Opinion: the importance of private property in Ireland has seen the growth of a negative attitude towards those who don't own houses or land

According to Irish historian Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, the ultimate outcome of the land agitation was "the entrenchment of a decidedly individualist system of farm ownership" of the sort that is the norm in Ireland today. The primacy of private property in Ireland in the post-revolutionary period has facilitated the emergence of an especially negative attitude in Ireland towards those who don’t own property or land, whether through tradition, choice, or lack of resources. Thus Peter Casey, a candidate in the 2018 Irish presidential election, could substantially increase his vote by opportunistically referring to Travellers as "basically people camping on someone else’s land". 

But this overly rigid and stringently enforced concept of private ownership was neither an inevitable development nor innately Irish. Rather, it has its origins in various land-purchase acts, commencing with the Ashbourne Act of 1885, that were designed less to bring about an inversion in land ownership in Ireland, (though that is the aspect of them that tends to be emphasised), than to "clarify" Irish property rights. 

From RTÉ Archives, Bill O’Herlihy reports for Newsbeat in 1967 on housing conditions in Kenmare: "the housing conditions here in Kenmare are the worst in Ireland"

Some previous land acts, most notably that of 1881, contained measures that monitored the relationship between landlord and tenant, and recognised the rights of occupancy that the Irish tenant-farmer believed that he/she had to the land. These acts were feared by some Conservative policy-makers to have fundamentally breached British conceptions of property law and rights. 

It was in part a concern that ambiguous property relations in Ireland could create a precedent that would unsettle concepts of property in England, Scotland and Wales that led the British Conservative party to set in motion a series of acts centred on the purchase of land. If, in the Irish context, landlords could no longer hold absolute property rights, then ownership of the land would have to be transferred to the tenant-farmers who cultivated it.

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From RTÉ Archives, Denis Mitchell reports for Enterprise in 1973 on Fr Harry Bohan's Rural Housing Organisation

While the overly rigid concept of private property that was such a feature of post-revolutionary Ireland was grounded in these land acts, it was sanctified by an Irish national narrative. This mapped the ownership of Ireland by the Irish onto private-property rights by suggesting that the struggle against British rule was all about owning the land – taking it back from the landlords – with ownership interpreted in this context in the narrowest sense of the term. 

This overlapping of the ownership of Ireland by the Irish onto private property rights has manifested itself in multiple ways. For example, it allowed for the establishment of a precedent in the early stages of the Free State whereby home ownership was to be prioritised over all other housing options. In the 1920s, owner-occupancy was put forward as the best available means for combating all housing-related concerns in Ireland, including the considerable problems posed by the still-prevalent tenements and slums of Dublin, Limerick and Cork. 

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From RTÉ Archives, RG Rowling reports for RTÉ News in 1962 on how 118,000 houses were built in Ireland between 1948 and 1962

While there were public house-building programmes at intervals in the period between, Cumann na nGaedheal’s decision in the mid-1920s to reduce the level of construction undertaken by local authorities and instead provide general subsidies to private builders has echoes today. This can be seen in the developer-friendly policy decisions made by recent Irish governments that contributed to an over-heated housing market during the Celtic Tiger period. Moreover, the primacy of private property in Ireland and establishment of owner-occupancy as the housing norm have ensured that even when house prices rise to untenable levels, as with the aforementioned property bubble, the pressure to buy and own property is extreme.

One way to challenge the idea that links political independence with the absolute ownership of land and property is to draw attention to alternative concepts and practices of land and property usage in 19th and early 20th century Ireland. These include such diverse aspects of Irish history as the Owenite agrarian communities established by William Thompson and John Scott Vandeleur in pre-Famine Ireland, the clachan or rundale system of land use and dwelling, the rights of occupancy that tenant farmers asserted throughout the nineteenth-century, Michael Davitt’s advocacy of land nationalisation, James Connolly’s conceptualisation of Gaelic communism and experiments in collective farming in the early 1920s. 

The fetishisation of private property rights in contemporary Ireland is the result of a complex combination of historical factors, but Irish history is also rich with examples of challenges to the primacy of private property.  The truism that Irish people are predisposed to being particularly obsessed with owning property and land needs to be challenged as it is not only false but exclusory, creating prejudice against those who don’t own property and land. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ