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Ireland: The Political Background c.1870

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

After 1870, in Ireland the TWO most important political issues were:

  1. Self Government for Ireland
  2. The Land Question.

Self-Government for Ireland

Those who favoured self-government for Ireland were called nationalists and can be grouped into TWO categories:

  1. Republicans (Fenians or The Irish Republican Brotherhood): - This group was in the minority. They favoured the use of violence to achieve complete independence from Britain. They were very influential in the U.S. among Irish-Americans and could not be ignored as a political force in Ireland given this fact.
  2. Constitutional Nationalists (Home Rulers) The followers of the Home Rule party believed in using peaceful means to achieve their aims. They were the majority.
    Home Rule was a limited form of self-government by which matters relating specifically to Ireland would be dealt with by an Irish parliament in Dublin. Imperial matters e.g. Defence, Trade, Foreign Affairs would be controlled by London. The King of Britain would still be King of Ireland.

Those who opposed self-government for Ireland were known as Unionists (as they supported the Act of Union). They were to be found throughout the country but were concentrated in the North East.

They did not organise as a political party until 1885. Nationalists tended to be Catholic while Unionists tended to be Protestant however there were Catholic Unionists and Protestant Nationalists.

Land Purchase

Before 1870 about 10,000 people known as landlords owned the land in Ireland. The land was rented to farmers known as tenants. When agricultural prices were good, landlord-tenant relations were good. However in bad times tensions between both often rose.

Tenants could be evicted for many reasons but on the whole they were usually evicted for non-payment of rents. However there was a feeling of great insecurity among tenants given their few legal rights. This led to a lot of agrarian (rural) agitation to improve the position of tenants. Many politicians in Britain resisted this agitation as it was seen to interfere with the rights of property owners.

The Land Question can be divided into TWO main issues

  1. “the three Fs” and
  2. Land Purchase.

The “three Fs”:

  1. Fair Rent: A rent that was lower and easier to pay and took account of good and bad times.
  2. Fixity of Tenure: this meant that as long as a tenant paid his rent he could not be evicted.
  3. Free Sale: A tenant would be compensated for any improvements he made to his farm if it changed hands or if he was evicted. This was also known as the “Ulster Custom” as it was practiced in parts of Ulster.

Land Purchase

The long-term aim of most tenants was to own their own land. For the vast majority to do this they needed to receive loans from the government. The rates of repayments needed also to be less than the old rent. As well Landlords needed a form of payment that made the idea of selling their land attractive.

All the land acts from 1870 onwards contained some form of land purchase however it was not until 1903 that a formula was found that proved attractive to both landlords and tenants. Land agitation and the violence that often accompanied it tended to be greater west of the Shannon. Here farms were smaller and the land poorer and therefore the threat of eviction greater.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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