restrain Irish nationalism by appeasing small farmers in a mostly agricultural Country.
   See also <>.
    Solow, Barbara Lewis. The Land Question and the Irish Economy, 1870–1903. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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