The Post War Agricultural Revolution

After the War Quentin Seddon in his book The Silent Revolution – Farming and the Countryside into the 21st Century: wrote about the U.K. ‘As late as the 1950s we suffered more from tuberculosis than any comparable country. Tuberculosis (TB) is a killer, it killed between 2000 and 3000 children outright per year, shortened the lives of many adults, and made invalids of thousands more both young and old. It also destroyed the lungs and other tissue of cattle, leading to their debility and early death as well. …………………………. Milk could be made safe by pasteurizing but farm families were at risk because they drank the raw milk…………………….There were 150,000 dairy herds in 1947 and of all of those cows 70 per cent of them were hand milked. A small farmer usually had 10 cows for that was all one pair of hands could mange – while a bigger herd also meant more risk from tuberculosis and other diseases. Twice daily milking was hard, painful work. On the rawest winter mornings, burning muscles were thrust gratefully into the icy flow from cold tap. For years the experts had said that the resulting scarcity of labour – especially that of women – for this demanding job would see the end of dairy farming. ……………………….After the war, bringing in the machines lowered the yearly labour costs by £2 to £3 per cow or about half the weekly wage of one man. Pasteurisation, (milking) parlour hygiene, and disease eradication combined to produce healthy cows, healthy people and pure milk…………………….. This world of plague, peasants and pitiful diseased children is so remote to day that the struggles to end it less than fifty years ago have already been forgotten. …………………… The 150,000 dairy farmers who after the war served their local communities with milk of uncertain quality, and the hundreds of small commercial dairies spreading it to markets only marginally wider, have to-day become 35,000 farmers and four huge concerns – Unigate, Express, Northern Foods and Dairy Crest. ………………………. The small dairy farmer has now become an endangered species himself in need of conservation. The same pattern repeats itself everywhere – in food, plenty and diversity; in farming, size and specialisation. There is now so much diversity that we should talk about farmings rather than about farming. The specialist pig farmers has little in common with the specialist producer of tomatoes, potatoes, chickens, hill sheep, milling wheat or malting barley’.


Here in Ireland the situation the situation was similar. The Irish state had to be contented with the prices that the open market in U.K. and abroad were willing to offer, with the result that the Irish government had to try and make – up the difference in order to keep farming viable. Those of us old enough to be able to remember the Emergency and from the countryside, can still envisage the horses drawn reaper and binder, the reeks of corn in the haggard, the Steam Engine, the Threshing Machine and the Straw Elevator coming to the thresh(thrash) the corn, the manipulating of the thresher into place, because the reek of shaves at either side left (like a narrow street) with just enough room for it to fit,  the throwing of someone into the chaff, the drawing of oats on the men’s back up the steps of the grain loft and the drinking of porter from the barrel and the men sitting at the big tables were happy times. The ‘hit song’ of the time still rings in ears: But then for our parents the yield of grain, the possibility of a broken harvest must have been a terrible worry, particularly if they had to have over one third of the farm under wheat by Government regulation. The long wait before the crop was harvested. The bawn field that had last been ploughed 100 years previously, the meeting of the sock of the plough with an iron pan (fool’s gold) as it used to be known as, because of the speckled gold-like colour coming through it, the horse drawn zig zag harrow to cultivate the ploughed ground, the adding of a sprinkle of tar to prevent the crows from eating the seed at sowing time, the sowing of the seed with the horse drawn seed sower, the spreading of fertilizer  by hand, the waiting of the corn to ripen, while praying that it would not lodge and that the weather would hold-up. The horse fly invariably got ready to drive the horses crazy. If the corn lodged – the mowing machine and scythe and hand binding instead of the reaper and binder had to be called into play. The last day of the harvesting of the corn the casual workmen had a sing song session, which the chorus still rings in my ears, particularly in the latter years:


South of the border,down Mexico way —

That’s where I fell in love, where the stars above came out to play.

And now as I wander my thoughts ever stray

South of the border,down Mexico way.


But then behold a Gascoigne two bucket milking machine had arrived and another rural job had gone. The vacuum for the milking, was created by a one horse power TVO/Petrol engine as electricity was not as yet in the parish 1947 nor in most parts of rural Ireland.  Meanwhile in the cow house the milking of the cows by hand – where  a good man was capable of milking seven to eight cows was now being replaced by the milking machine. John Healy in his Book Nineteen acres had this to say about the displacement of rural workers with technology, writing about Mayo in 1930s’: The rusted reaping hook (sickle) was the last of the old technology: it had been the basic implement for centuries. It was slow work but it predicted sharing. It produced the Meitheal and all that sprang from the meitheal. The scythe replaced it. The scythe halved the meitheal in numbers as it cut meadows and oatfields in half the time. And then before we had adjusted to the change, the horse-drawn mowing machine slashed the necessity for the meitheal and the men of the meitheal even further. Padraig Regan and his horse would team-up with Jim O’Donnell and his horse and mowing machine and they’d do in half a day what a meitheal of scythes would take two two days to take out. …………We didn’t miss the young men in their going or the young women who went after them: we thought  when the first tractor  came to the village and bullied its way into small meadows and did it in an hour what it took two men and a pair of horses half a day to do, it was a great and efficient machine. ……………………………….The tractor cut wide swathes in our already fast-dwindling population. It cut out Padraig Regan and his horse pairing up with Jim O’Donnell and his horse for the spring ploughing and summer hay cutting. It cut out the meitheal of carts drawing turf from the bog and hay and oats into the reeks and hayshed. ………………….In forty years of rapid technological change, the Jim O’Donnell’s learned how to master the new technology but never realized, no more than our political leaders, that every new technology exacts a price in the social as well as the economics organization of our people’.


The driving of cattle to the local fair at three o’clock in the morning, the meeting of jobbers, two – three miles out from the town and asking ‘how much do want those skin and bone animals’, the driving of the cattle to the local train station to be whisked off to Cahir, Clare or wherever or the possibility having to drive them back again that long journey of eight miles. Almost everyone for the previous 300 years or more had been affected by the local fair. The parish priest might wish to buy a cow, the children often got a holiday, and the tinker had a supply of tinware to sell. The Co-op marts arrived in the early fifties and more rural labourers had to leave our shores. They were established usually on the outskirts of towns. But now only a few of the old horse fairs remain – such as Cahermee and Ballinasloe. This change took place without anybody realizing what a difference it would make. 


       And then the Combine harvester had come to the parish and these type of jobs were gone forever. The following day these sixteen year olds to twenty five year olds were leaving for Camden Town, Kentish Town or maybe Dagenham or wherever.  : In their last local get-together  one of the songs sang was:


Tonight is our last night together,
For the nearest and dearest must part.
A soldier may roam to the ends of the world,
With his thoughts on his loving sweetheart.



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