Here be slightly fewer dragons

Most of the terrain of Irish genealogy is well mapped by now, with its familiar outlines of censuses, vital records, valuations and parish records, as well as the great smoking hole that is the 1922 destruction of the Public Record Office. But one area of the map remains stubbornly blank.

The Irish Land Commission was founded in 1881, initially to establish fair rents and then to break up estates and subsidise tenant purchase. In the thirty-five years before 1920, it oversaw the transfer of more than 13,500,000 acres. In the Free State it was reconstituted in 1923 and went on to acquire and distribute an additional 800,000 acres before it ceased acquiring land in 1983. It was finally dissolved in 1999. In Northern Ireland the Commission ceased new operations in 1925 and was abolished as part of the local government reforms of 1935.

In the course of establishing title to the estates it was acquiring, the Commission collected an extraordinary cornucopia of material – wills, marriage settlements, title deeds, rentals, maps, pedigrees and more, often detailing families and their holdings back to the seventeenth century.

In Northern Ireland its records are all sensibly conserved and archived in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland – try searching the eCatalogue for the exact phrase “Land Commission” to get a sense of the sheer scale of what’s there.

And in the South?  Nothing. The entire collection, now the property of the Dept of Agriculture, sits in a warehouse in Portlaoise under lock and key, uncatalogued, unconserved and harder to get at than the third secret of Fatima. The only publicly available records come in a list of the judicial decisions on fair rents, useful, but very limited.

During 35 years research, I’ve only met two people who have actually got access to the title records and one of them (full disclosure: a neighbour of mine) has just published a book using what he found.

Martin O’Halloran’s The Lost Gaeltacht: the Land Commission Migration – Clonbur, County Galway to Allenstown, Count Meath (Homefarm Publishing, Dublin 2020) is a painstaking and loving account of the Commission’s transfer of 24 families from an Irish-speaking community in Clonbur on the Galway/Mayo border to Allenstown in Meath in 1940. It was one of many social engineering projects undertaken by the De Valera government in the 1930s and 1940s, in this case attempting to seed the Irish language outside its existing home areas: Allenstown was officially designated Gaeltacht colony No. 5.

Martin only got access because he had a direct legal link to the properties in the Commission records and even then he had a hard time. But he has managed to bring back an extraordinary haul: Maps, correspondence, disputes with Allenstown natives, with the Meath hunt, between the Commission and the Dept of Education. These are all woven carefully into a reconstruction of the community, its way of life and the great webs of extended kin-groups, in both Galway and Meath. This is the community Martin grew up in, and the whole story is tinged with poignancy. The Gaeltacht and its deep local culture were lost because of official neglect after the initial transplantation.

The book is essential reading not only for those with a connection to the locales covered, but for anyone with an interest in local history, the Land Commission, extended family history or indeed the possibilities of self-publication. Martin has produced a book the equal in quality of any of the multi-award-winning Cork University Press Atlases.

It’s available in-store in Hodges Figgis in Dublin, and online from Mayo Books.


19 thoughts on “Here be slightly fewer dragons”

  1. Looking forward to reading this book…and hopefully living long-enough to access the records themselves!

  2. Very interesting. I must put that book on my wishlist. A friend of mine, another genealogist, also got access but only because she was able to provide documented proof of relationship to the families and records that she wanted to see. Even then they stood over her for the few hours that she was there but she did get the information that she was looking for.

  3. What a fantastic resource. I have tried several times to get access with my thesis work, but no luck. Well done on a very good job to Martin.

  4. I despair of this country with preserving records. School records should be preserved along with the original baptism records and also troves of records like this. Should they not be in the National Archives? I know some family of mine had some dealings with them in Galway but how is the ordinary person ever going to get access to these records?

  5. What is the government waiting for in releasing these records? Privacy concerns? something else? Couldn’t they release the records pre 1920 for research and not violate anybody’s privacy! The US census of 1950 releases to our public in about 18 months.

  6. I can understand the withholding of more recent records, given our fraught relationship with “The Land”. But it’s surely time to allow access to the older ones. A real pity.

  7. Thanks John I didn’t know these existed – wonder if the government will ever release older records – pre 1920

    1. Hi all, I am trying to research my family ties to Irland .I am at the point of discovering a young lady named Briget Hynes, and Hanora Hynes.they left Ireland in the late 1800s to come to England.she then wed my Great Gt Grandfather. I’ve researched the name Hynes and apparently it’s a very common name. Would your group have any idea how I.can further research this matter .? I am now retired and have no living relatives, and this subject was never spoken of in our homes,therefore I am completely in the dark. Regards jonny Potts.

  8. You say @… in the South? Nothing. The entire collection, now the property of the Dept of Agriculture, sits in a warehouse in Portlaoise under lock and key, uncatalogued, unconserved, and harder to get at than the third secret of Fatima@. So it unimportant enough not to catalogue or protect but so important the public cannot be allowed to see them. Isn’t that disappointing?

  9. I wonder if areas around Curraghadooey in County Mayo is covered. I have hit such a wall finding information about my grandmother Nora Hughes’ family. She left Ireland at age 16, ending up in South Dakota in America. I have a letter her brother wrote in 1920’s – he was so broken down from years of fighting but no one knows what happened to him.

  10. Would the Heritage Officer have any influence and be interested in helping get these records catalogued?

    1. I was thinking the same thing Janet. Could someone get a petition going to government to have something done with these records?

  11. These records of tithe land records of person who worked as Tenant Farmers and brought up their families on this very same land , would help in a very big way to clear up what happened to them in reference to the actions of authorised evictions from the land of these tenant farmers by Goverment officials . There was I understand from information show by others that Tenant Farmers were evicted from land they worked by goverment agents who then passed on this same land to working soldiers of The Irish Goverment.
    This book could be helpful in finding land records et’c.

  12. Thanks for this…I had no idea that these records existed either, and have been researching my family for the past 35 years at least! I think a petition to get them both released and preserved is a very good idea. Perhaps they should set the Mormons onto it…they a particularly good at such documentation! We, on the other hand…’nuff said.

  13. I’ve been trying to locate the Will of my great grandfather since 2015 and since then made three trips to Ireland to no avail. At NAI, Gregory O’Connor at NAI and Hellen Kelly of AGI were very interested in what I had to show and I learned of The Irish Land Commission and that it appears to have over 10,000 wills stored. What I have found records of:
    On 17 Feb 1887, my great grandfather, Edward Madden died at Corriga/Kyleannagh, Bournea Parish, Co Tipperary. Present at his death and registered it was his 15 year old grandson, another Edward Madden (my granduncle).
    A month later on 16 Apr, teenage Edward was assaulted at by Anne Madden, who “struck him a blow with a sleán on the head and cut him severely.”
    On 19 Mar 1888 a Faction Fight occurred at Corriga/Kyleannagh over Edward Madden’s will. It was first reported in the 28 Mar Nenagh Guardian. The 31 Mar edition has a follow-up story titled “The Late Faction Fight Near Roscrea” that describes his will, so the reporter must have seen it:
    “Under the terms of the will provisions were made for the children and wife of the deceased, the executor being directed to sell the place and divide the proceeds if the entire family were not living on friendly terms.” (Gee there’s a clue, hold that sleán!)
    His children had died or left Ireland for Michigan by this time, and his grandchildren were living with him. When was the will written?
    On 20 May 1889 The Principal Registry issued a Letter of Administration on Effects of Edward Madden granting £120 to Anne Madden, the Widow.
    The deceased Edward married Ellen Doherty Jan 1837 so apparently this Anne must be the second wife. No marriage of Edward to Anne has been found. Teenage Edward was the oldest living Madden and by at least 1895 left Ireland for St. Louis MO.
    That will would certainly provide a lot of information and really want to get a copy. I only what the story/history. The “the entire family not living on friendly terms” continues to echo in my family!

  14. Some years ago I went in search of some detail re the purchase by the Land Commission of land held in Connemra by my ancestor Michael Higgins – which he had acquired from the Provost Estate of Trinity College Dublin .
    Briefly I went to an Office in Dublin to obtain some info on the sale and some kind soul got me copies there and then of most of the large a5 hand written pages .

    Some years later I wrote to the Land Commission requesting copies of the missing pages – the reply more or less stated that these docs were state secrets and were not accessible – from an office in Port Laois ! And there it lies .

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