Ireland now raises only about as much wheat as New Jersey, using only 35,000 acres, chiefly in the dry eastern section around Dublin. Previous to 1846 the wheat area was ten times as great. As might be expected in a moist, cool, stock-raising country, oats are the main crop, covering nearly a million acres. The area of potatoes is also very large, comprising 520,000 acres. Ireland is famed for its potatoes, which still supply an astonishingly large part of the diet. Among food crops barley comes next to potatoes in the amount of space devoted to it, but most of the crop is used for beer and whiskey. The area of forage crops is considerable; turnips, for example, cover nearly 250,000 acres. Flax is a minor but not unimportant crop in northeastern Ireland, where it is the basis of a famous linen industry. Aside from potatoes, barley, turnips, and cabbage, the climate does not make it worth while to raise much in the way of food crops. Hence practically all the other foodstuffs consumed in Ireland are imported. Under the pinch of the World War I Ireland materially increased her food crops, but after the war the previous state of affairs quickly prevailed again.
From the earliest times the ownership of the land has been one of the chief troubles of Ireland. During the seventeenth century, when the British political power became dominant as the result of prolonged wars, the greater part of the country was divided among British conquerors. The English landlord-and-tenant system replaced the old Irish arrangement. The big landowners either leased the land to the Celtic Irish peasants, or exploited the properties themselves by means of hired managers and Irish labor. For more than two centuries a struggle went on between the oppressed Irish farmer who found himself deprived of his own soil, and the foreign Protestant landlord who very often looked with contempt on the Irish-Catholic inhabitants. The system of "tenancy-at-will," imposed by the English, was one of the greatest injustices done to the unfortunate Celts. It permitted the landlords to send away tenants whenever they chose.
Although the weather with its effect on potato diseases and thus upon economic conditions in general was mainly responsible for the great collapse after 1846, the hated system of landlords seriously aggravated it. The small holdings which were not cultivated directly by the big landlords had previously been subdivided repeatedly because of the increase of population. In this way they became too small to return a livelihood. It was on properties of this kind that potatoes were raised most intensively until the failure of the crops suddenly cut off the principal source of food and threw the entire country into privation.
A change came in the latter part of the nineteenth century when new laws restored a part of the land to the tenants as owners. At present 60 per cent of the holdings are cultivated by owners, and the rest are leased. Most of the properties range in size between 5 and 100 acres; only 6 per cent of them are larger. The creation of small farms is still going on. New holdings are created from untenanted land, and considerable sums have been loaned by the government to finance the development of these small properties. Another part of the program has been the enlargement of very small holdings to the point where they can be profitably operated.