Rent book

In Ireland we are very much aware of the importance of ‘the land’.  Who owned the land? Who rented the land? How  did the system work ? These are just some of the questions that my colleague Jim Ryan of Flyleaf Press and Ancestor Network has answered in his definitive article on Irish land records or Rentals in his recent blog.   

Jim has kindly given me permission to reproduce his blog in sections. I will publish these over the next few weeks, finishing with a list of surviving Kerry land records and where to access them as in my book Finding Your Ancestors in Kerry.

  • Background
  • Rent Records,
  • Agents/Evictions/Middlemen,
  • Rental Documents,
  • Where can they be accessed 
  • Encumbered Estates Courts

Background   

During the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, almost every Irish farmer and small-holder was a tenant of one of the large estates whose Anglo-Irish gentry owners controlled every aspect of Irish life.

The reason for this was that successive rebellions against British administration in earlier centuries had resulted in almost all Irish land being confiscated from its historic owners.  This land was then granted to those who were proven to be loyal to British interests. These included the ‘adventurers’ who had funded the armies involved in quelling Irish  rebellions;   the soldiers who served in the armies involved (in lieu of pay);  and also others who were due favours by the British court.   These new owners (and their successors) rented the land to the existing occupiers, or in some cases (particularly Ulster) settled their new properties with immigrants from Scotland and England.  In parallel, draconian anti-Catholic legislation (called the Penal Laws) was imposed from 1703 limiting the right of Catholics to own property above a certain value;  to hold public positions; and to receive education.  The rights of Presbyterians were also curtailed.  This created a situation whereby acceptance of the role of tenant with no rights was the only option available to most Catholics.

AncestorNetwork.ie

It is estimated that in the 18th century 95% of the cultivable land was owned by about 5,000 landlords, often referred to as the Anglo-Irish ascendancy.  Only a very few were Catholic.  Many of these estate owners were ‘absentee’ landlords who owned estates in Ireland but lived abroad, usually in England.   However, unlike estate-owners in England and elsewhere,  most Irish landlords had little interest in improvement of their estates or in assisting their tenants to become more productive.  In other countries the philosophy of estate owners was that ensuring the economic viability of their tenants was the best means to ensuring continued rent payments.  With some exceptions, this was not the practice on Irish estates, although there were some ‘improving’ landlords.    Rental income in 1845 from Irish estates has been estimated at €13.4 million which is approximately €11 billion  ($12.6 billion) in current value.

In summary, the circumstances described above lead to a situation in which individual ownership of land by farmers or small-holders was very exceptional.  It is probable that almost every tenant household in the country was recorded in a rental at some stage.   The era of major estates gradually ended during  the 19th century through a combination of factors.  Many estates had become heavily indebted due to overspending.  When economic forces (i.e. reduction in the price of agricultural products) reduced the capacity of tenants to pay their rent, many estates were bankrupted.  A further factor was that political agitation by the Irish Land League and others reduced the power of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy and enhanced the rights of tenants.  Significant among the gains made was the creation of laws and institutions (See Encumbered Estates Court later). which facilitated the sale of bankrupt estates and allowed tenants to purchase their land.  Around 8,000 estates, with over half a million tenants, were sold between 1849 and 1875,  and much of this land was purchased by  individual tenants.

In summary, the circumstances described above lead to a situation in which individual ownership of land by farmers or small-holders was very exceptional.  It is probable that almost every tenant household in the country was recorded in a rental at some stage.   The era of major estates gradually ended during  the 19th century through a combination of factors.  Many estates had become heavily indebted due to overspending.  When economic forces (i.e. reduction in the price of agricultural products) reduced the capacity of tenants to pay their rent, many estates were bankrupted.  A further factor was that political agitation by the Irish Land League and others reduced the power of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy and enhanced the rights of tenants.  Significant among the gains made was the creation of laws and institutions (See Encumbered Estates Court below) which facilitated the sale of bankrupt estates and allowed tenants to purchase their land.  Around 8,000 estates, with over half a million tenants, were sold between 1849 and 1875,  and much of this land was purchased by  individual tenants.

From a family records viewpoint,  one outcome of the era of the great estates was the creation of a set of documents called rentals, which provide valuable information for the family historian.  This article sets out the background, nature and location of rentals  and how they can best be used in your research.

Reproduced with kind permission of Jim Ryan  & Ancestor Network