Property and Propriety

Historically, land (i.e. property) disputes were a major issue in Ireland. Despite beginning as a historian of the nineteenth century, I’ve never felt that I came to very good grips with the subject. Few have. Historians in Maynooth university have led the way in tackling the question. I was interested to see a recent newspaper article in which a staff member called for the files of the Land Commission to be opened to the public. As they would constitute a century of records (c.1880s-1980s), it is not surprising that they have been considered important sources for social history. However, their importance to political history is an issue too.

The major land purchase agreements (c.1881-c.1910) predated Ireland’s independence struggle, and it is often overlooked that that struggle attempted to overturn those agreements, albeit unsuccessfully. Indeed, if one wanted to pursue the theoretical question “did the Irish Revolution fail?”, one could certainly consider how the revolutionaries formed a new National Land Bank that was forced to disband after only a few years. The two economic advisors to the Irish treaty plenipotentiaries were connected with that bank and they evidently retained the expectation that it could play a central role. It had raised capital but only a slight amount compared to pre-existing investments and, indeed, the pre-existing purchase agreements of the Land Commission (the solicitor of which was actually the father of Rory O’Connor) were centrally tied into the financial (i.e. banking) relationship between Britain and Ireland since at least the First World War. As such, the history of the Land Commission can provide a window into how and why that relationship was so slow to change, irrespective of the wishes of Irish nationalist politicians. People’s vested interest in not upending apple carts and later land acts probably also played a part.

Financial histories are often the bridge between social histories and political histories. If financial histories are not considered, the links between social and political histories, as well as the whys and wherefores of each, can quite simply be lost. Property issues are a large part of that. The time frame of the Land Commission’s existence and disbandment virtually coincided with two distinct epochs in the history of the Irish state that reflected the survival and, in turn, the displacement of a social order. Unlocking that history could make the political, social and economic history of twentieth-century Ireland both seamless and clear, providing a perspective on modern Ireland that is grounded in the history of policy rather than vague suppositions about culture.

Perhaps scholars have already achieved that to a degree, but any shortcomings in their work are likely to be rooted in the unavailability of sources. The absence of the Land Commission’s records is certainly a part of that, and one may wonder why the state evidently retains a belief in the impropriety of releasing them. If doing so would open a can of worms, those worms are surely long dead by now. Yet property and propriety have always been closely associated with each other. One can only presume that they remain so still. I guess privacy can be sacrosanct, legally as much as personally. One might also consider how the history of banking, or how banks invest their funds, in almost every country remains largely private, for perhaps obvious reasons.