Irish Roots


May 6th 2013

Follow the farm

John Grenham

The Macra na Feirme publication "Land Mobility and Succession in Ireland" (a good bedtime read, available at tinyurl.com/ca7rfyn) reports that in 2011 a mere 0.3% of agricultural land in Ireland was put on the open market. It is an extraordinary figure. In effect, there is no buying or selling of farms in this country. Elsewhere in the developed world, most agricultural land is part of the normal workings of capitalism: invest capital to produce food to make a return on capital. Not in Ireland.

The historic reason lies in the colossal transfer of ownership from landlords to tenants that happened over the century from 1870. The biggest single change came in 1903, with the Wyndham Land Act, which made land transfer very attractive for both sides. The government paid the difference between the landlord's asking price and the tenant's offer and then lent the purchase price to the tenant. The new loan repayments were so close to the old annual rent that, for little or no difference in outlay, you went from being a tenant to being an owner. It was an offer almost no-one could refuse.

After generations of tenancy, the sweetness of that ownership created a ferocious attachment to the land, making it unthinkable that it could ever be simply sold off. Nearly all transfers had to take place within the extended family.

Which makes it possible to trace extended families in rural Ireland by following their property.

The Valuation Office records all changes to the holdings first surveyed by Griffith in the mid-nineteenth century and they remained the basis for local property taxes ("The Rates") until abolition in 1977. Anyone in occupation then (and now) is overwhelmingly likely to be related to the original purchaser. Second or third cousins twice removed, perhaps, but related. The revision books and maps are open to the public at the Office premises in the Irish Life Centre in Dublin, with excellent guidance provided by the staff. See valoff.ie.


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