Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Irish Landlord

John Martin loved his new life, loved being an Irish landlord. He liked rising early in the morning to make the most of the short days in the winter, and the long days of summer. But by the time he left the house, there was usually a cluster of people at the door waiting for him, farm laborers waiting to be given the day's work, or a tenant's wife begging him to visit her sick child. Groups of children would hang on gates waiting for him to pass by, as he always had candy treats in his pocket to make them feel special.

The Fields of Loughorne

At the age of 23, he had become one of the most important people in the area. Soon, he would be able to share his happy life with his friend John Mitchel after Mitchel married a lovely young woman, Jane Verner, and settled down in nearby Banbridge to raise their growing family and to practice law. The two men would take long walks, and sit on the lawn at Loughorne Cottage to debate some issue of interest while Jenny Mitchel watched over Mitchel's children.

It was very strange that John would embrace an occupation so widely hated throughout much of Ireland. But there was a reason, deeply rooted in Irish history why this was so. There were two distinct and widely different relationships between landlords and tenants depending mainly on location and religion. Eastern Ulster where John lived had been settled in the 1600s when landlords and farm laborers arrived to occupy the land from which Catholics had been pushed west and south. Though of different classes, these men shared a "community of interests and a community of feeling." This relationship had evolved over the centuries into the Ulster Custom. This meant that rents couldn't be raised arbitrarily, and that tenants couldn't be ejected unless they failed to pay their rent. But the Ulster Custom also insured that tenants would receive at least some portion of the value of improvements they had made to their holdings if they were evicted or chose to leave. John's outlook on his job was like most of the landlords in his part of Ulster.

No such tradition existed in most of Ireland. Over the centuries of English control, most of the land in the rest of Ireland had been confiscated from Catholic owners, and acquired by prominent English land holders. The new English masters treated the Catholic tenants as slaves without value. They were determined to keep them in a permanent state of degradation of mind and body, at the same time squeezing from them their last few pennies with excessive rents. No mercy existed in the hearts of southern landlords, no justice for the miserable tenants in the halls of Parliament in London. Most of these landlords never stepped onto Irish soil, but hired agents to administer their estates. The agents risked their lives while the landlords remained well out of harm's way in England.

The Ulster Custom was well known in the southern and western parts of Ireland and much desired and often fought for. However, when John became a landlord, the situation that had prevailed in Ireland for centuries still existed. He could see the result of these problems whenever he traveled, the wretched hovels that served as shelter, the rags that served as clothes. And when landlords ejected tenants from these miserable holdings, families had no choice but to head to cities to beg, or to lurk behind hedges to rob passers-by. One writer described the beggars in Newry "Like Pitchy clouds of Locusts warping on the Eastern Wind."

From the moment he became a landlord himself, John considered himself obligated to set a good example for other landlords by assuming his proper responsibilities, the easy along with the onerous, and thereby creating a "community of interests and a community of feelings."

In 1835, the testing of John Martin, and the strength of his beliefs lay a decade away.

Sources: Sharman Crawford, (also here) speech in Parliament, Hansard 10 March, 1836; Newry Democrat, Feb. 7, 1818.

No comments:

Post a Comment