This briefing examines the history of the Irish land question and its re-emergence in recent years, as a background to an international conference: Land, The Claim of the Community to be held at the Tara Towers Hotel, Booterstown, Dublin on 9th and 10th October 2003.
The first land reform
?The history of Ireland must be based on a study of the relationship between the land and the people?
Thomas Nulty, Bishop of Meath, ?Back to the Land? 1938 p.33
The Land question has always been central to Irish history. Now, following a relatively quiet period, is at the centre again. Starting in the 1870s a massive land redistribution was carried under the Land Acts, the Congested Districts Board and the Land Commission, dividing the nation?s land more or less evenly amongst Ireland?s many farmers. As a result, 15% of Irish citizens now own farmland, a very high percentage compared to Britain.
But this redistribution of land rights excluded whole classes of citizens, including the entire urban population as well as the landless labourers, who largely disappeared after the famine.
?Peasant proprietorship is simply landlordism in another form?
Michael Davitt, ?Leaves from a Prison Diary? 1885
For a long time this omission was not a serious issue, as farming and land ownership were not highly profitable. Farmland first acquired real value when Ireland joined the EEC, and the common agricultural policy began to guarantee payments linked to production. Farmers could also augment their income, or ?set up? their children, by the sale of house sites. More importantly, housing development land near the cities became a source of effortless fortunes, and the subject of intense political lobbying. Nonetheless, the lottery in land was allowed to continue delivering modest benefits to the bulk of farmers and huge prizes to a lucky few,