Landlord and Tenant

Justin McCarthy
Chapter X | Start of Chapter

The main cause of emigration was the system of land tenure existing in Ireland. The English conquest and settlement of Ireland had completely done away with the native systems of land occupancy, which were established on a principle something like communism. The chieftain of each region was the lord of his own domain, but the right of the humblest worker on the soil to enjoy the fruit of his labour was acknowledged. Under the newer systems the agricultural tenant was practically dependent on the favour of the landlord for the retention of his patch of ground, and could be turned out at the will of the landlord or his agent without appeal. The Irish farmers became, as time went on, more dependent on the will of the landlord, and as many of the landlords were absentees there was little opportunity for the formation of bonds of mutual regard and association. Even at the worst of times there were kindly and generous landlords who concerned themselves about the comfort and prosperity of deserving tenants, but as a general rule the tenant could not count on being allowed to retain his hold of the soil, which he had perhaps converted from a barren swamp into a thriving farm. Ireland was at this time for the most part a merely agricultural country. English Governments and Parliaments had done much to discourage the growth of manufactures in Ireland, and to give all the advantages to the manufacturers of the ruling country. The natural result of such legislation was to make the land more of a necessity to the working population, and thus to increase the competition for every scrap of soil and make the landlord a more absolute ruler over his surrounding tenantry. The evils of this system were making themselves increasingly manifest, and the one great agitation pervading Ireland was the struggle between the landlord and the tenant class. After the failure of the Irish rebellion and the extinction of the Irish Parliament there was for a time little heard in Ireland of any great political agitation, any agitation for the redress of political grievances or even for the accomplishment of Catholic Emancipation. The national energies seemed to have degenerated into a mere strife between landlord and tenant, and among the exasperated and desponding tenantry many crimes were committed against unpopular landlords.

The renewal of the agitation for Catholic Emancipation came on in the due course of reaction. In the meanwhile the attention of leading Englishmen had been directed to the condition of Ireland and the causes of her disturbance, and many of these Englishmen were prepared to help with all their power any effort to redress the grievances under which the Irish were manifestly suffering.

One of these was obviously the law which prevented a Catholic from being elected to the House of Commons. Men like Charles James Fox had always been advocates of Emancipation. Of the few speeches which Lord Byron made in the House of Lords, one was an appeal for justice to the Catholics. The hour had come for a definite movement, and with the hour came for Ireland the man.