The Age of George III

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Agricultural conditions in Ireland 1760-1880

For a larger view, click on the map

Ireland remained basically agrarian although there was some industry in the north, but

The traditional view of Irish agriculture portrays Irish rural society as synonymous with backwardness, poverty, eviction and exploitation. In this view, agriculture was dominated by numerous small farms, all of them inefficiently run. It is true that Ireland did not have an agricultural revolution to match England's, with its enclosures, increasing mechanisation, sophisticated land management, manuring, crop-rotation and selective breeding of stock.

It has been said that Irish farming remained under-capitalised and that the vast majority of the population scraped a pitiful living from tiny plots of land, relying on the ubiquitous, unreliable potato for subsistence. There is an image of Ireland as a self-sufficient peasant economy where cottage tenancies and a root diet were the norm. Pressures increased on these because of population growth. Demand for land grew and some agents of absentee landlords increased rents to finance their masters' social life in England. Peasants could not pay the rents so evictions increased - mostly of Roman Catholics. Responsibility for Ireland's many ills was laid firmly at the landlords' door.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Ireland was a typical Malthusian state

Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman wrote Principles of Population in 1798 (text here). He was pessimistic about the rapidly growing population (although he had 11 children). He said that

population grew on a geometric ratio







while food production grew on an arithmetic ratio







According to Malthus, eventually people would starve to death as population outstripped food production. With England he was wrong because the industrial revolution absorbed the excess population and the agricultural revolution and food imports provided food for the people. With Ireland he was right. The system of land division enforced on Roman Catholics meant that each plot grew smaller with each successive generation. Under the Williamite Penal Laws, the law of primogeniture was suspended for Catholics. On the death of a Catholic father, his land had to be shared equally among his sons - unless one of them became an Anglican, in which case he inherited all the land.

The case for land reform seemed irrefutable when conditions in Ulster were taken into account. Ulster farms were among the smallest in the country (only Connaught in western Ireland possessed a higher proportion of smallholdings), but farming seemed to prosper there. Visitors commented on the neat white-washed houses, the well-fed, well-dressed inhabitants, the absence of agrarian (as opposed to sectarian) violence, and the persistence or even the expansion of local industry, especially around Belfast. This state of affairs was attributed to differences in land tenure, specifically the existence of "Ulster custom", which involved the acceptance and observance of certain unwritten, ill-defined but important tenant rights. Two practices were deemed to be of great significance:

  1. the tenant farmer in Ulster was assumed to have security of tenure. So long as he paid his rent he could not be evicted and he also had first option on the renewal of any lease when it expired
  2. he could sell his 'interest' in the farm to another, incoming tenant without undue interference on the part of the landlord or could expect, on leaving the farm, to receive payment from the landlord for any 'unused' improvements (new roads, buildings, manuring, drainage) which had been undertaken.

The combined effect of these rights was to give effective security to farmers, encouraging them to invest in the knowledge that they would not see their rents raised as a result and that they would enjoy the rewards of their efforts. Ulster's experience seemed to offer a solution for the rest of Ireland and consequently the extension and formalisation of tenant right formed the basis of Gladstone's Land Acts of 1870 and 1881. Other solutions included the abolition of the entire system and its replacement by state ownership or 'peasant' proprietorship where the farmer owned rather than rented the land. All solutions proceeded from a common diagnosis of the inadequacies of the system of Irish land tenure and the backwardness and poverty of rural society. Whether this theory's assumptions were a fair reflection of the reality of Ireland is, therefore of crucial importance. If they were not, then remedial action based upon them was likely to be at best irrelevant and at worst positively counter-productive.

Realities - as opposed to the image portrayed.

If England has had too much town life, Ireland has had too little. (J.L. Hammond)

Eighteenth-century farming was finely tuned to the needs of the English market

Live cattle traditionally comprised the bulk of exports but from the 1760s with corn shortages and rising prices in England farmers increasingly put their pasture under corn. This was accelerated by the French Wars. The switch to arable farming encouraged the reclamation of previously uncultivated waste land and the cultivation of potatoes both as part of a regular crop rotation and as a way of breaking in the newly reclaimed ground. The increased work-force was paid partly in kind in the form of potato plots. The move away from arable farming began possibly in 1815, more probably from the mid-1830s. Grain prices collapsed after 1815, causing deep depression and distress on both sides of the Irish Sea. Prices for livestock dropped less, however, and this encouraged Irish farmers to switch back to pasture.

Live cattle exports


47,000 per annum


1846-48 190,000 per annum (at the height of the famine). Sheep exports doubled over the same period.

Pastoral farming needed fewer labourers, and the decline in demand for labour proved disastrous for the smallholders and labourers. Dependence on the potato increased alarmingly especially in the west where inferior land, poor communications and distance from ports restricted both the development of commercial farming and the prospects of emigrating. Periodic famine was endemic as the potato crops failed or proved inadequate to support families through the winter. Social tension in the countryside escalated with the prospect of clearance and eviction to make way for larger pastoral farms.

For nearly 30 years after the famine, with the exception of the depression between 1859 and 1864, Irish farming prospered. Prices favoured livestock and dairy farming. New breeds were introduced and the average annual value of agricultural output (excluding potatoes) rose by 40%

1851-55 £28.8 million
1871-75 £40.6 million

Farmers' incomes rose, and as a result of increased spending power, shops spread rapidly throughout Ireland, even in the far west where their absence during the famine had proved so disastrous for government attempts to relieve distress through market channels. A more prolonged depression set in from the late 1870s, mainly caused by domestic difficulties. In the west of Ireland the potato crop failed successively for several years after 1877; the opportunities for emigration declined; the decline of seasonal employment in fishing or harvesting pushed smallholders there to the brink of disaster; the outbreak of livestock disease decimated their pig and poultry numbers. Falling prices for butter and flattened grain crops because of bad weather hit farmers all over Ireland. However, it seems that agriculture was neither as backward nor as poverty-stricken as is sometimes imagined. It was commercially orientated and farmers were better able to ride out adverse corn price movements than the southern English farmers.

Connaught and parts of west Munster remained less developed, with a significantly higher percentage of smallholders who continued to rely heavily on a potato diet. Leinster and east Munster were to the forefront of the move to pastoral farming and contained a higher percentage of larger farmers.

Land-holding in Ireland
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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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