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LAND REFORM LEGISLATION AND SECURITY OF TENURE IN IRELAND AFTER INDEPENDENCE DAVID SETH JONES I. INTRODUCTION The lack of security of land tenure was a continuing source of grievance among the Irish tenantry during much of the nineteenth century and became a key issue in the struggle for agrarian reform in its later years. Under the various land reforms of this period, security of tenure was gradually established ; first, to a partial degree, through the recognition of tenant right, and then through the creation of tenant ownership under the various Land Purchase Acts. The most important of these was the 1903 Land Act, under which the bulk of the tenantry was able to purchase holdings from the landlords through a purchase advance from the State repayable in annuity installments over 66.5 years. Following passage of the Land Act of 1903, small tenants became all too aware of the inadequacy of their meager holdings and turned their attention to land distribution. It was soon obvious that there was little use in such tenants becoming owners of their land if they could not eke out an adequate subsistence or produce a marketable surplus. This situation especially applied to occupiers of “uneconomic” holdings, commonly called congests, found in large numbers in the western counties. The “uneconomic ” holding was originally valued at less than £10 ratable valuation, but was later considered as any holding unable to support a man and his family at a basic level of comfort.1 In addition, landless elements living in the countryside, especially farmers’ sons, rural laborers, and evicted tenants, sought to acquire land, so as to secure a better livelihood. As a result, demands arose from different quarters for a program of land distribution, with eager eyes cast especially in the direction of the large tracts of grassLAND REFORM LEGISLATION AND SECURITY OF TENURE 116 1 Under this revised definition of an “uneconomic” holding, no precise official valuation was set, but in practice it was taken as a holding of less than £20 valuation. land used by graziers (large cattle and sheep farmers, also called ranchers). These demands were promoted during the anti-grazier agitation or “ranch war” between 1906 and 1912 and during the period of land seizures from 1917 to 1921.2 It was evident by this time that much more had to be done to distribute land beyond the limited land distribution measures already enacted. When independence was granted to the twenty-six counties and the Irish Free State was formed in 1922 under the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the political situation that prevailed gave added urgency to further land reform. The treaty and the ensuing Civil War had left the twenty-six counties polarized . The anti-treaty faction of Sinn Féin was disaffected, unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of the new state and drawing strong support from the small farmers of the West. For its part, the first post-independence government formed by the Cumann na nGaedheal Party led by William Cosgrave and representing the more conservative pro-treaty faction did not command widespread popular support. That was indicated by the government ’s failure to obtain more than 40 percent of first preference votes in low turnouts in the 1922 and 1923 elections (indeed in all subsequent elections during its period of office). With its prospects far from certain, the new government had to move quickly to consolidate its position and secure a measure of legitimacy across the political spectrum.3 Land reform, involving the distribution of land and expediting land purchase, seemed to offer an opportunity to achieve this move, especially since the reform could elicit support from across the community. As a result, a major scheme to distribute land to congests (commonly referred to as the relief of congestion) and to various groups of landless persons was instituted by the Cosgrave Government (together with measures to expedite land purchase) and was continued with even greater vigor by subsequent governments under a series of Land Acts. The process of distribution involved taking land, by compulsory means if necessary, not just from landlords, but also, and controversially, from some of the existing LAND REFORM LEGISLATION AND SECURITY OF TENURE 117 2 D.S...


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