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Encumbered Estates Act.

 

The great famine of 1845-47 left Ireland in a wretched state, thousands of the population had died and many more emigrated. The economy was at an all time low, many estates fell into debt and were unable to meet their financial obligations. It was in this climate that the Encumbered Estates Act of 1848 was introduced, which allowed the sale of mortgaged properties.

It was hoped that the act would attract English investors and that this new capital would improve and modernize Irish agriculture. The act of 1849 established the Encumbered Estates Court, which had the authority to sell estates on the application of the owner or encumbrance (person or persons who had a claim on the estate) After the sale the proceeds were distributed among the creditors, and the new owner was granted deeds or title to the estate. Existing tenants on the estates were given no protection under the acts.

Between 1849 1857 there were approximately three thousand estates with a total area of 5,000,000 acres disposed of under the act. The functions of the court were taken over by the Landed Estates Court in 1853.

When the 3rd Marquis of Donegal succeeded to the title in 1844, his estate which totaled 30,000 acres had debts of nearly £400,000 which amounted to fourteen times the annual rent. This is one of the most noteworthy of the estates disposed of under the act.

The act did nothing to improve the condition of the Irish peasant, rather the opposite. The new landlords soon realized that their land would return a better profit if it were turned over to greasing. Tenants were evicted in large numbers and their homes demolished, these homeless people the vast majority of whom had little in the way of material possessions save for a few pieces of furniture and perhaps a couple of animals and a few hens. Some, if they could scrape up the fare emigrated, while others were forced to move to less fertile areas where their lifestyle diminished even further.

The policy of evictions was not restricted to landlords who acquired their properties under the act, old landlords soon adopted the policy also. Large tracts of fertile land that once supported thousands of people was now exclusively grasing land. Many of the landlords were absent, perhaps visiting the estate once a year, they employed an agent to administer the estate, the agent often was a person with a military background, was well paid and comfortably accommodated. It was he who was responsible for collecting the rents and arranging the evictions.

In this climate it is easily understood why the crime rate rose at an alarming rate, with acts of terrorism and assassinations becoming commonplace.

In an attempt to alleviate the plight of the poor Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell a Protestant land owner from Wicklow formed the Land League in 1887.

The Congested Districts Board set up in 1891 went some way to improving the conditions of the Irish working class. This was followed in 1899 by the establishment of the Department of Agriculture, headed by Sir Horace Plunkett, the department set in place training schemes a college was set up and instructors were dispatched around the country advising farmers on modern agricultural practices.