Landlords were owners or lease-holders of property who rented some or all their land to others. Some landlords were landowners; others had virtual ownership of land, that is, they held it on perpetuity leases or for terms of several hundred years.
Landlords of the nineteenth century and before have a bad image in the Irish popular mind. (Strangely, this attitude does not apply to modern landlords.) This reflects many things: nationalist writings, Land League propaganda, bitter memories of evictions, the landlords’ colonial origins, and their predatory rents. By 1703, most Irish landlords were of English or Scots origin, and had got their property during the plantations and land confiscations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at the expense of the Gaelic Irish and the Old English aristocracy. Previously, land had been the basis of complex social and family ties that linked landowners, their kindred, their dependants, and their better-off tenants. They shared a cultural, religious, and lineage identity—but one that involved plenty conflict and predatory rents. The lot of the labourers and the landless poor was miserable: the change of land ownership mattered nothing to them.
In contrast, the new landlords were generally linked to their tenants only by economic ties, and in most parts of Ireland, they were separated from them by language (English), religion (Anglican), origin (English and Scots), and culture (English). The descendants of the Gaelic and Old English upper class had not forgotten or forgiven their dispossession. The deep insecurity of the new landholders receded only after 1745. By 1703, only 14% of land remained in Catholic ownership and this figure was reduced further during the eighteenth century by the penal laws: Catholic landowners, for example MacGillycuddy of the Reeks, changed religion to keep their lands.
In the eighteenth century, absentee landlords (who mostly lived in England) were seen as a problem. They were denounced as feckless parasites who took their money and did nothing for their estates or tenants. They were seen as a drain on Irish capital. Thomas Prior’s List of the absentees of Ireland and the yearly value of their estates and income spent abroad, compiled in 1729, went into six editions before 1783. Arthur Young, writing in 1779, estimated that about £732,000 poured out of Ireland every year to landlords he condemned as ‘lazy, trifling and negligent’. None of these early estimates is reliable. The first accurate survey, that of 1870, showed that 97% of all Irish land was managed in the interests of landlords who lived off the rents, but a little short of half of them were resident. In the years before the Famine between one-third and a half of all landlords were absentees.
The 1870 figures reveal that about 49% of landlords were usually absent, but that 36% merely lived away from their estates, elsewhere in Ireland. As a result, landlords employed the often detested land agents and sub-agents. These managed the estates, set the rents, and if necessary moved in the bailiffs and the police to evict tenants. Ireland’s landlords differed greatly in wealth and attitudes and their numbers changed over time. As elsewhere in ancien regime Europe, landlords were a small elite that derived enormous economic, social, and political authority from their virtual monopoly of landownership.
The resident property owner, living in the Big House (many of which were built in the eighteenth century at great cost), was often the main source of employment in the area; the Big House employed servants and estate workers, its needs gave work to the local artisans, and the landlord commonly owned the local grain mill. Around their country houses revolved a social whirl of parties, heavy drinking, hunting, shooting and fishing; picnics for the ladies, croquet for the gentlemen. In general, the careers of the young men were predictable—public schools (that is, the private schools of the rich) in England, then university—Trinity, Oxford, or Cambridge—or a commission in the army, the better livings in the Church of Ireland or the higher offices in the Government administration.
Their numbers rose from about 5,000 families in the 1780s when they owned over 95% of all productive land and could be accurately described as a Protestant or Anglo-Irish ascendancy, to around 9,000 to 10,000 by the mid nineteenth century. Their number reflected the overall performance of the agricultural economy. Head rents rose from about £5 million in the 1780s to about £9 million in 1800, and more slowly to £12 million in the early 1840s. By 1870 they were around £10 million. Behind these figures were great variations in the size and value of individual landlords’ estates. The Government returns of 1876 list 5,000 owners of between 100 and 1000 acres; 3400 owners of between 1000 and 10,000; and 300 as owing over than 10,000 acres.
Although individual proprietors such as Lord Farnham in Co. Cavan or John Foster in Co. Louth were active advocates of farm improvement, very little of the landlords’ wealth was reinvested in agriculture. More money seems to have been spent on maintaining a social ‘presence’ or on status-enhancing projects such as the construction (or re-construction) of large country houses and their associated parklands or laying out estate towns and villages.
Irish landlords were also divided politically: between Whigs and Tories in the eighteenth century, and between various shades of Conservative, Liberal, Home Rule, and Unionist opinion in the nineteenth. They were at their most powerful during Grattan’s parliament (1782–1801) when they controlled Government and saw themselves as the (Protestant) Irish nation. By surrendering their political independence in the Act of Union, they consigned themselves to an increasingly marginalised role in the imperial British Parliament. Here, the challenge to the landlord’s interests—driven by the need to solve Ireland’s perennial land problems—led to the passing of successive Land Acts between 1870 and 1909. These took most of their lands from them and established in their place deeply conservative peasant proprietors. They soon lost their authority and were quickly marginalised as a class when control of the political and economic life passed to others.
Bibliography. J. E. Pomfret, The struggle for land in Ireland, 1880–1923 (Princeton NJ 1930). B. L. Solow, The land question and the Irish economy (Cambridge MA 1971). W. A. Maguire, The Downshire estates in Ireland, 1801-1845: the management of Irish landed estates in the early 19th century (Oxford 1972). Mark Bence-Jones, Burke’s Guide to country houses, i: Ireland (London 1978). W. E. Vaughan, Landlords and tenants in Ireland 1848–1904 (2nd ed. Dublin 1994). W. E. Vaughan, Landlords and tenants in mid-Victorian Ireland (Oxford 1994). Gerard J. Lyne, The Lansdowne Estate in Kerry under the agency of William Steuart Trench, 1849–72 (Dublin 2001). W. H. Crawford, The management of a major Ulster estate in the late eighteenth century: the eighth earl of Abercorn and his Irish agents (Dublin 2001).