Farmers without a farm: Researching rural Irish ancestors

“What class of men do you mean by laborers?” — “The men who use the spade.”

“Do you mean by labouring men, men who have no land?” — “A man who has no land; who goes out with his spade or pitchfork on his shoulder, and hires for employment.” 1

In the 1850s in Coolkeragh, a rural townland in County Kerry, Ireland, there were two men named Philip Stack. Born just two or three years apart, they lived on adjacent properties for most of their lives. But their lives were very different because one Philip Stack was a laborer, and one Philip Stack was a farmer. These two occupations, commonly found in Irish birth, marriage, and death records, sound similar, but the difference between them could affect the family for generations. 

Coolkeragh today, courtesy of Google Maps. It’s still mostly farmland.

To differentiate between farmers and laborers in 19th century Ireland, we need to understand the system of land ownership and leases to which the Irish were subjected. As a way of subduing and controlling the Catholic population, the British seized Catholic-owned land and carved up Ireland into giant estates that were distributed to English and Scottish Protestant nobility and those loyal to the British crown in the 1600s. A series of legal acts known as the Penal Laws aimed to force Catholics to convert to the Church of England, and meant that it was difficult, if not impossible, for Catholics to own land.

The last of these laws was repealed with the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, but by then the country was almost entirely in the hands of Protestant landlords.2 Many were absentee — they did not live in Ireland and employed local agents to manage their estates, which included collecting rent and processing evictions. The indigenous Irish Catholic population had no land of their own, and had to rent farms from these estates.3

Landlords and their agents deployed an extortionate lease system called “rack-rent,” which further constrained Irish renters. Any rise in the market price of crops or visible improvements made by the tenants to their land and homes would result in a rent increase. “Rents were assessed on the house as well as the land, that there was door rent, window rent, hearth rent, rent on each room and outhouse, and that any improvement no matter how small was seized upon as an excuse for further rent.”4

Irish laborers going abroad to make a living in the Illustrated London News May 28, 1881. ©Illustrated London News Ltd.

The terms “farmer” and “laborer” take on different meanings in 19th century Ireland than in many other places, because the rental system meant that neither farmers nor agricultural laborers owned land. Most farmers in 19th century rural Ireland barely eked out a living, but they had a better chance of survival than laborers, primarily because they had longer leases with better terms — and because they had longer leases, they tended to rent larger farms that they could take years to improve. 

Some Irish farmers had leases for the “length of lives,” usually the lives of three people named in the lease, and the lease would expire at the death of the last person. People might include their youngest child as one of the named people to extend the length of the lease, or the youngest member of the royal family, if one assumed that royalty had a better chance of making it to old age than one’s own children. Another common lease type was for the length of a single named life plus 21 years, which meant the lease was valid for 21 years after the death of the named person (often the head of the family), allowing his children to renegotiate the lease some years after his death. Less generous leases were for one named life or 21 years, whichever was longer. 

Those with leases could divide their plots and sub-lease them, and it was not uncommon to have a half-dozen middlemen between the man who owned the land and the man who farmed it. Most small tenant farmers in Ireland were on inadequate properties with yearly leases, or were tenants “at will,” meaning that they were subjected to the cruelty of the rack-rent system and could be evicted at any time. 

A portion of the Coolkeragh entry in the Irish Ordnance Survey Names Book.

My Stack ancestors lived and farmed in Coolkeragh, a rural townland in Galey Parish in County Kerry where potatoes, flax, and oats were grown. In Irish, the name “Cúil Chaorach” means something along the lines of “sheep’s corner.” At 2.26 square miles it is actually County Kerry’s 73rd largest townland out of 2,722.5 The 1851 census records 324 people living there.

In 1850 the owner of the land was Meade Caulfield Dennis, whose family had come to Ireland in the 1600s as part of the Protestant colonization project. The entire townland of Coolkeragh was held in a lease “renewable forever by Mr. Fosberry.”6 John F. Fosberry (or Fosbery), a landlord from an English family, controlled more than 1,400 acres in the Parish of Galey, where he acted as a middleman, dividing the properties and subleasing them to local farmers.7 Most of his Coolkeragh tenants were on yearly leases, although some had more secure leases that started in 1819 for “one life or 21 years.” 

The 324 people living in Coolkeragh included the two Philip Stacks, one of whom was a farmer and one who was a laborer. Philip Stack the farmer was one of the exceptions with a secure, “for 21 years or one life” lease, and had a tenancy-in-common with a Michael Stack, who was probably his brother. With this kind of lease, if he paid his rent on time, his lease was likely to be renewed or renegotiated and passed on to his adult children. 

Philip Stack the laborer, on the other hand, was one of the many men who had a yearly lease. In 1850 he is recorded as having paid no rent, presumably because his labor on the Fosberry farmland in Coolkeragh was the payment for his small property. Unlike Philip the farmer, Philip the laborer could be evicted at any time.

The 1850 land tenure book shows that one Philip Stack had previously been the landlord of the other.

Philip the farmer and Michael Stack had previously been the immediate lessor for Philip the laborer’s property, meaning that although they did not own the property, it was part of their lease, and they had subleased a portion of it to Philip Stack the laborer. In the 1850 tenure book, Philip the farmer and Michael’s names were crossed out and replaced by the absentee landlord John F. Fosberry, meaning that Philip Stack the laborer’s life was now in the hands of the agent handling Fosberry’s affairs, and unfortunately Fosberry had hired George Sandes, one of the most notoriously cruel land agents in Ireland.8

I was only able to learn how different the two Philip Stacks’ positions were by finding out what type of leases they had in the Irish tenure books from the 1850s. Only fragments of the census exist from before 1901, so tenure books are a valuable record set for Irish research. Found on the Irish National Archives site in the Valuation Office Books collection, these records show the type of lease people had, which can explain why you may have found some relatives listed as farmers and others as laborers in other records.

The various lease arrangements begin to explain the differences between farmers and laborers, but the instability of the laborers’ leases created further instability in the lives of the laborers. For the most part, in 19th century Ireland both groups were poor, but laborers were worse off. Called “a farmer without a farm” in the 1892 book The Irish Peasant: A Sociological Study,9 a laborer’s life was significantly more precarious than that of a farmer. Seasonal laborers worked for wages and moved often, and while cottiers, like Philip Stack the laborer, had more permanent situations, trading their labor to a farmer or a landowner for a small patch of land, it was still good for little more than subsistence farming.

Farmers’ more secure leases permitted them to stay on the same farm, often for generations. They maintained themselves from the produce of their own farms and were invested in the land they farmed and motivated to make at least some improvements (but not too many, or the landlord would raise the rent when it was time to renew the lease).10 Although the line between laborer and farmer could be dangerously thin — farmers or their sons might also labor on the side as road workers or stone breakers — farmers’ positions were much more secure, and the two groups resented each other. 

Griffith’s Valuation for Coolkeragh, in County Kerry showing the two Philip Stacks (mislabeled Jr. and Sr.) You can see their landlord, the size of the property and the value of their land and homes.

Another key difference between Philip Stack the farmer and Philip Stack the laborer was the size of their properties, information found in Griffith’s Valuation. Griffith’s Valuations was the first full-country survey of the value of all of the property in the country, taken between 1847 and 1864. It acts as a sort of census substitute, though only the main head of household is listed, and no ages are provided. Even so, there are valuable details beyond the name. For example, each property has the size of the holding and “annual rateable value” listed that represents the yearly tax for all of the land and buildings on the property. These fields are useful proxies for the household’s economic status.

From these records I learned that Philip Stack the laborer was living on a property measuring three Irish acres and 23 perches (a uniquely Irish form of measuring part of an acre). Despite not knowing exactly what these measurements meant, it was clear to me that Philip Stack the farmer had much, much more, with 73 acres, 1 rood, and 3 perches. 

From the Illustrated Weekly News, March 2, 1867 representing “the class of cabins usually to be found in the disaffected districts, and especially in Kerry. The exteriors, for the most part, are wretchedly dirty, as well be seen; while the interiors are held in common by the pigs, chickens, and, as an Irishman would say, ‘the other mimbers of the family'”. ©The British Library Board.

In his wonderful series “Tracing the Poor and Destitute Irish,” Brian Donovan explains how to use the home values listed in Griffith’s Valuations to find similarly valued homes in the Digby Estate Records. Using Griffith’s Valuations, I learned that Philip Stack the farmer’s house was valued at 10 shillings whereas Philip Stack the laborer’s home was valued at 5 shillings. Donovan says, “That’s about the lowest valuation you’ll ever find, is a 5-shilling house. It’s a mud hut, a turf house.” 

The Digby Estate Records show exactly what the houses of farmers and laborers looked like in 1860. The Digbys were unique in that they sought to improve the condition of their estate, and they captured drawings of their tenant’s buildings before and after improvement. Because the images were created in the same handful of years as Griffith’s Valuations, it’s possible to use the Digby records to see what a house valued at 5- or 10- or 20- shillings looked like at the time. 

Donovan described one such 5-shilling house, like the one Philip Stack the laborer lived in, as a “miserable hovel,” and the Digby Estate Records fill in the details, depicting a squalid turf house teeming with animals. The 10-shilling house, like the one Philip Stack the farmer lived in, still had no windows but was made of brick or stone, and would last for decades. 

5-shilling house on the left, 10-shilling house on the right from the Digby Estate Records.

Using these records, we can see that Philip Stack the farmer and Philip Stack the laborer, although both poor men, had very different prospects in life. The farmer had a large property with a sturdy home and the stability of a long lease. The laborer lived in a crumbling turf hut with a precarious lease situation.

If the two Philip Stacks were related, and there’s every reason to think they were probably cousins of some sort, then in 1850 when Philip Stack the laborer went from being a tenant of a family member to tenant of an absent landlord with a tyrannical agent, it was a recipe for disaster that made his precarious circumstances even more dire. Indeed, although they had lived side-by-side for many years, the two Philip Stacks met very different fates; one died alone in the workhouse, the last resort for the destitute Irish, and the other at home, surrounded by family.

Although the surviving records for both Philip Stacks are sparse, learning how to find and closely examine the records that are available allows us to see a fuller picture of each man in the context of his economic situation.


  1. Pierce Mahoney, First report of Evidence from The Select Committee on the State of the Poor in Ireland. Minutes of Evidence: 24 March-14 May, 589:II (June 30, 1830): 6 

  2. It was, of course, more complicated than this. See: Arkins, T. “The Penal Laws and Irish Land.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 1, no. 3, 1912, pp. 514–523. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30083979. Accessed 14 May 2021. 

  3. O’Neill, Thomas P. “The Irish Land Question, 1830-1850.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 44, no. 175, 1955, pp. 325–336. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30098665. Accessed 14 May 2021. 

  4. Danaher, Kevin. “Old House Types in Oighreacht Ui Chonchubhair.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 8, no. 2, 1938, pp. 226–240. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25510137. Accessed 15 May 2021. 

  5. I had originally written that it was a small townland, but in actuality, it is not. My view of what is and isn’t “small” is obviously at odds with Irish sensibility. When I told an Irish friend I was moving from London to a “village” in Italy with a mere 24,000 inhabitants she laughed hysterically at my idea of a village, as she had grown up in Sligo in a town of 900 souls. 

  6. Coolkeeragh entry, pages 332 and 333. A portion is in the second image in this post. O’Donovan, John, and Michael O’Flanagan. Ordnance Survey Name Books [compiled by John O’donovan between 1831 and 1838]. Bri Chualann, 1931. Print. 

  7. The control of Coolkeragh passed into the hands of various Fosberry relations when John F. Fosberry died without children in 1872. 

  8. “The nomination of Mr. George Sandes, the well known land-agent, as High Sheriff of this county for 1887, is received with mingled feelings of disgust and indignation. His chief recommendation for the position…is that he is the most hated man in North Kerry, where his acts, as an agent, are considered to be most offensive and tyrannical.” Kerry Weekly Reporter [Tralee, Ireland], 27 Nov. 1886, p. 3. 

  9. Guardian of the Poor. The Irish Peasant; A Sociological Study. London, S. Sonnenschein & Company, 1892. 

  10. Fitzpatrick, David. “The Disappearance of the Irish Agricultural Labourer, 1841-1912.” Irish Economic and Social History, vol. 7, 1980, pp. 66–92. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24337087. Accessed 3 May 2021. 

2 thoughts on “Farmers without a farm: Researching rural Irish ancestors

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *