When I was a child my granny had a saying which intrigued me. When she had tidied up the kitchen and swept out the floor, she would stand back and say: “Now, that’s more Protestant-looking.”
In the Plantation of Ulster at the beginning of the 17th century, settlers had to be enticed to leave the relative safety of England or Scotland and come to the north of Ireland, where the native population had mixed emotions about getting turfed out of their land at sword-point. The Planters were encouraged by low farm rents, by grants and by better terms and conditions such as long leases. Over the centuries their terms and conditions were whittled down, but one particular benefit was consolidated by the time of the Great Famine: the right to be compensated for farm improvements. These might be the building of a house or outhouse, building of ditches, drainage or reclamation of bogland or wasteland. Such improvement, which constituted the tenant’s interest in the farm holding, had to be bought out by a replacement tenant if he left, or by the landlord if he should be evicted for non-payment of rent. Combined with a tradition of low rents and rare evictions, this benefit became known as the Ulster Custom or Ulster Tenant Right.
No such right applied outside Ulster, and within the nine counties it only applied to estates where the tenants were exclusively or mainly Protestants. Indeed, Ulster tenant spokiesmen in the 19th century often made direct reference to agreements made at the time of the Plantation, and more generally to the Ulster Custom as an aspect of Protestant solidarity and a reward for political loyalty against the native population. Differences in landholding arrangements obviously sharpened with the Penal Laws which recognised explicit Protestant benefits in a wide range of legislation. Denying the extension of the Ulster Custom to Catholics in North Armagh seems to have been a significant issue in the formation of the Orange Order and ethnic cleansing of thousands of tenants there in the 1790s.
There were other factors which reinforced the sectarian difference: most Protestant farmers held their land directly from the head landlord rather than through middlemen, most had leases and most who had not were able to resist the introduction of the Hanging Gale. However, all these must be seen in the context of an overarching relationship of sectarian solidarity between Protestant landlord and Protestant tenant. By 1778 when repeal of the worst of the Penal Laws began, it is estimated that Catholic owners accounted for only about 3% of the cultivable land in Ireland (see “Atlas of Irish History” by Ruth Dudley Edwards, 1981).
Farm rents were paid in May and November on what were known as Gale Days. During the 19th century landlords and middlemen often only accepted rent six months in arrears, which meant anyone at any time could be evicted for non-payment. In a hangover from the Penal Days long after the actual penal laws had gone, Catholics were often refused leases of any kind and were made “tenants at will”, holding their land from one gale to the next at the grace and favour of the landlord.
So you build yourself a nice little house on your holding, with a byre and pig house behind. You are a tenant at will on a hanging gale so you know there is no chance of the landlord compensating you for your improvements, as was the rule in England. But it gets worse than that. When you go to pay your rent on the next gale day, the landlord – or his agent, or his middleman – says: “That farm is worth more now, I’ll have to put the rent up.” If you object, he will tell you there are plenty of other people willing and ready to rent your farm.
So you don’t a build nice house, you throw up a hovel with the dunghill in front of the door and you only make improvements which can’t really be seen. Maybe you make sure your children have no arse in their trousers and you teach them to put their hand out to beg if the landlord or any of his family is about. You practise An Béal Bocht, the Poor Mouth.
When you go up to the Big House to pay the rent, you can’t help noticing a couple of Protestant farms with their neat new thatch and whitewashed outhouses and clean children. You would like to live like that, but you can’t afford to. Emulating them could get you evicted.
A sample of transactions below shows that in Antrim in the 1870s, incoming tenants were paying 10 times annual rent or more to outgoing tenants. (https://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tenant-right-or-ulster-custom#:~:text=Origin,the%20economy%20that%20underpinned%20it)
A series of land acts through the late 19th century gradually provided some protection for tenants at will, but by then different attitudes to the appearances of farms and farm buildings had lodged themselves in popular culture, reinforcing racist attitudes both in England and in the Protestant community. This ethnic/racist underpinning of cultural difference is still there. When Terence O’Neill was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland he told the Belfast Telegraph (10th May 1969):
In South Armagh there is a simple rule of thumb which anyone can check by looking up the Griffiths Valuation lists of 1863-64 or the 1901 census. Pretty much any two-storey house dating from the 19th century was a Protestant house. The land was removed from the landlords by a series of acts culminating in the Wyndham Act of 1903 and there was an immediate building boom across the land. There was a bit of an agricultural boom during the First World War and many new two-storey houses were built.
Cultural change takes a long time: it took a couple of generations of prosperity to to break the grip of An Béal Bocht. Even 20 or 30 years ago you could drive through mid-Armagh or County Down distinguishing between Protestant and Catholic farmyards with a quick glance from the road. Scrapped or broken-down vehicles behind sheds were a dead giveaway.
I think differently about my granny’s saying now that I know where it came from. But I still say it myself when I red up a bit.
|(1) In acreage, a. acres, r. roods, p. perches.|
|(2) In rent, £. pound, s. shilling, and d. pence.|
|source: Adapted from Finlay Dun, Landlords and Tenants in Ireland (1881), pp. 130–131.|
|3 Dec. 1873||John M’Loskey||Leek||41||0||0||19||10||0||James Feeny||435||Wm. Cather|
|15 Aug. 1873||James M’Ateer||Ballyhargan||8||0||0||3||3||0||Henry Deany||60||Mr. Wray|
|7 Dec. 1876||John Aull||Ballyscullin||2||1||18||1||15||6||Joseph Aull||31||Sir F. W. Heygate|
|11 Feb. 1878||Wm. Carlin||Ballymoney||10||0||0||6||5||0||James Kane||127||John M’Curdy|
|23 Jan. 1878||Jas. Douglas||Boveva||22||0||0||20||0||0||Wm. Laughlin||108||J. S. Douglass|
|19 Feb. 1878||Dennis Brolly||Gortnaghymore||12||0||0||9||0||0||Michael Doherty||106||John Quigley|
|31 Jan. 1877||Wm. Stewart||Termaquin||23||1||26||17||15||2||Robert Simpson||270|