Rentals: Notes for Irish Genealogy Summer School, UCC June 30, 2016

Estate Records: Rentals as a family history source
James G Ryan, Flyleaf Press

Rentals are the private records of landlords and their agents on renting of properties. It includes a range of different types of records including payment books, leases. The talk explored the nature and range of rentals, their historical background and evolution during the 1600s to 1900; the type of information contained, and how they can be found. Rentals are particularly important in Ireland where land ownership (during the 18th and most of the 19th century) was only for a small minority, and tenancy was the norm for the vast majority of the population. The process of managing these tenancies, produced a hugely variable range of documents. Almost all contain, at the very least, the names of tenants, the location of their properties and the dates of their tenancies. A proportion contains other useful information. They can therefore be useful in locating individuals within Ireland.

A by-product of Ireland’s turbulent history was the fact that huge parts of Ireland had been granted to a relatively small number of people. There were an estimated 7,000 estates in Ireland varying in size from 500 to 160,000 acres. These estates were farmed by tenants who paid a rent to the landlord. In some cases, they paid a rent to a ‘middleman’, who managed a part of an estate. Many of these estates were owned by ‘absentee landlords’ who lived outside Ireland. Estate owners varied hugely in their attitudes to tenants, some being benevolent and concerned with developing the capacity of their tenants, while other so-called ‘rack-rent’ landlords were concerned only with maximising their income. Large estates were usually managed by agents who were responsible for all activities, including setting and collecting rents. Some of these were employed directly by the estate. An alternative was to hire an estate management company. Some of these companies managed hundreds of estates of varying sizes. They sent regular rental reports to the landlord, in varying degrees of detail. These reports contain what an estate owner would wish to know; i.e. tenant name, rental income, reasons for non-payment, actions taken, issues affecting future income etc.

Other documents compiled for the purposes of estate management include (a) Valuations i.e. an assessment of the size, productivity or value of an estate, often including maps. These were commonly produced when estates were sold or inherited; (b) Lease books which are separate account books which detail the terms under which leased land was held (c) Account books, wages books etc. While not strictly related to rentals, in certain estates these are relevant because some tenants paid some or all of their rent through labour. Also, on smaller estates rent receipts were sometimes combined with general accounts for the estate.

An important issue in regard to the level of detail available is the nature of the tenancy. The forms of tenancy ranged from the ‘tenant at will’ status, where the tenant had no legal rights; to rental for a period of years, or for a period of ‘lives’, i.e. it was held for as long as named persons survived. These are valuable as the lives are often of family members, particularly children.
The format of the documents available is very variable. The basic document is the ‘rental book’ itself which contains (at very least) the name of the tenant, the property and the rent due (see example below). Additional information in rentals can include the area of land, arrears due, tithe payments due and ‘observations’ on the capacity of the tenant to pay. However, it can include other information on the tenant’s circumstances or family. The details included varies according to (a) size of estate, (b) who is making the record, and (c) nature of tenancy. In short, large estates kept detailed records, whereas smaller landlords knew their tenants and details were not needed.

Because rentals are private documents, their fate was not governed by law and their survival is varied. Many are still in private hands, and many have probably been destroyed. However, many have also been donated to archives and libraries. The major sources are:

Private Ownership. Many are still held by the families which owned, or still own, the estates. The National Library has catalogued many of these holdings in the “National Library of Ireland Reports on Private Collections” series which catalogue the holdings of hundreds of individuals. Note, however, that this is just a list of what is held. Access to these collections must then be sought directly to the family.

National Library of Ireland. NLI also has a collection of about 1700 rentals, some of them very extensive collections from large estates. These can be searched using the NLI’s Sources database – – by the name of the estate owner or by the county or estate name.

National Archives of Ireland. ( The NAI mainly contains government papers, but it also has a collection of rentals.

Local and UK Libraries. Rentals are also in local libraries in each Irish county as they have been donated by local people. In addition, some major collections are in various archives in the UK. This is because the landlords were English families and the rentals were donated to local libraries in the UK with other family papers.

The Big Houses and Landed Estates of Ireland. By Terence Dooley. Four Courts Press, Dublin 2007. ISBN 978-185182-964-4

Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland. By W. E. Vaughan. Clarendon, Oxford, 1994.

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