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  • The Big House in the North of Ireland: Land, Power and Social Elites, 1878-1960
  • David W. Miller
The Big House in the North of Ireland: Land, Power and Social Elites, 1878-1960. By Olwen Purdue (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2009. xv plus 297 pp.).

"I am speaking the plainest English. Are you the landlord?" says the title character in George Bernard Shaw's Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman, set in Ireland in 3000 A.D. His interlocutor, shaking her head, replies, "There is a tradition in this part of the country of an animal with a name like that. It used to be hunted and shot in the barbarous ages. It is quite extinct now." Shaw knew perfectly well that the extinction of the Irish landlord was not the result of over-hunting. Shooting landlords was far too dangerous for that. The extinction of the Irish landlord was a result of legislation. The 1881 Land Act established a judicial process to determine and enforce a fair rent for the tenant. Under these [End Page 1148] conditions the landlords came to realize that Irish land had become a very bad investment, and in 1903, under a conservative government, parliament created and subsidized a process that made purchase of the farm by its tenant extremely attractive to both parties.

Over the past four decades the Irish historical profession has produced an impressive literature on the land problem in post-famine Ireland and its resolution. Olwen Purdue's contribution to this literature is a study of about 100 families who, in 1878, owned huge estates in the six counties that would become Northern Ireland in 1921. In a number of cases the heads of these families were peers of the realm. Almost all were members of the (no longer established) Church of Ireland. Many sent their sons to Sandhurst and careers in the military. Most faced agonizing difficulties maintaining their "Big Houses" a generation or more earlier than their counterparts on the British mainland.

The Northern Irish component of the landed elite of the British Isles in the twentieth century was noteworthy for its continuing role in both local and provincial politics. During the nineteenth century Belfast had become a major industrial city whose most successful (and mostly Presbyterian) entrepreneurs were too busy making money to get involved in national politics. By contrast, many of the most elite Ulster landlords held memberships in London clubs (and some in Dublin clubs) to maintain their political connections, but almost none bothered to join Belfast clubs. In the mid-twentieth century many continued to belong to London clubs (and almost none to Dublin clubs) and some to Belfast clubs. In the Northern Ireland government from its creation in 1921 until its termination in 1972, three of the six prime ministers were members of the landed elite. Of the two landed premiers whose tenure lasted longer than two years, one (Lord Brookeborough) is remembered for publicly discouraging the hiring of Catholic workers and the other (Terence O'Neill) for advocating better relations between the two ethno-religious communities. O'Neill was forced out of office by opponents in his party, and shortly thereafter managed to insult the entire Catholic population in a newspaper interview.

Purdue is well aware of such imperfections among the subjects of her study. It is a solid and informative analysis that sheds light on a number of issues in both Irish and British society.

David W. Miller
Carnegie Mellon University


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