Michael Davitt

Retiring the Landlord Garrison

(May 1890)

From Nineteenth Century, May 1890, p.779-794.
Transcribed by Tex Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A bill introduced by a Tory Government which is opposed by Irish landlords, or, at least, by the unreasoning portion of that class, is deserving of the fullest and most careful consideration from even the most Radical Irish land reformers. It is, indeed, an anomalous situation which is thus created by Mr. Balfour’s Land Purchase measure. In the early part of 1888, a deputation of Irish landowners waited upon Lord Salisbury and laid before him, in carefully prepared statements, a claim for compensation at the hands of the State for the reduction of their incomes caused by the agrarian legislation of the previous seven years. The Prime Minister expressed his strongest sympathy for the case thus made out, and, while pleading the insuperable difficulty there would be in helping them directly from the coffers of the Imperial Exchequer, he promised that the friendly action of the Government could be counted upon by the deputationists. A ‘Landlords’ Relief Bill has consequently been looked for with somewhat opposite emotions by the Irish landlords and Irish tenants, as a result of this promise and as a necessary sequence to the measure which really deserved that name, the Ashbourne Act of 1885. The promised Bill has come, but Lord Erne, addressing a meeting of brother Irish landlords in Fermanagh on the 5th of last month, declares it to be ‘a Bill for facilitating the expulsion of the English Garrison from Ireland’!

I candidly confess to having something more than a ‘sneaking regard’ for whatever proposal has the good fortune to meet with or merit the opposition of Irish landlords as such. They have always been, and are apparently fated for ever to continue, in the wrong. They are more Bourbon than the Bourbons in learning nothing from their own experience or misfortunes, or from the progressive march of ideas and events. The world, to them, is retrograding because the days of rack-renting and of a servile tenantry are all but vanished. They sigh over the times when they ruled the roost in everything, from a board of guardians in an Irish village to the representation of all Ireland in Westminster; and, instead of becoming reconciled to the inevitable by accepting philosophically the political defeat which the ballot and an extended franchise have inflicted upon the once all-powerful ‘garrison,’ they seek every available occasion to loudly lament their lot and curse the people who are no longer their slaves. What is better still – for such people – the landlords are beginning to treat in the same manner all and sundry English statesmen who dare to recognise the economic change that is revolutionising the conditions under which land is held in these islands. Ireland to them means rent, that and nothing more; and parties and politicians who make legislative trespass upon that preserve are warned off, unless they come as advocates of coercion or upholders of eviction. They scorned the Land League proposal of 1880, which offered them twenty years’ purchase of their rentals, at Griffith’s valuation. Mr. Gladstone’s equally generous offer, in 1886, was rejected with insults; and now when their own party has to supplement eviction and coercion with something of a like attempt to grapple with the evil that is father to such offspring, the spoilt children of English rule in Ireland kick up their heels, because the Bill is not to provide all candy for them and all stick for those who have not friends in office.

The chosen spokesman of the Fermanagh landlords, Mr. H. de F. Montgomery, delivered himself as follows, at the meeting of the 5th of April, upon what his class thought should alone have governed the action of the Government in drawing up the Purchase Bill:

Had half the ingenuity displayed in securing the British taxpayer from risks which, such as they are, he ought to be ashamed to shirk, been devoted to devising means to smooth the working of the measure and to do some sort of justice to the landlord, the Bill might have been made an acceptable one.

This is outspoken enough, and has much landlord modesty to recommend it; but the chairman of the meeting, the Earl of Belmore, disposed of the thirty millions of possibly interested people in Great Britain in a single sentence, by saying, ‘As to the British taxpayer he did not pity him at all.’ The personage thus deprived of his lordship’s consideration may possibly survive the loss with as much fortitude as Lord Belmore and his brethren will be likely to exhibit if the British taxpayer makes up his mind to repay them in kind.

It was the reading of the speeches made on the occasion of this meeting, and the pronounced and unqualified opposition of the reputed landlord organ, the Dublin Express, to the Government Bill, that has induced me to extend to that measure an amount of study which Mr. Balfour’s speech on its introduction was not calculated to invite. The Bill deserves the closest attention on its merits, and altogether apart from the negative attraction given to it by Irish landlord fears of its ultimate results.

The two points upon which I would most strongly condemn and most strenuously oppose the Bill, namely, the attempt to dispose of the land of Ireland by the machinery of an unrepresentative Land Department, and the proposal to turn tenants into occupying proprietors at the expense and risk of the State, are matters which the public opinion of Great Britain and Ireland is almost certain to pronounce against, if not immediately at no distant day. Landlordism by great estates or by small ones, through territorial magnates or peasant proprietors, cannot, in view of its hideous failure in its primary form in Ireland, or in face of the growing popular demand for municipal and national ownership of land in Great Britain and Ireland, be long-lived; no matter how many bills a pro-landlord Government, with a pliant majority, may force through Parliament. Individual as against public right in land values cannot, and will not, stand against movements which the Irish agitation has set going against the class ownership of the soil. As it will take forty-nine years under Mr. Balfour’s Bill to free the tenant from the position of a State creditor and to convert him into a small landlord, I think Land Nationalisers need not feel much alarmed at the vesting clauses of this measure. As for the price which Mr. Balfour thinks should be paid for the selling landlords’ interest, the tenant, unless he is a fool, will bide his time before agreeing to conditions which would offer him very little, if any, relief for half a century to come.

The Bill can, therefore, be freely examined with the view of showing how impossible it will be to make it a ‘Relief Bill for Irish Tenants’ while it retains provisions and clauses manifestly introduced into the measure so as to render it a ‘Relief Bill for English Mortgagees.’

This new title can easily be made good by a close examination of a few facts relating to the actual condition of the land market of Ireland. ‘At present,’ wrote one of the ablest of the Irish landlords in 1889, ‘there are locked up in the Landed Estates Court upwards of £30,000,000 worth of unsaleable lands, awaiting impossible sales; and the judge of this court now stands as a quasi-trustee between the mortgagor and the mortgagee; but the time must come when the lands, which have in vain been put up for sale over and over again, must at last be knocked down to the first mortgagee.’ [1] The close relation between the figure here given and the £33,000,000 asked for in the Government measure, may be only a coincidence. But what Mr. Erck had to say about the land lying in the Landed Estates Court, and what would have to become of it in the natural course of events, will enable the students of the Government Bill to appreciate Mr. Goschen’s regard for the interests of the English mortgagees in the scheme of which he is supposed to be the real author.

The Bill provides that the Land Department may order the sale of the estates which lie for sale in the Landed Estates Court. For years past these properties have been put up to public auction, with rarely a purchase effected. The reason is obvious: the mortgages are in excess of the market value of the landlords’ property in the land, and the mortgagees, almost invariably, refuse to assent to a sale unless the full amount of mortgage is offered. Then there are owners of rent-charges and other encumbrances who are opposed to sales which will not cover their interests. If, in addition the nominal landlord has any interest at all left in what was once his property, it is the right of his wife under a marriage settlement; and he also objects to a sale in the Land Court which would wipe out his wife’s charge. Hence the accumulation of the £30,000,000 of landed property remaining unsaleable in the ordinary land market of Ireland.

It goes without saying that one of the first administrative acts of the new Land Department will be to sell off the estates which for years have blocked the business of the Land Court, estates which have been managed by a corps of receivers and bailiffs, under the direction of the officials of the court, with ruinous effect to all the interests concerned, particularly to those of the unfortunate ‘owner.’ The department will sell to the occupier; but will it expect – will the judge who has presided over the Land Court, and who will be an important head of the new department, be prepared to ask more for such land than the market value already ascertained through many an abortive sale by public auction? This is a fair question to ask of such a doctrinaire political economist as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The way in which it is answered by the new department in its treatment of the £30,000,000 worth of landlord property lying at present in the Landed Estates Court and in the Chancery, will show whether or not Mr. Goschen’s scheme was, or was not, conceived and brought forward as a measure of English mortgagees.

It may also be asked in this connection, why should the moneylenders of London be made the object of State aid? Why should the public credit be pledged in order that London banks and London Jews may get paid their private debts? Shall the breakfast-table of the industrial classes continue to be taxed, and the public credit be enlarged to thirty or fifty millions, in order to insure the money-lenders against any loss in their past transactions with Irish landlords? Bearing in mind that it is the poorest, the worst rent-paying land, with the most impoverished tenantry upon it, that will absorb the greater portion of the £33,000,000; and that hitherto it has been on such land and amongst such tenantry that periodical destitution has prevailed, and that famine has from time to time appeared; is it unreasonable to predict that the new landlords which Mr. Balfour is to create will, periodically, find themselves unable to pay their annuities under this Bill? Then will the schools be closed, dispensary doctors be without pay, and the paupers be put on short commons: all because the principal and interest guaranteed to the land stock by the Treasury under this Purchase Bill must be paid to the banks and money-lenders of London.

Lord Randolph Churchill’s criticism is certainly ‘thorough,’ while being marked as usual with all his accustomed regard for prevalent popular prejudices. His attack is based mainly – though not exclusively – upon the hypothesis of an organised repudiation of the annual repayments of the tenants; and he points out, very truly, that their leaders have combined them in past years against the payment of rents to the landlords. Such organised repudiation is, I admit, possible; but only under circumstances and conditions which Lord Randolph would himself, in a measure, be a party to creating, if some of his suggested amendments to the Government Bill are adopted. But there is this difference between the cases cited in support of the possibility of a predicted repudiation, and the likelihood of it. The Land League Executive issued a ‘No Rent’ manifesto, it is true; but it was after such executive had been arrested and imprisoned without trial. It was largely, if not entirely, an act of retaliation, provoked by a most despotic proceeding. And in other instances referred to or hinted at by Lord Randolph Churchill, in cases of strikes against individual landlords or in the combinations of the plan of campaign, the objects of attack stood on a far different footing from that which the State would occupy when it became the landlord. Land Leaguers have frequently fought their landlord opponents by ‘cutting off supplies,’ pending the landlord’s consent to reduce his rents or forgive arrears. In instances of this kind, the original ‘contract’ of tenancy was agreed to by a tenant who had practically no alternative but to accept conditions imposed by a man who had power to dictate them. The tenant had to consent or starve, where, practically, no other employment but the land offered itself. The decisions of the Land Courts since 1881 have modified, to some extent, these original enforced conditions. In such cases only have tenants been advised to ‘strike’ for better terms. But in no single instance in which a tenant has gone with his eyes open into a contract with the State, in the purchase of his holding under the Land Act of 1870, or any subsequent measure of the same kind, has the Land League, or any member of the National League, to my knowledge, advised, or in any way countenanced, any repudiation of the terms, favourable or unfavourable, which the tenant voluntarily agreed to as the basis of such a purchase contract.

I am not surprised to discover in the main scope and object of the Government Bill, traces of previous programmes of Irish land reform. It appears to be a medley of the Land League plan of Parliamentary land reform of 1880, and of the scheme outlined by Mr. Giffen of the Board of Trade, in a letter to the Statist of the May 9th of January, 1886, followed by an article in this Review for the following March, on the same subject. Mr. Balfour’s measure however, lacks the two essential requisites contained in the schemes from which he or Mr. Goschen has copied – the compulsory character of the League plan and the State proprietary nature of Mr. Giffen’s proposal. It is, however, somewhat consoling, with the recollection of the Special Commission in one’s mind, to find her Majesty's Government (whisper it not in Printing House Square!) actually harking back from the year 1890 to 1880 in order to borrow from the programme of the ‘Criminal Conspiracy’ not only the plan of the Land League, but its proposed machinery as well, for the settlement of the Irish land war! Here are the two schemes, side by side:–

The Land Department.
Constitution and Jurisdiction.

LIV. (I) There shall be a Land Department for Ireland, consisting, in the first instance, of six Land Commissioners, one or more of whom shall bear the style of Judicial Land Commissioner.

PART I. Sale and Purchase of Holdings.

1. (1) If the landlord and the tenant of a holding in Ireland make an agreement for the sale of a holding to the tenant, and either–

  1. The purchase money is agreed on by them, and specified in the agreement; or
  2. The agreement refers it to the Land Department (hereinafter mentioned) to fix the price of the interest which the tenant agrees to buy in the holding.

And such agreement provides for an application to the Land Department to carry the sale into effect under this Act, and to make an advance to the amount specified in the agreement in or as a contribution to the payment of the purchase money, the Land Department, subject to the provisions of this Act, may make an order (in this Act referred to as a vesting order) for carrying the sale into effect, and may, if the price of the interest which the tenant agrees to buy in the holding is referred to them, fix such price, and may in manner provided by this Act make the said advance.

(2) If such agreement refers the price of the interest which the tenant agrees to buy in the holding to the Land Department, and further provides that a sum not exceeding the amount of two years’ rent of the holding shall be added to such price in satisfaction of arrears of rent due to the landlord in respect of the holding, the Land Department may, if they think fit, add to the said price the sum so agreed on, and such price with the sum so added shall form the purchase money.

Purchase Money.

XVIII. (2) After the making of a vesting order the claims of all persons in respect of any estate, right, charge, or interest into or on the holding (except the tenant and persons claiming under him), shall attach to the purchase money in like manner as immediately before that date they attached to the holding, and shall cease to be of any validity as against the holding, and, subject as in this Act mentioned, shall be redeemed or discharged out of the purchase money, and the Land Department shall determine the rights and priorities of such persons and distribute the purchase money in accordance therewith.


L VII. (l) There shall be transferred to the Land Department jurisdiction the powers and duties following, namely–

The jurisdiction which was by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Ireland), 1877, transferred from the Landed Estates Court, Ireland, to the High Court, including the control and direction of the Record of Title Office of the Landed Estates Court, Ireland, and all powers and authorities exercised by the judges of that court, or any of them, under the Record of Title Act (Ireland), 1865.


ON APRIL 30, 1880.

Creation of a Department of Land Administration for Ireland.

To carry out the permanent reform of land tenure referred to, we propose the creation of a Department or Commission of land administration for Ireland. This Department would be invested with ample powers to deal with all questions relating to land in Ireland:–

Sale and Purchase of Holdings.

(1) Where the landlord and tenant of any holding had agreed for the sale to the tenant of the said holding, the Department would execute the necessary conveyance to the tenant, and advance him the whole or part of the purchase money, and upon such advance being made by the Department such holding would be deemed to be charged with an annuity of £5 for every £100 of such advance and so in proportion for any less sums, such annuity to be limited in favour of the Department, and to be declared to be repayable in the term of thirty-five years.

2) Where a tenant tendered to the landlord for the purchase of his holding a sum equal to twenty years of the poor-law valuation thereof, the Department would execute the conveyance of the said holding to the tenant, and would be empowered to advance to the tenant the whole or any part of the purchase money, the repayment of which would be secured as set forth in the case of voluntary sales.

Purchase Money.

(4) The Department or the court having jurisdiction in this matter would be empowered to determine the rights and priorities of the several persons entitled to or having charges upon or otherwise interested in any holding conveyed as above mentioned, and would distribute the purchase money in accordance with such rights and priorities, and when any moneys arising from a sale were not immediately distributable, the Department would have a right to invest the said moneys for the benefit of the parties entitled thereto.

Provision would be made whereby the Treasury would from time to time advance to the Department such sums of money as would be required for the purchases above mentioned.

Easy Transfer of Land, Compulsory Registration, &c.

To render the proposed change in the tenure of land effectual it would be necessary to make provision for the cheap and simple transfer of immovable property.

The Landed Estates Court would be transferred to the Department of Land Administration, its system of procedure cheapened and improved. In each county in Ireland there would be established a registry office wherein all owners of land would be compelled to register their titles, &c., &c.


Mr. Balfour’s scheme is, as a matter of course, more elaborate than that of the Land League, and in its clauses and details proposes to do many things and to secure certain results that were not embodied in the original Land League edition. But, singular to relate, Mr. Parnell and Mr. Patrick Egan proposed a higher price for the landlords’ interest than Mr. Goschen and Mr. Balfour calculate upon securing for it by their amended plan. I did not agree to sign the Land League programme, as it proposed to give twenty years’ purchase of Griffith’s valuation (which would represent about twenty-five years’ purchase of the net judicial rents of to-day) for an interest which would not then fetch fifteen years’ in the open market any more than it will command twelve now, if not inflated by aid of State-loaned funds. I am therefore free to criticise that part of the Government scheme which even falls below the offer of the Land League of 1880 in the matter of compensating Irish landlords.

Where the Land League plan of 1880 falls short of what Ireland requires, as will that of the Government if it becomes law, is in the attempt to ignore the full play of economic forces, present and prospective, upon the rent-earning power of Irish land, and the fact that neither the Irish nation nor the British taxpayer will feel safe or justified, or willing, to pay for the land of Ireland being transferred from one set of bankrupt Irish landlords to another and larger class, who will have to mortgage the agricultural industry of Ireland for the next half-century, in order to become at the expiration of that time as selfish, as grasping, and as arrogant masters of the soil of Ireland as those whom they would replace. It is fortunate, therefore – fortunate for the future of Ireland, though unfortunate for the landlords – that the plan of 1880 was not adopted. It will he fortunate for the landlords, and still unfortunate for the country which they have all but ruined by their extravagance, if Mr. Balfour succeeds in 1890 with the Land League programme of 1880.

The scheme proposed by Mr. Giffen in 1886 is much less recognised in the Government Bill than is that of the Land League. As explained in his letter to the Statist, it is as follows:

The plan is for the Imperial Government (1) to buy out every landlord in Ireland, giving him Consols at par equal in, nominal amount to twenty years’ purchase of the present judicial rents; (2) to give the land free to the present occupier subject only to a rent-charge of one half or two-thirds of the present judicial rent payable to the new local authorities in Ireland and (3) to relieve the Imperial Exchequer of all payments now made out of it in connection with the Local Government of Ireland. The plan is, in fact, to throw the cost of local government in Ireland upon Irish resources exclusively, and to give the Irish people the rent of the country for the purpose of conducting it. The conflict between landlords and people would thus come to an end. We need no longer fear that if we give Ireland Home Rule the property of the landlords would be confiscated.

When this plan was first put forward, it received– subject to differences of opinion upon matters of detail – an amount of support from Home Rule leaders and popular Nationalist opinion in Ireland such as no previous proposal of land settlement had been favoured with from the Irish people. Mr. Parnell, in his speech at the opening of the session (1886), referred to the scheme with favour. Dr. Croke, the Archbishop of Cashel, writing to the Statist of the 6th of February, hailed the plan as one that would solve the Irish agrarian problem. The whole Catholic hierarchy of Ireland, in a letter addressed to Mr. Gladstone on the 17th of the same month, referred approvingly to it; while the daily and weekly organs of national sentiment accepted it likewise as embodying the method by which the long and bitter strife between landlord and tenant could be finally brought to a close. Expressions of opinion more or less favourable were likewise given by landlord organs not adherents of Home Rule, while many English Radical papers also backed up the scheme. A writer in the Fortnightly Review of February 1886 (supposed to be Mr. Chamberlain) said of it:

The scheme published in the Statist newspaper, and which has been attributed to Mr. Giffen, has been objected to in some of its details, and it certainly appears to contemplate too large a payment to the existing landlords, while the amount of the grants from the Exchequer to local purposes seems to be estimated too highly. But in any case the fact remains, that such grants are made annually to a very large extent, and that they represent a capital sum which affords the basis for an immense operation in the way of land purchase, and of the municipalisation of the land of Ireland by its transfer to local authorities, who may be invited and empowered, under proper conditions devised to prevent sub-letting and the re-creation of the landlord class, to deal with the existing tenants, and to give them full and independent rights of ownership, subject to a quit-rent of very much less than the present payment.

A more remarkable consensus of opinion in favour of a scheme which proposed to end the agrarian war of Ireland, by recourse to a heroic remedy, could not well be hoped for. The Irish landlords as a body did not, it is true, give. their adhesion to Mr. Giffen’s plan; but neither did they as a body condemn it. It received, on the whole – that is, the main features, not the details – such an amount of support as any measure must command which is framed with the purpose of making success a moral certainty, not only through its completeness as a remedy and its adaptability to the exigencies of the case, but the cordial acceptance of it by the Irish people and their leaders as well.

The chief objection raised in Ireland was to the price fixed by Mr. Giffen for the landlords’ interest. This was twenty years’ purchase of the then present rental – a figure doubtless suggested to him by the Land League proposal of 1880. Mr. Chamberlain – assuming the Fortnightly Review article quoted from to have been his – also took exception to so high a price. In the Statist of the 6th of February, 1886, Mr. Giffen himself appears to have thought twenty years an excessive figure, as he said in a letter in which he replied to a communication from the Archbishop of Cashel, ‘In suggesting twenty years, I was desirous not to suggest too low a figure. It was important to show that the scheme was practicable, even if the landlord got very good terms.’

I will return to a further consideration of this plan after with some more vital flaws in the Government measure.

There are more devices than one in the Bill whereby the landlords’ interests can be seen to in a most friendly way by the Land Department. Here is one: There was a guarantee to the Treasury in the Ashbourne Act which compelled the selling landlord to allow one-fifth of the purchase money to remain in the hands of the Land Commission. This was an all-round reasonable arrangement. Notwithstanding the apparent intention of the authors of the new Bill to safeguard the interests of the British taxpayer, by means of a multitude of guarantees, it is proposed to leave to any two members of the Land Department the power to lessen it to the extent of one-tenth, or, in certain cases, to dispense with it entirely, the very substantial guarantee secured under the Ashbourne Act from the landlord’s side of the purchase transactions. The other guarantees are provided, without exception, from tenant or public resources; and in case of repudiation or loss it is public interest that must alone suffer. The discretionary powers given to the member’s of the Land Department, prominent among whom will be two noted partisans of the landlord class, will be sure to be so exercised as to have as little as possible of the £33,000,000, provided for the landlords and mortgagees, retained to make good any possible loss that may be incurred by the Treasury in the work of replacing the old by the new landlords.

The economic objections to the Bill are even stronger which can be urged against the arrière pensée of its reputed author. Mr. Balfour admitted only a few years ago [2] that land was now ‘an almost unsaleable commodity.’ It is, assuredly, less saleable in Ireland in 1890 than it was in 1885, and my contention from the passing of the Ashbourne Act of that year until the present moment has been, that these purchase measures, by means of elaborately calculated schemes of long periods of repayment of State-loaned money, have one paramount object in view, namely, to enable the owners and mortgagees of this ‘unsaleable commodity’ to obtain forty or fifty per cent. more of a price for it than it is worth in the ordinary market, in which the value of every saleable commodity is determined by the landlords’ once infallible law, ‘supply and demand.’ Another view of our Chief Secretary’s, as carefully and forcibly expounded in the paper referred to in the footnote on the preceding page, is deserving of the closest attention now when he proposes the creation, upon a vast scale, of the system of peasant proprietary in Ireland. Speaking of peasant proprietary in France he said:

If its success has been so qualified under the exceptionally propitious conditions which prevail on the other side of the Channel, there is no ground whatever for supposing it would be other than a disastrous failure here, where neither the habits of the people, the traditions of the country, nor the character of the agriculture are suited to it; where it has shown no tendency to take root in districts in which it has not previously existed, or to thrive in districts where it has. The truth is that, except in the case of market-gardening, the system of peasant proprietorship lies in unstable equilibrium between two opposite dangers, from both of which it rarely succeeds in escaping. If, on the other hand, the small freeholders are but feebly influenced by ‘land hunger,’ those of them who are lazy and thriftless will sell rather than mortgage their holdings whenever the inevitable demand for money comes upon them; while those of them who are energetic and enterprising will also sell, because in old and settled countries it is usually more profitable to farm and pay rent for much land than to own and cultivate a little. If, on the other hand, the peasants are powerfully moved by ‘land hunger,’ then, rather than sell, they will mortgage their holdings, if necessary at extravagant rates; rather than not buy, they will give extravagant prices for any plot of land that comes into the market; rather than give up their share of the ancestral fields on the death of a parent, they will submit them to ruinous subdivision. In the one case, the system gradually dies out; in the other it produces little but evil.

Yet this is the very system which Mr. Balfour and his party are now about to spend £33,000,000 of taxes in building up in Ireland, where the ‘land hunger’ is supposed to operate more than in any other European country; and this vast sum is to go, in the first instance, as an outlay for what the Chief Secretary considered a few years back to be ‘an almost unsaleable commodity’!

Whatever views may underlie the support which this Bill will receive, or the opposition which it is certain to encounter, it ought to be a paramount consideration with every land reformer who will expend his criticism upon it, either as a Tory, Liberal, or Parnellite, or advocate of peasant proprietary or land nationalisation, to inflict no burden upon a poor country like Ireland which she will not be fully capable of bearing. If the present Bill passes, it will inevitably force Ireland to carry such a burden for half a century more. Either it will do this, or, in order to relieve Irish agriculture from such a dead weight of financial obligation, the tenants’ leaders will be compelled to fulfil Lord Randolph Churchill’s prediction and organise a revolt against what must otherwise crush the life out of the chief industry of the country.

In the speeches for and against this Bill so far, no note whatever has been taken of the uniform downward tendency of the price of agricultural produce, due entirely to economic causes, which bas been going on during the past twelve or fifteen years. Surely it is most pertinent to the question ‘What number of years’ purchase is the landlord to get for his interest?’ under this measure, to ask, and to keep in mind, the kindred but far more important query, ‘What are the Irish tenant’s prospects of being able to meet the obligations that will be contracted by him after the landlord exacts his price?’ It is no answer to either of these questions to say that a ten per cent. or a twenty per cent. reduction will be effected in the payments of the tenants under the new as compared with the old arrangements. All this is dependent entirely upon the figure which the landlord will insist upon for the purchase of his interest; and, with a sympathetic Land Department, the indirect influence of the Coercion Act, and the power possessed by the seller to evict the buyer for arrears of the old rent, unless he purchases at a certain sum, what possible guarantee is there against such ‘bargains’ being made as will lessen the payment upon the tenant’s holding to even a clear ten per cent. after new charges, in additional rates and taxes, will confront the occupying proprietor? There is no clause in the new Bill to arrest the progress of the economic forces that are bringing the food-producing areas of America, Canada, and Australia into competition with the agriculture of these islands. In the year 1870 Great Britain and Ireland had more land under cultivation than statistical figures can boast of for last year. This is the brief history of twenty years of British and Irish agriculture. Take now a country in most active and expanding competition with us, the United States. During these twenty years, considerably over a hundred million acres have been added to its cultivated land: in other words, the States have increased their area of food-production during that comparatively brief period to over twice the entire existing area of food production in the United Kingdom. But this is not all: there are over a thousand million acres yet to be added to the food-growing lands of America, when population, railway extension, and irrigation shall open these vast regions to the enterprise and labour of the great Republic. Recollecting also the almost illimitable resources of the South American continent, Canada, and Australia, into which British capital is flowing in streams that will bring under the sway of vested interests the fruitful resources of countless millions of acres; remembering likewise the daily increasing swiftness and cheapness of transit from these countries to ours: what prospect is there of Irish agriculture being in a position, say, ten or twenty years hence, to bear even a twenty or a thirty per cent. less rental-burden than it does to-day?

An answer can be given in the facts of a case which came before the Head Land Commissioners here in Dublin in November 1889. The tenant had got a reduction of £2 per acre from the Sub-Commission in 1888, against which he appealed on the grounds of insufficiency. The farm consists of sixty-six Irish acres, is well watered, and is situated within four miles of the city of Dublin. The previous tenant’s interest was purchased by the present occupier in 1873 for £850; the farm being then, and remaining until 1888, under a rent of £5.5s. per acre. The following facts and figures were tendered in evidence before the Head Land Commission by the appealing tenant, in support of his case for a greater reduction than £2 per acre per annum.

Average Produce per Acre of the different Crops grown in the Dublin District,
together with the Prices current in the years 1873 and 1887 respectively.



per acre



in per acre
in 1887



11 barrels

£1 15s 0d

£19 15s 0d



11 ditto

£0 17s 0d

  £9   7s  0d

£9 18s 0d



17 barrels

£0 16s 0d

£13 12s 0d



17 ditto

£0 10s 0d

  £8 10s 0d

£5   2s 0d



14 barrels

£1   0s 0d

£14   0s 0d



14 ditto

£0 14s 0d

  £9 16s 0d

£4   4s 0d



2½ tons

£6   0s 0d

£15   0s 0d



2½ tons

£4   0s 0d

£10   0s 0d

£5   0s 0s



8 tons

£5   0s 0d

£40   0s 0d



8 tons

£2 10s 0d

£20   0s 0d

£20   0s 0d

Cost of cultivating an Acre of Wheat on this Farm

Grubbing and harrowing stubble

. . . . . . . . . . . .

£30 17s 0d

Ploughing and harrowing

. . . . . . . . . . . .

  £1 18s 0d

Ribbing and harrowing

. . . . . . . . . . . .

  £1   8s   .0d

Seed and sowing

. . . . . . . . . . . .

  £1   7s 6d


. . . . . . . . . . . .

  £0   6s 0d


. . . . . . . . . . . .

  £0   5s 0d.


. . . . . . . . . . . .

  £1   5s 0d

Carting, stacking, and thatching

. . . . . . . . . . . .

  £1   2s 6d


. . . . . . . . . . . .

  £1 10s 0d

Marketing and commission

. . . . . . . . . . . .

  £2   0s 0d

The evidence comprised in these dates and figures was submitted by the tenant after his farm had been visited and inspected by Sub-Commissioners of the Land Court, and, though he challenged any contradiction of the facts of his case, none was given or attempted. It was further sworn by the tenant that he could as easily £10 per acre for the land of this farm in 1873 as to farm rent in 1887. The appeal was dismissed, the decision of Commission reducing the old rent £2 per acre was confirmed, the ‘fair’ rent standing at £3.5s. per acre.

Allowing for possible errors or exaggeration in the foregoing case, and that the cost of labour will be higher near a large city than in the rural districts, still the enormous depreciation in the price of produce in the best rent-paying county of Ireland during the last seventeen years, considered along with the external competition that is sure to go on growing until the available food producing areas of the American and Australian continents are brought under cultivation, demands the most serious attention to the following question: What prospect is there in the agricultural outlook of Ireland that a possible reduction of fifteen per cent. in their rents, which may be effected by Irish tenants under the provisions of Mr. Balfour’s Bill, will enable them to live and thrive, pay increasing wages to the certain demands of labour, pay increased rates and taxes as ‘occupying proprietors,’ and be able to regularly pay the annual instalments that will remain as a State charge upon their holdings during the next forty-nine years?

It may be contended, on the other hand, that the price of cattle, one of the great food products of Ireland, will not be materially affected by the competition of the meat-growers of America owing to the non-success of the ranch experiments on the Western prairies. It would be rash to prophesy what Americans will not eventually succeed in accomplishing, in order to supply meat to such a market as Great Britain. But, even could we safely assume that cattle breeding in Ireland would continue to remain practically untouched by the meat-producers of other lands, it would mean the continued and direct impoverishment of agricultural labour, as well the starvation of the business of the small trader or country shopkeeper because grazing lands give little or no employment in comparison with that of tillage farming, upon which also so many other industrial interests depend for very existence in a country like Ireland.

It is most earnestly to be hoped that facts such as these – facts based upon palpable, operating economic causes, and not upon party or political interests or arguments, will be studied and weighed before the British public gives its sanction to the enactment of the Government land purchase scheme. To enable ‘the landlord garrison’ of Ireland to obtain money enough for its ‘almost unsaleable commodity’ by the aid of Mr. Goschen’s most skillfully contrived process, may be a piece of very necessary Tory statesmanship for Mr. Balfour to carry through before a landlord Government quits office; and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as the recognised champion of the money-lenders of England, may deem importance that the mortgagees of Irish land shall be secured in an equivalent to their loans, no matter how the transaction may affect the present prospects or future condition of Irish agricultural industry. The position of the Irish landlord, with his encumbrances and ‘unsaleable commodity,’ is, beyond question, a serious one for any statesman or government to be face to face with. That of the English mortgagee, with such a security, is equally grave: more especially as, according to the late Mr. Wentworth Erck, no less a sum than £160,000,000 hangs as a debt upon the entire landlord property of Ireland. How these interests are to be extricated from such a position may well exercise the financial genius of Mr. Goschen and put Mr. Balfour’s faith in the sentiments he gave expression to in 1885 to a severe strain.

There is but, one safe way out of the maze of this Irish land difficulty, and that is the way of courage and of principle which, it is to be feared, neither Tories nor Gladstonians will as yet consent to travel. It is the way marked out by Mr. Giffen in 1886. Give the land of Ireland and its rental to a representative national authority in Ireland. Let such rental, or rather what will be substituted for it, a land tax, be the source from whence such national authority will derive the necessary revenues for the administration of the country. Let Ireland’s present fiscal contributions to the Imperial Exchequer continue, and allow such revenues to pay the interest upon the Consols with which the landlord’s interests would be expropriated. To meet possible objections to this, on the score of alleged partiality to Ireland, in such an arrangement, Mr. Giffen further wrote:

It might be thought at first that the concession is extravagant, that we concede far too much to Ireland; but the truth is that the account would be nearly balanced as far as the Imperial Exchequer is concerned. Taking the rent of Ireland, as settled judicially, as about £8,000,000, the Consols at par to be given in exchange at twenty years’ purchase would be £160,000,000, involving an annual charge of £4,800,000 upon the Imperial Exchequer. At present we spend annually upon Ireland for its local government – for law, prisons, police, education, and such matters – close upon £4,000,000, exclusive altogether of the outlay for the army of occupation, for the collection of revenue, and other imperial matters. If it is thought that the account should be exactly balanced, it could be arranged that the local authorities in Ireland should pay over to the Imperial Exchequer, out of the rent-charge which they would be allowed to collect, any sum needed to make up the difference between the cost of the Consols necessary to buyout the landlords and the amount now spent out of the Imperial Exchequer on the local government of Ireland.

Of course the ‘twenty years purchase’ here mentioned would be an extravagant price and would be subject to discussion. Other details would also have to be considered, and provision would have to be made for a sinking fund, by which Ireland would in time wipe out her national debt. But the plan of the scheme would not require a single farthing of the British taxpayers’ money, either by credit or cash. The final settlement of the agrarian war in a national or State administration of the land, and the satisfaction of national claims to autonomy in the creation of a representative National Assembly in Dublin, would insure such peace and contentment as would enable the cost of government to be so reduced that an immediate relief of forty or fifty per cent. could be given in the matter of rent to the great and paramount industry of the land. This, together with statutory leases including the right of free sale, but prohibitive of sub-letting, would satisfy every tenant farmer in Ireland, prevent the re-growth of landlordism, and enable Irish agriculture to weather the storm of external competition. ‘Congested’ districts could be dealt with by County Councils which should follow the organisation of a National Assembly. The landlords, drawing the interest on their Consols from the English Chancellor of the Exchequer, out of fiscal revenues, could remain in the country for the discharge of other and more useful functions, national and municipal, than they have ever performed as the ‘English Garrison;’ while the popular or national sentiment of Ireland would become the best guarantee that those who should occupy the land, under the favourable conditions indicated in Mr. Giffen’s plan, would faithfully fulfil their obligations, as not to do so, with the community as ‘landlord’, would insure popular odium instead of public sympathy for the tenant who should refuse to, pay the fair rent of his holding to the Irish State.



1. The Present Position of Irish Landords and Encumbrancers. By Wentworth Erck, LL.D. King and Sons, publishers, 5 King Street, Westminster, 1889, p.7.

2. Land Law Reformers and the Nation. Paper read by Mr A.J. Balfour before the Industrial Remuneration Conference, Manchester, on the 30th of January 1885.

Last updated on 28 May 2009