The Landlord Estates

Land Tennancy

Many of our Irish ancestors were tenant farmers who leased or rented their land directly from a landowner or indirectly from a "middleman." Only a small percentage of people in Ireland owned their land outright (this was called holding your land "in fee."). There could be several layers of subleasing between the actual landowner and your ancestor. Changes over time in the nature of tenantsí arrangements with their landlords were vitally important features of the lives of Irish tenant farmers. Land holding arrangements affected economic well being, the nature of their farming, inheritance and emigration patterns. One common type of lease with great potential for genealogical information was the "lease for lives." A "lease for lives" is in effect as long as the person(s) named in the lease are still living. As soon as all of the "lives" named in the lease have died, the lease ceases to be in effect. A lease could alternatively be granted for a set number of years, or a tenant could rent from year to year without holding a lease of any kind. A tenant could occupy land completely at the landlordís discretion. This was called holding land "at will."

The Penal Laws

Here is some background information on how the laws of the eighteenth century affected landholding by Roman Catholics in Ireland:

1695 Anti-Catholic legislation began in Ireland.
1704 The Irish Parliament, exclusively Protestant, enacted a Bill "To Prevent the Further Growth of Popery" (2 Anne c. 6) which placed many restrictions on Catholics. It excluded them from Parliament, from the local government corporations, from the learned professions, from civil and military offices, and from being executors, or administrators, or guardians of property. It prevented Catholics from buying land, from leasing land for more than thirty-one (31) years and from owning a horse worth £5 or more.

The act required the estate of a Catholic to be "gavelled" at his death, meaning divided among all his sons rather than inherited by one son (unless one son was a Protestant). The act allowed a son in a Catholic family to convert to Protestantism (the Established Church, called the Church of Ireland) and thereby take over the whole family property.

Catholics were deprived of weapons and voting rights. There were also restrictions on Catholics seeking education at home and abroad. They were forbidden to observe Catholic Holy Days, to make pilgrimages, or to continue to use the old monasteries as the burial places of their dead.

Some of the Penal Laws such as those governing property holding were carefully followed by some people in some time periods and places in Ireland. However, many of the laws were largely ignored or circumvented.
1709 Another anti-popery Bill was enacted ( 8 Anne c. 3) which tightened the restrictions on property and other penalties against Catholics. Protestant "discoverers" were also allowed to obtain possession of Catholics’ land if the law had been evaded.
1772 An Act of emancipation (11 & 12 Geo. III c. 21) allowed Catholics to reclaim and hold under lease for 61 years fifty acres of bog but it should not be within a mile of any city or market town.
1774 An Act (13 & 14 George III c. 35) was passed to permit the King's subjects of whatever religion to take an oath to testify their loyalty and allegiance to him to promote peace and industry in the kingdom. Catholics in Ireland were divided on whether to take the oath or not. Many Catholics who took the oath wished to show that their religion did not make them disloyal or a threat to the monarchy. No other direct benefits were given to Catholics who took the oath at this time.
1778 An Act (17 & 18 Geo. III c. 49) was passed repealing the provision in the 1704 Act (2 Anne c. 6) whereby a son could convert to the Church of Ireland and take over the family property. The 1778 Act relieved those Catholics who took the oath prescribed under the 1774 Act from certain restrictions contained in the 1704 and 1709 Acts. Catholics who took the oath were no longer limited to 31-year leases; they could hold leases for up to 999 years or five lives.* A Catholic also no longer had to divide his estate among all his sons at his death.
1782 The Relief Act of 1782 (21 & 22 Geo. III c. 24) allowed Catholics who took the 1774 oath to purchase lands in fee, that is, outright ownership. Catholics were no longer prohibited from owning a horse worth £5, and local Catholic schools might be opened with the consent of the Church of Ireland bishop of the relevant diocese.
1793 A Relief Act (33 Geo. III c. 21) was passed giving Catholics the parliamentary and municipal franchise (vote) on the same basis as Protestants and admitting them to the university and to government offices. They were still excluded from sitting in Parliament and from the higher offices, but in other respects they were placed on a level with Protestants.
1829 The Catholic Relief Bill was passed (commonly known as the point of "Catholic Emancipation" in Ireland). Catholics were admitted to Parliament and local government corporations; but they were still excluded from some of the higher offices. Further, the franchise was raised to ten pounds, so the forty-shilling freeholders were disfranchised (no longer allowed to vote).

Estate records are the private papers of the landlords of Ireland, those who held tracts of land and leased or rented property to the occupiers of that land. Only a very few people in Ireland actually owned land outright. Everyone else, the vast majority of inhabitants prior to the twentieth century, leased or rented rather than owned their house and land. Estate papers are relevant to the common tenant because the landlords often kept detailed records, such as rent rolls and leases, of the people living on their estates. In fact, before church records begin, estate papers may be among the only sources available for tracing the common classes. The landlord-tenant relationship is one of the most fascinating subjects in Irish history and is the stuff that many good books and movies are made of.

Estate papers may indicate relationships and death dates of tenants. For example, it was common for land to be occupied under a "lease of lives" in which the tenant held the lease as long as three people named in the lease were living. The people named were often relatives, particularly children, of the lessee. The ages and relationships of the "lives" at the time the lease was written may be stated in the estate papers as well as their dates of death.


A freeholder was a man who held his property either "in fee," which means outright ownership, or by a lease for one or more lives (such as the term of his life or the term of three lives named in the lease). A tenant who held land for a definite period such as 31 years or 100 years did not qualify as a freeholder. A person with a freehold of sufficient value, depending on the law at the time, could register to vote. Books recording freeholders who had registered to vote are known as freeholders registers, and these registers were generally compiled by the county and sometimes the barony. A freeholders register may list some or all of the following information about the freeholders:

(1) the name of the freeholder;    (5) the lives named in the lease or other tenure;
(2) the abode of the freeholder;    (6) and the date and place the freeholder registered;
(3) the location of the freehold;    (7) the name of landlord;   
(4) the value of the freehold;    (8) the occupation of tenant

A freeholders register is an ideal substitute for a census. It can help pinpoint where your ancestor was living within a county, particularly helpful if the relevant church records have been destroyed. The lives named in leases were often related to the leaseholder, so family relationships may be suggested by the freeholders list. With the name of a landlord, you can turn to estate papers.

Unfortunately, many original manuscript freeholders registers for the Irish counties were destroyed in the Public Record Office fire of 1922. Some freeholders registers were published prior to the fire, such as in newspapers. Copies of the destroyed records did exist in some cases. In other cases, freeholders registers had been kept by private individuals, such as landowners. The NAI, the NLI, and the PRONI each have significant collections of freeholders records.

The Incumbered Estates Act of 1849 created a court to sell debt-ridden estates. Over 3,000 estates were processed by the court between 1849 and 1857. The court continued to sell estates through the 1880s. Printed sales brochures for estates sold by the court are available at the NAI, NLI, PRONI, and FHL. They usually include a map of the estate and a listing by townland or street of the tenants, their yearly rents, and the types of agreement by which they occupied their land. If the land was held by a lease, the brochure lists the number of years or names of lives involved, sometimes going back into the 1700s.

The area around Lurgan has been in the same family for generations and has retained many of its Estate Records. The Patent of Brownlow's Derry granted to William Brownlow by Charles I in July 1629, acknowledges the town of BallyLurgan. The Patent also declared that Brownlow may lawfully grant the townlands of Kinago, Clanrolla, Clankillvoragh, Drumnakerne, Derrytagh, Ballinary, Derryadd, Deryinver, Derrytrasna, Ardmore, Derrytagh, Ballinamoney and the moiety of Monbrief unto any person including the Irish.

Our thanks to Kyle J. Betit for the use of this article. Kyle J. Betit is a professional genealogist, lecturer and author residing in Salt Lake City. He is the co-author of, A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Irish Ancestors.

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