The first major land reform passed at Westminster effectively consolidated existing laws in favour of the landlord. The Landlord and Tenant Amendment Act Ireland, 1860, is known as Deasy’s Act after the Irish Attorney General, who put it through Parliament.
It confirmed that the relationship between the landlord and tenant was based on contract. The general principle remains in force, and the Act has in substance remained in force in the Republic of Ireland and the Act shall remain in force in substance.
However, in the agricultural tenancy circumstances, it effectively favoured the landlord. The theoretical freedom of the contract acted to the detriment of the enormous class of agricultural tenants who worked the land.
Tenants had little incentive to make improvements because their interests were so tenuous. They could be evicted with relatively little notice. The wholesale battle for land took place with land counted by auction to the highest bidder.
Under Deasy’s Act, tenant farmers were held yearly. They could be ejected for non-payment or, even if they paid the rent, a notice to quit of six months.
They had no right to compensation for permanent or other improvements made to the land. They could have invested substantially, adding to the value of the land. This would be a lost to them in the event of termination of their letting. Contrary to the custom prevalent in England, the cost of fences, drains, farm buildings, and all permanent improvements fell on the tenant.
Farm and farm clearances became common as pasture with larger farms was substituted for tillage with small-scale tenant farmers. The population increased rapidly, leading to severe outrage and constant agrarian disturbance.
Background to Reform
Before 1870, almost the entire agricultural land in the country was vested in a few thousand landlords. There were at least half a million agricultural tenants.
Most tenants were yearly tenants with little security. At times in the 19th century, wholesale clearances of estates occurred, provoking disturbances and backlash. In Ulster, the Ulster tenant right custom gave a substantial measure of security.
In contrast, the position in England, where the landlord was largely responsible, all improvement of land, including the erection of buildings, drainage and reclamation, was done by the tenant. When he was evicted, received no compensation. A tenant could be evicted for no reason whatsoever on giving six months’ notice. Accordingly, if rents increase, the tenant risked eviction.
The Liberal government introduced the Landlord and Tenant Act of 1870. The Land Act o1870 provided compensation for improvement and legalised the Ulster custom. It provided for payment of compensation for improvements and for disturbance at the end of the tenancy.
The Ulster custom, which was legalised, had two principal aspects; one was the right of security of tenure for so long as the rent was paid, and the other was the right to sell the goodwill on holding on leaving.
This put the so-called Ulster tenant-right custom into law. It gave compensation for the disturbance and compensation for improvement.
However, the landlord could still raise the rent as he wished and could readily eject the tenant. The landlord had no responsibility for repair, which remained the tenant’s responsibility. The 1870 Act had legalised the Ulster tenant-right custom but incompletely.
Further Pressure for Reform
The late 1870s saw intense pressure for land reform with protest and action, combined with pressure from the Irish Parliament Party at Westminster.
In the mid-1870, grazing and dairy lands became more valuable, and rents were raised. Land values rose significantly in the mid to late 19th century, largely due to remittances from America. This led to competition amongst tenants for land. Very serious agrarian incidences broke out in response to eviction.
American competition increased from the late 1870s. Rents were raised in many years and became excessive. There were several bad seasons. The agrarian situation became desperate, and the Land League became all-powerful.
Rents were not and could not be paid. A Royal Commission recommended the basis of the 1881 Act. The Act enacted the three Fs, right of free sale, fixity of tenure and fair rent.
1881 Act; Fair Rents
The Land Act1881 created the Irish Land Commission and gave it powers, judicial and administrative. It had the power to fix the rent. The fair rent function of the Land Commission continued until the Land Act 1923.
The Commissions sat through the country hearing landlords’ and tenants’ valuers and made decisions. There was a right of appeal to the Land Commission in Dublin. Some functions of the Board of Works were transferred to the Irish Land Commission under the 1881 Act.
The 1881 Act introduced the so-called three Fs, fair rent, free sale, fixity of tenure. It established the Irish Land Commission, presided over by a High Court judge.
The Act granted tenants a judicial tenancy for a 15-year period, renewable every 15 years, with rent review at that time. They were given the right to free sale. The landowner was given the right to purchase out the holding and make objections. The reasonableness of objections could be reviewed judicially.
Nearly three-quarters of tenants qualifying under the 1881 Act took advantage of it. Rents reduced by 1/5. They were reduced by a further 1/5th and then 10 percent on the subsequent 15 yearly adjustments. Nearly 380,000 cases were dealt with in the first readjustment, 144,000 in the second and 6000 in the third.
The Land Commission
The 1881 Act created a new tribunal; the Land Commission presided over by a High Court judge. It had the power to organise Sub-Commissions to sit to the country. Applications could be made by landlords or tenant to have the rent fixed. The application could be made to the Land Commission or in the County Court.
Most cases came before the Sub-Commission Court. The legislation applied to existing tenancies. The rent could not be altered during a statutory period of 15 years. Several amending acts were passed, modifying the provisions.
The Land Commission fixed almost 375,000 rents in the 26 Counties that later became the Irish Free State. The fixing of rents came to an end in 1923. Instead, the acquisition of lands was expedited.