The Ownership of land in Ireland and England



Many of our most intractable problems over the ages have arisen because of the fundamental difference between the definition of ownership of land as between the Celtic peoples and the Anglo-Normans.


Gaelic Landownership System

Land, to the Celtic people, was in the ownership of the Clan.  The exact geographical boundaries of the Tuath could change over the years, for various reasons, including expansion by conquest, or reduction by yielding land to other stronger Clans.  But at any time when a new chieftain was to be elected, all the land in the ownership of the Clan at that time came up for consideration when the new chieftain redistributed it amongst his followers.  There was a natural tendency, often yielded to, for the new chieftain to favour himself, his Tanaiste, his other brothers, and his various other followers who had expectations.  But the chieftain had to control these natural desires, because he was dependant on all his followers to support him and keep him in his inheritance.


This definition of ownership was universal and sacred.  In practice and to avoid dissension, it was customary for the chieftain, as far as was possible, to ensure that all his principle followers obtained basically the same land as before, even if it had to be reduced in size because of the growth in numbers expecting an allotment.


The Normans

Now consider the definition of ownership current amongst the Anglo-Normans.  Normandy had been one of the earlier and largest settlements of the Norsemen, and had been a reward from the French kings to try to end their incessant warfare and raiding.  In this new kingdom of Normandy land was defined in a new way.  The entire stock of land in the country belonged, simply, to the king.  Obviously he could not farm it all himself, so he granted large tracts of it to his principle Earls, free of ground rent, but in exchange for serious commitments such as the necessity to supply armed knights when demanded by the king.  If the Earl failed in his duties or his absolute loyalty, the grant of land could be rescinded at will by the king. 


These major land holders (called free holders since they paid no money ground rents) would then grant smaller, but still large tracts of land to their knights and other supporters, but now for the payment of ground rent.  Small ground rents per acre of land would amount to huge incomes when the land might amount to 5,000 acres or more.


And so the system continued down the social scale.  The knights themselves would lease out most of their lands to commoners, and these rentiers in turn would lease out land to individual tenant farmers.


The feudal system, which took hold of large parts of Europe, was based on this land definition.  In effect all land occupiers were subject to some lord above them who could to some extent demand their loyalty in order for them to continue their livelihood.  There were of course different lengths of lease, from one year to 999 years, but these only gave them partial protection against a strong and ruthless lord..


Normans come to Ireland

When the Anglo-Norman hosts poured into Wexford in 1169, and were followed by further and larger inroads over the next 100 years or so, these invaders were infused with their feudal system, and oblivious and uncaring of any existing Celtic customs of land ownership.  The result was of course disastrous to the Irish people.   There was no way in which the two systems could work together, and brute force decided that the Anglo-Norman system would replace the Celtic one wherever the invaders overcame their new territories. 


Up until 1641 there were still many Gaelic areas where the old order prevailed, although the feudal system was enforced on the majority of the country, including the Pale, and the great lordships of the FitzGeralds, the Burkes and the Butlers.


Between 1641 and 1700 there was a period of confusion and mingling of the systems but after 1700 the English system, based on the same concepts as the Anglo-Norman one, prevailed at last across the entire country.


Between 1700 and 1900 we had that era when the worst obscenities of this system were being exacted.  This was the time of the landlords.  There had been landlords before, but not the pattern which brought with it the penal laws, tenants at will, rack rents, evictions, poverty and eventually the starvation and disease of famines.


These cruel conditions resulted also in opposition by the people, and naturally to a determination to get rid of landlordism itself.  This eventually happened in the years after 1895 and the Wyndham Acts, which led to the enforced sale of farms  to their existing tenants.   



When studying the records such as the Griffiths Survey, it is often quite difficult to determine the actual Owner of land.  To simplify matters, the Recorders of these Surveys asked the simple question “to whom do you pay rent” and the answer to this was written down as the Owner.


Thus the owner so far as the tenant farmer was concerned was his immediate landlord, eg. A farmer in Tirnaspideoga would pay his rent to Thomas Barters.  The labourers cottages would be owned by the tenant farmer himself, so it would be the tenant farmer whose name appeared against these cottages.


In practice  Ownership could be quite complicated, and would often be concealed behind such  answers.  Most people who we knew as landlords were in fact tenants of a greater Landlord themselves.  In some cases they might be fortunate enough to obtain a lease of 999 years from this greater Landlord.  But in many cases perhaps only 100 years tenancy or even less.


The freeholds were usually held by rich Lords who lived in England and preferred their existence to be kept secret.  The freehold of  much of the land in Inchigeelagh Parish was ultimately owned  by the Duke of Devonshire, but this fact was rarely known.  Another rather shy owner of freeholds in this Parish was Lord Riversdale, whose name  was William  Tonson.  He lived in Kenmare, and maintained his privacy by employing a Land Agent to collect his rents.  Yet another was Boyle, the Earl of Cork, who was a keen collector of ground rentals.


It is difficult to be dogmatic, but it is probable that none of the farms in Inchigeelagh Parish ever had freeholds directly held by the people we know as “the landlords ”.  These people were always holders of long leases of the Inchigeelagh land, and themselves subject to payment of rent to some superior landlord.