Farm Ireland

Friday 19 January 2018

Shadow of the Land Commission still falls on farm sector

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

In 1881, the Irish Land Commission was created, and for a century it was the controversial body responsible for redistributing farmland in Ireland.

In those early days of land reform, a 22ac farm was considered adequate to sustain a family. And, given the living standards of the time, 22ac did just that -- provided, of course, that the new owners worked extremely hard and grew most of their own food and sold whatever calves they could rear to larger farmers for further fattening.

There are many examples of old Land Commission holdings that were given to families who were moved to better land from the so-called 'congested districts' in Connacht.

Many of these holdings were extended and improved and are still farmed by the descendants of the original migrants. They are proof of that amazing concept that land can be taken from one farmer and presented to another without adequate compensation and bloodshed.


Land bonds, which proved virtually worthless, were given to the original owners in lieu of money, and many farmers still bitterly complain about the draconian practices of the commission and how it frequently 'stole' land from its rightful owners.

This is, of course, ironic, given that most of the prosperous farming families from counties Dublin, Meath and Kildare in the 1920s were wealthy graziers who acquired large landholdings following the Land Acts of 1881. They provided secure tenancies from absentee British landowners, many who had fled, and subsequently, the chance to buy freeholds from the Irish Government.

Leaving aside the emotive arguments from both sides and the undoubted political motivation and skulduggery that got farms for some and not for others, the distribution of land was, in general, a socially just move.

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The many farmers who benefited from it and whose descendants are prospering to this day are proof of its success.

Interestingly, back in the 1920s and '30s, efforts were made to increase the size of Land Commission holdings.

At the time, however, it was claimed that significant drystock farmers had influenced Government policy to ensure there were plenty of small farmers who could provide a steady supply of store cattle, but would never have enough land to fatten cattle themselves.

Imagine any one group or individual being able to manipulate Government policy for financial gain. It could never happen in Ireland.

The argument still rages as to what constitutes a viable land holding. This is impossible to answer and to further complicate the issue, many families still choose to downsize by abandoning well paid city jobs and relocating to the countryside on small farms.

Their reasons are generally to provide a better quality of life for themselves and their children. Some run organic farms, growing most of their own food and supplementing their incomes by using skills acquired in former lives.

Are they real farmers? Perhaps not, but then why should they not be allowed to live in this manner? In the meantime, however, many young people who would like to make farming their full-time career are unable to acquire sufficient land to make their enterprises viable.


The financial return relative to what is invested in a farm is ridiculous. Land prices are still probably about three times what they realistically should be, due largely to worries about the stability of our currency and our inherited hunger for land, which has its roots in past evictions and famine.

The 'Bull' McCabe-type farmer is also alive and well and can be found in every parish. I believe our entire system of grants and aids is nonsense and we would be far better off returning to the situation I grew up with, where no such aids applied.

This is how farmers in New Zealand now successfully operate, and, unless one inherits a sizeable amount of land to begin with, the chance of farming on your own in Ireland is little more than a pipe dream.

The British system, whereby pension funds and other wealthy individuals own the land and provide long-term leases to young farmers, appears ideal and should be encouraged despite our inherited dislike of any landlord system.

Tenant farmers in Britain enjoy security of tenure for three generations and can get on with the business of farming without being shackled with huge loans. A total of 100ac arable land with a house and farm buildings still costs in the region of €1m in Ireland. No wonder we buy lotto tickets.

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