Irish Roots: The Land Commission’s forbidden fruit

A huge collection of late-19th century/early-20th century land records is sitting in a warehouse in Co Laois, and few are granted access. Why?


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: The Land Question in Independent Ireland (UCD Press, 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 fends off researchers, describing the records as private property. See for the department’s 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 for “Land commission” for a poignant whiff of what we’re missing.

Could fear of political skeletons be the real reason for the sealing of these records? After 1922, the distribution of compulsorily purchased land was deeply politicised. 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?