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LANDLORD RESPONSES TO THE IRISH LAND WAR, 1879–87 L. PERRY CURTIS, JR. in his magisterial study, Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland, William Vaughan redresses the imbalance of John Pomfret’s pioneering work, The Struggle for Land in Ireland, 1800–1923 (Princeton, 1930), that depicted the Irish landlords as so many “alien and absentee” predators who positively relished rack-renting and evicting their tenants. Vaughan’s demolition of the Pomfret orthodoxy epitomizes the best kind of archivally based revisionism. Although he exonerates the landlords from the charge of social vampirism, Vaughan stresses their manifold failures as estate managers, preservers of power, and role models for their tenants. While giving them credit for having survived the fallout from the Great Famine, he deplores their inertia or lack of enterprise as well as their inability to exploit the full value of their lands. In the decades following the famine they extracted “only about 80 per cent of available rents” annually and spent paltry sums on agricultural improvements. To make matters worse, they failed to curb their appetite for an aristocratic lifestyle, to bridge the great social divide between themselves and their tenants, and to resist—let alone support—the forces of political democracy led by an assertive Catholic middle class outside Northeast Ulster. No longer “masters of their fate,” they had lost their ability to influence the British state. But then, as Vaughan puts it ever so pungently, “no European landed elite crowed without challenge on its own dunghill.” Vaughan also contends that because they lacked “the protection of a tough state, versed in the ways of bullying peasants,” the landlords looked to Dublin Castle and the Royal Irish Constabulary for their salvation. In short, they had “ceased to make themselves useful by providing law and order”; they allowed their tenants to rebel in 1879; they no longer “dominate [d] the constituencies or parliament,” and they were at best quixotic paternalists who could not “protect their people from the vicissitudes of the outside world.” Having “failed to build up reservoirs of informal LANDLORD RESPONSES TO THE IRISH LAND WAR, 1879–87 134 power,” they were increasingly “peripheral to the land system.” Not only did they fall far short of what Disraeli considered “a real aristocracy,” but they had also abdicated their position as the “most knowing class” in Ireland to the “lawyers, policemen, and priests.” Their failure to inspire an entrepreneurial spirit in their tenants, to take on the responsibilities of a “proper rentier class,” and to use their estates as “sources of power and wealth,” as did the English aristocracy, meant that they had no chance of surviving as a ruling class.1 In sum, if Vaughan had to grade their performance , they would be lucky to attain a gentleman’s C. Such strictures may seem ironic coming from a historian whom some critics have seen as letting the landlords off lightly when it came to the abuse of their social and economic power. After all, Vaughan’s book provoked one reviewer to write the landlords off as so many “fossilized” parasites .2 Ironically, the noted nationalist Alexander M. Sullivan, M.P., would have heartily agreed with Vaughan’s verdict except for the issues of under-rented farms and evictions. In two long letters to the Times in 1880, this latter-day Young Irelander accused the gentry of having achieved little over the course of three centuries despite their monopoly of power, privilege, and wealth. He pointed out that one hundred landlords had just held a crisis meeting in Dublin to discuss the country’s longterm “smouldering civil war,” and all they could recommend was repression . “The sum of all their statesmanship, all their counsel, all their reforms, all their conciliation,” he declared, “is a bald demand on England for more coercion.” After all, “a landlord or gentry class is meant to be something more than so many rent-spenders, fox hunters, and grouse shooters.” And if they were not, then they had no right to complain about being heartily despised. “If they are not found to fulfil the function of natural leaders of the people around and dependent on them, alive to their interests, responsive to their needs...


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pp. 134-188
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