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.

Future Posts from this series:

  • Rental Documents,
  • Where can they be accessed 
  • Encumbered Estates Courts
  • Kerry Rental records

Agents.  The practical day-to-day management of estates was usually the work of land agents,  also known as estate agents.  These could be hired by large estates as members of staff, or contracted as  external estate managers.    There were several large land or estate management companies that  could be hired to perform this role.  Some of these external companies managed hundreds of small estates on behalf of their owners.  Agents provided the estate owners with regular rental reports detailing rental income due and received.  These reports were particularly important for ‘absentee landlords’ who did not reside in Ireland.   These were entirely reliant on their agent to manage their estate business and to keep them informed of issues that might affect their income.  Land stewards, sometimes referred to in documents,  were staff who worked under land agents.

Agents were generally reviled by tenants.  A popular contemporary quote was that ‘Landlords were sometimes decent men,  but agents were devils one and all’.   This is not entirely fair as there were many agents who were respected by their tenants,  but a larger proportion performed their function through coercion and threat of eviction.  In their defence, the historical evidence suggests that most were not provided with the funding or authority which might have allowed them to assist their tenants to improve their farming methods or land,  or to facilitate access to markets etc. Further background to the complex roles and circumstances of the land agent can be found in 2 books:    Landlords, tenants, famine:  the business of an Irish land agency in the 1840s.  Desmond Norton. UCD Press 2006. ISBN 978-1-904558-55-2;  and  The Irish Land Agent 1830-60:  the case of Kings County.    Ciaran Reilly, Four Courts Press 2014.  ISBN 978-1-84682-510-1

Observations.   Most rentals have an ‘observations’ column which is variable in its use.  Some rentals contain no observations,  others are used by the agent or landlord for their own accounting notes, while others are used by agents to provide information to their landlord on the circumstances of a particular tenant.   These include brief comments such as ‘good tenant’,   ‘lazy tenant’,  ‘promises to pay’, ‘pauper‘ etc,  but may also contain more valuable family history information  such as  ‘died in August‘,  ‘emigrated in December‘,  ‘a son of Luke Murphy of Ballinamore’ etc.  An 18th century  Farnham estate rental  in one of our blogs summarises all of the lease details in its observation column.     Some further  examples are below:

Tenancies:   During the 18th century, tenants (especially Catholic tenants) had few rights.  Most were ‘tenants at will’, i.e. they could be ejected at the whim of the landlord.  Even where landlords were prepared to offer leases to Catholics,  until 1778 their leases could not be for longer than 30 years due to the provisions of the Penal Laws.  In practice most landlords did not evict tenants without significant cause.  These anti-Catholic laws  gradually changed over the 18th century and by 1823 the final anti-Catholic laws had been abolished.  Longer-term tenancies  encouraged tenants to maintain and improve their properties, and were favoured by progressive landlords.  They were also relevant for landlords with political ambitions as tenants with certain types of leases could vote.

The length of tenancies could be defined in years (usually 30), or in terms of ‘lives’, i.e. for as long as three specified persons survived.  Combinations of both were also used.  Figure 3 shows some of the lease options used on one estate.     Some rentals will provide the details of these lives, which are often of family members of tenants.  An example of a lease for lives from a Crosbie Estate rental (NLI Ms. 5033)  in Kerry is:  Darby McCarthy for part of Abbeydorney,  lease dated 20 March 1796 (for) lives of lessee, Wm. McCarthy son of John McCarthy of Ballyhenry,  and Eugene McCarthy natural brother to lessee.   This lease provides several potential family connections and locations.  However, leases for lives were problematic for landlords.  If one of the persons specified in the lease was to emigrate,  it was difficult to establish if they were still alive.    Figure 8 below shows a typical statement of 3 lives,  but also in the observation column it shows the kinds of problems created for the landlord,  who is uncertain as to the status of the other ‘lives’.

Although the lease terms found in rentals generally focus only on the rent to be paid,  a minority of estates took a more active role in ensuring that their tenants developed their properties.  An example is the Farnham estate in Cavan.  A series of lease conditions on properties rented in the period 1717-1785  (NLI Ms. 11, 491)  impose the following conditions on their tenants:  … Building within 4 years a good farm-house 80 ft. long 16 ft. wide and 10 ft. high; Orchard 1 acre, penalty £2 added rent; Ditching within 7 years 200 perches 5 ft deep and 6 ft. wide, penalty £2 added rent; not to alien (i.e. sub-let) more than 15 acres under penalty £10 added rent. Bound to mills,  penalty 5s. a Barrel. Not to commit or suffer to be committed any waste in woods under penalty of £10 for every time waste is so committed. Power for landlord to examine buildings and to repair them if not repaired within 6 months after notice.  Tenant to have half of the trees they plant.

Partnerships:  It was not uncommon for groups of tenants to jointly rent a large holding, which was then divided among them by their own arrangement.  This differed from the ‘Middleman’ system (see below) in that the nominal tenant was also a local farmer and perhaps a relative of the tenant group.   Figure 9  is a  list of tenants in part of a Tipperary estate in 1815 and  shows 9 partnerships among a total of 19 tenants.  Several of these partnerships are among brothers. Figure 4 also shows an example of a partnership.    Partnerships were,  in some periods, preferred by some landlords as they reduced the need for collecting rent from  many small-holders, and were also favoured by tenants as they allowed communities or family groups to stay together and to help each other out where required.   However, they also allowed very small holdings, which reduced the viability of the overall estate.

One system by which the land was divided by tenants is termed a Rundale system under which the land was divided into small portions according to its productive capacity, and tenants drew lots for the portions.  This system ensured that each partner had an equitable mix of good and bad land.   Partnership rentals can often disclose useful family information in the detail of the accounts.   For instance, Figure 4 above shows  that there is a wider group involved  than is indicated by the nominal tenants.   In addition to the nominal tenants, small payments of rent are also made by Patrick Cleary and by Widow Gleeson.

Payment procedures.   The payment dates, known as ‘Gale Days’,  were generally  half-yearly on Michaelmas ( 29 September) and Lady Day (25th March).  See Figure 10 below.  A full rent-payment was commonly known as a ‘gale of rent’.   Payment practices would appear to have varied between estates. In some estates tenants would present themselves to an agent’s office on Gale days and make their payments.  In others the agent travelled around the estate collecting rents.  The latter gave rise to the rent-books which contain details of the partial payments made on their tours of properties.

Evictions.     As today,  the ultimate threat for tenants is eviction.   Unlike today,  tenants had few rights and evictions could be, and were,  undertaken on many estates, including large-scale evictions of all tenants from estates.  This mainly occurred in the 19th century when the Famine and other economic difficulties reduced the capacity of tenants to pay their rent,  and later in the century when estate owners  in economic difficulty  sought to convert their estates from rented small-holdings to more intensive agriculture such as grassland directly managed by the estate.   Some rentals include ‘observations’  from agents  relating to advice on evicting tenants, and also instructions from estate owners to do so, or in some case more benign instructions not to do so.

Workers as tenants:   Some tenants worked for estates as labourers or in other capacities and received their holdings in lieu of wages.  Their rent is often declared in terms of days of labour provided. Figure 5 is an example, but whether Michael Masterson was regarded as  tenant or a worker in this arrangement is unclear.

Payments in kind.  Rent was also often paid ‘in-kind’ by labour or through produce of various kinds;   oats, turf and animals being common commodities of payment.   Figure 4 shows payment in cattle, for instance.  Payment in the form of chickens or geese at Christmas time was a rental payment on some estates.

Middle-men.  Especially in the 18th century some estates preferred to rent large parcels of land to individuals, who would then sub-let this land in smaller lots to the tenants who actually worked the land.  This had advantages for large landlords,  especially ‘absentee’ landlords,  as they could thereby avoid the administrative burden of dealing with individual small-holders,  and of the associated risks from absconding or bankrupt tenants.  However, these so-called middle-men were often ruthless with their sub-tenants and charged rapacious rents over which the landlord had no control.   It is widely regarded that they were responsible for the progressive sub-division of land into lots which were non-viable as farms, but allowed small-holders to survive by growing potatoes.   Thus small-holders became totally dependent on potatoes with all of the disastrous consequences which resulted during the Great Famine.  Many ‘improving’ landlords sought to eliminate middle-men so that they could have direct dealings with the tenants who actually worked the land,  and thereby undertake initiatives to ensure that each had a viable holding.  These initiatives included drainage, improving road access to markets,  and new farming techniques. Our blog on the Cloncurry Estate in Limerick discussed this issue.  The middle-man system therefore gradually disappeared.

Source: by kind permission of Jim RyanAncestor NetworkFull Article