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irish literature

Down on the Farm

Heather Laird

Farming in Modern Irish Literature, by Nicholas Grene, Oxford University Press, 256 pp, £60, ISBN: 978-0198861294

This is the first book-length examination of literary representations of the Irish family farm.  Given how frequently farming figures in fiction, drama, poetry and life-writing in Ireland, it is surprising that it has taken so long for someone to produce a sustained analysis of Irish farm writing. The dearth of scholarship on the topic is especially notable when compared to the research industry that has as its focus the Big House novel.

Nicholas Grene is well-equipped to provide an overview of literary engagements with farming in Ireland; he has an extensive knowledge of Irish literature, grew up on a farm in Wicklow in the 1950s and went on to combine part-time work there with a very successful academic career. The book features a broad array of literary works from across the island of Ireland, though it is predominantly concerned with Irish writers that were/are based south of the border. The stated chronological focus is from the establishment of the Free State onwards, but the texts discussed span from the early 1900s to the present day.

Farming in Modern Irish Literature has a two-part structure. It opens with five thematic chapters (Family and Inheritance, Life on the Margins, Childhood Memories, Community Relations, Reactions to Modernity) and concludes with a chapter each on Patrick Kavanagh, John McGahern and Seamus Heaney. The thematic chapters are especially strong: they cover an impressive number and range of literary works yet the discussion is always highly integrated. The first of these chapters, on Irish texts that find their subject matter in the fraught family situations that arise from inheritance disputes, is particularly poignant; family tragedies arising from disputes about land transmission are unfortunately still a feature of Irish rural society.

In the opening thematic chapters, Grene is keenly attuned to textual details that overtly link land ownership with the national question. For example, when discussing Patrick Colum’s 1905 play The Land in “Family and Inheritance,” he references Murtagh Crosgar’s claim that owner-occupancy (facilitated by the Wyndham Land Act of 1903) will mean that “[f]rom this day out we’re planted in the soil”. The word “planted”, Grene tells us, “is all the more forceful because of its associations with the ‘planters’, traditional term for the colonising landlords. This is the dispossessed people taking back possession.” Underpinning the various thematic concerns of Farming in Modern Irish Literature is the argument, outlined in its opening pages, that the small family farm is a metonym for the island of Ireland. The historical context for this, Grene states, is the alliance formed towards the end of the nineteenth century between the land movement and nationalism. The transfer of land ownership that resulted from various land purchase acts could, therefore, be equated with the transfer of ownership of the Irish nation.

While the overall point is valid, it lacks the nuance that a more detailed discussion of land issues in Ireland would have facilitated. In Grene’s historical overview, land agitation was one of the two driving forces of politics in the nineteenth century. It combined with the other, the movement for legislative independence from Britain, in the late nineteenth century. Successive land acts then transferred the bulk of Irish land from large landowners to tenant-farmers. Grene is reiterating here the standard short version of the land movement in Ireland and its relationship with nationalism. It is certainly true that in the late nineteenth century, agrarian agitation was the driving force behind Irish nationalism. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, the radical combination of forces that had placed the land question at the very centre of nationalist politics in the Land War period had begun to break down, with the land question increasingly viewed by mainstream nationalists as a damaging social concern that was detracting attention from the more important political issue of the state. The land purchase acts offered little to smallholders and landless agricultural labourers. The poorer tenant-farmer might now be in the process of buying his or her small holding, but owning this piece of ground would not make it any more profitable. Neither were smallholders and landless labourers likely to benefit significantly from the Congested Districts Board’s land redistribution programme; the board, established by Arthur Balfour in 1891, was charged with relieving congestion on land in the west of the country, but in its earliest manifestation it could only redistribute land that landlords and farmers were willing to sell to it. Indeed, following the passing of the principal land purchase acts the conditions of some rural dwellers deteriorated rather than improving or staying static in that those who had once enjoyed rights of common grazing in untenanted pastures, a practice sometimes termed agistment, now found that these lands tended to be in the hands of large-scale cattle-farmers commonly referred to graziers or ranchers.

Land hunger, as Grene acknowledges later in the book, was rife in the aftermath of the land purchase acts. The main focus of rural tensions in the early years of the twentieth century was the non-residential grazier or rancher. Non-residential grazing was the epitome of agrarian capitalism in that it was most often associated with shopkeepers or publicans with surplus capital hoping to make a quick profit through the fattening of beef cattle. Agrarian agitation against this grouping was built on earlier low-level hostility against large-scale grazing; intermittent reports from the nineteenth century tell of pasture land being dug up by groups of hundreds or even thousands of poorer rural dwellers so that it would no longer be suitable for cattle and would have to be let out for tillage. In addition to being against the economic interests of the rural poor, grazing enterprises had negative connotations. The majority were established in the latter half of the nineteenth century and reliant upon two main sources of land: untenanted land that in some cases had been previously occupied by those who had died during the Famine or had emigrated as a result of it and holdings formerly held by evicted subsistence tenants.

Are these additional contextual factors – the later fracturing of the relationship between land agitation and Irish nationalism and the tensions that resulted from what is sometimes referred to as the corn to horn transition in farming practices – relevant to an analysis of the representation of farming in Irish literature? A brief discussion of two literary texts from different stages in the time period covered by Grene suggests that the answer is a resounding “yes”. The first of these texts is James Joyce’s Ulysses. This novel famously features the Citizen, an overtly nationalist figure who dominates the “Cyclops” episode. According to the unnamed narrator of that episode, the Citizen, who in Barney Kiernan’s pub rails against Famine evictions, has himself taken over an evicted holding and is the potential target of agrarian violence. This claim – made by a man whose thoughts and comments, though vitriolic, are generally grounded in fact – points to an emerging chasm between mainstream Irish nationalists and agrarian agitators. Moreover, at the time of the setting of the novel, a person living in Dublin who is renting land in the country is most likely a non-residential grazier, which would explain the Citizen’s interest in Ireland’s beef industry.

While a case could be made that farming and, more specifically, the beef economy is more important to Ulysses than might generally be recognised, it is clearly neither the setting nor the subject of the novel. John McGahern’s Amongst Women is more relevant to a discussion of the implications of the contextual omissions of Farming in Modern Irish Literature as farming is central to it and Grene includes a number of references to the novel in his book. The central figure of Amongst Women, as Grene notes, fought for an independent Ireland but is disillusioned with the society that the national struggle gave rise to. He cuts himself off from it, instead seeking absolute control over his farm and family. In contrast, Moran’s former IRA comrade, his intellectual inferior, has thrived in post-revolutionary Ireland, gaining in money, confidence and power from his success in the cattle industry. Moran has a good-sized working farm. McQuaid drives a white Mercedes and lives in a big cattle dealer’s house. When read against a more complex historical narrative of Irish land issues, it is clearly significant that the day that Moran and McQuaid traditionally meet to reminisce about the War of Independence is the annual fair day when cattle dealers like McQuaid buy winter stock from poor farmers for fattening for the market. In Farming in Modern Irish Literature, Grene references Frank McGahern’s contemptuous description of his son’s Leitrim farm as a “snipe run”. Frank McGahern, Grene reminds us, was at the time the owner of a small retirement farm that looked out over the famed cattle pastures of Boyle. Given that one of McQuaid’s main functions in Amongst Women is to demonstrate that the transfer of the ownership of the state in Ireland had done little to stem the exploitation of the poorest sectors of society, perhaps Frank McGahern was right to view his son’s decision to base himself amongst subsistence farmers as a wilful act of defiance.

The chapter on McGahern is one of three individual studies that conclude Farming in Modern Irish Literature. Grene acknowledges that the structure of the book – around key tropes and key authors – has ensured that more attention is paid to male writers. That said, women writers ‑ including Peig Sayers, Maura Laverty, Mary Lavin, Alice Taylor, Edna O’Brien, Claire Keegan, Belinda McKeon and Anne Enright – are mentioned in the book, most notably in the framing of it, and sometimes discussed at length. Informing us in the introduction that “many women have made use of their memories of farming childhoods in memoirs, novels, and short stories”, Grene goes on to include a significant number of female-authored texts in the third chapter of the book, “Childhood Memories”, making it the most balanced with regard to gender. Other thematic chapters, most notably “Family and Inheritance” and “Life on the Margins”, contain few, if any, references to women writers, though Grene is very alert in such chapters to how rural woman were and are impacted by issues like inheritance law and practices. Indeed, “Family and Inheritance” opens with a verse from Bernard O’Donoghue’s “The Will” that tells of the “solid men” who assembled in advance of a man’s early death from meningitis to ensure that “his wife would not inherit the farm”. Speaking specifically about the single-author chapters, Grene points out that he was unable to find an Irish woman writer with an equivalent career-long preoccupation with farming. That may well be the case, but given that the thematic chapters are, in general, richer and more original than the single-author chapters, omitting the latter and adding to the thematic scope of the book could have resulted in both a better balance overall of male and female writers and an even stronger study of the representation of farming in modern Irish literature.

In a bridging paragraph to the second part of the book, Grene states his hope that the three chosen authors can be seen differently in the context of the preceding thematic chapters, but the chapter on Kavanagh, in particular, covers quite familiar territory: in summary, Grene points out that in his depiction of small farming Monaghan life, Kavanagh was reacting against the misconceptions of the revival and paving the way for future Irish writers to write more realistically about their locale.

An example of a thematic chapter that could have taken the place of a single-author one is a chapter on farm animals. Interesting things could have been said in such a chapter about literary representations of women’s relationship with domesticated animals valued for their reproductive capacities. Given the historic importance of “egg money” to rural women in Ireland, the link between women and hens (only briefly discussed in the book) could have formed a core part of such a chapter. The theoretical underpinnings for an analysis of this kind already exist in the scholarship of Irish eco-feminist literary scholars like Maureen O’Connor. A wealth of material is covered in Farming in Modern Irish Literature, but it is unfortunate that its structure ensures that such gender-related questions as to whether different tropes emerge in female-authored Irish farm writing or whether women writers approach recurring tropes in different ways cannot be systematically addressed in Grene’s book.

Farm writing is not unique to Ireland. What is distinctive about Irish farm writing, as Grene points out in his introduction, is the sustained hold that the small family farm has on the Irish literary imagination. Notwithstanding a dramatic rural to urban demographic shift in twentieth century Ireland, Irish writers repeatedly return to the family farm as a setting and subject, whether this takes the form of the idyllic childhood recollections of Alice Taylor or Kevin Barry’s distinctively anti-pastoral short story “Animal Needs”. Grene concludes his book by stating that “the imaginative investment in farming, and the multiple ways in which Irish writers have responded to it through the last century” make it, in his view, a rich scholarly subject. In Farming in Modern Irish Literature, he has more than demonstrated this richness. With this ambitious publication, grounded in a sustained and dedicated engagement with Irish literature, Nicholas Grene has commenced a long overdue conversation about Irish farm writing.


Heather Laird is a lecturer in English at University College Cork. She is a postcolonial scholar whose research interests include theories and practices of resistance, particularly as they relate to land usage, and Irish culture since the early nineteenth century. Her publications include Subversive Law in Ireland, 1879-1920 (2005) and Commemoration (2018). She is an editor of Síreacht: Longings for Another Ireland, a series of short texts that critique received wisdom and explore the potential of ideas commonly dismissed as utopian.




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