AT the end of December 1879 Lord O’Neill picked up his pen to write to newspapers across Ireland from Shane’s Castle in Antrim to add his voice to the debate on the pros and cons of landlordism in Ireland.
Lord O’Neill wrote: “Although I am myself a landlord, and although I do no think the abolition of landlordism would benefit Ireland, I should see no very strong objection to that question being discussed if only it were considered calmly and fairly and without the instigations to deeds of violence which have disgraced too many of the recent meetings on the subject. If, as proposed by most of the speakers at these meetings, the landlords were bought out at a fair value they would sustain no pecuniary loss, and would be saved much trouble and annoyance.
“It is not on their account that I now ask for a hearing, but on behalf of the very persons in whose interest the land agitation is professedly carried on – the tenant-farmers of Ireland. I much doubt whether many of the more intelligent of this class are favourable to the present movement. But if they are, it seems to be high time to warn them to look to their interests, seeing that the mottoes displayed at most of the meetings, however apparently favourable to them, are in reality calculated to injure them, and to deprive them of a large portion of their holdings.
“A favourable motto on such occasions is ‘The land for the people’. Now, who are “the people”? Not, of course, the tenant-farmers only, but the whole population of Ireland, including the labouring and other classes.”
The Co Antrim peer continued his letter: “It is well known that the tenant-farmers in Ireland number about 600,000. This is confirmed by Mr O’Connor Power, in his article on the Irish land agitation in the last number of the Ninteenth Century, and he observes that this amounts to ‘more than half a million, representing, with their families, about three million persons’.
“It is on behalf of these three million persons that this author writes, and it is supposed to be in favour of these that the agitation is kept up. But the population of the country amounts to five millions. Are the other two millions to have no part in that land which is for the whole people? Will these be satisfied with class legislation? Will they quietly submit to the tenant-farmers getting everything while they themselves get nothing?
“If they are expected to do so the less that is said about ‘the land for the people’ the better. Mr Parnell and his co-agitators insist only upon the present occupiers becoming independent owners of the land.
“This, no doubt, is because they generally have votes, and the object of the agitators is to get them to return as many obstructionists as possible to Parliament at the next election.
“But if the land belongs of right to the people, the whole five millions ought to have it, and not only the three millions belonging to the tenant-farmers’ families.
“And the other two millions will not be slow to assert their right to possess it, for the Irish are by no means bad logicians when the inference to be drawn is in their own favour.”
Lord O’Neill added: “There is also another principle very often put forward, namely, that those who cultivate the land ought to be owners of it. This, again, if carried out, would considerably infringe on the interests of the tenant-farmers – those of them at least who employ labourers.
“For it would at once follow that the labourers ought to be the owners of the ground which they till. It would, no doubt, be said in reply that the farmer pays the labourer, and that he who does a thing through the instrumentality of another may be looked upon as doing it himself. But this answer will not meet the case.
“The labourer, in this respect, stands in the same relation to the farmer who employs him as the farmer does to the landlord. Each is paid for cultivating another’s land – the labourer in the shape of daily wages, the farmer in the shape of the profit which accrues to him over and above his rent. If, then, the farmer has a right to be owner of the soil because he cultivates it, whether with his own hands or with the help of hired labour (for this makes no difference in the argument), the labourer, by the same reasoning, has a right to own the ground which he tills.
“Unless the farmers intend this the more they keep the principle in question out of sight the better for themselves. It can scarcely be necessary to point out that if the land now enjoyed by three millions were divided among five millions each tenant-farmer’s family would, on average, be deprived of two-fifths of his land – very nearly one-half.
“It is true, on the other hand, that if the principles in question were rigidly carried out, the farmers would have their diminished holdings rent-free. But it could not be rigidly carried out, nor is it proposed that rents should at once cease.
“Such a cruelty and injustice, not only to landlords, but to all who have money invested for their living, is, happily, not contemplated. What is proposed is, that the state should buy out the landlords by charging the present tenants an annual sum equal to or greater than the rent for 30 or more years.
“It is for the farmers themselves to judge whether they would be at all the better for this, in addition to having their farms diminished nearly one-half, and never again having any kind of landlord to look to for the many little services which a landlord has it now in his power to render to them.”