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Agriculture and Land

Agricultural Migrant Work


Work at Harvest Across Irish Sea [in England]

The grain harvest came a month later than in England, & potatoes might be left in the ground until early winter. There was thus offered an opportunity to work the English harvest. It was not unknown before 1825, but the journey across the Irish Sea was uncomfortable & costly. After 1825 steam practically annihilated the Channel. With 42 packets plying between the two islands in 1830 the competition beat down the fare to as low as 6 or 9 pence.

In July the bands would gather - thousands of tenants & their sons who left the potato fields to their women & children & trekked to the ports. Crossing to Liverpool, they fared forth in groups of 8 or 10, armed with sickles to bargain with the farmers to cut the grain or mow the meadow. 6 pounds was a small return for the trip; most managed to clear 8 pounds or more. With this little fortune hidden in their ragged garments the workers went home.

- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Mig., p. 208


Annual Migration

"Frequently one or more members of the family were sent to adjoining counties in Ireland or to England to pick up whatever during the harvest season - 'spalpeening' it was dubbed."

- Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., The Molly Maguires, p. 81


Agriculture - Western Counties

"Western counties such as Donegal, Mayo, & Kerry, where there was almost complete dependence on the potato & where subdivision had been carried to the greatest extremes, constituted the core of the agricultural problem. Because of their remoteness, primitive methods of agriculture & ancient forms of social organization continued to survive in such areas."

Goes on to explain rundale. "Until about 1815 rundale seems to have been very widespread but by 1845 Mayo was the only county where it remained the dominant form of [land] tenure.

"When Lord George Hall bought the Gweedore property in Donegal in 1838, it was entirely under the rundale system. Only 700 of the 3,000 inhabitants paid rent. The inhabitants kept there cattle in one end of their dwelling houses. They grew enough corn to pay the rent which ranged from 3s to 30s a year. 5 or 6 sheep were kept whose wool supplied them with clothing. The women knitted socks, the sale of which brought in enough money to buy tobacco or pay the county ____." Closely associated with rundale was booleying - the young people went up with the cattle on the mountains for the summer months & made butter which they brought back."

- The Great Famine, p. 113-14

"The words of individual landlords made changes. Lord George Hall built a corn mill, a store, & kiln at Bunbeg on his Gweedore property, providing an alternative market to the illicit p____ for the first time" (ibid.).

Seasonal migration had become a common solution of the problem of paying rents on the tiny holdings of the barren western mountains & coasts. The men poured out in increasing numbers every year to seek work as harvesters. His wife & children often set out with him to beg potatoes & meal from door to door until their own crop was ready. It was not long before the harvesters began to cross over to Britain. By 1841 57,651 went to Britain. The heaviest seasonal migration was from County Mayo, where over 1/ 3 of the population left to work as harvesters. The total from Ulster was 19,312, the majority from Co. Donegal & Londonderry. The seasonal migrant could bring back at least 3 pounds from England. The sum could be raised to 5 pounds if he went in time for the haymaking (ibid., p. 6.

The dependence on the potato was the real danger; much more so than even the dense population... The proportion of the population dependent on the potato increased steadily, not only under the pressure of the ever-growing population but by high rents, fluctuating prices, the collapse of domestic industry, & the gradual decline of tillage among the big farmers (ibid., 122).

A government report after the famine of 1822:

"There was no want of food for the support of human life. On the contrary the crops of grain had been far from deficient, & the prices of corn and of oatmeal were very moderate... Those districts in the south & west presented the remarkable example of possessing a surplus of food whilst the inhabitants were suffering from actual want" (ibid., p. 122).


Conacre [System]

The census of 1841 showed over 42% of the holdings in Ireland were between 1 acre & 5A in extent. Smaller holdings the census did not enumerate, but thousands of these existed as a result of the rapidly-increasing class of the landless, made up of persons ejected from consolidated estates & sons of 5A cotters. Too accommodate them the conacre system was devised.

The scheme rested on the belief that, whereas the credit of any single individual might be worthless, a partnership of such persons, in which [all?] assumed responsibility for the total rent, constituted a reasonable risk. Under the direction of a "collector" (because no respectable agent or landlord was willing to meddle in the sordid business), an association of 10 or 15 villagers would be formed to whom would be leased an acre of rich, newly-broken pasture land, or one that had been highly fertilized. Since the normal yield of potatoes would be prodigious, so was the rent, usually ranging from 7-10 pounds per A. Seed, secured on credit, had to be paid back at from 50-100% increase at the harvest. In ordinary years the conacre system worked but it was a hand-to-mouth gamble, more discredited than other systems because it encouraged squalor & bickering within the group, & because failure brought appalling distress & harsh measures to enforce the collection of rent. Many possessors of land permitted it only because they feared the resentment of the people if they refused.

- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Mig., p. 2052



The most dramatic transformation in Irish landholdings occurred during the decade of the 1840s, a period also of the heavy famine emigration. In 1841 over 80% of all farms in the country were in holdings under 15A[cres]; ten years later the proportion had dropped to less than 50%. During the decade also the number of holdings of 15A & above rose from less than 20% to over 50%. The character of this change represented an extensive elimination of the small garden farms held by the laboring classes (usually on conacre) & a sweeping reduction of the cotter tenantry.

The famine was the prime mover of the period, & many of the laborers & cotters who left did so because hunger or the workhouse ____ them at home. Their departure meant the abandonment of numerous patches of ground upon which they had barely managed to eke out their subsistence.

This was also a period of widespread forced clearance. Irish landlords, long distressed by the uneconomic practice of excessive subdivision indulged in by their tenants, & anxious also under the impact of the repeal of the corn laws to convert their lands into pasture as rapidly as possible, saw in the calamity of the famine an opportunity to consolidate their holdings. The large-scale clearances which they carried out swelled the emigrant flood.

- Franklin D. Scott, ed., World Migration in Modern Times, p. 27-28 (Wab.)


Subdivision to provide for the younger children in a family began to die out in the 1840s, and after 1852 the practice almost entirely disappeared.

- Ibid., p. 26


Evictions, judgements of eviction mounted:

1847 - 2,510

1848 - 3,385

1849 - 3,782

Total number of evictions:

1849 - 90,000

1850 - 100,000

1851 - 70,000

1852 - 40,000

1853 - 24,000


By 1861 the 491,300 one-room cabins of 1841 had diminished to 89,400.

- Oscar Handlin, Boston's Immigrants, p. 463


From 1849 - 1856 over 50,000 families were evicted.

In 1863 the number was little short of 2,000.

In 1864 the number was little short of 2,000.

In 1865 the number was nearly 1000.

In 1865 the number was nearly 1000.


Between 1846 & 1851 a quarter of a million emigrated each year.

Between 1851 & 1861 over 100,000 were leaving each year.


Famine, eviction, emigration - they have left their mark deep in Irish memory. "It is probable," writes Lecky, in a passage which Sir Horace Plunkett quotes __ as confirmed by his own experience, "that the true source of the savage hatred of England that animates great bodies of Irishmen on either side of the Atlantic has very little connection with the Penal Laws, or the Rebellion (1798), or the Union. It is far more due to the great clearances & the vast unaid[ed emigrations?] that followed the famine.

- Ernest Barker, Ireland, p. 124


After the failure of the '48 uprising

In one notorious case, over 100 tenants of Lord Digby, who had enjoyed tenant rights for 2 generations & had improved their land on the assumption that that right would be preserved, were told on his death that their rents would be raised to rack-rent level & if they objected, eviction would take place.

Tenants retaliated with terrorism. As Sir Geo. Lewis described it to the government, "It is not the banding together of a few outcasts preying on the rest of the community but the deliberate association of the peasantry, seeking by cruel outrage to insure themselves against utter destitution - it is the mould into which Irish society is cast - the expression of the wants & feelings of the whole community. So far as it is successful, it is the abrogation of the existing law, and an abolition of the existing government.

- B. Inglis, St. of Ire ., p. 143


The bitterest memory the Catholic Irish emigrant carried with him to the U.S. centered on eviction scenes. A consolidating, or "improving," or "exterminating" landlord cleared not 1 or 2 tenants & their families, but whole villages; and, as Mr. O'Brien pointed out in the House of Commons, "the chasing away of 700 human beings, like crows out of a cornfield, amounted to total depopulation." On the larger estates the number of evicted ran into thousands. Sharman Crawford, a liberal Protestant Irish reformer, showed from parliamentary returns that from 1838 - 1842, inclusive, ejection proceedings had been taken against 356,985 persons. During the period of the famine & its train (1845-52) evictions mounted rapidly.

After legal notice of dispossession had been served on the tenants for a set date, the sheriff or an assistant arrived at the head of a body of uniformed troops & police, to exercise force if eviction met with resistance. The ejected stood around in groups by their dislodged, pathetic household articles, the men bursting with impotent rage, the women wailing & weeping, the children bewildered & frightened, trying to help the aged, & the dispossessed bed-ridden exposed to God knows what future... A crowd of laborers, often paupers brought from afar, either deroofed the cabin by firing the thatch, or leveled it to the ground, to make it uninhabitable against the later crawling back by the evicted. The soldiers & police then regimented the evicted from the estate itself & left them huddled on the road with nothing but the sky of Ireland over their heads. If the Irish lost control of themselves & challenged the armed authorities the outcome was inevitable, fists & rocks were poor weapons against guns & bayonets.

- Geo. Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 45-46

An eye-witness of the great migration (1844) wrote that "in England you can have but little conception of the sufferings of the poor Irish emigrant." As he passed through many southern counties he saw heartless evictions in full swing. Ejections applied for in court were seldom defended, and the cases "were disposed of at the rate of one each minute...5 souls to each family...300 per hour cast upon the poor-relief, and remaining in the union workhouse until remittances arrived from their friends in Am.."

- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 44


Landlords no longer found it profitable to keep their tenants. The fall of grain prices after the Napoleonic Wars made it difficult to collect rents, & pasturage now offered better prospects of profits, so landlords began to evict tenants. Until the Irish Poor Law of 1838 evictions were relatively few, the gentry fearing the growth of a desperate landless class which menaced life & property... Until 1835 most of those leaving for America hailed from the north of Ireland... Thereafter the poorer peasants began to emigrate from southern & western Ireland. It was not until the passage of the Irish Poor Law, however, that the landlords took a general interest in stimulating the exodus.

- Robt. Ernst, Immigrant Life in N.Y. City, p. 65


By the 1820s English poor rates had reached unprecedented heights. The English rate payers blamed the Irish paupers in England & demanded a poor law for Ireland. Parliament responded in 1838 with an act taxing the Irish landlords so highly that they showed a sudden zeal to promote emigration. The new law integrated emigration with evictions by setting up workhouses for the dispossessed, & as the same act provided for assisted emigration, the workhouse became the intermediate step between eviction & departure from Ireland. Henceforth eviction evolved into a settled policy, stimulated in 1846 by the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had long given Ireland a protected position in the English market.

- Ibid., p. 6



Landscape - Trees

(Roundstone - Connemara) "I had walked 50 miles in this part of the country and had never seen a tree or shrub, unless what was planted by the hand of man as an ornament, & this only once. Yet we are told that these mountains and valleys were once covered with trees; that the bog oak found so far beneath the surface is one proof, and the turf another."

- A. Nicholson, Ireland's Welcome to a Stranger, p. 402 (Mil. Lib.)



Land System - Overview

The peasants were completely dependent on the land because [wage] work did not exist. In 1835 the Poor Enquiry stated that 3/4 of the laborers of Ireland existed without work.


Small holdings:

1. Subdivision by families themselves of leased land.

Parents allowed their children to occupy a portion of their leased holdings because the

alternative was to turn them out to starve; the children in turn allowed occupation to

their children; thus 3, 6, or even 10 families occupied land which could provide food for

only 1 family.

2. "Ejectment," the House of Commons was told in 1846, "is tantamount to death by slow

torture" (this was because there was no work, see above).

3. Devon Com. (1845), "the one absorbing feeling as to the possession of land stifles all


Subdivision made possible by the potato.

"The potato, provided it did not fail, enabled great quantities of food to be produced at a

trifling cost from a small plot of ground. A 1 1/2 A[cre plot] would supply a family of 6

with enough food for 12 mo.. 6-8 A[cres] would be required to grow the equivalent in

grain, plus a greater knowledge of tillage."

- Woodham-Smith, Hunger, chap. 1


Utilization - see Co. Donegal

1841 - pop. 8,175,124. 685,000 farms in all. Of these, 300,000 were under 3A[cres] in extent,

& 250,000 [were] from 3A-15A.


Land reform: 1850 - agitation began for 3 F's: fair rent, free sale, & fixity of tenure

1870 - law gave tenant right to payment for improvements if evicted


A world-wide depression in agriculture (1877-79) brought about the

Land Act of 1881, which conceded the 3 F's.


1885 - 1 st Land Purchase Act: when landlord & tenant agreed on a price, the state

would advance the money & would be repaid yearly. Thus on a farm that

rented for 50 pounds, if the landlord agreed to sell in 18 years time, that is

at 900 pounds, the State would pay him that amount; the tenant would

repay the state by annual installments of 4%, or 36 pounds a year for 49

years. ...In 1921 when the Irish treaty was signed, about 2/3 of the land

of Ireland had passed to tenants. The remainder has since been

transferred by one compulsory statute. (En. Brit.)6

1891 - Congested Districts Board set up in effort to solve the small holdings

problems. (Ibid.)



Impounding of Cattle

(Note: Martins)

"Distraining" was the right of the landlord who was owed rent to appropriate the tenant's crops or livestock. Tenants were particularly agitated by the distraining of cattle, which were driven away & impounded in a town pound. The family cow was closer to being a member of the family than most household pets today. It represented both a productive source of family subsistence & a hedge against future catastrophe, in effect a living "savings bank." The pounds, as one analyst put it, were "evilly constructed," & even if the animals were not physically harmed, the mental torture for the entire family was profound.

- Wayne G. Broehl, The Molly Maguires, p. 8

1 Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., The Molly Maguires. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

2 Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Migration, 1607-1860: A History of the Continuing Settlement of the United States Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940.

3 Oscar Handlin, Boston 's Immigrants, 1790-1880: A Study in Acculturation . Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959. ("Originally published in 1941 as Volume L of the Harvard Historical Studies.")

4 Ernest Barker, Ireland in the Last Fifty Years (1866-1916). Oxford : Clarendon press, 1917.

5 Robert Ernst, Immigrant life in New York City, 1825-1863 . Port Washington, NY: I. J. Friedman, 1965.

6 Probably Encyclopedia Britannica.