by James R. Reilly, CGRS

The Tithe Act of 1823 revised the traditional payment of agricultural produce for the support of the Church of Ireland with the substitution of a money payment. Prior to 1823 an agent for the church official entitled to the tithe inspected the crops produced by every occupier of land to calculate the proportion of each crop to be paid in tithe. The system was prone to abuse and charges of favoritism by both landowners and tenants as well as church officials. The 1823 Act attempted to reform the system with a valuation (applotment) of the quantity of land in each holding to determine the tax money (composition) that each occupier was to pay.

Landowners, leaseholders and tenants were required to render this financial support to the Established Church regardless of their personal religious affiliation, a condition bitterly resented by the Catholics who composed more than 80% of the population. Another source of contention among the tithe-payers was the inclusion of pasture land, formerly tithe-free under the earlier system. Exempt from the obligation were urban dwellers in cities and large towns, the clergy of the Church, and often the local Catholic clergy.

Two tithe commissioners were selected in each civil parish to conduct the valuation, one chosen by the bishop of the diocese and one elected by the landowners. The Tithe Applotment Composition Books used to record the results ranged from a humble copybook to a bound volume with printed format. Although there appears to be no uniform format, the information generally indicates the denominations (townland names) of titheable land and the names of the occupiers, the areas of the farms and their valuation, and the tithe payable. A number of books include maps, others the qualities of the soil, sometimes the rents paid by tenants, generally the land held in joint and undivided tenancies (Rundale), and occasionally information about landholders of an earlier date. Some books have notations indicating emigration; and ancient ruins, roadways, rivers and waste land were sometimes noted in a "observations" column as factors influencing assessment because they were unproductive.

Although the Tithe Applotment Books are not a list of householders, in the absence of censuses for this period, they are valuable to the family historian, since they serve as a listing of land occupiers. However, since the commissioners were concerned only with those occupiers liable for the payment of the tithe, they would not generally have included cottiers, laborers holding conacre land, or landless people such as weavers, farm servants and vagrants.

Equally important, the books preserve the name and topography of pre-Ordnance survey territorial divisions, many of which were to disappear from the official record in the following decade. As a result of the countrywide mapping begun in 1833 and the changes in administrative boundaries created by the Boundary Act of 1836, the government declared some denominations of land too large and subdivided them into smaller units with new names. Some townlands, for example, were transferred not only from one parish to another but from one county to another! The topographical and geographical problems thus created for the genealogist can make territorial location of an ancestor difficult.

Books exist for almost all civil parishes and are housed in Dublin's National Archives for the Republic of Ireland and in Belfast's Public Record Office for Northern Ireland. Microfilm copies of the Books are available at the Family History Library, Salt Lake City, or a local Center.

Ireland's nineteenth century population was eighty percent dependent on agriculture for its subsistence and employment. Of the three major determinants of a farm family's potential for survival an prosperity, the type of tenure it held on the land is of interest here rather than how much rent it paid or the size of it's holding.

Direct tenure was a formal agreement between a principal landlord and a tenant usually written into a lease, but on occasion only a verbal agreement, that spelled out the obligations and rights of both parties; the landlord, for example, had the right to expect timely payment of rent and the tenant had the right to peaceful possession and use of the property as long as he met his obligations as defined in his lease. Many occupiers held their farms, however, not by direct tenure from the landlord, but through a system that had developed in Ireland during the seventeenth century. Landowners who were eager to collect rent moneys but were uninterested in directly managing their estates frequently leased large portions of their estates to a "middleman." These leases contained no restrictions against the middleman subdividing the property and thus increasing the number of actual occupiers of the holding far beyond a single direct tenancy.

The numerous subtenants did not generally have the protection and benefits of a lease with the middleman; their occupancy depended not so much on their payment of rent but on the middleman's ability to pay his rent to the head landlord. To insure the genteel social status to which he had drown accustomed, he frequently demanded considerably higher rents than the rent he himself eventually paid to the landlord.

Yearly tenancy as distinct from tenant at will carried some legal security to the holding and was generally renewed automatically by the landlord as long as rent was paid when due on May 1 and November 1, traditionally called Gale Day. Removal for non-payment was relatively rare in pre-famine times and was limited usually to those cases where several years' rent was due. Evictions, however, were carried out for other reasons. Tenants at will, on the other hand, had no legal security to a holding even with timely payment of rent; they could be removed at any time and for any reason at the whim and fancy of the landlord.

In addition to the fixed rent stipulated in the lease or verbal agreement between the landlord and the direct tenant, additional substantial charges were often due to the landlord. On many estates landlords owned mills which tenants were required to use if they ground the oats raised on their holdings. The prices charged were often so exorbitant that tenants chose to sell their oats unmilled and buy oatmeal on the open market. Tenants were frequently required to pay a fee of £2 or £3 to the landlord for the privilege of holding a farm worth £17 or £18 a year.

As part of the rental system on some estates the custom of duty day was imposed generally on the smallest tenants who were required to work on their landlord's property during planting the harvest times to the neglect to their own crops.

There were no leased between the undertenant and the overtenant, and there was no reason for any of the participants to keep records. Actually, both parties had good reason to keep their rent arrangement as covert as possible lest a landlord or his agent discover just how much the direct tenant's property was yielding each year and raise the primary rent.

In pre-famine Ireland, as in most of peasant Europe, specific occupational categories were loosely defined. Individuals who lacked sufficient land to provide for all their family's needs were forced to undertake many different activities to earn a living. They took work job by job, and thus might pass through several occupations during the course of their lives or practice several simultaneously. The "strong farmer", the "middling farmer" or the "small farmer" are relatively easy to identify and track in the records of land occupancy; it is the farm servant, the cottier, and the wage laborer who present a formidable challenge to the family historian.

Farm service was the most secure but the most restrictive form of labor. Farm servants, male and female, lived in the cabin of their employers and often shared his meals. They worked in the fields, at herding, within the house, at whatever task their employer required, and they were bound for a year. Wages were paid at the end of the year, giving the employer considerable power over them. There is evidence that farm servants had to ask permission to leave their employer's holding, even at night, but since they were often youths and always single, these restrictions were not considered unnatural. Although they had little personal freedom, they did have the security of full-time employment and sustenance. Because they were single and had few responsibilities, they were often able to save a large part of their meager salary, and this allowed many of them, after three or four years of careful saving, to pay for passage to America.

Cotting was an arrangement that enabled the tenant farmer to circumvent the need for hard cash; the landless laborer received a cabin and a small plot of ground in return for his labor on the farmer's holding. The cottier received a dry-cot of potato land only or a wet-cot with additional land to support a cow depending upon the amount of yearly labor agreed upon. Their cabins were cheaply erected on poor land, and in return the farmer received the necessary labor to till his land. As long as the potato crop was plentiful, the cottier was better off than his neighbor who worked for cash. And the arrangement allowed thge cottier's family to utilize its surplus labor. Woman and children had little opportunity for employment on farms except during harvest. The cot gave the family a means of turning their surplus labor directly into food without the need for cash to rent land. Cottiers, like farm servants, were dependent on their employers. Their agreements usually were not in writing, and so a cottier was anxious to please the farmer and assure himself of employment for the following year.

Finally, there was the laborer who worked for a daily wage. He rented his cabin and garden (potato plot) from a tenant farmer and paid his rent in cash. The yearly rent for a cabin and half-rood of land was generally about £2 or £3, quite a sum for a man earing 8d or 9d a day. Although he was independent of any social or economic restriction imposed by his employer, since he usually did not confine himself to any one employer, the extreme competition for work and the daily nature of his employment combined to make him insure when compared to the farm servant and the cottier.

It is certain that the farm servant and the cottier will not appear in the Tithe Books, for they were not subject to the tax because of their work relationship to their employer; the landlord, the middleman, the small and the large farmer, and the wage laborer generally have their names listed in this record. However, one can expect to find all occupiers of land, whether wage laborer, cottier, small and large farmer, listed along with landlord, landlord and the middleman in Richard Griffith's General Valuation of Ratable Property.

The landless farm servant and cottier may sometimes be found in the rent and wage books of the large estates. Farmers holding substantial acreage and employing large numbers of laborers have been known to keep records of their employees.


"Land Records". chapter 4, page 52.

"County Source List". chapter 12, page 130.

Tracing Your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1992.

Manuscript Sources for the Study of Irish Civilization by Richard Hayes (FHL films #1,440,939-43 and 973,222-30).

The Family History Library's copies of estate records are listed in the Locality catalog under: IRELAND-LAND AND PROPERTY; IRELAND, [COUNTY]-LAND AND PROPERTY.

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