First established under the 1881 Land Act, the Irish Land Commission began as a regulator of fair rents, but soon evolved into the great facilitator of land transfer. However, over emphasis on these aspects of its work can sometimes camouflage its equal significance as the main instigator and architect of rural reform. There is no doubt that for most of its existence from 1881 to 1992 the Land Commission was the most important state body operating out of rural Ireland where its long tentacles spread into every nook and cranny. [Come to Professor Dooley’s lecture on Monday in Tullamore – see details below.
At the peak of its operations in the 1930s – in terms of acres acquired and redistributed – the Land Commission employed in the region of 1,350 people, making it the largest state agency in Ireland. It was divided into several branches or sections and while these branches were refashioned from time to time to cater for changing circumstances, the principal ones remained the same. Its work generated an enormous archive. It is estimated that there are around 35,000 individual estate boxes alone containing deeds, valuers’ maps, and general descriptions of lands. In relation to local infrastructure and topography, valuer’s reports not only describe individual holdings and their buildings, but they also provide detail on local markets, transport facilities, and local agricultural practices. As regards social history, inspectors’ reports are hugely informative: for purposes of the division of an acquired estate, a Land Commission inspector was sent to an area to gather all the facts he could about each prospective allottee. Each applicant was interviewed to determine the number in his family (making the reports a genealogical source of some significance); the amount and type of stock that he held; and evidence of capital available to him to invest in any future holding. Potential allottees, it seems, often revealed as much about their neighbours who were in competition with them as they did about themselves.
The Land Commission Archive warehouse in Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey with thanks
Thus, in their totality the Land Commission records are a unique source that inform on everything from who owned/owns the land of Ireland to the impact of rural reform and the ideological philosophies of the major political parties of the day. They enlighten on the shaping and redesign of physical and, indeed, mental, and cultural landscapes. They map the transfer of lands, the creation and disappearance of designed landscapes around Big Houses, they inform on the reasons for agrarian agitation and litigation, on the migration of smallholders from west to east after independence, the flight from the land when small farm life became unviable after independence, they can reveal much about rural poverty and hardship, social inequality, the lives of women and children, the lengths some families went to in order to retain ownership of their farms, and they have the potential to add a whole new layer of complexity to our understanding of how the Irish revolution of 1920-23 played itself out in the decades which followed. They can reveal the extent to which the Land Commission, the body with the greatest power to enact revolutionary social change, embraced that potential or did it simply become another pawn of local elites? As newspaper reports testify, rural Ireland post-independence was seething with frustration, local jealousies, bitterness, and anger as lands were divided. Once opened to the research public, assiduous researchers with an eye for the forensics of redistribution patterns may reveal hidden depths of political corruption practised in Ireland over generations.
These are the records that document the modernisation of Ireland, that some might argue reveal its very soul. They are at least as important as the records of the revolutionary period which have rightly benefited from huge capital and personnel investment in the last decade or so. After all, the Land Commission affected far more lives than the War of Independence and Civil War put together.
But even though the Land Commission has been dissolved for thirty years, its archives have not yet been opened to the research public (except on an extremely limited basis). The anomaly of this is difficult to explain, and the loss to Irish historical research to be greatly lamented. If nothing else, the stymied access has obstructed historians (and, indeed, scholars from a wide variety of other disciplines including, but not exclusively, Geography, Sociology, Anthropology, and Political Studies) in fully appraising countless topics, from the most rudimentary such as the importance of the everyday work of the Land Commission, to the more complex analysis of any intersection between land and politics. Simply put, the denial of full access to the Land Commission archives prevents the writing of the definitive history of modern Ireland in all its dimensions – social, economic, political, and cultural.
Professor Terry Dooley and keeper of the records Conor Gallagher at the Land Commission Archive warehouse in Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey with thanks
Our November lecture on ‘The Irish Land Commission and Land Reform, 1881-1992: Future Research Potential’ by Professor Terence Dooly (Maynooth University)
14 November at 8.00 p.m. in person and online.
The Zoom link for members unable to attend in person :
Email [email protected] for the access code via Zoom
The lecture can also be attended at Bury Quay, Tullamore (R35 Y5VO) with tea following. Note the start time for in person lectures as 8.00 p.m. Non-members can all attend at Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay and are welcome. Charge on the night is €2 to members and €5 to members).
Land reform was central to Irish life, society, and politics during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Foremost in the process was the Irish Land Commission, first established under the 1881 Land Act. Beginning as a regulator of fair rents, the Commission soon evolved into the great facilitator of land transfer. But over emphasis on these principal aspects of its work can sometimes camouflage its equal significance as the main instigator and architect of reform, bestowing upon it pre-eminence as the most important state body operating out of rural Ireland for the best part of 100 years. During its existence, the Land Commission’s long tentacles spread into every nook and cranny of rural society.
But even though the Land Commission has been dissolved for over thirty years, its archives have not yet been opened to the research public (except on an extremely limited basis). The anomaly of this is difficult to explain, and the loss to Irish historical research to be greatly lamented. Thus, the aim of this paper is twofold: firstly, to illuminate the importance of the Land Commission and its records to any future understanding of the development of modern Ireland, and secondly, by extension, to make a case why the Irish government should fully open the archives to the research public.
Terence Dooley is Professor of History at Maynooth University and Director of the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates. His latest book Burning the Big House: the Story of the Irish Country House in War and Revolution 1914-23 was published by Yale University Press in 2022. Copies can be had at Offaly History Centre.