The Ulster Custom

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

By 'An Ulsterman'

IN his series of letters on the Irish Land Question, Lord Dufferin referred to the Ulster Custom in a very perplexing way. He observed that the inhabitants of the Northern Province did not join in the agitation for tenant-right because they did not wish to do anything that might disturb their "gracious custom," with which they were well pleased. Describing this gracious custom, he said that, as an almost invariable consequence of it, the new tenant entered upon his farm burdened with debt and destitute of capital; that it gave, as a general result, low farming, inadequate profits, and uneducated children; and that it wrought too frequently the ruin and emigration of the Ulster tenant, in spite of indulgent landlords and a secure tenure. By all former accounts the inhabitants of the North of Ireland have been described as an especially shrewd and hard-headed race: that they should be so charmed with this state of things as not to wish it altered, indicates a mystery.

What is the Ulster "custom" referred to, and how did it originate? The perplexity produced by Lord Dufferin's words cannot be cleared away till a reply has been given to both these questions. It appears then, in the first place, that the tenant in Ulster is recognised as having a right to live upon his farm, a right of occupation. This right may be alienated. If the tenant desires, for any reason, to surrender his farm, or if he should happen to be ejected, he advertises the fact amongst his neighbours, or in the local newspapers, and the person who wishes to succeed him pays him down a certain sum of money for the right to enter into occupation. This sum varies with the intensity of the demand for farms, and with the amount of improvements which have been added by the out-going tenant. This influences the sale, no doubt; but, on the other hand, the money paid must not be regarded merely as compensation money. This custom exists even with regard to unimproved land, which is sufficient to attest the recognition of an occupation-right in the tenant. If, however, the tenant allows a farm to remain as unimproved land, he will not receive more than one-fourth or one-third of the sum he would receive if he had expended his energies upon it.

According to a report made in 1845, the tenant-right of unimproved land sold then for five years' purchase, whilst that of highly improved farms went sometimes up to fifteen and twenty years' purchase. So secure has the tenure been deemed that the presence or absence of a lease made no material difference, in some cases only the difference of two years' purchase. The landlord's part was more or less passive; sometimes the change of occupiers would not be known to him until the new tenant came to pay his rent; generally, however, the intended change was notified to him, and if he objected to the proposed purchaser he might suggest another, or resume the farm himself. In the latter case, he had to buy out the selling tenant, like any other purchaser. In all cases arrears of rent due to the landlord came to him out of the purchase money; but where a tenant had such a stake in the land, where it was so much his interest to make improvements, he worked very hard and lived very abstemiously, that he might be punctual in his payments. By the same custom, the landlord was hindered from so raising the rent as to make the tenant-right a nullity: hence the middleman system was unknown in Ulster, and the only effect of an increased competition for land was to raise the value of the tenant's right, not to swell the rent. Thus, the landlord was saved from the temptation to extort the utmost the tenant could be induced to promise; and, having no inducement to keep him in a state of squalour, he could interfere to moderate the excessive bidding for farms, which would tend to impoverish the tenant.

Accordingly, in some districts the landlord limited the amount of purchase-money to be given for unleased farms to five years' purchase, and for leased farms to seven years' purchase. Here the landlord being a disinterested observer, with the comfort of his tenantry chiefly at heart, could stand forth as a protector. If the money had been coming into his own hands, experience has not shown that any limitation of the kind would have been proposed. The principal disadvantage of the custom has been that the new tenant occasionally has had to borrow the purchase-money or part of it. The interest, as Lord Dufferin says, is a second or additional rent; but then, as we have seen, the landlord is always there to moderate the amount of purchase-money, whereas in the absence of the custom there is no power in the island to moderate the amount of rent the landlord may impose. Besides, the tenant knows that by close attention and hard labour he may make improvements which shall bring him in a return, should he have to put his farm upon the market; in the absence of the custom, he is aware that the rent will very probably rise in direct ratio with his improvements, and that he has no prospect of a resting-place in the world. Where the custom prevails, the landlord, being an impartial third party, has an interest in seeing that his tenants are not victimised, so that they shall at least reflect credit on the estate; where the custom is absent, the landlord's material interest in the increase of rents might possibly gain the mastery over what is, in comparison, but a matter of sentiment. Of course, we do not say that, as a rule, Irish landlords, even straitened absentees, would prefer hard cash to indulging in a sentimental pleasure; but there are exceptions.

The origin of this custom may be traced back at least to the settlement or plantation of Ulster in the reign of James I. The greater part of six northern counties had, it seems, "escheated," fallen to the Crown, and been surveyed. The King conceived a project of establishing a civil plantation on these unreformed and waste counties, as they were styled; but in distributing these lands to applicants, he wished it to be clearly understood that they should intend not only to benefit themselves, but also to do service to the crown and commonwealth. Importunate suitors who sought for more than they were able to plant with tenants, were denounced as desirous of their private profit only, not of the advancement of the public service. The Crown had had quite enough of them in Ireland.

Sir John Davies, the Attorney-General for Ireland, who assisted in the "planting" of several counties as Crown commissioner, declares this. Before the plantation, he says, the land under English sway had been given up to the rapacity of a few grasping lords, who kept the people in a miserable state as tenants-at-will or tenants in villenage; so that the latter, on account of the uncertainty of their tenure, utterly neglected to build, plant, or improve the soil. English colonists, who had been invited over by these landlords to settle, discovered that the prospect before them was intolerable, and fled the country in thousands. These English tenants do not appear to have admired the system of landlordism prevalent in Ireland one whit more than the Irish tenant-at-will of the present day. The plantation, it was hoped, would have settled the question once for all. Special care was taken, we are told, to settle and secure the undertenants, to the end that there might be repose and establishment of every subjects' estate, lord and tenant, freeholder and farmer. Fixed and certain rents were charged on the tenant for the same reasons. This then was the avowed object of the plantation, not the expulsion of the native population. The latter, indeed, were neither expelled nor ignored. The escheated lands were distributed amongst three sorts of "undertakers," or persons who engaged to plant the allotted tracts The first class were English or Scottish, servitors (of the Crown) or others who should plant their portions with English or inland Scottish inhabitants. The second class were servitors in Ireland who might take the Irish along with these as tenants. These two classes were bound to take the oath of supremacy and religious conformity. The third class were excused from this—they were "Natives of Ireland who are to be made freeholders." All these classes were stringently bound not to demise any part of their lands at will only, but to let them at fixed rents for a term of years, for lives in tail, or in fee simple. They were especially directed to forbear from making what were known as "Irish exactions."

Undertakers with two thousand acres held of the King in capite; those of one thousand five hundred by knight's service as of the Castle of Dublin; those of one thousand in common soccage. They had to make certain buildings of castles and bawns, for which as well as for their tenants' houses (cabins were forbidden) timber was granted them from the King's woods. The first named were to plant on their lands forty-eight able men, to keep a demesne of six hundred acres in their own hands, to have four fee farmers on a hundred and twenty acres each, six leaseholders on a hundred acres each, and on the rest eight families of husbandmen, artificers, and cottagers Proportionate obligations were laid on the others, but all were bound, within five years, to take up their residence on their properties. Above all, they were not to let their lands at uncertain rents, nor for a less period than twenty-one years or three lives The native Irish whose estates were granted them in fee simple and held in soccage, had their privileges also, but amongst these was no exemption from the stringent rule binding them to let their lands at rents certain and have no tenants at will.

Under these terms and in this way the escheated lands of Ulster came into the hands of one hundred and four English and Scottish undertakers, fifty-six servitors (or persons serving the Crown in Ireland), and two hundred and eighty-six natives. Bonds were given to the Government for the due performance of these covenants, and for better assurance the King required a regular account to be sent him of the progress made by each undertaker. Lord Dufferin, when stating that it was one of a landlord's "most consummate" duties to weed out unimproving tenants, made an allusion to the conduct of manufacturers who could dismiss their men at a week's notice—a privilege which the law did not interfere with. He seems to believe that an argument can be found against interference with the landlord's privileges in the idea that none think of interference in the factory-lord's affairs. But the fact is that no comfort can be sought at such a source, because the Legislature has actively and emphatically made such interference on behalf of those whom he suggests as comparable with tenants on an estate. Moreover, whilst the law has interfered to appoint factory inspectors, we find that King James interfered in a somewhat similar way, even with property in land by appointing royal commissioners.

From the survey of Nicholas Pynnar, who, in 1618, was appointed a commissioner to inspect and report, we find also that the undertakers or landlords were cheating the Crown and their tenants as fast as they could. Tenants brought over from England and Scotland found that they could get no lease, nor anything but promises and uncertain tenures; many of them complained to the commissioners, others had left the country. They could not abide this system of landlordism at all. Possibly they made over their land for a trifle to those who cared to remain (as did some of Cromwell's settlers in like case), and thus originated what is now known as the Ulster custom of tenant-right, a custom which stands in place of the more certain and secure plantation-system. Pynnar, who saw little on every side but broken covenants, false pleas, and even downright refusal, was also met by the vain excuse so often heard since: the undertaker has given no leases, for his tenants will have no longer time than from year to year.

Now, as to Lord Dufferin's assertion, with which we set out: he is wrong, in the first place, in stating that the Ulster tenantry took no interest in the agitation for tenant-right, for it is notorious that some of the most prominent speakers in the Tenant-league were Ulstermen, and that meetings were held all over the country to promote a radical reform of the land-laws. In the second place, he is utterly wrong in attributing the emigration from Ulster to the existence of this "gracious custom," whereas it results, plainly and simply, from the fact that this ancient custom has long been violated by Ulster landlords, and is in danger of perishing utterly. It is going, as the plantation-system went, through the bad faith of the landlords.

How flagrantly they violated its trusts to the detriment of their tenantry may be judged from the recorded opinion of the eminent Irish advocate, Isaac Butt, formerly professor of Political Economy in the University of Dublin. In a work, which we have found a source of valuable information, and which, like Prendergast's History of the Cromwellian "Settlement," is indispensable to the student of the Irish question, he makes a very forcible declaration. It was objected that the Legislature has no right to interfere with the property of Irish landlords—now over a great portion of the country their estates were granted them on distinct and still binding conditions. These they have systematically violated, and so far from the Legislature having no right to interfere with their assumed privileges, he believes that the Crown might long since, by legal process, have resumed possession of many of their estates.