About the Project

Law versus Practice is a ground-breaking interdisciplinary research project, which will explore the nature, commonality and evolution of women’s property-ownership between the foundation of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1541 and the Act of Union in 1800. This was a period of significant change in the demography of Irish landownership, with episodes of confiscation and plantation resulting in the almost wholesale transfer of land from the Gaelic and Old English elite to New English settlers. Law versus Practice will challenge the historiography of early modern Ireland, which is largely preoccupied with male-dominated freehold (outright) landownership. That approach prioritises the shift from majority Catholic to majority Protestant landownership, providing a ‘clean’ demographic interpretation of political and religious change, but obscures the complex reality of an economy and society that depended on the monetisation of land to function. In reality, freehold landowners relied on leases, mortgages and other devices to derive a profit from their estates. They were also responsible for the satisfaction of encumbrances claimed by family members, which included marital entitlements and inheritances.

Emphasis on freehold landownership is underpinned by a reliance on English common law, which held full jurisdiction in Ireland from the sixteenth century. While single women (femes sole) and widows could own and convey property under common law, married women (femes covert) were subject to coverture. This meant that a woman’s legal identity and obligations were subsumed by her husband and she could not own property or make contracts. The need for financial liquidity in a land-based economy caused legal practice to develop in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, and the emergence of equity through the Court of Chancery, the development of trust law, and the related growth in popularity of marriage settlements, provided flexibility in an otherwise rigid legal system.

The evolution of common legal practice had significant implications for property owners in Ireland, as did episodes of war, confiscation and plantation. Evidence demonstrates that this cohort included a significant number of women.

Law versus Practice seeks to understand

  • how women’s property ownership was understood, promoted or undermined within the context of the family.
  • how women’s property ownership was understood, protected or undermined by the State.
  • the ways in which women’s property ownership was impacted by episodes of war, confiscation and plantation.
  • how individual women navigated property ownership within
    • the family,
    • the legal system,
    • episodes of war, confiscation and plantation.
  • the extent to which women’s ownership in the period between 1541 and 1800 be traced and mapped.