Diarmaid Ferriter: Evictions and villainous landlords are part of what we are

The growing desperation of 21st century tenants and would-be owners is likely to sink this Government

Students of Irish history are introduced to late 19th century eviction scenes at an early age, partly because of the William Lawrence photograph collection that includes photographs taken between 1886 and 1890, which are among the first examples of photojournalism in Ireland. They were taken in the midst of the Plan of Campaign, a rent protest that subsequently led to wide-scale eviction. The campaign emerged as an attempt to gain more favourable rents through collective bargaining. If landlords refused to reduce rents, or tenants deemed their new offers unacceptable, rents were withheld and instead paid into a central fund to support evicted tenants.

During that era “notice-to-quit” letters were dreaded, as they contained the stark demand that heralded an uncertain future for tenants: “You are hereby required to surrender and deliver up to me... the full, quiet and peaceable possession of all”. It is no wonder the idea of being rooted to land and property became such an intrinsic part of Irish nationalism. In order for that to happen, the power of the landlords had to be broken.

Away from the individual eviction scenes, photographs of suppressed tenant meetings give some idea of the grassroots activism and collective opposition that ultimately isolated landlords, won concessions from the British government, and ensured that by 1904, Michael Davitt could write about the “Fall of Feudalism in Ireland”. Many of the youths photographed lived to see peasant ownership of land become a reality.

Seeing evictees sitting among their few possessions in these photographs makes one appreciate the conservative mindsets of the early 20th century. Those who came to own their land were damned if they were ever going to allow anything that would threaten their asset, including sharing their land with the landless. The records of the Land Settlement Commission, established at the time of the War of Independence, indicate how long and bitter the memory of these years was, as did the reaction to the compulsory acquisition orders that were a part of the quest to build labourers’ cottages in the 1930s.


A century ago... WT Cosgrave, said that housing people was an urgency because without it ‘there will be no genuine peace or contentment in the land’

The landlord as villain became embedded in the folk tradition, but those landlords were replaced by new overlords and power networks. As folklorist Séamas Mac Philib observed, “one of the strongest images to emerge from the corpus of folk tradition accounts is that of the Catholic priest as vanquisher of the landlord and in a sense becoming a new sort of landlord”. Prominent Catholic social voices stressed the inviolability of private property rights as a bulwark against socialism or communism, while ardent nationalists in politics were of like mind.

A century ago, the leader of government at the dawn of the new State, WT Cosgrave, said that housing people was an urgency because without it “there will be no genuine peace or contentment in the land”. Without adequate housing, people would not “be good citizens, or loyal and devoted subjects of the State, no matter what the State may be”.

But it was not envisaged by Cosgrave and his colleagues that the State as landlord would be the sole solution and their focus was very much geared towards middle-class housing. Even though Fianna Fáil in subsequent decades committed itself to more state intervention to house the working classes, that ardour waned and privately, the Department of Finance in the late 1930s was adamant there was too much reliance on the State.

When he was taoiseach exactly five years ago, Leo Varadkar declared the housing problem ‘a national emergency’. It is becoming a permanent emergency

Think too, of the ancestors of that land war generation. Many were imbued with the idea that home ownership was the ultimate goal and renting was wasted money; many were encouraged to secure their future or pension through buying an investment property. They were inheritors of a conservative impulse: as historical geographer Ruth McManus observed in 2003, it is “unsurprising that radical politics failed to evolve. Homeowners tend to make poor socialists, as the conservatives of the 1930s had predicted.”

Never clear cut

The various inheritances that shaped Irish attitudes to rent and home ownership should not be simplified. In recent years there has been much focus on a narrative that details the shift away from social housing to market solutions; historians, sociologists and politicians have documented the statistics and the milestones and the move from managing a system of delivering private and social housing to managing a market. But our history would suggest the lines and demarcations were never completely clear cut. And that is why it has become an overwhelming crisis: there is no overarching coherence when it comes to providing affordable housing.

The State could get away with much when there was little appetite for militancy, but that has changed. When he was taoiseach exactly five years ago, Leo Varadkar declared the housing problem “a national emergency”. It is becoming a permanent emergency, born of various inheritances and attitudes that are likely, given the scale of the problem, to produce a 21st century plan of campaign that will sink the Government.