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Life on a small Irish Farm.

Ownership of the Land.
 

Read about farming in Ireland from Samuel Lewis' Topographical Directory of Ireland published in 1837.

See vintage farming machinery at work at Vintage Rallies

In the past Ireland was almost exclusively an agricultural country, ownership of the land at least in the earliest periods seems to have been on a tribal basis, little is known of the structure of these early communities.

The tribes of the post Celtic to pre Norman period appear to have organized themselves into kingships, the land being held by the king or tribal leader, and the people, at least in the earlier times had some say in who became king.

After the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century the church received grants of land from local chiefs. Some chiefs set themselves up as church leaders, serving dual roles, using their military power to impose their ecclesiastical doctrine, Present day County Down is a particularly good example where several of the early monastery were led by relations of Dicu.

With the Norman conquest this came to an end and kingships became hereditary, effectively a change of ruler meant warfare.

It is probably fair to say that it was only after the Norman conquest, which began in the late 1100's, that the land came under the control of individuals who set about implementing a system which benefited them and their overlords, with no regard of the native population. Ireland, particularly the eastern portion was set to continue in this mode for a considerable period of time.

The information on this page applies very broadly to a period between the early eighteenth to mid twentieth century. By the early 1700's most of the land was in the hand of English landlords, many of whom held vast tracts. Most of the landlords let the land to tenant farmers who had few rights, the exception being Ulster where the tenant had some protection. Travelers noted that Ulster farms were generally better cared for than those in the rest of the country, being more secure in tenure, because of the 'Ulster Custom' this allowed the rent to be fixed by a valuator who was acceptable to both the landlord and the tenant. Ulster farmers improved their property by draining the land extending buildings and whitewashing them. See the production of lime.

Bygone Days.

Other farm related video's.

Read about food consumed by early people in Ireland.

In the rest of the country the tenant was liable to lose his tenure, if someone offered a better price, so it was to his befit to make the place look as unappealing as possible.

England was at war with France between the years of 1793 and 1815 and was unable to buy food from Europe Irish farming experienced a boom during this period, this resulted in an increase in rents which were not reduced after the defeat of Napoleon when the boom ended.

The year 1830 saw the introduction of the first land act,this was an attempt to give the tenants a modicum of security to their properties. Subsequent acts were passed culminating in Wyndhams' Act in 1903 which offered inducements to landlords to sell their properties. The government made available loans to tenants over a period of ninety nine years enabling them to purchase their property, by the time of Ireland's independence over eleven million acres were owned by former tenants.

Strong Farmers.

Between five and ten percent of tenant farmers held thirty acres or more, these were the most prosperous men in the country, the traditional term for them was 'Strong Farmers'. They were canny cautious men reluctant to display their affluence, when they married the bride was expected to bring a substantial dowry. Younger sons of these farmers who were not to inherit the farm would be educated to become doctors, lawyers or priests.

Small Farmers.

The majority of Irish farms had between five and thirty acres, in the Munster area most of these engaged in dairy farming, the women making butter which ended up in the great butter market in Cork, the calves would be sold on at the cattle fairs. All small farmers practiced mixed farming, keeping a cow or two growing potatoes and grain to feed the family

In coastal areas some farmers would engage in both fishing and farming, and indeed this is true to some extent today. Fishing supplied a welcome variation to the diet, and an added source of income, the surplus being either sold or bartered. The seas around Ireland particularly in the past were well stocked with many species of fish and shellfish, in parts of the country the harvesting of kelp provided another source of income.

It was from these humble beginnings that the fishing industry of Ireland grew, employing today about 13,500. With the current rise in fuel prices (Sept 2005) it is entirely conceivable that a considerable number of these, particularly the larger vessels will find it totally uneconomic to put to sea, and consequently will go bankrupt through no fault of their own.

The Cottiers.

The most numerous people in rural Ireland were the Cottiers', these were mainly farm laborer's, or men who's farm was so small they could not make a living from it and had to work on larger farms to survive. Many larger farmers who need help gave some ground usually half an acre to a man who would build a cabin on it. He would pay the farmer for the land usually about £5.00 (1800's) but he paid in labour not money, when the farmer needed him he would work for 5d to 8d per day (240d = £1) at the end of the year the wages were added up and set against the rent.

The Cottiers would grow food on his plot, keep a pig and hens, and could also rent more land in Con-acre (Land that is plowed and ready to receive a crop) rent for con-acre land was usually between £5 and £8 per acre. Life for the Cottiers was miserable living usually in a damp one roomed mud hut often without windows or chimney. Their diet was almost exclusively potatoes, a particularly difficult time was in months of June and July 'The hungry months' when the old crop of potatoes were finished and the new not yet ready to harvest. Children of the Cottiers would often go to the hiring fairs and offer their services.

Labourer's.

Most towns held twice yearly hiring fairs, at these labourer's would offer their services to work on farms. A man could expect to receive about £5 per year while a girl might receive £2 or £3 per year, in many cases this amounted to little more than slave labour, the people being expected to work from dawn till dusk. Another group of labourer's were the 'spalpeens' these were men who traveled the country with a spade or a sickle looking for work, they were well paid at harvest time, but during the rest of the year had little employment, so they were the worst off of all. Usually they lived in towns, as many as sixty percent of the population of towns such as Navan and Kildare were labourer's who lived in the suburbs of the town in miserable conditions.

 

Rundale.
 

Rundale was a system of farming peculiar to Ireland that was carried on in all parts but principally in the west, it was a carryover from the Celtic way of life. A group of family's would get together and rent a block of land, they would divide the land into arable and pasture each family in the group would be entitled to graze a fixed number of livestock on the land. The arable land was divided fairly also ensuring all had equal share of good and bad land. By the end of the eighteenth century the system was dying out, landlords disliked it, and also it was destroying its self from within, as the population grew the land was being divided into smaller and smaller plots. A writer in Donegal found a half acre field that was divided between twenty six people.

 

Secret Societies.
 

During the early nineteenth century many secret societies sprung up each seeking to protect the rights of its members. These were known by various names Carders, White feet, Threshers and Ribbon men, they were in effect trade unions trying to enforce what they considered justice. They tried to stop unreasonable rent increases and to prevent farmers overcharging for con acre, and to discourage people from renting a property form which the previous tenant had been evicted. They also tried to stop the Protestant clergymen increasing the tithe and the Catholic priest from raising his fees for weddings and funerals.

Those who the societies considered to have broken their rules were often visited at night and threatened, if they persisted they may be beaten up or even murdered. The government replied by hanging many offenders, thousands more were transported to Australia.

Wyndhams' Act of 1903, which made available 100 million pounds to enable tenants to purchase land. Inducements were also offered to landlords to sell their land. By the time Ireland became independent in 1921 some eleven million acres were purchased by tenants in this way.

If you are interested in Irish Farming History you will find some information reprinted from Samuel Lewis' Topographical Directory of Ireland

A Farm For the Future.
Rebecca Hoskins.