(click image to enlarge)
In the late 1880s, Irish politicians co-ordinated a strategy aimed at assisting tenant farmers against absentee landlords and those considered to be charging excessive rent. Known as the Plan of Campaign, it was devised as a counter to agricultural distress caused by the continuing depression of the dairy and cattle industries and severe crop failures in 1885 and 1886, which had left many tenants in arrears and struggling to pay rent. In 1885, the Purchase of Land Act (also known as the Ashbourne Act, after its architect Lord Ashbourne) put limited tenant land purchase in motion, allowing an Irish tenant to borrow the full amount of the purchase price of a plot of land, to be repaid at 4% over 49 years.
Arthur Balfour, portrayed here as the ‘head groom’, became Chief Secretary for Ireland in March 1887 and one of his first actions was to pass the Land Law Act of 1887, which provided an additional £33,000,000 for land purchases in Ireland. Land purchase in Ireland was an issue of particular importance for Balfour, and the appalling conditions in saw during a visit to the west of Ireland in 1890 left a particular impression on him. He decided that action was needed in the form of a new entity to bring about an improvement in conditions, and so established Congested District Board in 1891 in an attempt to alleviate poverty and congested living conditions.
John Tenniel’s cartoon suggests not only the care and attention Balfour had for the issue of Irish land purchases, but also the fact that complicated legal issues had meant that it would not be fully put into effect until the Act was amended later that year. The cartoon is inspired by the 53rd Grand National, which was run the day before its publication, on 20 March. The race was won by Come Away, ridden by the Irish jockey and trainer Harry Beasley, by half a length.