The policy of the Government of to-day in the Irish Free State in relation to landed property is in conformity with the general policy of past Governments in this country during the last half century, but this policy is now being carried out with greater energy and with the object of effecting a more rapid diffusion of property rights.
Ever since the commencement of the final quarter of the last century the ownership of agricultural land in the Irish Free State has been passing with increased acceleration from a few privileged persons to the actual occupiers of some 440,000 holdings. The end in view has been the undoing of conquest. Soldiers of fortune and leaders of armies were rewarded by grants of confiscated land, upon which the remnants of the native population and the colonists introduced to occupy the conquered territory, toiled for their livelihood and paid rack rentals for the opportunity of doing so.
Until the end of the 19th century Ireland was a country of large landowners and small occupiers. To-day it more nearly approaches a state of small peasant proprietors. Under Mr. De Valera’s Government the diffusion of landed property is proceeding at the rate of about 200,000 acres per annum.
A succession of Land Acts commencing with that of 1870 and culminating in that of 1933 has, through the machinery of the Land Commission, eliminated the “Landlord” of agricultural land and substituted the peasant proprietor who pays an annuity for a fixed number of years. This annuity comprises both principal and interest on the sum paid to the landlord for his ownership rights in the holding.
In Ireland land hunger has been perhaps more emphatic than in any other country in Europe. In the almost complete absence of industrial activity, the population, in seven-eights of the country, has been constrained to choose between the production and sale of livestock and crops, emigration or starvation. In the famine years of 1846 to 1850 starvation was the order of the day and since then the struggle of the people has concentrated upon the effort to acquire and hold land as the alternative to migration overseas.
The Land Acts, the greatest of which was that of 1903, sponsored by George Wyndham, then Chief Secretary for Ireland, gave to the tenants security of tenure and the opportunity to acquire ownership rights in their farms. The present Government has not only carried on this process for diffusion of ownership, but has introduced what really amounts to a new principle governing the right to the occupation of land and security of tenure therein. Hitherto every man was free to use or abuse his occupation rights, he was free to do what he liked with his own. The State assisted him to acquire fixity of tenure by providing him with the means of purchasing the fee simple of his land subject to a terminable annuity, but it did not dictate in any way as to the use he should make of it once it was acquired. A farm might embrace 1,000 acres of comprise only 20 or 30 acres, the latter being considered to constitute an “economic holding.” An economic holding is one capable under careful management of supporting a man, his wife, and family in frugal comfort. Quite a considerable area of land purchased under the Land Acts has, however, subsequently been leased by the new owners, either because they had not the capital to work it themselves or because they laced the initiative. This land is let for periods of less than one year and usually for cattle grazing only, because such a grazing lease deprives the new tenant of any claim to occupational rights. A few men and their dogs and a herd of some hundreds of cattle have often occupied several hundreds of acres of this leased grazing land. On the surrounding foothills there were frequently a number of small farmers tilling their holdings. The sons of these farmers in the absence of opportunity to acquire access to the bullock pastured areas, were compelled to emigrate to the United States of America, or when its ports were closed, to look for employment in England on public works in Ireland, or failing that, to seek support from the unemployment fund. Land let in this manner is not, in the opinion of the Fianna Fail Government of the Saorstat, being utilized to its utmost capacity or for the benefit of the community. The Land Act of 1933 gave to the Land Commission power at its discretion to resume possession of land let in this manner, and to subdivide and redistribute it amongst desirable applicants.
The new tenants are being put into occupation on probation; they are allotees of land and will not be able to claim possessive rights until the Land Commission is satisfied that they are capable farmers, and have proved their capacity to make productive use of th eland and furnish the regular payments that will amortise the purchase costs. In deciding as to the suitability of applicants as land allotees, the Land Commission is required by the Statute to satisfy itself as to the competence of the selected persons to work the land, and of their intention to do so and not to sell, let or assign it.
In adopting this policy the Government is endeavouring to put into practice its solution of the problem of how to combine the principle of private ownership of agricultural land with the greatest possible measure of public benefit. It would seem that a man’s right to continue in undisturbed ownership of land will, in certain circumstances, depend in future upon the use he makes of it.
Experiments in the migration of peasants from holdings on the Western Sea-board that are too small or infertile to provide their owners with a livelihood, to others situated in the rich central areas which are now principally used for cattle grazing, are in the course of trial. These “uneconomic holders” are being transferred to economic holdings contiguous to one another. The idea is to recreate the close association and the homely atmosphere of the West in new conditions that will provide a larger return for a similar expenditure of labour.
Whilst some countries are denying the right of private property in land and concentrating ownership in the State, the policy of the Irish Government is to diffuse landed property as far as is economically practicable, with the conviction that not only will the social order thus established and fortified, provide the greatest common measure of happiness and security, but that the total production per capita of such a community will in the long run exceed that of the collectively organised and mechanically operated farm.
As well as attempting to spread property rights in agricultural land and thereby substitute a system of mixed tillage farming for one of pasture farming, the Government of Saorstat is busily engaged in an effort to build up the industrial life of the country. The National economy is being given a directional trend and in this the Government is following the precedent set it by every other Government in Europe and in other parts of the world. The measure of success attainable will be judged by the general welfare of the community, the standard of living that will eventuate, the number of unemployed and the other criteria of rising prosperity.
It is possible that the policy of artificially fostering industrial activity will cause urban wages to rise and have unexpected reactions upon agricultural life. It may accelerate the flight from rural areas to those towns where more money can be earned with less exertion since man seeks always to satisfy his wants with the least expenditure of labour. A higher standard of living in the towns may cause increased dissatisfaction with the meager return to be won from a small holding. The preliminary Report of the 1936 Census of Population shows that the rural population in the Saorstat has fallen by 97,000 or 4.8 per cent, between the years 1926 and 1936, whereas the urban population has increased by 91,000 or 9.7 per cent.
The value of agricultural land has been falling more or less steadily ever since the middle of the last century, except for a brief period during the later years of the War and those immediately following it. If the agricultural population should continue to decline, the number of those seeking access to land will likewise diminish, particularly if manufacturing industries offer better opportunity to those prepared to work for their livelihood. In that event it is not unlikely that the cost of access to land must be still further reduced, and that higher prices for agricultural products will have to be assured as an inducement to the rural population to remain on the land, and to enable the Government to continue its policy of the diffusion of landed property.