Decorated initial T

he 1861 census in Ireland gives the number of landed proprietors as 5,789. In addition, it lists 550 land agents, 2,314 land stewards and 413,309 farmers.5 The dividing line between the land agent and the land steward was frequently crossed. Land agents were usually Irish, though some were Scots and a few English. Being Irish was a great advantage in their work because while of a different class from the tenants and labourers, they understood Irish society better despite the image of continuous confrontation. More often than not, land agents charmed, cajoled, persuaded or, thanks to small compromises such as supplying an iron gate or material to mend a roof, extracted some rent from any truculent tenant farmer down on his luck. Being a land agent was not an easy life. It was stressful and at times dangerous. Some land agents were minor gentry or substantial farmers in their own right with their own tenants or labourers. They were often aware of the need to increase productivity by improving land, such as by clearing stones and rocks, draining extensively and constructing roads to make places more accessible. They often also tried to rid the countryside of the ubiquitous cabin and replace it with solid stone structures, sometimes reinforced by concrete, although these attempts were frequently thwarted by the occupants. The irony is that these men were entrepreneurs who changed rural Ireland very much for the benefit of those who allegedly hated them. Tenants, however, were often conservative and showed little interest in anything which smacked of more modern agricultural farming practices. [144]

the Irish land agent held a higher status than his equivalent in English society. More often than not, the agent did retain the eccentricity, the mannerisms, the accent and the characteristic of behavioural excess which were hallmarks of the ascendancy. Frequently, they were men of great character and, according to several references, often jovial. While personality and flexibility might count for a great deal when handling such a job, an agent who did not carry an air of authority was not going to last long against a conservative peasantry and it would also have helped them to deal with those above them in society. Aloofness, arrogance and bullying were characteristics likely to gain a hostile response from tenants, so a combination of firmness, courtesy and pragmatism was the best approach for most land agents. Samuel Hussey makes the legitimate point that as it became more difficult to collect rents, ‘more competent men of experience and judgement were needed by the landlord’. As such, the occupation became more professional – like a branch of the Engineering Surveyors’ Institution – an irony given the fact that land purchase at the turn of the century destroyed the profession and the livelihood of the Irish land agent. [145]

Three Irish land agents in particular have become famous in history. William Steuart Trench (1808–1872) wrote Realities of Irish life, which came out in 1868. Samuel Murray Hussey (1824–1913) produced The reminiscences of an Irish land agent a generation later in 1904. The latter was, in fact, a compilation by Home Gordon of Hussey’s earlier writings. Both volumes are well written with the occasional instance of dry humour, but they are not always accurate and are somewhat hotchpotch, especially in the case of Hussey who has a tendency to rant at times about his particular bêtes noirs. Hussey was a grander figure than Trench and this comes out in his bons mots style, which speaks of the gentry class, whereas Trench’s tales speak of a man closer to the ground and with a sharpness absent in the urbane Hussey. In this respect, Hussey was more in the league of William Blacker (1776–1850) a generation earlier, who was essentially northern-based and whose publications on agricultural improvements won him a gold medal from the Royal Dublin Society and membership of the Royal Irish Academy. [149]


McCracken, Donal P. ‘You Will Dye at Midnight’: Threatening Letters on Victorian Ireland. Dublin: Eastwood Books, 2021. Pp. 257 + xvi. ISBN: 978-1-913934-16-3 Paperback ISBN: 978-1-913934-24-8 ebook. [Review]

Last modified 3 December 2021