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Tros Tyriusque mihi nullo discrimine agetur.




Copyright, 1890, by LLOYD BRYCE

All rights reserved.




JULY, 1890.



THE history of the Irish land question is the history of Ireland, Every historical cause which has conspired during eight hundred years to make the Ireland of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the parent of so many political difficulties has left its mark upon the land system of the country. Tribal anarchy, conquest, rebellion, confiscation, famine, religious differences, penal laws, commercial restrictions, even Parliamentary franchises, have contributed, not slightly or remotely, but obviously and directly, to make agricultural Ireland what it is. Is such or such a district occupied entirely by grazing farms? This is not improbably because the population were removed at the time of a great famine. Is another district crowded with tenants who could by no possibility extract from the soil, even if they had it rent free, a prosperous livelihood? This is not improbably due to the fact that in the old days of the 40s. freeholder the landlord was of opinion that he gained in political importance by multiplying the number of voters on his estate, and made therefore no serious efforts to check, if he did not absolutely encourage, the rapid growth of population and the excessive subdivision of holdings.

Is agrarian crime judged by a different standard from that which is applied to other far less cowardly and disgraceful infractions of

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the law? The reason is to be sought in old traditions of lawlessness, partly caused, partly aggravated, by the successive confiscations to which the land of Ireland has been subjected, and which, in com bination with other circumstances, too long to dwell upon here, have produced in the minds of certain sections of the population a hereditary belief that in agrarian matters the operation of the law may, with advantage, be supplemented by intimidation and murder. Is such or such a landlord the titular holder of a great tract of country at a fixed rent which is merely nominal compared with the present value of the land? He is probably the descendant of some courtier of Elizabeth, James I., or Charles II., who long ago parted with his rights to any interest in his property beyond the "head rent." Does another such man hold his land on certain forms of long lease? This is not improbably because he has inherited his tenure from a Roman Catholic ancestor who was unable, while the penal laws were in force, to become the legal freeholder of land which he was prepared to buy and the owner was prepared to sell.

The general result of these and other historic causes was that in Ireland, towards the middle of the present century, the immediate recipients of the rent were in many cases middlemen and in many cases absentees; while the ultimate recipients were too often the mortgagees. The relations between landlord and tenant were determined in part, but only in part, by conditions recognized in courts. In Ulster there had grown up a definite and universally-accepted custom under which the tenant was practically copartner with his landlord in the ownership of certain rights attached to the soil; while in other parts of Ireland vague memories of an age in which custom, not contract, had determined the tenure of land, lingered in the minds of the people, on which they founded an obscure and ill-defined claim of right, not admitted in theory either by lawyers or landlords, yet not as a rule inconsistent with the practice of the latter. Add to all this a population which, while entirely dependent on agriculture, was far in excess of the agricultural capabilities of the country, and we find ourselves in face of a social system so ill compacted that the first serious shock was certain to produce a catastrophe.

The shock came in the shape of the potato famine of 1846. Of the suffering and ruin which this great calamity produced on tenant and on landlord it is not necessary here to speak. Two

results of it only need be noted. The first is the great diminution of population which, though unequal in its incidence,-in some districts possibly excessive, in others certainly insufficient,-has yet, on the whole, beyond all doubt enormously improved the well-being of the Irish agriculturist. The second is the large transfer of estates from the old landlords, who were ruined, to new purchasers, who were invited by Parliament to buy Irish land and to treat it in precisely the same manner that a citizen of the United States would treat land which he bought for a similar purpose-namely, as property which he might let to any one who would take it at its full competition value. On such estates there was necessarily a violent change from the quasi-customary tenure mentioned above to contract in its most modern form. Α movement in the same direction was encouraged by the Land Act of 1860, passed by the then Liberal government of which Mr. Gladstone was a member.

Probably no country-and certainly not Ireland at any other period of its history-has increased so rapidly in prosperity as did Ireland in the twenty years succeeding the great famine. Nevertheless, the occasional exaction, principally by the new landlords, of their full legal rights had in certain cases necessarily produced either the reality or the appearance of hardship, and it was to prevent this that, first in 1870 and afterwards, more elaborately, in 1881, the governments of which Mr. Gladstone was the head directly reversed the policy which had been pursued up to the year 1860, and endeavored by formal enactment to frame a legal system which should be a successful imitation of the customary system, the tradition of which, as I have before said, lingered obscurely in the minds of many of the Irish tenantry.

I do not propose to offer any criticism upon these important measures. It may be said in favor of them that they were undoubtedly well meant; that they may have temporarily and partially softened the bitterness of agrarian discontent; and that the system which they were intended to amend did undoubtedly, in its practical working, succeed in combining almost every evil which observers have detected in the system of large estates with every evil which they have detected in the rival system of a peasant proprietary. Nevertheless, it may be safely said that the task they endeavored to accomplish was a hopeless one. Any legislator who attempts to abolish demand and supply as the

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