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On the 100th Anniversary of the Passing of the 1923 Land Act - Article for Irish Independent Supplement, July 2023

On the 100th Anniversary of the Passing of the 1923 Land Act

Article for Irish Independent Supplement 

July 2023

The subject of land is omnipresent and defining in Irish history. It is in relation to land that some of the most harrowing of confrontations, contestations as to survival, exploitation and greed in rural Ireland occurred. The late 19th century was defined by cruel evictions and the response to them, rallies and actions of the land war, skirmishes, boycotts, divisions, and attempts at an eventual alliance between agrarian agitation and parliamentary action which would result in a series of Land Acts that would change Irish society utterly.  

Land hunger was a constant at public meetings, a source of concern in popular pamphlets. Laurence J. Kettle, when publishing The Memoirs of Andrew J. Kettle: Right-Hand Man to Charles S. Parnell in 1958, inserted on the jacket of that memoir James Fintan Lalor’s remark from the first half of the 19th century that “the land question contains, and the legislative question does not contain, the material from which victory is manufactured” [1].

While in the latter half of that century, George Bermingham could write of a shopkeeper replying to his question as to how the vote on Home Rule had gone in the Commons the night before. The reply was quick: “To hell with Home Rule. It is the land we are after”.

The vocabulary of Irish history in relation to land contains some of the most evocative terms in Irish memory, terms such as ‘enclosure’, ‘occupation’, ‘settlement’ ‘plantation’, ‘eviction’, ‘improvements’.  Such resonating cries were all present in the discourse of the 19th century.

The change in status from insecure tenancy to proprietorship that the Land Acts facilitated had huge implications for those who worked on the land, be it in relation to the inheritance pattern of post-Famine Ireland, or the agricultural labourers. The position of rural women in Ireland would be changed, especially by the particular form of post-Famine stem family inheritance arrangements would take, as would women’s participation in new patterns of emigration.

As President of Ireland, I have recently concluded a series of six seminars on Ireland’s Decade of Commemorations, held during 2020-2022, entitled Machnamh 100, with a range of papers from invited guests on various themes of the Independence Struggle. The recent release by the National Archives of 3,500 files, including heart-breaking, very personal accounts of the suffering endured during the War of Independence and Civil War, will aid further scholarship.

Having heard a large breadth of stimulating scholarly work on this seminal period, it is abundantly clear that the land is always there as an unresolved issue as a source of dispersals. Yet analysis of the independence period too often omits this important topic from its gaze. This is therefore a timely juncture with which to revisit the 1923 Land Act, its succeeding reports, including that of the Commission on Agriculture in 1924, and to pose the question as to whether it truly settled matters in the manner that is sometimes suggested. 

My own family history, carrying the burdens inter-generationally of a tragic Civil War, is representative of the deficiencies in seeing the Act as a neat end point. While his brother, my uncle Peter, served as an Officer in the National Army in Renmore, Galway, my father, whose training was in all aspects of bar and grocery, was one of the many prisoners who remained interned in camps and prisons in the Free State throughout 1923, and another 750 or so in jails and prison boats in Northern Ireland. 

It would be Spring 1924 before the majority were released [2]. None of these thousands of prisoners were able to apply for land. Many fled in exile, mostly to England. It would be later in July 1925 before Éamon de Valera lifted the need for an IRA permit to emigrate to the United States. 

For those who stayed, many had nothing to anticipate. It was near impossible to obtain work. Campaigns for reductions in agricultural labourers’ wages were underway.  There were 100,000 farmers available or willing to join organisations, a section of which saw advantages in confrontation with agricultural labourers and the trade unions, and the new State displayed a remarkable capacity for bureaucratic intransigence towards those applying for a modest pension.

In my father’s case, having spent almost all of 1923 in Hut 3 in the Curragh camp, upon his release he returned to Clare where he found his name had been handed in as a most likely suspect for land agitation to the newly formed anti-land agitation squad established by Kevin O’Higgins. Life in 1924 in the parish of his birth was made impossible, as was the case for many others released from the Curragh.

Among the exclusions he was forced to endure included the hurt of people in the parish not wanting to be seen to associate with him and refusing to speak to him after mass. Faced with no prospect of land or employment, he had to leave, was what was termed ‘idle’ until August 1924 when he got the opportunity at age 30 to start again through employment in the firm of Michael Nolan, Newbridge, at £50 a year live-in. 

It is significant that my father’s first attempts, assisted by ‘The Traders’ in north Cork, was to get his job back in the bar, grocery and wholesale trade he was trained in. The deputations included Edward Flaherty and Michael Geary in Charleville.

My father’s experience on leaving the Curragh was probably no different from so many others.

Who did the 1923 Land Act set out to serve? How did it succeed? These are first-order historical questions, and I welcome them. 

The Land Commission was such a powerful tool, its ending a tragedy, or indeed ‘sabotage’ would be the word of one of its most committed public servants. From its foundation in 1881 until its termination in 1976, the Irish Land Commission was one of the most powerful state institutions in Ireland. Initially a rent-fixing body, its original remit was widened incrementally through a vast corpus of legislation. The transfer of land from the ascendancy to former tenants, herdsmen and employees in many respects revolutionised land ownership in Ireland and ended gentry power through cutting off its income source, namely rental income from broad acres. 

The Land Commission is therefore primarily responsible for the profound reconstitution of land ownership that occurred over the course of its existence and the distributional patterns that would emerge. The decision by the Irish Government to release the records of the Land Commission is perhaps one of the most valuable decisions during the Decade of Commemorations. It is so important that it be resourced and accelerated in terms of access. 

Patrick Sammon’s memoir illuminates the contradictions that beset the internal operations of the Land Commission to which he devoted his working life [3]. The official thinking of the time, with which he struggled, is well expressed by Sammon when he writes: 

“The sociological impact of the elimination of the Landlord Class offers scope for much interesting study. As a class, the landlords had acted badly by the tenants: it is not as if a cadre of benevolent landowners, who had functioned as leaders of the people, had been displaced. Successors of the original planters in most cases left no great void in the Irish scene[4]” .

The 1924 Minority Report of the Agricultural Commission, penned by Tom Johnson and Michael Duffy, is crucial in understanding the reverse from the commitment to providing land for the landless, and the privileging of the cattle grazier economy over tillage with its employment creation and food security priorities. Paragraph 71 reads: 

“The Majority Report contains the error of treating every holder of agricultural land as an agriculturalist and the farming community as homogenous. The Majority overlook the difference between the small farmer who employs his own family labour and supplies a local market, and the large farmer who depends wholly on wage labour and sells his produce for export. Their interests may differ acutely as when, for instance, a proposal involving local employment of labour is raised. The small farmer would benefit by a local demand for labour at high wages because thereby his home market is improved; the large farmer may lose because of competition for labour and the effect on the wages of his own labourers. Equally well marked may be the difference of interest between the tillage farmer and the grazier”[5] .

While we now mark 100 years since the introduction of the 1923 Land Act, this piece of legislative reform has thus to be placed in a larger, longer context that begins with the first of the Land Acts in 1881. 

Professor Dooley in valuable work, has given us a picture of landlordism in the 1880s. Using K. Theodore Hoppen’s 500-acre threshold for admission to the landlord class, and drawing on a return of Irish landowners for the 1870s, Dooley enumerated landlords in Ireland as follows:

•    Those owning between 500 and 1,000 acres: 2,683 persons;  
•    1,000-2,000 acres: 1,788; 
•    2,000-5,000 acres: 1,225;
•    5,000-10,000 acres: 438;
•    >10,000 acres: 303[6] .

While this ownership structure was carrying huge debt, it could never be sustainable. Its decline is in stages from the 1880s. That decline will also be affected by those leaving, and by the loss of inheriting sons during World War I. Then, too, a decrease in the release of funds from the British Government for land purchase during the war made it difficult to agree terms of purchase, with bonds yielding less than the War Bonds.

Terence Dooley’s Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a Time of War and Revolution is also a valuable, sociological insight of the experience of those living in these large country houses during the War of Independence, fearing, anticipating, imagining the circumstances when some were burned, and the Civil War when many more were burned [7]. The context in which the occupants of those remaining houses and demesnes after the Independence Struggle found themselves remains a valuable area of research. It is so important to give adequate space to those who were willing to give the new State a chance - and to acknowledge their mistreatment.

The Land Commission continued to redistribute farmland in most of Ireland, with untenanted land subject to compulsorily purchase orders, lands which were nominally divided out to local landless families, but the execution of this was applied unevenly across the State, with an emerging movement from IRA networks claiming that they who had driven out landlords were being ignored.

While politicians in Dublin hurled abuse about forsaken principles and fealty to the British Crown, in rural Ireland people waited for the sanctioned transfer of their farms, and many more for the redistribution of untenanted and demesne lands. Some became impatient, as Dooley notes:

“At the beginning of the Truce period, the County Inspector of Tipperary reported: ‘The hunger for land is great. Those who are landowners want more, while those who have none and who have been gunmen, believe that the estates of Loyalists, such as Kilroy, once cleared, will be divided amongst them’” [8].

Kevin O’Higgins’s speech in the Dáil of 14th June 1923 is striking too, for his recognition of ‘land grabbers’ and the challenges they  would represent in the future:

“They cannot have law and violence. They cannot have an Act and their own plunder and, insofar as it can secure it, I will see that they do not have it […] and by the time this Bill reaches its final stages, I hope to be able to assure the Dáil that there is not in any county over which we have, for the time being, responsibility and jurisdiction, one acre of land in the possession of any person but the legal owner.”[9] 

In the end the Land Act 1923 adopted many proposals for a final land settlement from decisions reached during the Irish Convention in 1918 under the chairmanship of Horace Plunkett. By then the Land Commission had bought 13 million acres of farmland between 1885 and 1920 where the freehold was assigned under mortgage to tenant farmers and farm workers.

By 1923 there were approximately 114,000 farms. It is worth noting that, in 1917, of the 572,574 holdings in Ireland, 112,787 were less than one acre, while 123,129 holdings were comprised of holdings between 15 and 30 acres. Such statistics explain much in relation to land hunger and land agitation.

By the end of the 1920s, the agricultural labourers are now being opposed by organised large farmers. Many labourers had already emigrated. Those agitating are being labelled, from such ranks as the graziers and others, as ‘Bolshevists’. We are so indebted to those  historians such as Dr Anthony Varley, Emmet O’Connor and others for rescuing them from neglect.

The graziers, who have deflected the fury of those yet to acquire land from undistributed demesne lands, are themselves increasing their holdings. Major Dáil speeches were being made by their spokespeople on behalf of people who already had land. Former militants who had been in expectation of land but left landless in particular are angry, and they have strong advocates in the Dáil, including Limerick’s John Thomas Nolan, who in 1925 stated in a Dáil debate:

“There is one class who seems to be nobody’s children and they are the ex-army men of the Old Volunteers. I think if any class of people are entitled to consideration as regards land, they have first claim, because the Act of 1923 would not have been in existence at all, and we would not be here, were it not for them. They seem to have been forgotten in every department, and I hope when the Minister sends his inspectors out that he will give them directions to have these men given special consideration.” [10]

This will be a sentiment well repeated before the 1932 election and the later 1933 Land Act.

In December 1925, W. T. Cosgrave lamented that there were already “250,000 occupiers of uneconomic holdings, the holdings of such a valuation as did not permit of a decent livelihood for the owners” [11]. Despite this, his government continued to subdivide larger landholdings, primarily to gain electoral support. What is clear is that the contrasting works of the 1924 Report of the Commission on Agriculture, majority and minority, were not given consideration, be it in terms of the employment, tillage, food security effects or their different consequences for emigration.

It is an interesting exercise to trace the gradual discrepancy of the landless from the early discussions of 1923. Of those who acquire land in the redistribution, some have agricultural skills, but the majority are in the professions, which includes grocers and practitioners who have acquired skills under a set of indentures, which were often problematic on the grounds of competition – many would set up away from the person who trained them to avoid competition with a former employer.

The farming system that developed since the Land Acts resulted in as much as 85 percent of farm production coming from 15 percent of the farms[12] . Some writers had suggested that a State land-leasing scheme would have provided a more balanced system of agricultural production, but where is the evidence that such a view could ever be an alternative to unlimited acquisition? 

While the 1924 Reports of the Commission of Agriculture revealed a depressed rural economy, yet one with options, Commission members could not agree on proposed remedies, leading quite valuably in historical terms to the Minority Report by Thomas Johnson and Michael Duffy calling for not just state-imposed limits to land holdings but a resource-based support for food production and other measures to control prices of agricultural outputs [13] .

The Land Acts punctuate the decline of landlordism. However, may I suggest that the transformation in land ownership created a new class. The new holders expanding their acreage did not suffer from being perceived as non-Irish or absentee, they could accommodate their actions behind the masks of religion and nationalism with which the State and Church agreed. The 1930s would bring the alliance of land before people, authoritarianism, misogyny, and distrust of the body as sinful to define the 1930s’ awful legacy of repression. 

Yet the Land Acts were successful on one level in reducing the concentration of land ownership, as indicated by the fact that, in 1870, only 3 percent of Irish farmers owned their own land, while, by 1929, this ratio was reversed, with 97 percent of farmers holding their farms freehold. However, as Michael Davitt and other Georgists had foreseen, the form of peasant proprietorship delivered was not any panacea for either the woes or the possibilities that ailed the Irish countryside.

Emigration and poverty continued apace. Between 1955 and 1960, over 250,000 would emigrate largely to Britain, while the greatest beneficiaries of land reform were the middle class of medium-sized farmers. For those who stayed, an authoritarian State would, during the 1930s, implement policies that endorsed a carnival of conservatism, reaction, small-mindedness, division, repression and abuse, the consequences of which still play out among us today. I think in particular of those whose emigrants’ remittances were so welcome, but whose personal arrivals or retirements were greeted on occasion with a “what are you doing home?” or “when are you going back?”. The idea that one inheriting male, one dowry has to my mind not been given sufficient study and those people seen as surplus, protected in wills by reference to ‘a room in the house, and a seat in the car to mass’ – relatives assisting. 

It is very hard to disagree with Professor Joe Lee’s statement when he described how, before the Great Famine, fields gave way to families, whereas after the Famine families gave way to fields. As to alternatives, there were few.

Michael D. Higgins
Uachtarán na hÉireann


1  Kettle, Laurence J. (ed.) (1958). Material for Victory: The Memoirs of Andrew J. Kettle, Right-hand Man to Charles S. Parnell, C.J. Fallon: Dublin.
2  Dorney, John (2023). “‘They killed idealism in my soul’ – The End of the Irish Civil War”. The Irish Story, 23 May 2023.,post%2DTreaty%20order%20was%20over. 
3  Sammon, Patrick (1997). In the Land Commission: A Memoir 1933-1978, Ashfield Press: Dublin. 
4  Ibid.
5  Saorstat Éireann (1924). “Minority Report by Thomas Johnson and Michael Duffy to Commission of Agriculture Report 1924”. Stationery Office: Dublin.
6  Ibid.
7  Dooley, Terence (2022). Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a Time of War and Revolution, Yale University Press: London.
8  Ibid.
9  Quoted in Dooley op. cit.
10  Dáil Éireann (1925). Oireachtas Dáil Debate 2nd December 1925.
11  Dáil Éireann (1925). Oireachtas Dáil Debate 10th December 1925. “Private Business. - Treaty (Confirmation of Amending Agreement) Bill, 1925—Second Stage (Resumed)”. 
12  Irish Country Life History (2011). “The Economic War and its Aftermath”. 
13  Saorstát Éireann (1924). “Reports of the Commission of Agriculture”, Stationery Office: Dublin.