Throughout most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the vast majority of the Irish population lived as small tenant-farmers on large estates owned for the most part by English or Anglo-Irish landlords. The administration of these estates inevitably produced large quantities of records: maps, tenants' lists, rentals, account books, lease books etc. Over the course of the twentieth century, as the estates have been broken up and sold off, many collections of these records have found their way into public repositories, and they constitute a largely unexplored source of genealogical information.
There are, however, good reasons for their being unexplored. Firstly, it was quite rare for a large landowner to have individual rental or lease agreements with the huge number of small tenants on his land: instead he would let a significant area to a middleman, who would then sublet to others, who might in turn rent out parts to the smallest tenants. It is very rare for estate records to document the smallest landholders, as most of these had little or no right of tenure in any case.
A related problem is the question of access. The estate records in the two major Dublin repositories, NAI and NLI, are not catalogued in detail. The only comprehensive guide is given in Richard Hayes's Manuscript Sources for the History of Irish Civilisation and its supplements, copies of which can be found in NLI and NAI and onlIne at sources.nli.ie. This catalogues the records by landlord's name and by county, with entries such as 'nl Ms. 3185. Rent Roll of Lord Cremorne's estate in Co. Armagh, 1797.' Hayes gives no more detail of the areas of the county covered, and it can be difficult to ascertain from the Tithe Books or Griffith's just who the landlord was; Griffith's supplies only the name of the immediate lessor.
The holdings of PRONI are catalogued more comprehensively but still do not relate the papers to the exact areas covered. Again, it is necessary to know the landlord's name. In addition, it should be noted that some of the collections in NLI have still not been catalogued at all. There are a number of ways to overcome, or partially overcome, this obstacle. With common sense it is often possible to identify the landlord by examining Griffith's for the surrounding areas: the largest lessor is the likeliest candidate. If the immediate lessor in Griffith's is not the landlord but a middleman it can be useful to try to find this middleman's own holding or residence and see who he was leasing from. Two publications may also be of value. U.H. Hussey de Burgh's The Landowners of Ireland provides a guide to the major landowners, the size of their holdings and where in the country they were situated. Landowners in Ireland: Return of owners of land of one acre and upwards . . . (London: 1876; online at www.failteromhat.com/lo1876.htm) is comprehensive to a fault and is organised more awkwardly, alphabetically within county.
The largest collection of estate records, the Landed Estate Court records, also known as the Encumbered Estate Courts, is in NAI, not catalogued in Hayes. The court was set up to facilitate the sale of estates whose owners could not invest enough to make them productive, and between 1849 and 1857 it oversaw the sale of more than three thousand Irish estates. Its records contain many rentals and maps drawn up for the sales, but they are so close in time to Griffith's as to make them of limited use except in very particular circumstances. NAI has an index to the townlands covered by the records. Since 2011 the records have been searchable at the subscription site www.findmypast.ie.
Despite all the problems, research in estate records can be very rewarding, especially for the period before the major nineteenth-century surveys. To take one example, the rent rolls of the estate of Charles O'Hara in Cos. Sligo and Leitrim, which date from c.1775, record a large number of leases to smaller tenants and supply the lives named in the leases, often specifying family relationships. It must be emphasised, however, that information of this quality is rare: the majority of the rentals and tenants' lists surviving only give details of major tenants.
A more detailed guide to the dates, areas covered and class of tenants recorded
in the estate papers of NLI and NAI has been produced by NLI in collaboration
with the Irish Genealogical Society of Minnesota. To date, Cos. Armagh, Carlow,
Cavan, Clare, Cork, Donegal, Fermanagh, Kerry, Kildare, Leitrim, Limerick,
Longford, Galway, Mayo, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo, Tyrone, Waterford,
Westmeath and Wicklow have been covered. In addition, the continuing
expansion of the PRONI online catalogue has allowed the identification of
parishes in the six counties of Northern Ireland covered by estate records held in
PRONI. These are available via the "Counties" section of the site.