Tenant Right League

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The Tenant Right League, established in 1850, was an organisation which aimed to secure reforms in the Irish land system. Formed by Charles Gavan Duffy and Frederick Lucas, it united for a time Protestant and Catholic tenants, Duffy calling his movement The League of North and South.[1]

The political background to the movement was the post-famine Encumbered Estates Act 1849, and the resultant change in land ownership at landlord level. In the north of Ireland, Protestant and Presbyterian ministers feared that the new landlords would destroy the "Ulster custom" of tenancy, which compensated tenants for any improvement undertaken. Concurrently, in the south of Ireland politically minded young Catholic priests were agitating for the adoption there of the Ulster custom as a measure of reform.

The League was founded in Dublin at a meeting attended by representatives of the Tenant Protection Societies, 9 August 1850. Its support came initially from the Ulster Tenant Right Association led by William Sharman Crawford. The support was short lived because of the involvement of Catholic clergymen from the south.[1] As a constitutional movement, the league sought to secure the adoption and enforcement of the Three Fs, namely:

  • fair rent;
  • fixity of tenure;
  • free sale. (These would all have aided Irish tenant farms, all of whom lacked them.)

For the larger tenant farmers fixity of tenure was the priority; on the other hand the league never had the support of smaller tenants, their prime concern was fair rents. The founders strove to establish a parliamentary party of Irish members who would oppose any government not prepared to grant "Tenant-Right" also known as the Ulster Custom.[1]

The Tenant Right League met with considerable success under its national organiser, John Martin. It had the support of the surviving Repealers in the British House of Commons; and of a number of English Radicals. It was agreed, all around, that a Land Act embodying the three F's would be a real gain. In the 1852 general election, some fifty Tenant Right candidates, including Gavan Duffy, Lucas and John Sadleir, were returned to parliament, where they sat as the Independent Irish Party. Its manifesto read:

Rent must be fixed by valuation of the land; the power of raising rents at will, or of recovering a higher rent that one so established must be taken from the landlord. The tenant must have a fixed tenure; he must not be liable to disturbance, so long as he paid the rent established by valuation. If he chose to quit, or could not pay he must have the right to the market value of his tenancy. Nothing shall be included in the valuation, or be paid under it to the landlord , on account of improvements made by the tenant in possession, or those under whom he claims, unless these have been paid for by the landlord in reduced rent, or in some other way.[2]

The League's success was short lived and was ultimately destroyed and weakened when a number of prominent members broke away and established the Catholic Defence Association (the Pope's Brass Band). Supporters of the league were also intimidated by hostile landlords. The most serious blows to its success came when Lucas decided to take his complaint about the Archbishop of Dublin Paul Cullen to Rome, which alienated clerical support. Lucas died in October 1855 shortly after the failure of his mission, a month later Gavan Duffy emigrated to Australia.[1]

The League finally petered out in 1859, and the Independent Irish Party had disappeared by 1860. In 1870 Gladstone passed the Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870, that was well-intentioned, but ineffectual from the onset of the "Long Depression" of agricultural prices.

The demand for tenants rights was however continued by Bishop Thomas Nulty of Meath and taken up again as a popular cause by the Land League in 1879, when the "Three Fs" were anchored in the Land Law (Ireland) Act (1881),[1] previously pursued rigorously by Michael Davitt.


  1. ^ a b c d e Hickey, D.J. & Doherty , J.E., A new Dictionary of Irish History from 1800, pp. 466-7 (2003), Gill & MacMillan (2003) ISBN 0-7171-2520-3
  2. ^ Charles Gavan Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, Volume 2, p. 33