Maurice Earls writes: Micheál Martin was in Washington for St Patrick’s Day and caught Covid, or perhaps he brought it with him. Either way it was bad luck. The unfortunate man had to confine himself within in the Irish embassy. One would imagine the gilt wore off the gingerbread inside the embassy quick enough. The Taoiseach might even have begun to feel an increased sympathy for Julian Assange.
But what was Micheál doing in Washington in the first place? Why wasn’t he down in Cork clapping his heart out as the parade made its way along Patrick Street? After all, that’s where his votes are. Well, we all know the answer to that: the Irish diaspora and the annual pass into the White House ‑ the world’s power centre ‑ which Irish-Americans provide.
The multiple waves of emigration to the US from the early nineteenth century were part of a process that saw the population of the Republic fall to below three million by the early 1960s. Had it followed European and UK norms it might have been somewhere between fifteen and twenty million. This calamity is usually and, in the present writer’s opinion, oddly attributed to a short-lived period of potato blight in the 1840s rather than to the more obvious explanation: the absence of political autonomy.
Both the diaspora and demographic collapse are reflected in the decline of tillage and the dominance of pasture in recent Irish history. We now have 7.3 million cattle and counting. At present Irish agriculture is dysfunctional ecologically and economically. It has become clear that livestock crowding out other possibilities is not a great idea and also that it is not a great idea for us to be massive importers of calories.
It is possible that the emerging European food crisis, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, could be used to reduce the harmful social and environmental effects of monocultural and industrial practices in Irish farming. If the EU pursues an environmentally friendly route to food independence, there would be clear opportunities for this country to reverse the serious environmental damage that has taken place while at the same time producing food products calculated to serve the 300 million-strong market on our doorstep.
The government, presumably not wishing to have to deal with bread riots in addition to its other worries, is encouraging farmers to switch to tillage in the national interest. During the Second World War de Valera, facing a similar problem, introduced a programme of “compulsory tillage”. Compulsion does not, at least not yet, appear to be on the cards and the farming organisations have argued that financial incentivisation would be the best route to follow. Presumably, in extremis, the de Valera measure could be taken out of the drawer. Indeed it could be argued that we are already in an extreme situation.
Pasture, which in an environmentally positive future would continue to play a role, was always a big part of Irish agriculture. It was established from the time St Patrick was minding sheep on an Irish hillside – and probably well before. Grass grows almost all year round and our mild climate means that animals can be kept outdoors most of the year. In Gaelic Ireland cattle were the currency and the chief indicator of status. It was, however, a fairly primitive form of agriculture, low on methane and nitrate-free, quite divorced from today’s industrialised approach, and one which did not do much environmental damage. As the centuries passed, agriculture became more sophisticated and by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, while pasture retained a considerable presence, tillage was widespread and supported a greatly expanded population. It was especially practised by the poor, whose subsistence depended on tillage crops, particularly the potato. By the 1840s a third of all land tilled was devoted to the potato. Many peasant families, such as that of William Carleton, enjoyed a basic level of comfort on the back of steady labour. But it was a society with very little in the way of surplus profit. Faced with his son’s dreamy aspirations, Carleton’s father declared that if William would not lift the spade he should move on. This he chose to do, to the great benefit of Irish literature.
But in the second half of the nineteenth century a strange thing happened, tillage was abandoned and pasture became generalised, supporting a much reduced population – thus Irish emigration, the diaspora and the ritual mid-March journeying of our politicians.
How did that happen and why? Answering that question goes to the very heart of modern Irish history. At its core the answer has very little to do with grain prices, cheaper wheat from Russian imperial lands, potato blight or the Corn Laws and their repeal. Rather it is in the area of politics and power that the answer is to be found. There was nothing inevitable about the switch to pasture. In the two decades following the repeal of the Corn Laws, the proportion of land devoted to tillage significantly increased in England whereas that devoted to pasture declined. So then, what were the particular Irish political issues?
Put simply, in the pre-Famine decades the rural poor were generally and accurately seen by the political power and wealth of the country as a massive threat. One way or another this threat had to be confronted. The alternative was an overturning of the existing order. The great stand-off between the rural poor and the landlord class is the defining feature of the pre-Famine decades. Daniel O’Connell’s achievement was to successfully bring about national political leadership under an embryonic bourgeoisie committed to the ideal of a successful industrialised economy facilitated by legislative autonomy. There is a fair chance that it would have worked. Certainly, O’Connell believed it would.
In recent years new historical work based on grain price analysis and land use statistics has appeared which shows that the large-scale switchover to pasture did not begin until the Famine decade. By and large, the new work is convincing. However, there are problems in that the techniques of economic analysis cannot measure the threat posed by the peasantry as experienced by Irish landlords whose political confidence was steadily ebbing in the decades before the 1840s disaster.
The desire amongst landlords to eliminate a hostile peasantry and reorder Irish agriculture was widespread in that era. The key driver was fear of an economically and politically hostile peasantry which was believed to pose an existential threat to the landed interest. In response, emigration was encouraged even subsidised. Clerical families such as that of Sheridan le Fanu in Co Limerick lived in a state of siege, in constant fear of those around them. In response le Fanu went on to edit a series of newspapers unremittingly devoted to the landlord interest. Cattle in the fields were mutilated. Hay ricks were burned. Threatening letters and rural violence were widespread. It was a low level war, albeit not generalised.
Certain landlord-connected intellectuals had since the middle eighteenth century pined for a culturally organic relationship between landlords and their tenants. Most landlords came to the view that such a prospect was fanciful. Some of these were happy to mortgage their properties and settle down to a lifestyle based on serious carousing. Indeed a quarter of landed estates were found to be effectively bankrupt by 1850. More practically-minded landlord-connected elements had attempted to solve the problem through a campaign of proselytism designed to convert the rural poor to Protestantism. While in theory this offered a complete solution, in practice it proved impossible to penetrate the embedded mutual hostility which prevailed in the countryside and elsewhere.
While general land clearance was not a practical possibility it was known that many would have welcomed it and, on occasion, it was undertaken. In 1845, before famine and crop failure were known in Kerry, O’Connell spoke at a monster meeting in that county of landlords “hunting their wretched tenants out of their dwellings as if they were wild beasts”; a local priest who also addressed the meeting said that if landlords behaved properly there could be harmony in the countryside. He did not hold out much hope of that and believed the general experience was of “greater than Egyptian bondage”. He is quoted in the press as saying that he had
witnessed the system of extermination; the evils springing from such a system were frightful to contemplate ‑ whole districts depopulated ‑ countless families reduced from a condition of comparative wealth to misery ‑ and the creatures of God’s own likeness treated with greater barbarity that if they belonged to the brute creation … The heart-rending clearance system produced lamentable effects in the country and he was sorry it was again raising its hydra head in different parts of that county.
However, he believed that with O’Connell and the prospect of Repeal “delivery was at hand”.
Like a great many Irish people, Fr O’Sullivan was wrong. Repeal was not at hand; the land was cleared, with the co-operation of a new tenant class, and over a century of emigration and population decline began. Relieved landlords could look out on fields of cattle, knowing there was no prospect of a bovine revolution and that the grazing ruminants did not have an offensive religious affiliation. Providence had removed a long-experienced and seemingly intractable threat. Of course, the divine hand was actively assisted by a combination of legal measures and a fierce determination that the peasant rural economy would not be permitted to resume.
It is possible that Micheál Martin, during his seclusion in Washington, fell to reflecting on our standing army of cattle. Given the war in Ukraine, he may even have contemplated the need for greater balance in Irish agriculture and its potential as an exporting industry under rapidly changing world conditions. One point he might consider: if we are to encourage grain production, there are new tillage methods (min till) available which he could promote and which in many circumstances would contribute to reversing the enormous damage done to our biodiversity after seventy years of politically encouraged industrial farming. Down with cows!