Development of Landlordism

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

THE period of Irish history which extends from the Anglo-Norman invasion to the passing of the Catholic Relief Act was marked by the endeavour to intrude and maintain in the island certain alien systems of land-tenure. The welfare and wants of the majority of the people were scarcely considered at all in the questions of contract, but as a rule evictions were unknown except those made by the sword of civil strife. The spirit of the new tenures was essentially feudal; and the feudal notable having his tenants as vassals found them useful, because obedient in all things. His quarrel was not with them, but with some rival against whom he could lead them on occasion. His interest therefore was rather to keep up their numbers than to diminish them. The sword did that sufficiently. It is true that petty wars were not publicly declared throughout the latter portion of the period, but it is equally certain that they prevailed, under a slight disguise. The faction-fights of which we have heard so much, were fostered and encouraged.

It was long the custom for the sons of the Irish gentry to organise factions, and, placing themselves at their head, lead them on to sanguinary frays at the appointed fair or market. That these faction-fights are attributable to ancient tribal jealousies is a theory difficult to reconcile with the fact that their leaders were generally alien in blood and in religion, and that the proprietorial magistrates were disposed to encourage the strife, and to inflict mere nominal penalties on those who were captured. Nothing of all this was known in England. These magnates had the story in their own telling, and they did not lose the opportunity of magnifying their importance to the State by misrepresenting the people amongst whom they lived, and exaggerating their own courage and capacity. They had their reward in many ways. They were long regarded as the only persons fit to rule the country, and were allowed full freedom to rule it as they liked. Through their compact ranks the voice of the people never reached the central authority. Here we have in a nutshell the social history of Ireland for the period in question; and it may be worth while to give a single corroborative illustration taken from the close of the period.

When Mr. Howley, afterwards Sir John Howley, was appointed Chairman of the county of Tipperary, faction-fighting was the rule. In the discharge of his duties he succeeded in repressing it, and received a letter of thanks for the success of his exertions from King William IV. Yet what is the record which he has left with reference to the cause of this civil strife? "The greater number of the magistrates," he says, "instead of assisting me, as I had a right to expect, in the praiseworthy and humane effort to put down faction-fighting, did everything they safely could to thwart me, and thereby keep alive this shameful, detestable custom." As a proof he relates that at the first Quarter Sessions at which he presided in Nenagh, a farmer's son who had committed a frightful murder at a faction-fight was returned for trial for manslaughter merely. But this was not all. The jury, after a short delay, found a verdict of guilty, and Mr. Howley was about to pronounce sentence, when one of the magistrates who crowded the bench requested him to confer with them. "I turned round to speak to them," he says, "and you may guess my astonishment when I heard them all urge the necessity of inflicting on the man convicted of aggravated manslaughter only a mere nominal punishment. When I asked what they meant by 'necessity,' they frankly declared they could not live in the country unless the system of faction-fighting were kept up, as they believed it was necessary for their own safety to have the people divided." He refused to accede to their wishes, and these Protestant-ascendancy magistrates first threatened to move him out of the chair, and then, finding that he was resolved publicly to expose them in such a case, they desisted, but seceded in a body from the bench.

Of course the real object of these men was to make the Government of Ireland appear impossible unless administered by persons like themselves, who "knew the country"—to place the masses of the people in a false position, and to prevent them from thinking on their own grievances as tenants. As for the question of personal safety, it could scarcely be supposed that they would be safer in the midst of hostile bands than amongst a peaceful population. This is the secret of most of the disturbances of Ireland. The country was at various times portioned out amongst adventurers from the neighbouring island, who in these days would be called fillibusters. They found themselves entrusted with exceptional powers for the pacification of their districts; but, soon perceiving that peace would not be best for their personal interests and aggrandizement, they became fomenters of anarchy. They opposed the extension of English laws to their Irish neighbours. Those of the latter who were unable to maintain their independence found themselves deprived of their own Brehon laws, and denied the protection of the laws of England. In the reign of Edward I., it is related that 8,000 marks were offered to the King, through the chief Governor, Ufford, provided he would extend the English laws to the Irish people. The King himself was not indisposed to accede to the application, but his views were thwarted by the rapacity of his servants in Ireland. So notorious was the character of these feudal colonists, so greatly had it degenerated from that of their kin who lived under the dominion of the law in England, that the Irish themselves remarked and commented on the difference.

In the Remonstrance addressed by them to Pope John XXII., they say, pointing out that the conditions of the Papal Bull were violated:—"Where they ought to have established virtue, they have done exactly the contrary, they have exterminated our native virtues and replaced them by abominable vices. For the English who inhabit our island, and call themselves a middle nation (between English and Irish), are so different in their morals from the English of England that they can with the greatest propriety be styled not a nation of middling, but of extreme perfidiousness." According to the evidence of the Attorney-General of James I. all this was quite true. He reprobated it strongly. For, he said, as long as the Irish were out of the protection of the law, so that every Englishman might oppress, spoil, and kill them without controlment, how was it possible that they could be other than outlaws and enemies to the crown of England? Whatever good disposition was shown by the English monarch was intercepted by this middle nation of Anglo-Irish; whatever ill-intent the monarch entertained was encouraged and carried out by them with many aggravating circumstances.

King John had a code of English laws deposited in the exchequer of Dublin under the king's seal "for the common benefit of the nation." Henry III. sent over a duplicate of the Great Charter. The Anglo-Irish kept these for their own enjoyment. When, on the other hand, the king's mind was disposed to severity, they forged plots and treasons in order to get the territory ruled over by some Irish chief declared forfeit and partitioned out among themselves. To this was added the invitation of some of the principal Irish to a feast, which would terminate in their massacre, and the hiring of assassins to proceed into the Irish country to dispatch an O'Neill, or it might be a revolted Earl of Desmond. For many of the early settlers were rude swordsmen indeed, but not false friends; when as open foes they had carved out estates for themselves, they cultivated friendship with their Celtic neighbours, and took their part against the greed of meaner men. Afflicted by the grasping avarice of reckless adventurers, the country could prosper neither in its Irish nor its English divisions. Inroads and forays were of frequent occurrence. The crops of the clans were destroyed by harrows made for the purpose; and plans were rife for extenuating their opposition by the medium of famines thus artificially created.

Whilst these efforts were made to break up the Irish, and to obtain possession of their lands, there was still no cause for them to envy the state of the humbler classes under the sway of the Anglo-Irish nobles. The condition of these was, indeed, pitiable. Sir John Davies, writing in the reign of James I., declares that few, if any, secure tenures had been granted; that the mass of the tenants were kept as mere tenants at will, or tenants in villenage, and oppressed by many exactions. English colonists had been invited over to cultivate the land, and carry on their arts and industries; they soon fled back in large numbers to their own country in disgust. They found that in Ireland they would have to submit to a rapacious system of coyne and liverie, which consisted in taking of man's meat and horse's meat, and money, from all the inhabitants of the country, at the will and pleasure of the soldier. Under such a system the people were made idle because they knew that they were not secure of enjoying the fruit of their toil. They might sow, but another would reap. It was to put an end to such a condition of things that King James I. designed his plantation, from the benefits of which it was not intended to exclude all the Irish. His aim was to plant the land with a resident proprietary responsible to the State, having in gradation under each of its members a certain number of fee-farmers, leaseholders, husbandmen, and artificers, residing in castles, fortified bawns, and villages It was provided that there should be no cabins, and no tenants-at-will.

Although this civil plantation has generally been called "the plantation of Ulster," it was not confined to that province, but extended to several counties in other provinces. In many of these a custom of tenant-right, similar to what is known as the Ulster custom, still exists. Whatever injury such a plantation might have done the native population, it ought to have created a respectable yeomanry and an independent tenantry; but it unfortunately happened that the large proprietors no sooner got possession of their estates than they began to evade the conditions under which they received them. Many of the English and inland Scottish settlers murmured and complained to the King's commissioner, but the landlords too frequently found it possible to invent excuses, and, whether these were accepted or not, to continue the practice. They had a magisterial power also, and, like feudal barons, were not inclined to pay much attention to the murmurs of the villeins. Some of the settlers from Britain returned home when they could, finding that to appeal to the commissioners was labour lost. Their lords would keep them as much as they could in a dependent position, and if the tenants were able to make their right of selling their farms to one another respected, it was because of the insecurity of all property. The disturbed state of Ireland made the landlord too frequently dependent on the support of his tenants to permit of his refusing them certain concessions.

As for the natives who, in the King's plan, were made proprietors likewise, many of them discovered that the commissioners appointed to distribute the lands deprived them by fraud or violence of all or part of the lands reserved for them. The middle nation still stood between the king and the people, and perverted to its own advantage and the benefit of its friends the designs of the king for ameliorating the condition of the Irish people. In one county one-half had been reserved by the king for the old proprietors; they got but little of it. In another, the king thrice overruled the rapacity of his Anglo-Irish officials; but in the end the latter trumped up a false charge of murder against the confirmed Irish owner, and had him tried by a jury, which the sheriff had carefully packed to secure his conviction.

Thus, the obligation to have a tenantry with certain rents instead of uncertain exactions was evaded, and the Celtic population was hindered from enjoying the possessions secured to them by the king. Had the plantation scheme been honestly carried out amongst the Irish, it would, nevertheless, have greatly altered their condition for the worse. A certain number of chiefs, no doubt, might have profited. They would have been transformed from elected ministers of the people into their masters and the lords of their soil. The clan would have been, as it were, uprooted and reduced to a state of vassalage. To this, as it was, the people were depressed, after many vain but desperate struggles: they had to accept whatever terms were offered them; and where their lives had been accounted of so little value, their property-rights were ignored. They knew the soil and how to cultivate it: and they were powerless to resist the heaviest exactions. Thus they were allowed to work even on the lands of their alien taskmasters. In former attempts at plantation the Irish and English had been mingled together: King James allotted separate districts to each. The Irish Privy Council had, indeed, suggested to him to drive all the Irish into the mountainous province of Connaught, but the suggestion was overruled.

With all its defects, the system carried out under King James was superior to the absence of any system but that of lawless extortion which preceded it. The hearts of the people, according to an English observer, were settled to live in peace, raised and encouraged to build, to plant, to give better education to their children, and to improve the commodities of their lands, so that in a few years these doubled in value, and promised to equal those of England. The King's Attorney-General, too, had framed an Act abolishing the distinction of nations, so that the lives and rights of the Irish were now protected, although they laboured under some disabilities. For instance, the Irish proprietor could not purchase land of an English settler, and yet he could only sell to such a one.

But all the fair promises of the system were doomed to extinction by the wars which gave England a Commonwealth, and Ireland a Cromwell. The English of Ireland had mostly sided with the Royalists, and many of the Irish thought the opportunity favourable for winning back their ancient rights. They were not so devoted to Charles but that they gave partisans to the Parliamentarians too. However, Charles betrayed them; and Cromwell, adopting the rejected policy of the Irish Privy Council, drove all the proprietors of three provinces into the mountains of the Western province, and hemmed them in by military settlers. In this fate all the gentry, English or Irish, were involved. The common people were allowed to remain, both because they would be useful to the new settlers, and because it was hoped they might be made to conform to Puritanism; whilst, at all events, the gentry, compelled to cultivate the ungrateful soil with their own hands, would be reduced to the rank of peasants or die out. All those of the humbler class who had performed any military duty were compelled to fly the three provinces likewise. This devastation was made in order that Cromwell might satisfy the adventurers who advanced money to carry on the war in Ireland, and content the army for their arrears of pay by the grant of lands.

It might be expected that the result of this settlement would have been to establish a sturdy yeomanry in the confiscated provinces at least. But we find that the officers were as rapacious as any of their predecessors. They bought up for trifling sums the debentures of their men, who were urged to sell by want of knowledge of husbandry, by their necessitous circumstances, or by "divers aweings" on the part of their superiors. In one case thirty-four soldiers assigned their lots to their ensign for £136; in another a captain obtained the allotments of his troop for a barrel of beer; and sometimes the soldiers coming to settle were shown a desolate bog instead of their fertile allotment, and were glad to give it up for horses to ride off on. To a great extent, the natives were allowed to cultivate the soil, and even encouraged to live sparely on roots, fruit, and milk, in order that they might make the land produce grain which their landlord could appropriate, and out of which he could pay the corn contributions to which he was liable. They could hardly call their lives their own, much less their labours.

If the Restoration brought some prosperity, and time some healing, the Revolution of 1688 came to renovate the ancient evils, to make new and to reopen old wounds. There, too, was the difference of religion to whet the edge of proscriptions; but the men whose existence was barely recognized were accustomed to scant fare and evil treatment, and could thus afford to give the landlord more rent and less trouble than tenants better favoured by the law. It was therefore the interest of the landlord to replace the latter, wherever they were planted, by more profitable serfs; and when he found that it added to his political importance to have a large number of voters at his beck, he converted these into forty-shilling freeholders, and encouraged their increase upon his estate. Leases were not unusually granted towards the end of this period, but then what kind of leases? Wakefield, writing in 1812, says they were virtually articles by which the small tenants acknowledged their bondage.

Throughout this whole period, over the larger portion of the population of Ireland, the landlord ruled his estate as a feudal despot, with little check from the law; for he did not encourage the King's writ to run in his dominions. He exacted all he could as rent from his serfs, and compelled them to give "duty-work" and "duty-fowl" besides. But, getting his money easily, he spent it lavishly in rude pleasures on his estate, and not seldom got into debt by his extravagance. No poor man could object to his will, nor would any proprietorial magistrate notice a complaint made against another of his order. If through any spite he did so, he was bound to give a gentleman's satisfaction for the affront. But then the landlord gave some protection to his serfs, though dealing occasionally a severe measure of justice to an enemy's tenant. The protection was given because the tenant was useful, and he was useful, not only in paying rent, but at the poll. When an Irish Spartacus, stirring up the religious passion of the slave, led him on to revolt against his master, this state of things was broken up, and the period we have sketched came to a close.