Country life history – Introduction

This blog feature many aspects of social change in rural Ireland from the time of which it was first inhabited, its survival as a hunter gatherer type of society, the ingress of new peoples from abroad, the introduction of new technology, and new ways of living. In order to appreciate the circumstances which its people had and have to contend with, special emphasis has been placed on its geology, soils, and its climate. The purpose is to construct a narrative from its early history right up until the present day. Up to the first millennium change happened slowly. The conversion to Christianity and the coming of the uninvited Vikings were the major social influence on Irish society in the first millennium, while the Normans and particularly the British were the main influencing factors for most of the the second. In the twentieth century, Britain, self government, separation from our Northern Ireland neighbors and EU membership were and still are main influencing factors on Rural Ireland as a whole.

From the eighteenth century onwards English rural society became a capitalist one – the first in the world – and a system of agrarian capitalist development was set in train. This form of capitalism was adopted in Ireland by the Landlord Class, who in the main resided in England and capitalism continues to have a widespread impact upon the nature of Irish rural life today. This does not mean that the changes which have occurred were inevitable, particularly after independence and even more so within an enlarged European Community. It does place at the centre of the analysis a consideration of the commercial rationalization of agriculture, organized around profitable production for urban markets mainly outside of Ireland and the social consequences of this process. A further theme is the changing class structure of Irish rural society. The transition from a tribal system of land tenure of the medieval world to a landlord/peasant class structure of the manorial system there eventually emerged the tripartite structure which typified Victorian high farming: landowner, tenant farmer and landless farm labourer. During the twentieth century this transformed in turn, into farm owners and farm workers. The influence of technology in the form of farm tractors, machinery and fertilizers has had a far more rapid and pronounced effect on rural life. While the popularization of the motor car has brought a new population of urban workers who decided to reside in rural Ireland. The ex-urban newcomers to the countryside are frequently represented as the harbingers of another important aspect of rural social change: more often than not they shop in the town supermarket before returning to their country abode, while the local shop and post office has died a slow death. Nevertheless there has been a strong homogenizing influence of Irish society in general through education, welfare state, the mass media, and the extension of public and private transport. For our negotiations on entry to the EEC (EU) agriculture and particularly high prices for farm produce was a corner stone of our entry.

Ultimately, this blog aims to highlight the demise of farming activity, from flax growing, potato acreage collapse, sugar beet factory closure, a weak pig and poultry industry and the threat of the supermarkets to our main stay beef and dairy industries. Full time farmer numbers in Ireland are reducing by an alarming rate.  Farmers, environmentalists and consumers have, in the past argued with one another about the importance of scarce resources, particularly fertilizer and fossil energy argument is raised and the fact that half of the world’s food is now dependent on these resources. Emphasis has been placed on Phosphorus which is critical for the survival of the human race and which is non-renewable. Presently, most of the Phosphate rock mined in Morocco (which produce two-thirds of the world’s requirements) is utilized mainly by farmers in the Northern hemisphere to produce food in excess and dump the surplus in Africa and Asia. The Northern hemisphere’s demand makes fertilizer too expensive for Africa itself to utilize for there own food production.

The Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) which started in 1995, Single Farm Payments and Farmer Retirement Scheme gave the part-time farmer encouragement and financial support until 2008, when the REPS scheme was withdrawn. When introduced, it encouraged farmers to reduce livestock numbers while looking after the farm environment. For a short period it was felt that the EU – Ireland valued a healthy countryside, not necessarily always producing wealth. The marginal farmer was suddenly confused once more when it was withdrawn. Once again it appears that work is only considered ‘productive’ if it creates a commodity which can be sold on the world market.

Ireland as a small Island nation with a further 220 islands off its shore will always have difficulties with regard to its countryside, and particularly rural employment. One often wonders if the other countries within the EU fully understand the difficulties involved. For example, for a small farmer in Bavaria or in Luxenbourg, or Belgium wants to get off farm employment, or set up in business, he/she can commute to another country by driving down the motorway/autobahn for say 50 kilometers, a job or market for artisan produce would await them, even though it might be in a different country. Compare that with a small farmer or a rural worker on Cape Clear or the Aran Islands, or Tory Island or even on the Mainland West of Ireland – one is pretty isolated; so the only option is to emigrate.  Furthermore, Ireland and its islands are restricted in that pasture and forestry are the only option for land use for a good portion of the country. As for markets, our products have to cross one or two or even three seas, as we still need to export 70 to 80 per cent of the food we produce.

Ireland of the 21st century has been particularly attractive to people from other countries particularly since word got out about the Celtic Tiger. When the “Tiger” got out of control and banks went bankrupt, some of our native young people people have lost their jobs. The more adaptable have been able to emigrate, however the natives who for family or other reasons who are unable to go would at this juncture be willing to work in lesser jobs that are now occupied by people from Eastern Europe. It maybe that the global economy has reached an inflection point, where countries like Ireland which has driven non agricultural growth (particularly the building industry) for the last twenty years or so is revisiting post famine, post World War 2 massive emigration from our shore. Meanwhile our biggest industry – farming output has declined from 16 percent in the late seventies to 2 percent of the GNP at present.

The blog is written for the general reader and not for an academic specialist. It therefore dispenses with conventional academic etiquette of footnotes and of-times citations. However, due acknowledgement is made of the work of others where possible.

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