Imagine an organisation that could set the rents for virtually every plot of land in the country. That could decide who could and who couldn’t buy and sell a particular plot of land, at what price and when. Whether farms should be merged or broken up. And had the power to advance or call-in loans relating to land purchase.
If it sounds a little like an old Soviet-era quango, then you would be wrong. It was in fact the Irish Land Commission.
Throughout the 100 years of its existence, the Land Commission - as it was known - controlled virtually every aspect of Irish rural life. It adjudicated on well over 600,000 rental disputes, facilitated almost 450,000 individual land purchases, reclaimed thousands of acres of land, constructed roads and bridges, allocated hundreds of sports fields to local communities, drilled wells, carried out hundreds of drainage schemes, built over 20,000 labourers’ cottages and resolved countless land disputes. Next to the Catholic Church, no other organisation has even come close in terms of shaping and defining rural Ireland.
Despite all this, no one has ever written a history, definitive or otherwise, of the organisation or the myriad of characters that have worked for this once great organisation. Surely the greatest lacuna in Irish historiography.
The Irish Land Commission was established by the Liberal government of William Ewart Gladstone in 1881. The great Land Act of that year is rightly famous for granting the so called 3 Fs (fair rent, fixity of tenure and freedom of sale) and introducing a system of judicial rent reviews.
Section 40 of the act, however, provided for the establishment of, “A land commission … consisting of a judicial commissioner and two other commissioners.” With this simple sentence, the Irish Land Commission came into being and Ireland would never be the same thereafter.
The Land Commission was located at 24 Upper Merrion Street, Dublin, in the house were Arthur Wellesley, the hero of Waterloo and the future Duke of Wellington was born, and where the Merrion Hotel now stands. It initially involved itself in settling rent disputes between landlords and their tenants. When it became clear that the solution to “the Irish land question” lay not in regulation but in “peasant proprietorship”, British government policy changed and from 1885 onwards, land acts became “land purchase acts” and the role of the Land Commission expanded greatly.
Every aspect of land transaction
Instead of just settling rent disputes, the Commission became directly involved in arranging sales and purchases of land and in the absence of any commercial lenders in the market it became both funder and lender to all land transactions. The introduction of the Wyndham Land Act 1903, which dwarfed all previous land acts combined in terms of scale and ambition, placed the Land Commission in a pivotal role.
Unlike any organisation before or since, it involved itself in every aspect of a land transaction, from valuing the land, lining up the buyers and sellers, negotiating prices, advancing loans to purchasers, paying vendors, discharging debts on properties, managing estates in terms of combining holdings to make them more economic, collecting bi-annual annuities from purchasers and following up to ensure that proper farm management practices were being employed by purchasers.
In the months following the signing of the Treaty in December 1921, the Land Commission continued to operate on an all-Ireland basis both north and south. Following the 1923 Land Act passed by Dáil Éireann in August 1923, the Land Commission was reconstituted on a 26-county basis. Its role was again expanded and in addition it absorbed the workings of the Congested District Board, which had been established under the 1891 Land Act to relieve the problem of land congestion (small holdings) in the west of Ireland and some southern counties.
With independence came a new set of challenges for the Land Commission. Political influence as to who should- and more importantly, who should not- be awarded land was a highly contentious issue in post-civil war Ireland. Even allowing for great political propriety, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that both pro and anti-treaty parties when in government showed much partisanship in terms of the allocation of land to their supporters.
The 1923 Land Act effectively brought the land question to a conclusion and a significant change in the role of the Land Commission. Land settlement and estate management became its top priorities rather than facilitating land purchases.
In the period following Fianna Fáil’s accession to power in 1932, the Commission’s efforts were focused on addressing the needs of the landless, farm labourers and the relief of congestion along the western seaboard. A notable example of this was the controversial settling of 122 families from Galway, Mayo, Kerry, Cork, and Donegal in the Ráth Cairn area of Co Meath from the years 1935 to 1940. This exercise in social engineering was designed to kill two birds with the one stone in that it was an attempt to relieve congestion while at the same time establishing a Gaeltacht “colony” in Meath.
Venerated and vilified
As was to be expected by an organisation with such powers, the Land Commission was both venerated and vilified in rural Ireland. It was despised by many landlords and large grazier farmers for breaking up their estates, by farm labourers and former evicted tenants for failing to give them lands and by large swathes of the population for being bureaucratic, inefficient, and costly (at its peak it employed over 1,300 people).
It was regarded by many as being politically motivated and acting as a pawn of government, preferring to bow to local political pressures than to act strategically in the allocation of land. It has been accused of vandalism in how it left many of the country’s great houses to fall into decay following the breakup of estates.
Even today, almost 25 years after its formal dissolution, it- or more specifically, its political masters- are criticised by historians, rightly in this author’s opinion, for the failure to open up the Commission’s vast archives to researchers, decades after they were opened up by Northern Ireland’s Public Records Office.
Regardless of one’s viewpoint, the Land Commission was without doubt the most important State institution in twentieth century Ireland, shaping as it did the physical landscape, rural communities, and the national economy. Its legacy deserves a better account than has been written heretofore.
About the author
Tony McCarthy received his PhD from Maynooth University in 2017. Since then he has published widely and his latest work is a collaboration with Prof. Terence Dooley of Maynooth and Prof Annie Tindley of Newcastle University on Irish Land Reform which will be published later this year by McGill University Press.