The Rundale System of Land Holding in County Mayo, Ireland

The Rundale System of land holding was prevalent in the Western part of Ireland before the famine and lasted longer in County Mayo than in any other county in Ireland. In this system, the land was leased to one or two tenants who then divvied it up amongst 20-30 others (in many cases the whole town). They land was held in joint tenancy (a partnership of tenants) so to speak. Under the Rundale system the land was divided into several areas based on varying land quality. An "infield area" that was composed of land to grow crops and an "out field" area further out that was used for grazing usually radiated out from the homes. England had this sort of "infield/outfield" system in place in which the village (clachan as it was referred to in Ireland) was surrounded by the highest quality land (infield), more distantly bordered by the more inferior grazing area. (Jordan, 1994, p. 56). The land was distributed amongst the tenants based on the amount of rent contributed. The different pieces of land within the rundale were shuffled periodically to promote a fair distribution of poor, middle of the road and quality land.

The mountainous, boggy areas of County Mayo were ideal places for this type of settlement to develop. This poor quality land was unappealing to the large-scale farmers but quite appealing to the small tenant farmer and his "potato dependent rundale system." "Landlords tolerated it as a means of extracting maximum rent from marginal land." (Aalen, Whelan, Stout, 1997, p.83). Landlords were supportive of subdivision of land until around 1830 when things began to change. Sir Samuel O'Malley described "clauses" that were introduced around 1836 in an attempt to limit the extensive subletting of land within County Mayo to the Poor inquiry commissioners. He acknowledged that they were having trouble enforcing them. (Jordan, 1994, p. 68).

There were "sets of village laws drawn up by the local community for the operation of the rundale system, for which the landlord acted as arbiter." (Gillespie; McCabe, 1987, p. 95). The individuals assigned to redistribute the land within the Rundale, also determined work that needed to be done (such as fence mending, field clearing etc) the amount of livestock each family could have in the pasture, and they acted as an intermediary in village disputes. The Rundale system of land holding saw its share of litigation over land redistribution, but continued to function in County Mayo for quite some time.

Donald E Jordan Junior's book "Land and Popular Politics in Ireland" suggested a variety of advantages and disadvantages of the Rundale system. "The rundale system provided a means through which grazing land could be shared and seaweed fertilizer and peat could be distributed equitably." "It provided most tenants with access to grazing land and the services of a herd." The obvious drawback was an over-use scenario with the "arable land over-cropped and the rough pasture over-grazed." (Jordan, 1994, p. 56-57). Documentation presented by the editor of the Connaught Telegraph Newspaper in 1843 to the Devon Commission made the assertion that "all the mountain farms of Mayo were held in Rundale...". (Meehan, 2003, p. 157).

Extensive population growth in the years prior to the famine, increased economic decline and poverty in County Mayo, extensive subdivision of small farms leaving families with smaller and smaller parcels, increased dependence on the Lumper potato as a sole food source coupled with repeated devastating crop failures led to the eventual demise of the Rundale system. The book "Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape" described a "double entry bookkeeping" tactic that was being exercised by Landlords on their tenants. Two clauses were introduced, the "4 pound rating clause" made the landlords responsible for the rates on all holdings worth less than 4 pounds (this amount covered the vast majority of holdings) and the "Gregory Quarter-acre clause" that denied relief to any tenants holding more than a 1/4 acre. "Small farmers were legally rendered a parasitic encumbrance on landlord property; these two clauses became a clearance charter, encouraging massive eviction, especially in the poorest rundale counties of Mayo, Galway and Clare." (Aalen, Whelan, Stout, 1997, p. 90).

Graziers began to dominate the prime land in County Mayo and the Rundale system that remained existent only on the marginal bog and mountain areas eventually disappeared. Clare Island was one of the last great hold outs of the rundale system surviving until the 1895 when it was taken over by the Congested Districts Board. Eventually the "clustered farm settlements and rundale holdings were reorganised (sic) over extensive areas into consolidated striped holdings in which new farmhouses were located along replanned roads." (Aalen, Whelan, Stout, 1997, p. 94).

I was under the mistaken impression that all remnants of the rundale system had completely disappeared from County Mayo by the end of the 19th Century. I have recently learned otherwise. Treasa Ni Ghearraigh graciously informed me of the following facts: "In Ceanthru' Thaidhg Village in North Mayo the rundale system of agriculture was practiced up until about fifteen years ago. The cultivated fields were unenclosed in a system of common grazing land. A small drain marked each plot. The farmers removed all livestock when it was time to sow the crops in spring. In late Autumn when all the crops wer harvested the animals were allowed to roam freely over the whole area. The system was based on co-operation and following a specific timetable. Even though the land in the surrounding townlands was divided up and distributed by the Land Commission and the open grazing areas were enclosed, the rundale system survived in this village until more recent times." According to Treasa, Ceanthru' Thaidhg Village is a Townland in the Gaeltacht area of Kilcommon Erris Parish (a.k.a. Carrowtigue). Special kudos to her for taking the time to share this information!