What are Land Rentals?

At their most basic, rentals are records that show the name of the tenant; the location of their holding,  and rents due and paid.

Kenmare Estate Ledgers

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

Rentals or rent rolls are the records used by landlords or their agents in managing their tenants.  They were important documents to estate owners as rents were their major, and often their sole, income.  Keeping records of their business was therefore a vital process. They are one component of Estate Papers, which describe all of the documents compiled by estate owners in their private and business affairs.  Occasionally, rentals are preserved as separate documents within archives.   At their most basic, rentals show the name of a tenant; the location of their holding,  and rents due and paid.  However, they are hugely variable in format and some provide other useful information of genealogical relevance.  As they are private records, their format was devised to suit the needs of each landlord.   The range of variation can be seen in the examples shown below:

Rental Formats:   As noted,  rentals were devised by estate owners to suit their individual needs.   There are two basic rental formats in use,  but many variations within these formats are found.  The main ones are:

(a)   The Annual Rental which shows the accounts for a single year (or sometimes a half-year) for a particular area or estate.   These will usually list the location of the holding (called the ‘denomination’),  the name of the tenant, rent due, rent received and sometimes some observations.  These observations can include reasons for non-payment, personal circumstances etc (see further details and examples in Section 3 below).   Three  examples of annual rental format are below to illustrate the diversity of styles:  Figure 1  is a basic rental from the O’Hara estate in Sligo in 1756,  but it also specifies a ‘quit rent‘ payment,  which is not usual;  Figure 2 is a more more detailed rental from 1822 indicating area of land and the terms under which it is held (see Tenancies below);  Figure 3 also gives details of the area of land held, but gives more details on the leases.  The general format shown in Figure 1 is by far the most common.

The  images below were created by Ancestor Network but are reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland (call numbers are indicated for each)

Figure 1:    An example of an annual rental from the O’Hara Estate in Sligo  (National Library of Ireland Ms. 36,318).  This shows, for instance,   that Ann Hartte rented a property in the townland of Annaghbegg for which she paid a half-yearly rent of £11. 10 shillings,  and also a quit-rent of 5 shillings

(b)  The second type of rental format is the  Debit/Contra (or Debit-Creditor) Rental,which  is based on the classic double-entry account and has multi-annual accounts for each individual tenant within a rental book.  These are typically presented on two pages:  Tenant details and rent (and sometimes other payments) due are on the left page (Debit), and receipts are on the right page (Credit). Note the ‘Dr.’ and ‘Cr.’  at top right of the respective pages of the first example below.    Two examples are below:  Figure 4 shows a typical example (In this case to a partnership; see below for more information on partnerships).  The left page  shows  the tenants (Edmund Cleary, Gleeson and Shelly) and the half-yearly rent of £30.15 shillings (etc.)  for the years 1815 to 1818.  On the right is the list of payments made by the partnership.  This illustrates several things:   (a) the rent is paid in both cash (see ‘Bank notes‘ and ‘change‘ in the lower entries) and also ‘in-kind‘;  e.g.  the first entry shows a payment in ‘cattle’ cumulatively worth £6.16.11,  and also a later entry of payment by ‘cash and grass‘,  which indicates that the landlord’s cattle had been put on the tenant’s meadows for an agreed sum.

Figure 5 is a rental from Co. Meath (NLI Ms 3031).   In this example the left and right pages are shown above and below respectively for convenience. This shows an example of rent payment made entirely in labour. In this case Michael Masterson contributes 111.5 days of work at 7 pence per day and 104.5 days at 5 pence per day.   In return he receives  a quarter acre of land (‘potatoe land‘) , a house and garden,   and the ‘grass of 2 cows‘  (i.e. he is entitled to graze two cows on the landlord’s meadows).  The different rates of pay per day may indicate that children (or women!) were conducting the work on these days.  See our blog on Cork Labourers for further information on rates of pay for men and women.


Large estates generally kept more detailed records, as there were more tenants to manage. The affairs of such estates were handled by agents who were either directly employed by the landlord, or were ‘Estate Agents’ (see a more detailed explanation in Section 3 below).    The annual rental accounts may also contain ‘observations’ (also see below) on individual tenants including capacity to pay, reasons for non-payment, actions taken etc. These include references to illness, deaths, emigration or transfers of tenants etc.  It should also be noted that large estates often dealt through ‘middlemen’ (again see detail below)  who rented large areas and let smaller parts of these areas to sub-tenants.  If your ancestor was a sub-tenant of one of these middle-men, they will not be listed on the main estate rental,  and there are few rentals from middle-men in existence.

Smaller resident landlords probably knew their tenants, and did not require the detail on each tenant that is found in the rentals from larger estates.  In a minority of these, it is not possible even to determine the property as the rental will simply record the rent received by each tenant.    The landlord would presumably have known very well which property was referred to, and it was unnecessary to note it in the rental.  The debit/contra style of rental (Figure 4 and 5) was more common for smaller estates.  It was a logical way of managing long-term tenants, as rents were often made in small part-payments, or even in the form of labour as shown.  An on-going account over years allowed for such arrangements.  In some of these debit/contra accounts it is possible to track persons within a partnership making individual payments (see Fig 4 and also ‘partnerships’ below).  Thus,  although the stated name on the account may only be the nominal head tenant,  the accounts may show payments of rent by others within a partnership.  This may be useful in identifying ancestors within these accounts.

Source by kind permission of Jim Ryan, Ancestor Network, Full Article