Conditions in Ireland c. 1815 Encouraging Emigration


Compiled By: James H. Culbert
Last Updated: 12 Jan 2005

The following information was excerpted from:  William Forbes Adams, 1932, Ireland and Irish Emigration to the New World from 1815 to the Famine, Yale University Press, Reissued 1967, Russell & Russell, New York, LCCN 66-27034.

Classes of People

Almost all land title was owned by a landlord class, who leased or rented their estates to farmers and cotters. (p. 6)  A majority of these estates were held in entail, meaning that the owners could not sell the land outright without the consent of the eldest son once he had reached his majority. (p. 9)

The farming class was populous at this time.  Most were holders of 30 acres or less.  Although possibly indistinguishable from peasants in some ways, farmers normally held farm leases for long terms.  A leasehold of 21 years created a freehold, and entitled the occupier a vote.  Unfortunately, at the end of a long lease the land was often subdivided among the holder's many family members, with each then holding no more than a peasant. (pp. 34-35)

The laborer class was the largest class of people in 1815.  Typically, they held a tenement, but little or no land.  Unemployment was common, and they customarily paid a part of their rent in labor.  Low wages and lack of income made these Irish peasants dependent upon the food suppply they could raise themselves, and this accounts for the tenacity with which they clung to what little they had. (p. 16)  Among these peasants, women commonly married before 20, and men one or two years later.  Large families were common. (p. 32)  In general, the peasant class was too poor, too ignorant, and too homeloving to seek escape through emigration. (p. 34)

The Land

In 1785 the laws that prevented Roman Catholics from holding land were repealed. (p. 4)  This encouraged an increase in the number of small farms, which in turn encouraged an increase in population (p. 4)  These new farmers had little capital to pay wages, and so they paid their laborers by offering them land. (p. 4)

These lands were held on long term leases, most of which could not be changed. (pp. 9-10)  Middlemen took large leases from the landowners, and then sublet them at high rents. (pp. 23-26)  When a lease expired, it was common for the owner to evict tenants for non-payment. (pp. 9-10)  Conditions were such that rents were normally in arrears by six months or more. (pp. 9-10)  Prices for grains dropped after the War of 1812, making it more difficult for tenants to keep their rental payments current. (pp. 9-10)  It was not until the 1840s, when many of the leases had expired, that the custom of renting land from year to year became prevalent. (pp. 9-10)  Thus, there was a progressive degradation in the Irish farming classes, as good tenants were evicted, to be immediately replaced by poorer ones. (p. 12)
The landowners could not raise funds for land improvements. (p. 9)  With high rents and year to year rentals there was little incentive to improve these small holdings.  Instead, there was every incentive to wring everything possible from the land every year. (p. 16)  Because of this, most farmland was managed to maximize current yields rather than to sustain long-term productivity.  While the custom in most of Ireland discouraged agricultural improvements (and instead encouraged land deterioration), the Ulster farmers were in a more favorable state because of the tradition that the tenants be allowed by the owners to make improvements that benefitted the tenants, rather than having the owners be responsible for making the improvements.  In addition, when a tenant died, the landlord or his agent decided which member of the family received the farm, rather than allowing it to be subdivided.  The remaining family members were paid a small sum in lieu of receiving the land, and these funds could be saved for an emergency or could provide the means to emigrate. (pp. 33-38)

The Pressure of Population

In 1821 the population density of Ireland was greater than any European country. (p. 4)


Transportation again became readily available after the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, and as a result, emigration from Ireland increased. (pp. 66-67)


Conflicts, particularly over land, were common.  These distrubances were exacerbated by the ready availability of illicit liquor, which contributed to drunkenness.  The land of any tenant evicted for non-payment was quickly reoccupied, and the dispossessed sometimes would attack the new tenants in retribution.  The frequency of such disturbances and their effects were a powerful incentive to emigration. (pp. 23-26)  At its worst, it kept society in a state where improvement was virtually impossible.  Even two or three disturbances per year were sufficient to sustain a feeling of insecurity, and this was a strong deterrent to the investment of capital in agriculture. (p. 31)

Agricultural Conditions

The five years following the War of 1812 were characterized by poor harvests and depressed markets. (p. 47)  The poor cultivator fought a losing battle against the climate, deteriorating soils, and a lack of capital (p. 47)


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