Another aspect of Irish landholding that has acquired a bad reputation was the presence of the middleman. De Latocnaye gave a graphic description of the consequences of this at the end of the century:
The misery of the people is generally attributed to the manner in which estates are let. A rich man who does not wish to trouble himself with details will let a large extent of ground to a single man, whose intention is not to work, but to underlet perhaps to 20 persons; they again will let to perhaps 100 peasants moderately well off; and these once again will let at an exorbitant rent to perhaps 1,000 poor labourers ... they cultivate the greater part of it in potatoes which serve to nourish a family, and to fatten a great pig and a few fowls, by the sale of which they commonly find the money to pay their rents. It can be easily understood that with all these 'cascades' it is possible that the proprietor receives not more than a third of the money which the lowest tenants are obliged to pay, and the remainder goes to the profit of the rent farmers.270
A mid-eighteenth-century example of such a cascade shows a middleman in the parish of Carnmoney, Co. Antrim, paying a rent of £131 for 71/2 townlands and subletting them for £732 p.a. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Wakefield remarked that in Co. Kerry Lord Kenmare 'owns above 35,000 acres which bring him in £8,000 p.a. but his subtenants receive £40,000'.271
The Devon Commissioners, inevitably comparing Ireland with England, saw another evil from this phenomenon: 'the want of that personal attention to the condition of the tenantry, which is at once the duty and interest of landlords ... Many of the evils incident to the occupation of land in Ireland may be attributable to this cause.'272 Yet this is certainly not entirely true as many landlords and middlemen, both resident and absentee, were compassionate and concerned for their tenants, especially in times of scarcity.
By the end of the eighteenth century the poverty of the occupying tenants and the desire of the landlords for a more realistic return for their land combined to squeeze the middlemen slowly out of the system. Shorter leases and the insolvency of the tenants, along with their growing reluctance to hold their lands through a middleman, made the position of a rentier such as Robert Jones Lloyd of Co. Leitrim untenable. In 1822 he wrote: 'that the tenants not only in Leitrim but in Roscommon except one in ten have neither money nor cattle is certain ... to expect rent from them is hopeless. They cannot pay it, and the middleman, when he cannot get it cannot pay it.' When Lloyd became the middleman for this estate in 1810 some of the tenants had resented holding under a middleman, and had been hostile to him from the time of his arrival. In a letter of 1815 he admits that:
There is an apology which can be made for them ... I set their lands too high ... [and] the suppressing [of] private distillation took from them the only means they ever made use of to make rents ... the depression on every commodity which had taken place these two years past puts it out of their power even by selling all they have to payhalf a year's rent.
The Revenue Board tried very hard through numerous statutes, for example 1 Geo. III, c. 7, to control 'private distillation', but their success was limited.
Another problem was that some agents and middlemen ran an estate shop, and parliament consistently legislated against labourers being paid in alcohol (e.g. 9 Geo. II, c. 8), or allowed to run up debts through immoderate use of it. Wakefield expostulated against this iniquity:
Many agents have sons or other relations, settled as shopkeepers on some parts of the estate to which they belong, and a tenant, unless he chooses to run the risk of incurring the displeasure of these harpies, cannot purchase a yard of tape or a pound of cheese in any other place. Nay I have known agents, when they had no relation to provide for in this manner, dispose of a shop to a stranger, and exact from him a percentage of all his profits.
As the post-1815 agricultural depression deepened and the potatoes became subject to recurrent blights, Lloyd's situation became hopeless; in 1826 he finally relinquished his leases. Lloyd was a compassionate middleman, and his letters reflect concern both for his tenants and for his failure to fulfil his obligations to his landlord.273 By the early nineteenth century middlemen were becoming an anachronism and a luxury that the land could no longer support.274 The potential for supporting improvement, which they had served in a less developed economy, no longer existed in a depressed and overcrowded agrarian community.