Irish Land Question
Irish Land Question,name given in the 19th cent. to the problem of land ownership and agrarian distress in Ireland under British rule. The long-term result of conquest, confiscation, and colonization was the creation of a class of English and Scottish landlords and of an impoverished Irish peasantry with attenuated tenant rights.
In the 18th cent., under the Penal LawsPenal Laws,
in English and Irish history, term generally applied to the body of discriminatory and oppressive legislation directed chiefly against Roman Catholics but also against Protestant nonconformists.
..... Click the link for more information. , Roman Catholics—the vast majority of the Irish population—were prevented from acquiring land. Tenants' improvements were discouraged because they led to higher rents. Eviction on short notice was also a problem. The securing (1829) of Catholic EmancipationCatholic Emancipation,
term applied to the process by which Roman Catholics in the British Isles were relieved in the late 18th and early 19th cent. of civil disabilities.
..... Click the link for more information. brought into the British Parliament Irish Catholics who sympathized with the miserable tenantry, and the terrible Irish famine of the 1840s focused attention on the land question. In 1849, Parliament passed the Encumbered Estates Act, which provided for the sale of mortgaged estates. However, its liberal purpose was defeated by speculative purchasers who made the rents even more extortionate from the tenants' point of view.
The Irish Tenant Right League, established in 1850, demanded the "three F's"—fair rent, fixity of tenure, and freedom of sale. The violence of the Fenian movementFenian movement
secret revolutionary society organized c.1858 in Ireland and the United States to achieve Irish independence from England by force.
..... Click the link for more information. , the extension of the franchise by the Reform Act of 1867, the movement for Home RuleHome Rule,
in Irish and English history, political slogan adopted by Irish nationalists in the 19th cent. to describe their objective of self-government for Ireland. Origins of the Home Rule Movement
..... Click the link for more information. , and assistance from the Liberal party, headed by William GladstoneGladstone, William Ewart,
1809–98, British statesman, the dominant personality of the Liberal party from 1868 until 1894. A great orator and a master of finance, he was deeply religious and brought a highly moralistic tone to politics.
..... Click the link for more information. , furthered the cause of the tenant. Gladstone's Land Act of 1870 protected the tenant from arbitrary eviction and provided some compensation for improvements.
A major agricultural depression beginning in the 1870s brought a new crisis. The National Land League, founded under the leadership of Michael DavittDavitt, Michael
, 1846–1906, Irish revolutionary and land reformer. He joined the Fenian movement in 1865 and was imprisoned three times by the English for his revolutionary activities.
..... Click the link for more information. and Charles Stewart ParnellParnell, Charles Stewart
, 1846–91, Irish nationalist leader. Haughty and sensitive, Parnell was only a mediocre orator, but he possessed a marked personal fascination and was a shrewd political and parliamentary tactician.
..... Click the link for more information. , conducted a campaign of boycott and violence that influenced the passage of the Land Act of 1881, called the "Magna Carta" of the Irish farmer. It recognized the three F's and provided a land commission to fix a "fair rent." Thereafter land purchase by the tenant became the predominant issue. The Ashbourne Act of 1885 and supplementary acts of 1887 and 1891 provided a loan fund of many millions of pounds for tenants who wished to purchase their lands.
Difficulties remained because the Anglo-Irish magistracy, which favored the landlords, did not satisfactorily implement the new laws. The Irish National League, an outgrowth of the suppressed National Land League, advocated withholding of rents from extortionate landlords. Its activities, too, were suppressed. The Irish Agricultural Organization Society, fostered (1894) by Sir Horace PlunkettPlunkett, Sir Horace Curzon,
1854–1932, Irish statesman and agricultural reformer. Educated in England, Plunkett spent 10 years (1879–89) in Wyoming as a cattle rancher. Returning to Ireland, he became an ardent exponent of farming cooperatives.
..... Click the link for more information. , began to encourage agricultural cooperation and improved farming methods; this led to the establishment (1899) of the Irish Dept. of Agriculture.
The agitation of the United Irish League, under William O'BrienO'Brien, William,
1852–1928, Irish journalist and political leader. He became (1881) editor of a newspaper, United Ireland, which championed the Irish agrarian cause (see Irish Land Question).
..... Click the link for more information. , demanding compulsory sales by landlords, led to the Wyndham Act of 1903 and the Amended Land Purchase Act of 1909. The Wyndham Act, which provided loans to tenants at reduced interest for the purchase of land and gave bonuses to landlords who sold, proved, in effect, a solution to the Irish Land Question. In 1907 the Evicted Tenants Act provided for the compulsory sale of land needed for evicted tenants. By 1921 two thirds of the land in Ireland had become the property of Irish tenants, and a compulsory law transferred the remaining portions soon after the establishment (1922) of the Irish Free State.
See J. E. Pomfret, The Struggle for Land in Ireland, 1800–1923 (1930, repr. 1969); N. D. Palmer, The Irish Land League Crisis (1940); P. Bew, Land and the National Question in Ireland, 1858–82 (1979).