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Keynes Fund


Summary of Project Plan

The question of land looms large in nineteenth-century Irish history; firstly, because of the struggle over tenure. Secondly, from the overwhelming presence of the famine in the history of the era. Although economic historians have considerably moderated either Malthusian or colonial explanations, the fact of a dense and impoverished rural population is perceived as a fundamental failure that led to the death of a million people 1845-1849, and enduringly accelerated emigration.

Contemporaries certainly thought that widespread poverty was a result of failures in the tenurial system and land market that encouraged sub-division and low investment. Equally, many thought that the terms of Irish tenure seemed unsatisfactorily vague, leading both to frequent dispute and the opacity of the actual rents paid by cultivators. This was anathema to those who wished rents to reflect a purely Ricardian ‘economic rent’, not mixing in what should be considered profits and wages.

The rationale for this proposal is that despite much considered study of land struggles, causes of the famine, poverty and emigration, there is still a lack of detailed empirical evidence on the occupancy of land or rent paid by the actual occupiers. Importantly, such evidence as exists has not been set against the desire to hold land because of alternative earning opportunities. This is particularly important because much of northern Ireland was undergoing rural deindustrialization in the two decades preceding the famine. Nevertheless, trends in rents have been treated as a test of ‘Malthusian’ interpretations of the famine focused on ratios of labour to agricultural land.

It has long been recognised that the study of ‘head-rents’ underestimates the real cost of land to occupants because of sub-letting and ‘conacre’ (lets of potato patches at will to farm labourers). The most vulnerable to the famine are also often understood to be ‘landless’. The hypothesis behind this project is that in the rural north, the great majority of the population in fact had access to land and should not be considered ‘landless’. This access substantially affected the dynamics of the rural economy and investment by shaping segmented markets for land, connected to proto-industry and seasonal labour, and in a way that increased vulnerability after 1820. Previous studies approached the land market and its failings through examining samples of head leases over time. We seek to empirically establish how the valuation of land was determined by environmental, spatial and market criteria, and make an assessment of the true level of occupancy.



Professor Paul Warde


Paul Warde is Professor of Environmental History at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. His research interests are in environmental, economic and social history. With focus on natural resource use and its role in shaping working lives, communities, societies and economic development.


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