THE ENCUMBERED ESTATES: THE FAMINE'S OTHER VICTIM
by James R. Reilly, CGRS

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Irish Society was predominantly rural and the economy was mainly based on agriculture; about seven million of the eight million inhabitants lived in the country side and made their living from the land. The density of population in rural Ireland was exceptional compared to countries in Europe, and land ownership and its management unusual and potentially dangerous.

Irish landowners were an hereditary ruling elite whose wealth and potential power were based on land. While the majority were descended from families who had lived in Ireland for generations, most considered themselves as essentially British; some lived in Britain and managed their Irish estates as absentee landlords.

A major problem with the land system was that many landlords did not own their estates but leased them from other landlords. In many cases there were two or more intermediaries (middlemen) between the tenant and the owner of the land. Richard Griffith recounted that during his valuation survey of the country he found as many as seven levels of middlemen between the last tenant and the landowner.

A middleman was usually "one of the people" who, having made money, rented a hundred, or, as often the case, a thousand acres of an estate. The landowner, whether resident or absentee, looked to him alone for the payment of the half-yearly rent due him and knew nothing whatever of the condition of the tenants who dwelt on his estate. Living his quality life-style in Dublin or London, he was far away from the sight of their subsistence life-style.

Although the landowners and landlords controlled the land, their financial welfare ultimately depended on their tenant farmers, a group who encompassed a third of the Irish population. While a small proportion of these farmers made a modest living on farms of twenty acres or more, the majority of their holdings were less than ten acres on which they scratched out an existence barely holding body and soul together. In good years, when the crops yielded a fair harvest and the stock thrived, it was possible to grow enough food for the family, pay the rent to the landlord, and pay cess (taxes) for the upkeep of the county and pay the Poor Law rates to maintain the local poorhouse.

The farm laborer too depended on the land for his livelihood. Most had the use of a plot of ground on which to grow potatoes; it was usually rented from a farmer and paid for by so many days' labor. Three million people of the small farmer and laborer classes existed at subsistence level; in good times they got by mainly because they had a cheap food readily available in the potato. An acre of ground provided a family of four with enough food for most of the year, and the potato supported a phenomenal growth in population during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But if the crop failed completely, as it was to do in the Great Famine, three million laborers and small holders would have no other resource, and ultimately their fate would adversely effect the large farmers, the landlords and the country as a whole.

Whether resident or absentee, many landlords administered their estates in an extremely short-sighted fashion; their priority was to extort the highest possible rents and only a minority reinvested capital in their estates for improvements to their land and their tenants. The result negatively affected not only them, but the tenant farmers and the farm laborers as well.

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