Irish Roots


September 23rd 2013

The Land Commission's Dark Secrets

John Grenham

Outside the National Archives, the largest single collection of Irish records covering the late 19th and early 20th centuries belongs to the Land Commission. The Commission was set up in 1881 under the Land Acts, to facilitate and eventually subsidise transfers of land ownership from large landlords to small tenants. After Independence, it continued in existence in the Republic, with expanded powers of compulsory purchase, and a huge loan from the British government. Its principal function became the breaking up of large estates, so-called "untenanted ranches", and the redistribution of land, mainly to local smallholders.

Its work obliged it to establish who had legal title to the properties, a hugely complex task. So it began to collect wills, correspondence, estate records, family trees, lease-books, tenants' lists, maps, deeds, correspondence and much more. According to Terence Dooly's excellent history of the post-1922 Commission, The Land for the People (UCD, 2004), it holds approximately 11 million separate items.

But where are they? In a warehouse in a Portlaoise industrial estate. And how can you get access? Amazingly, you have to supply individual written permission from descendants of all those involved in the original transactions. The Department of Agriculture still vehemently fends off researchers, describing the records as private property. See tinyurl.com/p6txt9m for their 2012 thinking.

However, the Department happily handed over pre-1923 Ulster records to The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and PRONI has made them public. Search proni.gov.uk for "Land commission" for a poignant whiff of what we're missing.

The real reason for the sealing of these records is undoubtedly fear of political skeletons. After 1922, the distribution of compulsorily-purchased land was deeply politicised and subject to an unspoken political understanding: "We won't take back the farms ye gave yeer people, if ye leave what we give our people alone".

But the last compulsory purchase happened in 1983 and the Commission itself was abolished in 1992. How long can it possibly take to decontaminate this part of our history?


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishroots(at)irishtimes.com.

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