The creation of the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) in 2009 constitutes one of the most dramatic responses to the Irish economic collapse of 2008-10. Yet it was by no means without precedent. As a body designed to deal with ‘bad debt’ and unfreeze Irish markets (particularly the property market), NAMA bears striking similarities to a much earlier entity: the Encumbered Estates Court. This Court was the product of another era when Irish landlords were notorious for being both feckless in their speculation and ruthless in their extraction of inflated rents: the nineteenth century. While Irish landlords of the Victorian era were often pitiless in their dealings with their tenants, ironically, they too were often pursued by creditors. Having frequently indulged in lavish lifestyles that their rental incomes could not afford, many landlords were heavily in debt even before the Great Famine of 1845-50. Following the onset of the Famine, however, landlords discovered that their rents had dried up while their local taxes had skyrocketed. Many of these property owners had mortgaged their estates multiple times, meaning that they owed more than the land was worth. These multiple mortgages (or ‘encumbrances’) made it impossible to sell the estates as the legal complications were too great, turning off potential buyers.
To rectify this situation, a series of Acts were passed in 1848-49 which established the Encumbered Estates Court. Through this court, the state took ownership of properties and sold them on, without any drawn-out proceedings and accompanied by a fresh title deed which ensured there was no further legal threats or challenges to the new owners. The Encumbered Estates Court was composed of three commissioners who first met in 1849, acquiring premises at No. 14 Henrietta Street in Dublin (now the site of the city’s Tenement Museum). Following its creation, the Estates Court was soon swamped with cases, and by 1854 there were fears that their location in Henrietta Street was unsustainable for the volume of business, as the street was often blocked by vehicles coming to the Court. There is a vivid account of the day-to-day activities of the Court, written in 1858, and describing it as a no-frills, no-nonsense place: ‘everything about it has the same naked unpretending air. The visitor will observe little of that tranquillity and silence which usually reign in courts of law’. The highlight of its activities were undoubtedly the sales days, when the court room located at the rear of the building would double as an auction room. An account of one of these sales described how the various lawyers and land agents used it as an opportunity to gossip, particularly about rural disturbances: ‘one idler tells another how an agent was shot here a year ago; how a process-server was beaten almost to death there; and how the population of Ballyblank generally have from time immemorial been a very rough set to deal with’.
Despite the rough-and-ready nature of the Court, commentators had high hopes that it could solve the problems of rural Ireland. It was believed that the Court was paving the way for a new landowning class, made up of businessmen who were better positioned to invest in the countryside. Obviously, the older generation of landlords felt differently. The legislation that established the Estates Court also allowed for the sale of estates without the consent of the owner, provided the level of debt was great enough. This meant that sales of an estate could be forced at a time of depressed land prices, something that existing landlords bitterly resented. The communist Frederick Engels once described how Irish landlords ‘live in fear of the Encumbered Estates Court’.
In 1858, the Encumbered Estates Court was dissolved and replaced with a new body known as the Landed Estates Court, which dealt with much the same sort of cases. This new Estates Court was moved from Henrietta Street into newly constructed premises at the Four Courts in 1860. While a mass influx of English buyers did not materialize to magically resolve the Irish land issue, these Estates Courts opened the door for a later institution, the Land Commission of Ireland. Set up in 1881 as, essentially, a rent-fixing body, the commission evolved into an institution facilitating tenant-purchase of farmland. Following a series of Lands Acts, commencing with the landmark Ashbourne Act of 1885, the Land Commission would bring about a social revolution in the Irish countryside. Between 1885 and 1920, the Commission oversaw the transfer of over 13 million acres of land through assisted tenant purchase. The Land Commission survived the War of Independence (1919-21), being reconstituted in 1923 by the Irish Free State and continuing to function until its dissolution in 1999.
The records of the Encumbered Estates and Landed Estates Courts were among the documents destroyed in the Four Courts in 1922. However, printed rentals from the Encumbered Estates Court survive, constituting an under-used source for those interested in the names of tenants on various mid-nineteenth century estates. Beyond 2022 hopes to recover the history of this often overlooked but hugely important body.
-Parliamentary Papers (1854) Incumbered Estates Court (Ireland) Copy of official statement &c relating to the removal of the offices of the Incumbered Estates Court from Henrietta Street to the Four Courts.
–Chamber’s Journal of Popular Literature (16 October, 1858)
-Richard Denny Urlin ‘The History and Statistics of the Irish Incumbered Estates Court’ in The Journal of the Statistical Society of London vol.44 No.2 (June 1881) pp.203-234
– J.A. Dowling ‘The Landed Estates Court, Ireland’ in Journal of Legal History 26, no. 2 (August 2005)