Land Ownership

The Heart of the Matter: Land Ownership

Through the centuries the greatest source of strife in Ireland was land; around Ballinacree it was no different. Ownership of land was important as it was almost the only source of income and indeed food for its owners and occupants. Ancient Irish clans often fought each other for lands. Norman conquerors dispossessed many of them.

Following the rebellion of 1641 and the defeat of 1649 Sir William Petty carried out a survey of the lands in Meath to facilitate the payment of Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers and ‘Adventurers.’ This survey of the 1650’s recorded only 180,000 acres of arable and pasture in the county. By the early 1800’s the estimate of arable land in Meath was 300,000 acres with approximately 27,900 acres of waste and bog lands. This meant that 120,000 acres were reclaimed over a period of 150 years. While this increase in arable land meant that the county could support a growing population; it also meant more taxes were to be paid. County cess or tax in 1802 was 3s 4d per acre and amounted to ₤30,220 and was based on the acreage of Petty’s survey. The new estimate of 300,000 acres would have meant ₤19,380 additional tax. According to Petty, the amount of arable and pasture land in Ballinacree was about 1200 Irish acres with a further 400 acres waste land (2600 statute acres). Moat was not included in the survey, possibly because it was in the hands of the established church. John O’Donovan in the ordnance survey of 1835 states there were over 6000 acres. Following the survey all the Plunkett and Nugent estates and smaller estates in the Ballinacree area were given to soldiers and backers of the Cromwellian army – Naper, Baines and Campbell. Land owners who lost lands were: Patrick Plunkett Baron of Dunsany, who owned Crossdrum; and Castlecor, John Plunkett (father of St Oliver Plunkett), Ballinrink and Tubrid; Christopher Plunkett, Ballymacad and Rassillagh; Christopher Nugent, Ballinacree; Thomas Nugent, Ross; Theobald Tuite, Baltrasna and Rathmae; and Thomas Fleming, Ballinagranchy, Halfcarton and Derrysheridan. Even Moat which in 1622 was the property of Alexander Plunkett, a Protestant clergyman, was also given to Naper who let or leased some of his lands to Rotheram, who was his secretary, and Battersby his accountant, on leases of lives. A lease of one life was 33 years; three lives was 99 years.

These landlords sublet the lands to others; sometimes these were people like George Booker whom Griffiths Valuation shows to have lands in many parts of the country apart from Ballinacree. They sublet it again to small tenant farmers in plots of five to 20 acres. With every subdivision of the lands the price per acre increased. This left it very difficult for farmers and farm labourers to make sufficient money to feed their families and pay taxes and rent.

In the 1820’s and 1830’s the larger farmers turned from tillage farming which was labour intensive to graziers where few labourers were needed. A poem called Unlaboured Fields by Joseph Campbell from an old school reader book laments the changing landscape.

The silence of unlaboured fields
Lies like a judgment in the air:
A human voice is never heard:
The sighing grass is everywhere
The sighing grass, the shadowed sky,
The cattle crying wearily.

Where are the lowland people gone
Where are the sun-dark faces now?
The love that kept the quiet hearth,
The strength that held the speeding plough?
Grasslands and lowing herds are good
But better human flesh and blood!

The landlord or leaseholder now needed all his land for cattle rearing and so rents were often increased to un-payable levels in order to justify eviction of small tenants. All of this, coupled with the payment of Tithes to the Protestant clergy by a largely Catholic population led to great resentment among the small holders and led to the Tithe War 1831-1836; it eventually led to agrarian violence and the land war. A local example is that in 1823 there were 15 tenants renting from Hones in Ballymacad, holding from five to 55 acres each. However by 1854 there were only two tenants with more than one acre. Nathaniel Hone himself farmed 500 acres. (Griffith’s Valuation). During the period 1823 – 1854 we know of several evictions. All the tenants were evicted from a settlement of several houses on Ballymacad lane.

More and more people were in need of assistance. Workhouses were set up by the landlords and funded by the landlords and by the tenants who remained. These were packed to capacity during the famine. Griffiths Valuation or Poor Law Valuation established the amount of property a tenant had leased and from this the rateable valuation was worked out.

The approximate rate was 10s per acre for the smaller leaseholders and 15s per acre for larger farmers. When the Land League was founded in Mayo in 1879 it grew quickly and large crowds of supporters came to its rallies. One of its major supporters was the Catholic Bishop of Meath Dr Thomas Nulty, a native of Fennor, Oldcastle. As a young priest, in September 1847 he witnessed an eviction from the property of Messrs. O’Connor and Malone, at Tonagh – just across the bridge at Ross.

Cogan’s History of the Diocese of Meath quotes Nulty: In the very first year of our ministry, as a missionary priest in this diocese we were an eyewitness of a cruel and inhuman eviction, which even still makes our heart bleed as often as we allow ourselves to think of it.

This event along with the fact that he was the son of tenant farmers led to his support of the Land League. His pamphlet ‘Back to the Land’ was sent to every parish in the diocese. It outlined the reasons why the present form of land ownership was unjust and he urged the people to stand up for their rights. Nulty was a strong supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell from the 1870’s and had requested church-gate collections to help his election campaigns. The court cases over adultery and divorce brought the good relationship to an end. We don’t have any direct evidence of a Land League Branch in Ballinacree. Local tradition has it that the present Ballinacree (Band) Banner bought in 1911 replaced a Land League Banner. We do know that there was a meeting of the Ladies Land League in Dungimmon attended by Fanny Parnell the charismatic sister of Charles Stewart Parnell. Agitation by the Land League succeeded in persuading Prime Minister Gladstone and others to enact several Land Acts from the 1880’s to 1908. It was difficult to get these acts through the House of Lords since many of its members were large landholders.

Despite the passing of several of these land acts that included the three F’s – fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tenure – few people in this area owned their land until the 1920s and 1930s when the large estates of Naper, Rotheram, Harmons and Hones were bought by the Land Commission and sold back by way of annuities to the tenants. When the land was passed on to the next generation or when it was sold the freehold was bought out.

Today the majority of the people of Ballinacree own their own pieces of land, but with the current economic situation and price manipulation the present sometimes looks a bit like the past.

Bishop Nulty Meath

Thomas Nutly (1818-1989), was born in Fennor, Oldcastle, son of a tenant farmers. He was educated at Gilson School, Oldcastle, St. Finian’s Navan ad Maynooth where he was ordained in 1846. He was ordained Bishop of Meath in 1866 and attended the first Vatican Council in 1870. He was an uncle of William Gillic and Bridget McCabe who were teachers in Ballinacree and Ross respectively from the late 1800’s until they retired.

Bishop Thomas Nulty to the people of the Diocese of Meath

You have always cherished feelings of the deepest gratitude and affection for every landlord, irrespective of his politics or his creed, who treated you with justice, consideration and kindness. I have always heartily commended you for these feelings.

For my own part, I can assure you, I entertain no unfriendly feelings for any landlord living, and in this Essay I write of them not as individuals, but as a class, and further, I freely admit that there are individual landlords who are highly honourable exceptions to the class to which they belong. But that I heartily dislike the existing system of Land Tenure, and the frightful extent to which it has been abused, by the vast majority of landlords, will be evident to anyone who reads this Essay through.

An extract from his essay Back to the Land 1881