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[Post Famine Ireland- Social Structure Ireland as it Really Was. Copyright © 2006 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

Chapter Two


Chapter Summary. This chapter deals with all the major aspects of the Irish economy with regard to primary production from the soils, rivers, and seas, both pastoral and tillage. Related questions such as the Co-operative Movement, the tenure of land, the improvement of land largely through drainage, and the Land Acts which transferred the holding of land are described. The hyperlinks immediately below are to the most important headings.


The Co-operative Movement

Tillage and Crops




Leases and Tenancies

Land Acts


Other Aspects



Overview of the Period

Agriculture was developing rapidly in Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom. So snapshots, as it were, of its state at any given time are very interesting. Comparing the second half of the nineteenth century with the first half, by 1850 the use of oxen for ploughing had died out. So too had the rundale-runrig system of ploughing associated with the big wooden plough. Fields were ploughed flat, and under-soil drainage was installed. For field cultivation, the use of the spade-shovel for anything other than gardens had ceased. There were no longer huge armies of cheap labourers to dig fields, or use scythes. Indeed farm labour became scarce in some areas. Smaller lighter iron ploughs drawn by horses and drill cultivation with ploughs and hoes became the norm. Artificial fertilisers became general, and the use of organic farm manure was at times abandoned. By mid-century, the endless experiments with crossing and breeding had resulted in the adoption of a limited number of breeds of cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, and poultry. Virtually the whole cattle industry could be summed up in one word, ‘shorthorn’. As roads and railways reached the furthest parts almost all farming became market-orientated. Subsistence agriculture ceased, and even the smallest farmer tried to produce something he could sell.

When discussing Irish agriculture it is necessary to remember that the gentlemen farmers and the strong farmers many of them Protestants, produced the vast bulk of agricultural produce which was sold commercially, even though by 1900 almost all the small farmers were producing some output for the market. However this might be limited to a calf, a pig, or a couple of sheep a year. A rough calculation shows that 300,000 farmers with an average farm size of 15 acres could cultivate 4.5 million acres. 120,000 farmers with an average farm size of 65 acres could cultivate 7.8 million acres, while 35,000 farmers with an average farm size of 150 acres would cultivate 5.25 million acres. The latter two combined would cultivate about 13 million acres or three times as much as the small farmers (See table of farm sizes in Foreman, Ireland, 183; with regard to numbers engaged in farming two thirds had under 30 acres). It must also be taken into account that the smaller the farm the less there is left for marketing after consumption on the farm is taken into account. Also, the small farmer normally had less machinery, less fertiliser, poorer seed and livestock. Foreman’s table shows that the percentage of holdings under 30 acres declined from over 90% before the Famine to 66% in 1901 and declined further to 55% in 1953-4. The total superficial  area of Ireland was about 32,000 square miles or 20,327,947 acres of which 4,787,003 were bog, waste, barren mountain, waters and marsh. So approximately 15 million acres were available for the various branches of agriculture.

For nearly twenty years after the Famine agriculture was prosperous in the United Kingdom. The period from 1850 to 1874 was described as the ‘Golden Age’ of British farming (Briggs and Jordan, Economic History of England, 323-8). It was also a period of great agricultural prosperity in Ireland. Farm machinery became more complex, resulting in the reaper-binder, the threshing mill, and eventually the tractor. The introduction of a revolutionary device, the milk separator, along with pasteurisation, was to revolutionise the whole dairy industry. Agriculture as practised by the best farmers in the United Kingdom was probably the best in Europe. Many Irish farmers were also improving their lands. But developments in Ireland never reached the same extremes as in England, so it was less affected by the ‘Great Depression’. Many of the progressive farmers were Protestants.

The Great Agricultural Depression is regarded as lasting from 1874 to 1896. It commenced with a series of bad harvests the worst of which was in 1879. Agricultural prices did not rise as a result of the poor crops because alternative sources of wheat could be found overseas at first particularly in America. Then a reliable refrigeration system for ships was devised, and mutton was found to lend itself to being transported in a frozen state. Australia shipped its first refrigerated cargo in 1881 and New Zealand commenced exporting frozen mutton in 1882. Vast quantities of wheat, frozen mutton, canned beef, and wool flooded into the country. The large-scale transportation of fresh meat was not feasible, and as fresh meat always tasted better than de-frozen meat the demand for it remained fairly stable. Tillage for the production of cereals had been encouraged by the Corn Laws, but as cereals now produced a smaller return than beef, tillage steadily decreased to produce a new equilibrium. Dairy produce, fruit and vegetables similarly could not be imported, so more were produced.

In Ireland the commercial agricultural sector had not spread so far on to unsuitable soils, nor had there been the same intensive inputs of expensive fertilisers and machinery. So Irish commercial farmers were not hit as badly as English ones. The recession was shallower and more short-lived. Nor were Irish rents so high. (The bad harvest in 1879 was a godsend to agitators like Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell but the agitation and terrorism of the Land League was of a political nature and not directed either at intolerable conditions of tenure or major losses of revenue. In any case their agitation was largely directed at small tenant farmers in the west of Ireland, who produced very little for the market.) Output in most of the branches of the livestock industry rose steadily, though there was a decline in the number of milch (milk) cows after the Danes entered the English butter market. The Danes raised their milk production per cow from 220 gallons in 1861 to 605 gallons per cow in 1914 and the butter fat content from 68 lbs to 239 lbs, and most of the soil in Denmark was less fertile than in Ireland (Farmers’ Gazette 27 Nov 1920). The development of Danish agriculture took an entire generation but by 1910 could be regarded as having caught up with Ireland. The English market was also growing so the volume of Irish exports was not affected. Nevertheless the Danes increasingly set the standards which Irish farmers had to match by the nineteen twenties.

 Beginning around 1889 with the start of the co-operative movement and the creamery movement there were signs of a renewal of effort to develop Irish agriculture. Farmers began to measure output, to measure the milk and count the eggs, and to get rid of under-performing stock. This was given an added stimulus by the formation of a Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in 1899. In the twentieth century considerable progress was made, and there was even an increase in tillage. During the First World War compulsory tillage brought a great increase to the number of acres under the plough, and led to the general adoption of the motor tractor.

 Yet in 1904 the Farmers’ Gazette noted that it was well known that agriculture was backward in some parts of Ireland, and that there was a need to study the matter before making any proposals for improvement.

The first obvious one was the number of uneconomic holdings. Then there was the lack of working capital. There was the lack of any inducement to invest in the improvement in land. The lack of proper housing for the farmer or his stock; the steady increase in second class pasture which would yield 4 times as much if it were tilled; the complacent satisfaction with the present situation which relegates Ireland to the place of a rancher to supply stock to English farmers to fatten; the prevalent practice of selling the best stock and breeding from the worst; the almost complete loss in some districts of the art of tillage; the want of regular systems of rotations; the aversion to doing more than the minimum to clean the land; the want of pride in the performance of farmwork and in the arrangements about the farmstead; the tendency to put off ploughing, sowing, and harvesting to the last moment; the small value that is put on time; the lack of recognition that the best manure for land is labour. The Land Act (1903) would do away with the evils of dual ownership, but will still leave a large number of uneconomic holdings, which not even the abolition of the rent itself could make viable (Farmers’ Gazette 2 Jan. 1904). (Even half a century later many of these facts were still noticeable, especially on tiny farms.)

Giving evidence to a Royal Commission a witness said that according to his experience there had been no improvement the cattle in Ireland in the past 50 years; no more butter was being produced per cow, and no more beef; tillage had likewise been stagnant. In England the case was quite different; land which fifty years ago carried 50 cows now carried 90. Everywhere in Ireland we see farms going backward; being over-run with gorse, ferns and weeds. The farmers say the grass is becoming more sour and lacking in nutrition, with more acid plants taking over from the nutritious grasses, and the quantity of hay cut per acre was falling off (Farmer’s Gazette 15 March 1902).

 Though speaking in general, it is clear that the Gazette was referring chiefly to those farmers with second grade land who devoted almost all of it to breeding cattle for sale. Nor as we will see had there been any shortage of efforts over the previous fifty years to improve agriculture. But the only tillage many farmers would have done was planting a few acres of potatoes for home consumption every year. It seems undeniable that in many parts of Ireland where stock raising was the principle occupation that many farmers were just lazy, and lacked the stimulus of competitive rents. The question must also be raised why specialist milk or beef producers adopted the shorthorn. O’Grada gives figures which seem to show that growth in productivity, though low by continental standards, was actually higher than in Britain. But part of the high productivity gains on the Continent can be explained by the low level from which they started. They just had to copy from the British Isles (O’Grada, Economic History, 262).

It seems clear that overall the value of the outputs of land relative to the costs of inputs from 1880 onwards was steadily falling and continued to fall up the Second World War. One major increase was the cost of farm labour. A clergyman wrote that a small glebe of church land which brought a steady income in 1870 was bringing no income at all by 1920 after the cost of the labour was subtracted. One result of this was the steady decline of holdings under 30 acres though these still amounted to over 50% of all holdings in the 1950s (Freeman, Ireland, 183). This affected the whole British Isles. After the Second World War it was realised that farming would have to be subsidised if a strategic minimum of home-produced food was to be maintained. [Top]


Beef Cattle     

The big development in the second half of the nineteenth century was the large-scale adoption of the shorthorn as the best breed of cattle for Ireland. Originally it was a dual purpose cow which various breeders developed either for beef or milk production. Though a Dairy shorthorn was also developed it was primarily a beef breed. By and large Irish farmers, even in the great creamery areas, did not favour specialised milk-breeds before the twentieth century. What they wanted was a cow which would give a reasonable amount of milk for consumption or the production of butter which then could be sold to the butcher for meat. No attempt was made to measure how much milk a cow produced, the farmers just judging by their eyes the amount of milk a given cow produced. Beef production was always the chief objective of the farmer. Only in Meath and Westmeath where butter production was minimal was the specialist beef breed, the Hereford preferred. The great advantage of the Hereford was that it could be fattened solely on grass, whereas the shorthorn and the Aberdeen Angus needed to be finished with feeding concentrates. The Aberdeen-Angus, a Scottish breed, was regarded as doing well on poorer land, as also did another Scottish breed, the Galloway, though the latter was purely a beef breed. The shorthorn breed was not widely adopted until after the Famine. Shortly after 1850 some improving farmers in Munster, where dairying was most concentrated, began importing and developing the shorthorn.

When around 1900, the Department of Agriculture began registering pure-bred bulls, shorthorns accounted for 65% of the total. The next largest group was the Aberdeen Angus with 6%, followed by the Hereford with 2½%. 26% of bulls registered were described as crossbred, these being particularly numerous in Munster (Farmers’ Gazette 9 August 1902). The only native Irish breeds surviving were the Kerry and its relation the Dexter, the latter being purely a beef breed, and together they amounted to 2½% of the Department’s approved bulls. The Irish brindled cow was common until 1850, after which a prejudice grew up against brindled animals. (A brindled animal had dark streaks or flecks on a lighter background). The brindled cow survived until 1900 in the poorer districts where they had a reputation of being poor milkers, and the Congested Districts Board preferred the Aberdeen Angus and the Galloway. However, crossing with shorthorns improved the breed until the shorthorn fever swept the country (Farmers’ Gazette 26 May 1900). The Dishley, or longhorn, so popular before the Famine disappeared.

The Department’s figures were of course misleading for it was trying to spread the use of established breeds the pedigree of whose bulls was established. The use of scrub bulls was widespread. The quality of a beef bull was easier to determine than that of a dairy bull. Both the breeder and the butcher could look at the bull, estimate its weight and see how much flesh was on the bull in the appropriate places for the best cuts of beef. The farmer could judge what weight the cattle had attained in the four years of their lives. Oddly enough, the purebred animal had another advantage when it was being bought at a fair, and that was that it looked better than the progeny of the non-descript bull!

All over the United Kingdom, following the repeal of the Corn Laws the price of cereals fell steadily, and farmers turned to the production of cattle. One reason for this was to cut costs. It was argued that farmers could have increased their profits if they had retained more tillage which would have better maintained the fertility of the soils in poorer areas. But against this it was said that increasingly farm labourers were leaving the countryside for better wages and conditions in the towns. Also it was maintained that the use of green crops gave a bad taste to milk and made it unsaleable. The over-riding factor was however the ever-increasing demand for fresh meat in English towns and cities. More and more people were able to afford to buy meat, and to have meat at the principal meal on more than one day of the week. Most parts of the animal could be sold for cheaper food, including the liver, the kidneys, and the fat which was rendered down to make cooking fats such as lard or dripping.

Cattle were sent to British markets from all over eastern and central Ireland, but the great centre of the beef industry was the limestone plains covered with glacial drift in Meath, Kildare and Westmeath. There is no obvious reason why this could not have been a great dairying region for the soil was suitable for both.

Even west of the Shannon the graziers formed the backbone of the economy. These graziers were farmers with comparatively large grassland farms which in the early twentieth century were targeted by agitators who wanted the big grazing farms confiscated by the Government and split up into smaller tillage farms. Cattle-ranching was the only successful business west of the Shannon. If the land was given over to tillage, the landowners argued, returns would be lower, and consequently the tenants would be unable to pay the existing rents (Weekly Irish Times 8 September 1906). In any case the land was often totally unsuitable for tillage. This was often the case when there was a thin soil over thick infertile glacial drift consisting largely of clay. The large farmers did not bother raising their own stock preferring to buy year old calves from the small farmers, and these calves were often the sole marketable product of the small farmers. (Soil apart, there was not in the area a tradition of growing tillage crops for the market. When a sugar beet factory was much later built in the region the beet had to be brought from the tillage areas in the east of Ireland. Similarly, it always proved impossible to get farmers outside Ulster to grow flax.)

The key figure in the success of the beef industry was the cattle dealer. He usually had some land of his own on which he could hold a stock of cattle. Like most other agricultural products cattle become ready for the market at the same time, namely at the end of summer, so a cattle dealer could hold over cattle to smooth out the supply to the English markets. As the cattle were bought and sold at the autumn fairs, sending them all directly to the English markets would cause a glut. The dealers had contacts with farmers, with the banks, with the railway and steamship companies and with the buyers at English fairs who were buying for the slaughterhouses. It was their organisation which made the beef industry profitable. The cattle from the less rich grasslands could not be sent directly to the butchers. The animals often had to finished off by fatteners who either had very good land or else stall-fed the cattle. Most of the cattle were shorthorns, except as noted above, Herefords in the Midlands. By the year 1900 many small farmers were using an Aberdeen Angus bull on small local cattle which produced a small animal which was popular with butchers. As with sheep and pigs, smaller and leaner animals were now being sought by the butchers. The whole tendency was away from enormous fat animals towards smaller animals with less fat. The drawback of this cross was that the cows were poor milkers (Farmers’ Gazette 9 June 1900).

The relative prosperity of much of Ireland, and of Connaught in particular, depended on the railways. Though the Grand and Royal Canals had played some part in opening up central Ireland to trade the Midland Great Western Railway had lines connecting Dublin with five west coast ports, Galway, Clifden, Westport, Killala, and Sligo, each branch having small spur-lines leading off it. Most places were within 20 miles of a railway so cattle did not loose much weight while being herded on foot to the railway. The railway companies and the ports made provision for the transfer of the cattle from the railway trucks on to the cattleboats and off again on the other side. The great port for the export of live cattle was Dublin, while Birkenhead in Cheshire, on the opposite side of the Mersey from Liverpool was the great importation port. In the course of time the three largest railways in Ireland were connected to the docks at the North Wall in Dublin. Birkenhead was similarly linked to the major British railways. Over 40% of the live cattle trade passed through the North Wall reflecting the great concentration of beef cattle in the Midlands.

The time for shipping the cattle depended on the times of the English fairs. The Government in 1895 issued an Order, the Animals (Transit and General) (Ireland) Order 1895, which gave detailed instructions regarding what it required. In accordance with this Order, inspectors made frequent checks on ports and railway yards to see the instructions were complied with; the cattleboats, stock-yards and lairs were also frequently inspected. A lair was an enclosed space close to a railway where cattle could be let out of the trucks, be given food and water, and be rested. Inspectors made frequent checks on ports and railway yards to see they were complied with (County Councils Gazette 4 May 1900).

In 1912 the English Board of Agriculture made more rules regarding the transport of live animals. After coming off the cattle boats the cattle were to be held for twelve hours in the lairs for rest, feeding, watering and inspection. This was not popular with the cattle dealers because it upset long-standing arrangements which inter-connected the Irish, English, and Scottish fairs. One reason for this new order was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Ireland.

Despite these inspections the horrors of the live cattle trade between Ireland and Britain in 1924 were described. Many cattle died or were slaughtered on board; cattle landed with their sides ripped by the horns of other animals; stick marks caused by the use of sticks by Irish drovers - really a bad habit rather than conscious cruelty. The losses due to injuries caused on transit amounted to £1 million a year (Weekly Northern Whig 9 February 1924).

With regard to exports, the cattle industry was second only to the linen industry in value, with live cattle exports accounting for about two thirds and dairy products one third. The numbers of cattle being exported rose from around 195,000 in the immediate post-Famine period to around 835,000 before the First World War. Figures given by Burke are broadly comparable, as are those given in the Northern Whig in 1924, though it is clear there are differences in accounting (Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine, 49; Burke, Industrial History, 329; Weekly Northern Whig 9 February 1924). The 765,251 cattle exported in 1919 brought in £22.7 million which was approximately equal to £12 million in 1914.

Ireland was at the very margin of the area suitable for the cultivation of all cereals except oats, but its soils and climate made it the best grass-growing region in Europe. In 1850, the Irish livestock industry was among the most advanced in the world at the time, and Ireland was one of the countries Danish farmers studied and from which they bought livestock when they wished to improve their own farm animals. The more progressive and market-orientated Irish farmers decided that the shorthorn breed, either pure or crossed with local cattle, was best suited Irish conditions. It resulted in a small, well-fleshed beast which was much in demand, and remained in demand, by English butchers. Great efforts were made to eradicate disease which would have destroyed markets. Despite the lamentations of nationalist writers with regard to the decline in tillage and the consequent fall in population, cattle-rearing produced the best return from Ireland’s natural resources.

The beef cattle industry was not greatly affected by the decision of the Danes to concentrate on the production of milk, bacon, and eggs. Nevertheless, it would seem that Irish stock-raisers could have done considerably more to improve their output. On less favourable soils a certain amount of tillage would have maintained or increased the fertility of the soil. More careful attention to breeding could have reduced the period the animal needed to reach maturity. Feeding during the winter-time, again requiring some tillage, would also have shortened the time the animal needed to reach their prime. This would have involved some extra costs, while to increase the market the price would have to be reduced. The farmer would have to work harder for a lesser return, hoping that increased sales would make up the difference. In addition it proved easier to force the landlord to reduce the rent in order to increase profits. Cattle-rearing could be a lazy but profitable occupation. Many farmers, especially small farmers, did maintain a rotation: potatoes, cereal, hay, and then grazing.

After the Second World War when there was a plentiful supply of graduate agricultural advisors, often employed by the banks, farmers were encouraged to keep strict accounts and records, to borrow more against the projected return, to get the soil in each field tested, to apply more lime and fertiliser, to sub-soil and mole-drain their fields, to till their fields in rotation to maintain fertility, to maintain only pedigree herds from progeny-tested bulls, to cross-breed sheep for the early lamb market, to winter-feed young cattle with turnips and silage to maintain their condition, to acquire manure-handling machinery to get as much manure, straw and slurry back on to the land, to buy certificated seeds from the great co-ops, to install hygienic milking parlours, and so on. It was a different world. Farming became agri-business.

The Dairy Industry

            This was one of the branches of Irish agriculture which was most subject to foreign competition. At first it benefited from the steam-ships and the railways which made it easier to collect butter for sale in England. The butter export industry was well developed especially around Cork city. Butter was made by churning on the farms and was collected and put into small wooden barrels or casks for export. The taste and quality was very variable. However, the Cork Butter Market had an elaborate system of grading. In 1884 an Act of Parliament was passed which allowed the free sale of butter, so there was no guarantee of quality (Burke, Industrial History, 323).

            Like the other farmers the dairy farmers adopted the shorthorn or the shorthorn cross, but no attempt was made to establish if a cow was even paying its own way. On milk yields, the Farmers’ Gazette noted Irish cows with an output of 420 gallons of milk and 126 pounds of butter a year. Still, in 1920, the Farmer’s Gazette (27 Nov. 1920) considered that the average Irish milking cow was not covering its costs. (Presumably, this was done by counting the cost of farm labour, real or imputed. For the small farmer for whom the grass and the labour were free, there was an adequate cash return.) The Americans under experimental conditions by then had cows producing 564 pounds of butter a year. In Ireland it had been shown that many of the cows in a dairy herd were kept at a loss. Too many farmers were unwilling to sell off a cow while she produces any milk at all (Farmers Gazette 27 September 1902). Comments like these were common in the farming periodicals and the Irish Homestead up to 1920. Indeed, despite reports on the productivity of the Friesian cow, a milk breed, the Irish remained faithful to the dual purpose shorthorn. If properly selected the shorthorn could give at least 800 gallons without sacrificing the quality of the beef. One shorthorn cow at Slane Castle, County Meath in 1901 was measured as giving 1,100 gallons.

            The same criticisms were made of stock-rearing in the dairy industry as were made regarding the beef industry. There was this big difference between the two branches. The dairy industry was to be subjected to intense foreign competition whereas the beef industry was not. The number of dairy cows did not increase, but remained constant at around 1½ millions. It is probably true that until the big co-operative creameries were well-established few farmers could have profitably invested in the great milk breeds like the Friesian, half of the calves of which had to be rejected as virtually useless, unless exported to the Continent for veal.

Little attempt was made to develop the production of milk in winter. A fall in supply in winter-time would mean a rise in price, so the loss of income would be slight. On the other hand the production of milk in winter could involve the labour intensive production of silage. Hay, though less nutritious, could often be easier to make. Around 1880 silage was hailed as the great panacea of Irish farming, but by 1900 many who tried it had given up making it. In making silage, the heavy, newly-cut grass had to be handled, and the equally heavy silage with its distasteful smell had again to be handled. Farm labourers detested it. This was at a time when there was no machinery for managing it (Farmers’ Gazette 25 August 1900). Turnips were not favoured for dairy cows because it was said they gave an unfavourable taste to the milk.

The development of the creameries will be dealt with under food processing, but something can be said regarding the traditional way of making butter. Milk is an emulsion of fats and proteins in water. The fats are lighter than the proteins and readily separate out if left standing with the cream rising to the top. To make butter, either the milk or the cream is agitated or churned to make the fat particles adhere together into globules of butter. These are gathered from the top of the remaining liquid which is called buttermilk, washed with clean water to remove traces of buttermilk and then salted for preservation. In northern Ireland the custom was to churn the whole milk, but in southern Ireland only the cream. Milk from which the cream was removed was called skim milk and was often used to feed calves. The milk remaining after churning was called buttermilk and was a favourite human beverage. It was slightly sour-tasting but very refreshing especially in hot weather.

To collect the cream, the milk was placed in either shallow containers from which the cream when it rose to the surface could be skimmed off, or later in tall thin containers. The introduction about 1886 into Ireland of the Petersen separator was the beginning of a notable advance in this country. The mechanical separator was based on the principle that milk was heavier than cream, so if the milk was put in a vessel that could be spun rapidly, the milk would move to the sides, and the cream would remain in the centre from where it could be drawn off. Small separators could be rotated by hand, but the larger ones were steam-driven. The mechanical separators were far better than the older methods. About three years later it was recognised that if the milk were heated the separation was better; and at the same time the dairy thermometer came into use. The Petersen was followed by the Alexandra and it by the Alpha Laval; this latter has now four competitors. Mechanical milk testers were also developed; the past 14 years have seen a transformation in Irish dairies (Farmers’ Gazette 9 May 1903). A farmer with 40 cows would have a home separator and a dairy maid.

The farm churn was either a dash churn, a barrel churn, or a box churn. The most ancient, dating from the fifteenth century, was the dash churn. It consisted of a tall thin barrel, narrower at the top than the bottom, fitted with a removable lid with a hole in its centre through which a plunger could be passed. The plunger consisted of a round wooden shaft at one end of which was a wooden circular disc perforated with holes. The milk was churned by raising and dashing the plunger in a steady unbroken rhythm up and down. The barrel, or end-over-end or tumbling churn, consisted of a barrel fixed on a frame with a handle at its side to cause it to rotate end-over-end. In the box churn the milk was agitated by means of paddles inside a box turned by a crank handle. The dash churn was the simplest and remained in use on small farms at least until the 1940s.

In 1900 the Farmers’ Gazette had a scathing Article on the backward condition of butter-making on small farms. There were often traces of cow hairs and buttermilk remains revealing careless straining of the milk and washing of the butter; there were smoky flavours from keeping milk indoors; other odours from keeping the dairy too near the byres. Very few have thermometers. There was poor packing or protection; butter wrapped in a calico cloth was put into a farm cart, and then often left in the sun. Dairies were often used as stables in the winter. They had earthen floors; the walls were rough and not limewashed; cement or flagged floors being rare. Utensils, particularly churns, were defective. For creaming the oak keelers and earthenware pans were preferred to the tin-ware, the latter being accused of giving a bad odour to the milk. The cream was left on the milk until it was sour, instead of creaming at regular intervals; the ripening of cream was often not understood, and resulted in the failure of butter-making during winter; ripening was often allowed to go too far in summer, and a starter was not used in winter, and when it was used it was invariably too sour (Farmer’s Gazette, 3 November 1900). (After the Second World War, the Ministry of Agriculture in Northern Ireland set out the minimum standards with grants for cattle byres and dairies, for even the smallest farmers who offered milk for sale.)

The use of milk thermometers was unknown and never used in dairies; the cream was heated by placing a shovelful of burning peat next to the vessel. A strainer was never use or only a coarse one; milking was always done with hands wetted by dipping them in milk; those used to this method find changing to dry-handed milking very difficult. In hot weather the milk was generally cooled before setting and allowed to get sour and thick before skimming; the cream was churned at any temperature and any degree of acidity; in cold weather if there was difficulty in churning hot water was added to the churn. The cream was always over-churned, and the butter generally worked by hand instead of being pressed with a wooden scoop. Salt of an inferior quality was universal, and butter paper never used. The butter was sent to the market in an untidy and careless manner, and in hot weather was half-melted before it arrived at the market. Most of these errors have now been done away with (loc.cit.). These problems were not peculiar to Ireland.

The dairy instructresses fresh from the Munster Institute of Dairying no doubt relished relating these tales of horror, but how common they were is not clear. At the time of the Famine it was noted that the women from the poorest districts had no knowledge of cookery apart from boiling potatoes. But most countrywomen making butter for sale in the butter-market in the local town had a major obstacle to overcome despite the primitive nature of their equipment, and that was to avoid having a tainted taste. The women buying the butter always carried a small silver coin, a sixpence, with which to taste the butter before buying.

There was a more serious problem with regard to the selling of milk, and that was the fact that many diseases could be spread through milk. The problem was not confined to remote parts of County Cork but involved those supplying the Dublin market. Following the research on germs by Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister medical people began to pay close attention to them in the transmission of disease. Diseases like enteric fever, scarlet fever and measles, but also, and much worse, typhoid and tuberculosis. Medical Officers of Health became concerned.

A report in the Irish Homestead in 1921 said that 49% of the liquid milk supplied to Dublin city would have been pronounced unfit for human consumption if the standards of Boston, Massachusetts, had been applied. The pathological laboratory in Trinity College, Dublin tested 100 samples of the milk supplied. One sample in every twelve contained bacilli of tuberculosis. Dublin had a very poor record, and those who deal in this trade seem entirely ignorant of it; one supplier had 28 million bacteria per cubic centimetre, and that was not the worst which was 73 million bacteria; one would have thought they were selling bacteria not milk. Dr Biggar went to one farm and instructed the farmer how to milk and under his instruction with regard to cleanliness and hygiene the bacteria count dropped to one thirtieth of what it had been; indeed with further re-arrangements of the farm the count could have been lowered further (Irish Homestead 11 June 1921.)

The Butter Market and the Creamery Movement

            The creamery movement is often confused with the Co-operative Movement which developed many large and successful creameries but which had a much wider agenda. Creameries could be formed either on a co-operative basis by milk producers, or else started by an individual or a group as shareholders who would purchase the milk from the suppliers. In the first case the risk fell on the producers; in the second case on the purchasers.

            The basic idea with regard to creameries is that butter should be made in what resembled factory conditions. The idea coincided with the perceived need for pasteurisation of milk and the development of the mechanical cream separator. Also in the 1880s came the idea of using a thermometer at various stages in the process, especially during pasteurisation. Simply to boil milk gave an unpalatable taste. But to raise the milk to a moderately high temperature and maintain the temperature for a period of perhaps 30 minutes destroyed the germs without impairing the taste. The bacteria necessary for the production of butter can be re-introduced from a pure source. This method was researched and pioneered in Denmark. There was no particular need why these new methods could not be adapted to the family farm, but they lent themselves much better to factory production.

The chief need to be considered when choosing a site was the availability of a constant supply of uncontaminated water. The site should be close to a good system of roads. Most early creameries were small as the farmers had to bring the milk in carts. As the practice of collecting milk by lorry or truck developed creameries became much larger. A steam engine was needed to drive the machinery and to provide heat for pasteurisation, and also to provide power for the milk cooler afterwards. Most important of all was a good manager who knew the various processes. At first Danish or Swedish managers were invited. Pure cultures of bacteria for starting were also imported from around 1895. It was reported that they improved the taste of Irish butter. Where the milk had been pasteurised before churning, and this was becoming increasingly common, the starters were essential. Pasteurising of the milk was necessary for another reason and this was to prevent the spread of disease among calves. All milk supplied to a creamery was pooled and separated, and then an equal quantity of skim milk was returned to the farmers to feed to the calves. Without pasteurisation disease could be spread from farm to farm. Machinery was developed for separating, churning, working the butter, weighing and packing. 

             It was to be many years before the creamery system was settled satisfactorily. There were those who argued that too much time was spent carting the milk, and that the skim milk spread disease among calves. There was rivalry between the co-operative creameries and proprietary creameries. This became more intense after Horace Plunkett, a Unionist politician and founder of the co-operative movement in Ireland was made Vice-President of the new Irish Department of Agriculture and was regarded as unduly favouring co-operation. However, between them they prevented the Irish dairy industry from being driven out entirely from the traditional British markets. In Ulster in 1895 there were 12 fully equipped creameries; in 1900 there were 109 equal to the total of the other three provinces put together; Ulster was not regarded as a naturally dairying province, so its success was remarkable. By 1911 there were 380 creameries in operation. Eventually a rationalisation took place, which was aided by the development of roads, motor lorries, and milk tankers. The milk-churns by the farmers’ gates marked the collection area of a creamery. The co-operative creameries ultimately proved more successful and the proprietary ones disappeared.

Creameries followed the example of the Danes not only in using pasteurisation and high quality cultures for making the milk. They produced a more standard product, and following Danish example again made it up into one pound blocks and wrapped it in grease-proof paper. [Top] 

The Co-operative Movement

            It is appropriate to treat the Irish Co-operative Movement here for it was linked closely with the creamery movement, though its aims were much wider. (It will also be mentioned later in other contexts.) In 1889 Horace Plunkett, a son of the 16th Lord Dunsany, started his first co-operative at Dunsany, Co. Meath. Though it was destined to remain the only co-operative in that county, the movement spread widely across Ireland, and indeed round the world. The Dunsany family was the Protestant branch of the Plunketts while the earls of Fingall were of the Catholic branch. Arthur Plunkett, the 11th Earl of Fingall was a cousin of Horace. He married Elizabeth Burke, and she as the Countess of Fingall supported enthusiastically the efforts of her cousin by marriage. The motto of Plunkett’s Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) was ‘Better farming, better business, and better living’. Horace considered that he was developing the production side, George Russell (A.E.) the editor of The Irish Homestead was advising on business and marketing, so it was left to Lady Fingall to improve living conditions in the Irish countryside through the United Irish Women, later, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (Fingall, Seventy Year’s Young, 346).

            The co-operative movement is regarded as having begun in Rochdale in Lancashire in 1844 for retail shopping. It was developed by the Danes for production as well. Plunkett established, in 1878, in association with the tenants on the family estate, a Dunsany co-operative society, the germ of the idea that was to dominate his later life. In 1889 Horace Plunkett returned from America where he had been working on a ranch in Wyoming whither he had gone when threatened with tuberculosis and launched his movement. He was joined by the Rev. Thomas Aloysius Finlay S.J (1848-1940) a Jesuit priest, educationalist, and author, who was born at Lanesborough, Co. Roscommon. From 1883 to 1900 Fr Finlay occupied the chair of philosophy at University College, Dublin. He travelled the country promoting co-operation, and in 1895 was elected vice-president of the resultant Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (T. Morrisey, DNB (2004), Finlay, T.). He established The Irish Homestead in 1896 as the organ of the co-operative movement in Ireland and was its editor until 1906. Finlay was at first assisted as sub-editor by William Lee Plunket, Lord Plunket (one t) son of the Protestant archbishop of Dublin. Under George Russell (A.E.), editor from 1906 to 1923, it became a journal of international importance.

 From 1889 Plunkett formed small co-operative creameries, and several small farmers’ societies, and in 1891 he was able to report that 1,000 Irish farmers had joined the movement and had formed 18 co-operative societies. In 1894 he was obliged to form the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) to supervise a movement which had become too large for him alone to control. Many farmers were unwilling to participate, but by 1900 400 branches had been started mainly in the dairying industry. There were also some engaged in giving instruction in agriculture, in the poultry and egg trade, and in the bacon curing and horse-breeding lines (Church of Ireland Gazette 12 January 1900). Of the 600 creameries established between 1890 and 1900 260 were co-operatives. The creamery movement did not spread to Ulster until around 1897 but in three years 108 co-operative creameries were established and 30 more planned (Homestead 12 May 1900).

 By the end of 1919 the number of co-operative societies in Ireland was 1,028 with a paid up share capital of £434,400, a loan capital of £882,770, and a turnover of £11,158,583; over the figures for 1918 this meant an increase of 78 new societies, 17,885 new members, an increase of £441,233 in loan and share capital, and an increase of £2,070,915 in turnover; this latter was not solely due to an increase in prices; volumes traded went up as well. The largest increase was in the agricultural or general purpose society which was becoming the common or typical one; such were not specialised in their aims and they undertook to do everything for their members, buying, selling and manufacturing. Broken down into groups they were as follows:

Central and Auxiliary Dairy Societies, 439 in number with membership of 50,324, a loan and share capital of £607,800 and a turnover of £7,047, 079. Next came the Agricultural Societies which number 350, have their share and loan capital of £362,028 and a turnover of £1,279,471. Of Credit Banks there were 3 with 15,940 members, and a turnover of £33,834. There were also 13 societies of poultry-keepers, 55 miscellaneous societies and home industries societies including bacon factories and meat-processing, 31 flax societies, and finally two federations [total 1028]; this organisation is a tribute to Sir Horace Plunkett, and some of the best and most clear-headed of Irishmen of our time (Homestead 10 February 1921). By the third decade of the twentieth century the manufacture of butter for the market was almost exclusively in the hands of the co-operative creameries (Burke, Industrial History, 324). Plunkett was particularly interested in providing cheap credit to small farms and introducing Raiffeisen banks or credit unions on the lines developed by Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen in Germany.

Despite the successes of the IAOS the co-operative movement in Ireland was not nearly as successful as in other countries. One reason for this was that its philosophy of self-help was totally contrary to that of the nationalist politicians who preached that Home Rule was the necessary and sufficient cause of Irish prosperity and who were naturally opposed to anything that might make Irish farmers contented. The other was the failure of most of the Catholic clergy to support any organisation which was run on non-sectarian lines. Their suspicions of Plunkett were confirmed when he wrote in his book Ireland and the New Century that the Catholic priests were spending money on the ornamentation of their churches when it would have been better spent on improving the people’s welfare.

Plunkett, when he was Vice-President of the Department of Agriculture gave an annual grant to the IAOS, but this was withdrawn by his successor on the grounds that the IAOS was anti-nationalist (Echo 18 Nov. 1911). Plunkett attributed some of the animosity against co-operatives to their success in overcoming vested interests, especially among butter-merchants. In one case a co-op cut the price of artificial manures to the farmers by 40%, or in at least one case 100%. It was noted too that the average credit (with interest) of the Dublin merchants to the country farmers was reduced from nearly a year, to a couple of months; this was because the creameries paid monthly for the supply of milk, and this regular supply of cash enabled them to pay their own bills promptly. The farmer could save forty pounds a year; but what the town trader really wanted was the farmer's little holding (Weekly Irish Times 23 Nov, 1912; Industrial Journal 26 Mar 1910). (We can suspect that the original suppliers had operated a ring to maintain the price.)

The creameries associated with the IAOS suffered heavily during the terrorist campaign by the IRA from 1919 to 1921 for reasons which were and remain very obscure, for it was a non-political organisation.

The United Irishwomen, taken over and developed by the Countess of Fingall had some success. It was concerned with health issues, but also with leisure interests especially for young people in rural areas. Later its name was changed to the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. It had nothing like the success of its imitator the Women’s Institute in Britain which with Government support was able to establish a branch in most rural parishes.

Poultry and Pigs

            The steamship and then the railway brought an enormous expansion in the export of eggs and poultry products even before the Famine. In the post-Famine period exports increased in value to around three quarters that of cattle exports. The industry remained a small-scale one and largely a woman’s one, the wives of farmers being responsible for the individual flocks. An effective collection and delivery system was essential, on at least a weekly basis. Eggs can be kept for longer or shorter periods without refrigeration or preservation, but the longer they are kept the greater the likelihood of them going rotten. A wise cook invariable broke each egg separately into a cup before using. In the second half of the nineteenth century, up to six weeks might elapse between the laying of the egg and its use (Farmers’ Gazette 16 Oct 1920). In 1909 the Department of Agriculture, speaking with regard to complaints from England with regard to dirty and stale eggs, said that both producers and dealers in eggs had still the bad habit of keeping eggs too long. But they maintained that the English dealers were not prepared to pay extra for clean or fresh eggs (Weekly Irish Times 9 Jan 09). The English market could buy all the eggs the Irish and Danes could produce, so there was little incentive for the Irish farmer’s wife to exert herself unduly.

            Once again, the Danes set new standards. Egg producers belonged to co-ops. Every egg sold had to be collected on a daily basis, washed, stamped and dated with the producer’s mark, carefully packed, and dispatched to the distributors in England. Any complaints could be traced back to the source. Irish producers had to follow suit, and this was best done through co-operatives. But traditional egg dealers could also do some things to improve their eggs. In the twentieth century, poultry instructresses employed by the new county councils played their part in developing the industry as well. One such instructress in 1902 complained that henhouses were invariably too small, too badly ventilated, and with roosts too high (Farmers’ Gazette 3 May 1902). Figures for 1902 showed that Ireland had around 18.8 million hens, with both Tyrone and Down having over a million birds each. Monaghan, also an Ulster county, with almost three quarters of a million birds had the greatest density, because it was a smaller county. Ulster had over 7 million birds while Munster and Leinster had over 4 million each (Farmers’ Gazette 15 Nov 02). (It was not only in manufacturing that Ulster was pulling ahead of the rest of Ireland.) Poultry numbers had increased steadily from about 9.5 million in 1857. Four million birds were added to the flock between 1890 and 1900. Poultry in 1902 numbered 18,504,324 a decrease of 7.25% from the average of the preceding decade; of these 1,038,492 were turkeys, 1,836,191 were geese, 2,945,721 were ducks and 12,683,920 were ordinary fowl (Weekly Irish Times 6 June 03). Geese still outnumbered turkeys, though their numbers were falling.

            At the turn of the twentieth century the common Irish hen was a mongrel, black in colour and small in size and laying small eggs whose chief bloodline was a Spanish hen of notable egg-laying quality. The black hen was a hardy bird, well-adapted to living outdoors in all Irish weathers. It survived on what it could gather around the farmyard, and was given some boiled potatoes and Indian meal (corn meal). It was useless for eating. Incubators, heated by paraffin oil or kerosene were being used increasingly for hatching eggs, partly because larger numbers of birds could be hatched at the same time and also because hatching could be commenced earlier. Hens did not naturally become broody and sit on their eggs before late April or early May. The returns of the Department of Agriculture showed that output of individual flocks under commercial conditions could be determined; the egg average for the 135 flocks with records was 120 eggs per hen per annum; one flock gave 200 eggs each, and 5 flocks 180 eggs average, and 10 160.

There was an interest in improving the breeds. In 1909 the White Leghorns, Brown Leghorns, Buff Orpingtons, and White Wyandottes, breeds developed in the 19th century, were considered the best (Weekly Irish Times 15 May 09). By 1915 the Black Orpington was added as well as the 'new breeds' Blue Orpingtons, Anconas, and Andalusians. The writer commended highly the Rhode Island Reds from America (Weekly Irish Times 21 Aug. 1915). By 1919 it was noted that if hens were kept in a small yard they laid more eggs and fattened quicker than if allowed to roam around the farmyard, and would also lay throughout the year. Up to 200 eggs a year could be obtained instead of 100 only in the summer (Weekly Irish Times 18 Jan. 1919). (The average of 100 eggs was not far from the American average of 104 at the time. By the year 2,000 the American average was 244.) The large poultry shed was now coming into fashion. In 1920 the main producers were still the farmers’ wives. A farmer in Lurgan in 1924 said he kept a flock of 50 White Wyandottes, spent £8 on feedstuff and achieved sales of approximately £23. The editor considered that the low output of others could be caused by poor stock, elderly stock, and poor management; too many people breed from unselected flocks (Farmers Gazette 3, 10 May 1924). This was the same complaint as was made regarding other livestock and seeds for tillage. There were complaints about the quality of Irish eggs and the Department of Agriculture was considering a system of date stamping. A system of spot checking potatoes for export in the North of Ireland worked wonders. Ireland had become the greatest egg-exporting country in the world (Farmers’ Gazette 16 Oct., 18 Dec. 1920)

            The value of eggs exported increased from £3 million in 1913 to £15 million in 1919, while live and dead poultry and feathers amounted to another £3 million. (Allowing for inflation this was an increase from £3 million to £7.5 million.). By 1920, at £18 million the poultry industry almost equalled the value of the export of fat and store cattle combined, namely £21.7 million. Exports of poultry products etc. in

             eggs                            £15,603,000

             poultry                        £2,750,000

             feathers                             £96,310

             total poultry                £18,449,310 (Homestead 6 Mar 1920)


            Pig production had always been important in Ireland. Like the butter and poultry industries production was on a small scale, with most farmers trying to rear some pigs for the market each year. For many small farmers the income they derived from pigs was almost as great at that from cattle (Homestead 16 June 1900). The export of salted pork became a large industry at the end of the eighteenth century, and contracts for the Royal Navy were eagerly sought after. Tastes changed to less heavily salted forms of pig meat like hams and bacon, so ham and bacon factories were established from 1825 onwards and were very successful. Though salt was still used in the process it was called curing rather than salting. In Ireland in 1900 the bacon factories, nineteen in all, were large and few; 3 in Cork, 4 in Limerick, 1 in Tralee, 3 in Waterford, 1 in Dundalk, 2 in Dublin, and 2 in Belfast; in addition Ireland shipped 20,000 live pigs a week to England. It should be noted that the majority of these factories were in the south of Ireland where the dairy industry was strongest. (Later Northern Ireland increased its pig production.) Skim milk became an important part of the pig’s diet. In Denmark where 25 years ago there were few factories there were now 48, of which 26 were co-operative and 22 privately-owned; these slaughter 1.2 million pigs a year, nearly all for the English market (Farmers’ Gazette 22 Dec. 1900).

            The breed of the pig followed the demands of the market, for the shape of the pig, its size, and the amount of fat in the meat varied with the demands of the butchers. Lean bacon was more popular in England and there were now 5 principal breeds of bacon pigs; in order of popularity the Large White York; the Middle White York, the Berkshire, the Tamworth, and the Small White York. The Yorkshire pig was developed in England in the nineteenth century from the original Large York crossed with a small fat Chinese pig to get the best of both breeds, and this was successful. It was long and lean and especially suited for making bacon from its flanks. As with cattle, butchers favoured a smaller but well-fleshed animal.

On the other hand the fat pig was very popular in Ireland as its lard was used to cook vegetables like cabbage. The Irish pig was a large ugly animal, which produced lean meat when it was young, but was usually kept for four years until it was large and fat. Bacon with potatoes and cabbage was a very popular Irish meal. As farmers turned to the Yorkshire pig for export imports of fat American bacon for home consumption soared and the American bacon was cheaper than the Irish. In County Tyrone they also crossed the Chinese pig with the Very Large York and developed a pig which became popular in Ireland (Homestead 30 June 1900). Farmers settled on the Large York because of its suitability for making bacon, though in Ulster they preferred the Tyrone pig.

            One of the reasons for the popularity of the pig with farmers was that they could be fed on cheap food like potatoes and other root crops, could eat up left-overs from cooking and could scavenge around the farmyard. Pigs are natural grazers and were often put into the fields for most of the year just to graze like cattle. As they were notorious for rooting up ground, rings were put in their noses to prevent this. This starch-based food produced fat pigs, so it was realised that their feed should include ground barley or oats with skim milk. It became the aim to produce a pig ready for curing in 7 months, which required a diet of barley, skim milk or buttermilk with white potatoes for bulk.

            As with beef cattle, the pigs were sold to dealers who either sold them to the bacon factories or exported them live to England. Around 1890 about 650,000 live pigs were being exported, but this declined rapidly in the twentieth century with about 130,000 exported in 1922 (Northern Whig 9 Feb 23). With regard to bacon and ham, in 1902 900,000 hundredweights were being exported and 780,000 hundredweights of mainly American bacon were being imported (Burke, Industrial History, 320-1).

Other Livestock: Sheep and Horses

                Sheep formed an important part of the Irish economy. The numbers exported to England were often greater than those of cattle, but the return on a sheep was much less than that on a cow. Though Ireland retained a woollen manufacturing industry, the bulk of the wool-clip was exported to England. Bradford in Yorkshire was the world centre for sorting, grading, and pricing wool. As with other livestock, their numbers tended to increase as tillage decreased.

            Progressive Irish farmers, like their British counterparts since the mid-eighteenth century, had experimented with improving breeds with greater or lesser success. One thing became clear and that was that the merino which produced the best and most sought-after wool would not thrive in the Irish climate. Sheep are bred to produce wool and mutton, and it proved difficult to get a satisfactory dual purpose sheep, and it was precisely a dual-purpose beast that Irish farmers desired. They wanted a sheep that would give a reasonable quantity of wool and then could be sold as mutton. Mutton did not lend itself to salting, but responded well to freezing. From 1880 onwards frozen mutton was imported from the Southern Hemisphere. Nevertheless, exports of live sheep to England continued to rise. Wool is very variable and for the volumes required for machine manufacturing had to be carefully sorted and graded. The wool sorters and graders in Bradford were renowned for their expertise. Basically there was long wool and short wool, wool with good spinning qualities, and some with good felting qualities, some very fine and some very coarse, some with good weaving and some with good knitting properties. Different breeds of sheep produced different kinds of wool, but as far as Irish farmers were concerned Britain would take anything they produced. The mutton was more important. The coarsest wool was used for carpets.

            Before the Famine Irish sheep-farmers had settled on either a small, short-woolled sheep called the Wicklow, or a large long-woolled sheep called the Roscommon. The Wicklow sheep resembled the Downs breeds and were often crossed with them. Their wool was particularly good for making flannel. More popular was the large, long-woolled sheep, commonly called the Roscommon, though the modern Roscommon has a large infusion of the Dishley or Leicestershire sheep. Most farmers though outside County Roscommon preferred to adopt the Leicestershire breed which produced an abundance of long coarse wool and a good carcass, the rather similar Lincoln, or the Border Leicester. (This wool was used chiefly in making carpets.) By 1900 most lowland sheep in Ireland were the result of various mixtures of these breeds.

Mountain sheep were noted for their hardiness, and their ability to survive on the rough mountain pastures. In the eighteenth century the then Marquis of Stafford revolutionised the economy of large parts of northern Scotland by introducing the Cheviot sheep from the Scottish border with England. After the Famine, the Cheviot was introduced to mountainous areas in Ireland, either as a separate breed, or to improve local mountain sheep like the Wicklow or the Kerry. They produced an excellent mutton, though they were slow to mature, as well as a useful amount of wool. As the meat was more important than the wool, farmers about 1870 began crossing the Cheviot with a ram of one of the Downs breeds with excellent results. The Shropshire was the principal of the Downs breed used. The question which faced the ordinary farmer was what rams to use with the ordinary ewes of the country (Farmers’ Gazette 20 Dec 1902).

            By the beginning of the twentieth century, farmers were selecting from many British breeds to see what gave the best results. In Scotland, the Scottish Blackface had virtually displaced the Cheviot, and Irish farmers were now using Blackface rams rather than Cheviots in their mountain flocks. Lowland farmers were turning to rams from the Downs breeds to produce a small, rapidly maturing lamb. Of the large breeds the Border Leicester was the most common. The Roscommon was going out of favour except in Roscommon because its carcass was too large. As with the pigs the demand was for smaller joints. Exports of live sheep in 1902 exceeded 1 million, while the average for the preceding decade was 875,000. By the second decade of the 20th century the average export was around 500,000.

The enormous imports of wool from the Southern Hemisphere forced farmers to turn to half-bred lambs which fattened easily. This was a trend which became permanent. The Downs breeds were particularly useful in this respect. The Blackface was adopted on many lowland farms because of its excellent mutton and early lambing. Later it was found that they did not thrive on the lowlands, but gradually displaced Cheviots from the mountains. It had a very coarse wool, much in demand for carpet-making. The total sheep population was around 3.7 million. As in the beef and poultry industries we can be sure that the majority of farmers, especially the poorer ones, were not particularly concerned about the quality of the rams or the sheep either so long as they got some wool and mutton. As the costs of keeping the sheep were little more than the costs of the poor-quality pasture any money they brought in counted as profit. There were two major problems with sheep. Certain breeds like the Downs were subject to foot-rot on wet soils. The other was the contagious sheep scab to prevent which it was necessary to dip them regularly in a special sheep dip. There were several Government Orders connected with this problem.

            Strangely the use of horses reached its height in the age of steam. Steam power had three great uses which transformed the world, in fixed engines, in ships, and on railways. All traffic to and from railway stations had therefore to be horse-drawn. Some attempts were made to develop steam-powered machines for agriculture, but their weight limited their use. The most common was the steam threshing engine. Weak bridges and legal restrictions limited the use of heavy steam lorries.

            In the first half of the nineteenth century Irish farmers experimented with improvements to the local horses. Thoroughbreds were imported, but for farm horses the Leicestershire horse was often used. The Thoroughbred was a highly specialised race horse and it was very successfully developed in Ireland. Probably the most successful breeder of racehorses, both for flat racing and over the jumps was John Gubbins, a Limerickman who lived at Bruree, Co. Limerick. One of his horses won the English Grand National at Aintree in 1882 (Gubbins DNB).

            The pure Thoroughbred could also be used to develop light horses, light hunters, hacks and so on. Horses varied in size from slow powerful drayhorses to small ponies. But the ordinary Irish farmers wanted a general purpose horse, useful for riding, pulling a plough or a cart, and capable of jumping moderately at the back of a hunt. One writer noted that the Irish farmer always wanted a horse to carry him to the hunt and referred to imported English Hackneys as ‘hearse horses’ (White, Royal Dublin Society, 165). By using Thoroughbred stallions on local mares there gradually emerged such a horse which possessed the required qualities.

 In the latter part of the nineteenth century Ireland became known, especially on the Continent, as a source for excellent cavalry horses. They could be used for artillery or light cavalry. The horses were just picked by eye at horse fairs and it would seem that the individual horses were as much a matter of good luck as good judgment. After 1880 the qualities of the breed were threatened by the importation of heavy English horses like the Clydesdales and Shires which resulted in a heavier slower animal (Kidd, Horse Breeds, 60). The general standard of horses in Ireland was poor, but there were enough reasonably good mares of mixed origin to provide a reasonable supply of horses for export. But for the individual farmer this was very much a lottery.

The Congested Districts Board (1891) and the Department of Agriculture (1898) also considered how the Irish horse might be improved. As The Farmers’ Gazette in 1900 noted in Ireland horse breeding for hunters at the moment was entirely haphazard; the horse was judged on its own merits but before it is foaled nobody knows whether it will turn out a carthorse, a carriage horse, a hunter, or a costermonger's pony; the fashion for crossbred hunters sold as geldings means they are the crosses of every known breed. The Gazette continued saying that in Ireland we had a breed of clean-legged draught horses, long, deep-bodied; flat-legged, free, lean-shouldered types, with none of the defects of the English heavy horse the Suffolk, invaluable as a poor farmer's breed, and a source of wealth as the mother of the Irish weight carrying hunter and trooper; of all others in existence there is no such valuable natural country breed. With careful selection there is no reason why a breed of Irish draught horse should not be established; remnants still exist in the west and hilly districts where turf is carried in creels, and in the light tillage counties (Farmers’ Gazette 4, 11 Aug. 1900; Weekly Irish Times 1 Dec 1906)). The Department came round to the view that a light draught horse from which hunters could be bred best met Ireland’s needs. These hunters met most of the needs of the various armies, and the local farmers. The breed of Irish Draught Horse was gradually established. In 1907 registration of stallions was introduced and in 1917 a stud book was started. Nevertheless the other breeds, the Thoroughbred, the Clydesdale, the Hackney, the Shires and other stallions in lesser numbers were recorded by the Department of Agriculture. The Department also gave premiums for them.

 In 1867 the gentlemen of the Royal Dublin Society became concerned with the decline of the horse population of Ireland especially as Ireland supplied many horses to the cavalry. In the following year they commenced the Dublin Horse Show with prizes given for the various categories of horses, officers’ chargers, carriage geldings, etc., and special prizes for jumping contests. The Horse Show was moved to permanent quarters in Ballsbridge, Dublin in 1881 and has remained there ever since (White, Royal Dublin Society, 157-161). In 1907 hunters were the chief class exhibited amounting to three quarters of all entries. In 1896 the Irish Government established a commission to make recommendations with regard to horse-breeding in Ireland.

There was also considerable discussion about the advisability of restoring the Connemara pony. Ponies are not a distinct breed from horses unlike the donkey and so can interbreed freely with horses. They are smaller than horses, have shorter legs in proportion to their size and are stronger. Their foals have the same proportions as the pony unlike the long-legged foal of the horse. They have very strong backs and were often used in warfare (Kidd, Horse Breeds 12). In the British Isles, several breeds of ponies survive in the wild. The only one to survive in Ireland was the Connemara, and it had been ‘improved’ at one point by introducing Spanish horses from Andalusia. It was not even clear around 1900 whether it had survived as a single type (Farmers Gazette 20 Nov. 1900 quoting a survey by the Department of Agriculture). In was not until 1923 that a society was formed to standardise the breed.

Despite all these efforts the horses found on Irish farms up until their disappearance were a mongrel lot. Farmers just bought a horse he fancied at a horse fair subject to the usual examination of teeth, hooves, gait, and so on. The horse would be selected for the purposes the buyer required, a pony to draw a trap or buggy, a sturdy horse for the plough, a harness horse for a delivery van etc. If a farmer had more than one horse, no two would be similar but invariably there would be a mare from which he expected to breed a hunter.

Goats in Ireland were not the object of great studies. They were kept exclusively for their milk. Horace Plunkett was concerned that their yield of milk was below what could be achieved. The Countess of Fingall has a wry account of the Swiss goats he imported to help to boost milk-yield. The problem with them was that they would eat anything, the thatch off the roof or straw hats (Fingall, Seventy Years Young, 254).

Control of Animal Diseases

As Ireland turned itself into a major exporter of livestock in the second half of the nineteenth century control of animal diseases became very important. There were many restrictions regarding the importation of animals into the British Isles, which, because they were islands, were comparatively easy to control. Vigilance with regard to animal diseases was stepped up in Britain following the outbreaks of rinderpest or cattle plague, an acute viral infection. These were rare, there being only three outbreaks in Britain in the nineteenth century, in 1865-6, 1872, and 1877. The first was the worst for the vets were unprepared; it took the slaughter of 400,000 animals and two years to eradicate. It was at this time that the drastic solution of slaughtering all infected animals was adopted. Subsequently all cattle, sheep, and swine were inspected before shipment by veterinary inspectors employed by the Department of Agriculture and stationed at the ports of Ireland, and on being certified to be free from any of the diseases scheduled under the Diseases of Animals Acts and the Orders in Council were licensed for export. This system of portal veterinary inspection had been in force for over a quarter of a century (Farmers’ Gazette 13 June 1903).

Before the formation of the County Councils in 1898 there was no effective local body to deal with animal diseases, and the Government had to make do with what it had, so control of these diseases was given to the Poor Law Guardians. The powers under Diseases of Animals Acts 1894, and 1896 were transferred from the Poor Law Guardians (Local Government Board) to the new Department of Agriculture and the 33 County Councils, two being in Tipperary. Several Orders in Council of the Lord Lieutenant under those Acts were now in force. The central authorities, the Board of Agriculture in Britain and the Veterinary Department of the Privy Council in Ireland, co-ordinated measures (County Councils Gazette 4 May 1900).The principal diseases were pleural pneumonia, foot and mouth disease, anthrax, swine fever, rabies, glanders in horses, and sheep scab. A Sheep Dipping Act (1903) gave powers to local authorities to make sheep-dipping compulsory in order to eliminate diseases like sheep scab.

The 159 Boards of Guardians had powers to make regulations including one for the muzzling of dogs; the magistrates in the 608 petty sessions districts in Ireland and about 119 other local authorities of boroughs, towns, and townships also had powers under the Dogs Act (1871), when a case of rabies or suspected rabies was found in their district (ibid.). An Order in Council was issued in 1897 making the universal muzzling of dogs in public places in Ireland compulsory to control rabies. These diseases were mostly rare in Ireland, though sheep scab and swine fever persisted. In 1912 there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in County Dublin resulting in the slaughter of over 1,000 cattle. An extensive enquiry failed to reveal how the disease reached Ireland, but it was suspected that some drovers returning from Cumberland might have been responsible. Another outbreak occurred in 1914. These were the first occurrences in Ireland for thirty years. [Top]

Tillage and Crops

            The amount of land devoted to tillage crops fell all over the British Isles as prices of cereals fell in England, and the prices for cattle rose. In England it fell from 68% to 48%. Nevertheless it was deplored by nationalist writers as a disaster which they maintained was England’s fault, and which could be reversed by a system of tariffs and export bounties, even though Adam Smith had long since pointed out the folly of that course. (Smith showed that the bounties to assist unsuccessful businesses came from taxing the profitable ones, thus limiting their profit and expansion. With bounties wine could be made from grapes grown in glasshouses on the tops of mountains, but that would be pointless.) The period was characterised by emigration, shortage of farm labour, the increasing use of machinery, the consolidation of holdings which made the use of machinery more feasible. O’Grada reports the increased productivity of farm labour between 1850 and 1900. This was higher than in England but low by comparison with Continental countries in the same period (Ireland, a New Economic History, 260-2). It is likely however that the factors of enlargement of holdings and increased use of machinery could account for all of this. By the year 1900 farmers were complaining of the shortage of farm labour, but there can be little doubt that some of the emigration was caused by the reluctance of farmers to till their lands properly if only to improve the quality of the grass. (As farmers with fewer than 30 acres would use only family labour, and neighbours mutually assisted each other, only one third of farms used hired labour.)

            The use of farm machinery for mowing, reaping, threshing, potato-spraying, and milk-separating was increasing, though the use of hand tools never disappeared. In the old spade culture drills or lazybeds were made by hand using a spade, the seed was planted by hand, the weeding was done by hand, the potatoes were dug by hand using a special four-pronged fork with long, thin curved tines called a graip (Partridge, Farm Tools through the Ages, 141). Weeding potatoes or turnips was often done by women on their knees, though hoes would have made it easier. Spade cultivation remained predominant in horticulture. Barbed wire began to be used for fencing around 1900.

The field machines were horse drawn, and powered by friction from the wheels. The tractor which was to revolutionise farming came into wider use during the First World War. But already by 1900 oil or petrol engines and even tractors were appearing on Irish farms. There were also improved harrows and cultivators, and turnip-chopping machines, corrugated iron hay sheds, milking machines, and shearing machines. These latter were powered by pedals; one man pedalled while two men sheared. There was also a horse-drawn potato-digger. Cattle-sheds where young stock could be housed loose on straw beds and the protected manure removed after it was 5 feet thick were available. The IAOS hired out modern machinery like rollers and grubbers. The milk separator was probably the most important single machine (Farmers’ Gazette, Homestead 1900 passim). Though the use of the flail for threshing persisted in places until the Second World War, the steam-driven threshing machine, usually used by contractors, was almost universally adopted, and indeed became an icon of an era until displaced after the Second World War by the combine harvester. Power could be provided by hand crank, by horses walked in a circle, by steam engine or motor tractor, the steam-driven model eventually predominating. The principle of the successful machine was a rotating drum on top, outside of which four beater bars were attached. It was rotated inside another drum with apertures which allowed the sheaves of cereals or legumes to be fed in and the grain and straw to emerge separately. Belt-driven gearing allowed the beaters to be spun at high speed, with other parts moving more slowly. In addition a winnowing fan separated the grain from the chaff, while sieves removed seeds of weeds. A straw elevator was used to build high straw ricks.

In hay-making too there were several machines developed besides the mower. One was the horse-rake with a lever to lift up the tines to drop the hay at regular intervals into windrows. Another was a tedder which turned over the swathe cut by the mower to let the hay dry quicker. It was replaced by a swathe turner which did not scatter the hay. Hay sweeps or collectors collected the hay from the windrows so that hay stacks up to ten feet high could be made. These then could be transported to the hayshed in the farm yard by an ingenious vehicle called a rick-shifter onto which the haystack was winched (Bell and Watson, Irish Farming, 149). (By replacing the horse’s shafts with a drawbar the device was continued into the tractor age.)

Cultivating potatoes by hand was very inefficient, but potato fields had to be a certain size before a horse and plough could be used. By 1900 the smaller farmer was still using old less efficient models of ploughs but there were several new kinds available made of iron. In large fields with good soil the two-wheeled plough was used. In smaller or stonier fields the lighter wheel-less plough was used which was easier for the ploughman to control, but involved much heavier work. If the plough struck a stone the ploughman would jerk it aside to avoid breaking the cast-iron ploughshare. If this broke a trip to the local blacksmith was needed (Farmers’ Journal 1 Mar 1902).

Harvesting had traditionally been done by hand with rows of men with sickles following each other in echelon around the field with the women coming after them to gather and bind the sheaves. Cyrus Hall McCormick’s mowing machine or reaper with reciprocating blade appeared in 1831 and was used as a mower in haymaking as long as hay was made. Marsh’s harvester with canvas belt to gather up the sheaves but no automatic binding came in 1858. The definitive twine binders were developed in the 1880s. All were pulled by horses and friction-driven from the ground wheels. In the twentieth century, the light tractor with an internal combustion engine was to revolutionise tillage, but tractors were hardly known on Irish farms before 1917 when compulsory tillage, manpower shortage, and cheap American models made them essential on larger farms.

            The secret of prosperous tillage lay in the timely and thorough preparation of the soil, the selection of good seed, and the application of sufficient lime and fertilisers. Both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was estimated that the output per acre of a good farmer was up to four times better than that of a bad farmer. The Irish Sugar Company, after the Second World War, demonstrated this be supplying the same seed to farmers on identical land and weighing the output per acre. In one case the ploughing, harrowing, manuring, sowing, weeding, and finally lifting were done thoroughly at the proper times. In another case they were not. The bad farmer of course blamed the seed supplied!

The quality of the soil could in cases be improved by adding lime, marl, gravel, or sand. Lime (calcium hydroxide) reduced acidity, as did marl where it was available. Marl could be sand, clay or silt that contained calcium carbonate. Acids in the soil, principally carbonic acid, came from decaying vegetation in wet conditions. The hydroxide neutralised it. The structure of a heavy clay soil could be improved by adding gravel or sand.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century only farmyard manure was used as a fertiliser; then came guano, then nitrate of soda, dissolved bones and superphosphate (calcium phosphate treated with sulphuric acid to make it more soluble); these were followed by ammonium sulphate, and potash in various grades. At present the farmer relies on nitrate of soda or sulphate of ammonia to supply nitrogen, superphosphate to supply phosphates, and muriate of potash or sulphate of potash to supply potash (Irish Gardening April 1906). By 1900 a by-product of the production of steel known as basic slag came into general use as a source of phosphates. For phosphorus farmers relied on superphosphate and basic slag, while bones, once widely used, and guano, were less used, the latter because much of it is over-priced for its quality. Basic slag works wonders on moory soils, or those deficient in lime (Farmers Gazette 20 Sept 1902) (Basic slag from ironworks was the impurities which contained metallic oxides and phosphates.) When agricultural co-operatives were formed they effected a reduction of 30, 50 and even 100% in the costs of fertilisers; the lower prices may have injured the trader, but they benefited the farmer and the manufacturer.

In the years after 1850 there was a tendency to apply excessive amounts of lime. Where this was done on soils that were already rich in lime crop production was reduced and resulted in a prejudice against all lime. Potatoes, for example, do best in a slightly acidic soil, and less well in a basic or alkaline soil. Most vegetables prefer an alkaline soil. This shows that there was confusion between lime and fertiliser. Lime is applied to acid soils to reduce their acidity and so to increase the beneficial bacteria in the soil which do not thrive in acidic conditions. Fertiliser supplies nutrients to the plants. By 1900 there was a decline in the use of sea-weed in coastal areas. Formerly the sea-weed had been farmed with stretches of beach marked out for individual families. Harvesting wet sea-weed was an extremely laborious task, though it was allowed to dry before being carted away (Farmers’ Gazette 1 Feb. 1902)

Reliance totally on artificial fertilisers damaged the soil. The use of guano was introduced into Ireland in the 1850s particularly by Scotsmen who were given leases of farms. At first the local Irish would not consider its use, but stuck to the old system of farmyard manure and ditch cleaning. But when they saw the results they went to the opposite extreme and used nothing else. In County Wexford cowsheds were given boarded floors so that there was no need for bedding. All the straw and other fodders were sold; the marl holes and gravel pits were abandoned, and only lunatics would think of clearing out their ditches; the land rapidly became excellent snipe ground [wet and acidic]. Nobody bothered to collect the wrack from the foreshore. Even farm labourers objected to the extra work in bedding cattle and spreading manure. One man the writer had employed left his employment because, as he said, "the artificials could be bought quite handy and saved at less trouble". In various places in the fifties and sixties the landed proprietors took in and improved their moors, both the natural ones and the 'cut-away' bogs; when these were let out to tenants they were given the artificial treatment; this did fairly well in dry years, but in wet years the soil degenerated into unprofitable mud. (It is possible to grow excellent crops on what is left of well-drained bogs after most of the peat has been removed for fuel, but it needs careful management.) The writer noted that the mountaineer neglected all the natural manures around him and bought the artificial which was no trouble except to carry it home. It has however to be paid for, and this, if the crop fails means selling their heifer, or a few sheep (Farmers Gazette 5 July 1902).

Drainage of fields was well-advanced by mid-century. In a wet country like Ireland drainage was more important than irrigation. Most cultivated crops did badly when the soil was water-logged. In the first half of the century, drainage ditches were dug along the edges of fields. In the lazybed and rundale systems surface drains resulted from the mode of cultivation. In the rundale system ploughs were used to raise wide ridges or rigs with dales or valleys between them. In the lazybed system dug with a spade the ridges were narrower and flatter, with deep trenches between them. But by mid-century sub-soil drainage was becoming important. In these trenches were dug at regular intervals, clay tiles or pipes were laid, and the trenches filled in. These drains often had a branching or herringbone pattern. The main branch or stem ran into the ditch at the bottom of the field. These sub-soil drains, though expensive to make needed little maintenance afterwards. The open ditches regularly became clogged if not cleaned out with a shovel regularly. From the eighteenth century onwards various kinds of stone drains were used, but in the second half of the nineteenth century shaped clay tiles or cylindrical pipes were used (Bell and Watson, Irish Farming, 19-21).

Though tillage declined overall the greatest decline was in wheat-growing, where the crop fell to about a tenth of what it had been. British and Irish farmers just could not compete on either cost or quality with American or Australian wheat. Clearly the fall in population of Ireland to a half also had an effect. The crops of oats and barley as well fell to about half of what they had been. These were also used for animal and poultry feed and for distilling. Green crops or root crops too fell considerably from 1.75 million in 1860 to 1 million in 1910. The area under flax fell from 175,000 acres to 50,000. The area under potatoes fell from 1.2 million acres to 588,000. The fall here can be closely correlated with the fall in population for potatoes were used chiefly for human consumption within Ireland. As Lyons notes, in 1908 of the six main tillage crops in only three cases, namely wheat, barley and flax, was more than 30% of the crop sold off the farm. The others were grown for consumption on the farm (Ireland Since the Famine, 48). It should be noted that the figures here quoted are not always directly comparable for different definitions of categories may have been used in either the surveys or in the way they were reported. They do show that there was a decline in tillage but even so up to 2 million acres were still being tilled in 1914. As Burke notes, cattle-raising was always Ireland’s chief agricultural product. Tillage had been artificially increased by Foster’s Corn Law of 1784 (Burke, Industrial History, 314). Other factors were the high prices during the Napoleonic Wars, the Continental System, and the Corn Laws that followed them aimed at maintaining war prices. When these distortions were removed Irish farmers again moved towards the produce that gave them the best return.

The change to haymaking and grazing corresponds with the change in prices available. Prices for wheat, oats, barley, potatoes and flax rose by 50%. The price for hay rose 200%, beef 100%, butter 77%, wool 81%, eggs 71% and young store cattle 129%. These changes in prices explain the drift to dairying, beef raising, poultry-keeping, and haymaking. Hay was the regular winter feed for cattle. By 1900 in Ireland there were 20 million acres of which 4½ millions were in rotation crops, 10½ million were under grass, and 4¾ million acres are bog, marsh, barren mountain, and water. Another reason given for the decline in tillage was the growing scarcity of farm labour. In Ireland farm labourers were highly skilled persons who had to be able to do such diverse tasks as milk cows, castrate rams and bull calves, plough and harrow with horses, use a scythe or mowing machine, build a rick or haystack, and so on. When such men emigrated there was no short-term way of replacing them.

Armagh had the most land under tillage and was the most intensively farmed county.

County under crops      under pasture; (percentage of total acreage)

Armagh            42.6     44.6

Down              41.9     41.9

Louth               39.7     45.3

Monaghan        35.4     53.5

Londonderry    33.8     45.3

Carlow             33.2     54.1

Wexford           32.5     56.3

Antrim             31.4     49.5

Tyrone             30.3     43.3

There are some points to be observed about this table. The first is the percentage of land in each county capable of being farmed. All the counties in this table of the top tillage counties have little uncultivable mountain or bog. Still it is surprising that four Border counties, a region of small farms, top the table. Mayo was bottom of both lists having the least proportion under tillage and under grass; most of the county consists of barren mountains. Meath topped the grazing districts with 72.3% of it under permanent grass, followed by Westmeath 65.5% and Limerick in third place with 65.0%. Down, Dublin, and Louth had a reputation of being the best farming counties and their yields of potatoes per acre, 6.6 tons, were the best in Ireland. Supposedly backward counties like Donegal, Mayo and Kerry were not far behind (Farmers’ Gazette 2 Aug. 1902). Of potentially tillable land only 8% in County Limerick and 10% in County Meath was tilled. A writer in the Farmers’ Gazette observed that there was no obvious reason why this was so. Both counties a century earlier had been quite extensively tilled. Roscommon, another county with low tillage figures had for centuries been known for its sheep ranches. Co. Down and Co. Dublin were similar in having good soils, being close to the warmer sea in winter, and being near a great city.

Tillage statistics showed that the average yield of potatoes in Ireland in 1910 was 5.5 tons per statute acre compared with 4.4 tons average in the decade 1899 -1908; the acreage of the crop in 1909 was 579,799 acres yielding 3,202,819 tons (Industrial Journal 8 Jan., 26 Mar. 1910). The best counties for potatoes were Down, Louth and Dublin which yielded 6.6 tons to the acre. However potato growing experiments by the Department of Agriculture carried out at five centres in Down, seven in Tyrone, and five in Limerick, showed the best yield was in one place in Tyrone which had 20 tons to the acre; another place in the same county gave over 19 tons, but one in Limerick only five tons. The experiments with mangels gave a yield of 37 tons to the acre, with one plot in Tyrone giving 50 tons (Farmers Gazette 8 Mar 1902). Improvements in potato growing in the past half century were spraying, boxing, better manuring, and the introduction of more productive varieties. (Potato seed was placed in sprouting boxes to induce earlier sprouting and thus earlier planting and a heavier crop.) The acreage under potatoes was greater than that of all the other root crops put together. The Champion variety in 1901 accounted for 66.15% of the potato crop; since it introduction 20 years ago it has become the predominating variety. The spraying of potatoes with copper sulphate against the blight which caused the Great Famine was common in some counties and not in others.

By 1920, farmers in Northern Ireland were developing export markets for seed potatoes and for hayseed. In both cases advantage was being taken of Ireland’s relative freedom from disease. Also it had been found that seed from potatoes grown in cooler wetter places like Ireland and Scotland produced better crops in warmer, dryer regions than local seed. By 1920, the Department and the Gazette reported an increase in the yield per acre of tillage land over the previous 15 years (Farmers’ Gazette 10 Jan, 10 Dec. 1920).

Mangels, a type of beetroot, was the only root crop to show an increase in the last half century. Last years’ crop of 77,144 acres was nearly three times that of the 22,567 acres in 1855, contrasting with the fall in potatoes from 982,301 acres in 1855 to 629,304 in 1902. The comparable turnip (brassica rapa) fell from 366,000 in 1855 to 288,506 in 1902. It is valuable as a bulky soft food for winter feeding, it is a heavy cropper, and is less subject to disease than turnips. During the last 20 or 30 years it has been introduced into areas where it had not been before, or where it was thought impossible to cultivate. Sometimes habit is against its introduction; it will never altogether oust swedes as it requires a heavier soil and a warmer drier climate. Swedish turnips (swedes, brassica napus) are an excellent crop but the land can get tired of them; another thing in favour of the mangels is that the roots improve with keeping. They also can be fed to dairy cattle without flavouring the milk as turnips do; useful for pigs and horses (Farmers’ Gazette 18 April 1903). 77, 000 acres of mangels were grown in 1902 compared with 288, 000 acres of the traditional turnip. Swedes were grown as animal food. Sugar beet was grown chiefly for feeding horses. Only tariffs could make sugar beet competitive against sugar cane. The Department of Agriculture conducted some experiments and concluded that at least 3,000 acres of beet quite close to the sugar factory would be needed to make it viable. Allowing for crop rotation, this would mean farms totalling 12,000 acres. Garden beet was grown in gardens for human food.

The cultivation of flax steadily declined. Belgium produced better fibre than the best Irish. In that country, retting or soaking the flax in water was a specialist job and was best done in the slow-moving waters of the Lys. In Ireland the farmer not only had to pull the flax by hand, but had to ret in specially dug flax-holes on his farm causing a certain amount of discolouration. The yield could be very variable, from 20 stones to 60 per acre. A crop of 40 stones was required to break even. By the end of the nineteenth century most of the flax used in the linen mills was imported from Belgium (Belfast Weekly News 9 June 1900). It never proved possible to get farmers in other parts of Ireland where the soil and climate were more suitable to grow the crop. During the First World War a Flax Control Board was established following the collapse of Russia to ensure that there was a sufficient supply of linen for making aeroplanes, linen fabric being the most suitable for the purpose. This Board set a good guaranteed price and the acreage in Ireland under flax rose to 140,000 acres.

Oats was the most popular cereal in Ireland because it was the most versatile food; it is suitable for horses, fattening cattle, dairy cattle, young animals, sheep, pigs, and poultry, and also for making porridge. Most oats was grown for animal feed. Barley was the great crop for sale to the brewing and distilling industries. By far the most popular crop by 1914 was hay with around 2.5 million acres. All cereals amounted to around 1.2 million acres, and all root crops including potatoes about 1 million acres. Flax accounted for 55,000 acres and fruit 15,000 acres. In common with farmers in the rest of the British Isles, where soils were suitable fruits were planted. The soil and climate in the north of County Armagh proved suitable for apples. As elsewhere, fruit-growing led to a fruit-preserving and jam-making industry. Horace Plunkett was convinced that Ireland could become a great tobacco-growing country. The cigarette and tobacco industry was well-developed in Ireland. Some who tried the crop met with success. But in 1912 only 130 acres were grown. Most farmers remained sceptical. Cabbage (brassica oleracea) was the most widely-grown vegetable, though many farmers did not know how to grow it properly. Cabbage could not be grown in the same plot in successive years.

The great crop of Ireland by this time was hay. Hayseed was planted as part of a rotation which could be irregular and informal. Though the four year Norfolk rotation of green (root) crop, followed in succession by barley or oats, then clover, followed by oats or wheat was sometimes followed. Clover was leguminous restoring nitrogen to the soil. All farmers knew not to put the same crop in the same field in successive years. Potatoes and/or turnips were useful for cleaning the ground of weeds, partly because it was easy to weed them when they were young while later the green tops smothered the weeds. Then a cereal crop could be planted which in the spring was over-sown with rye grasses and red clover together. As clover matured later than hay the grazing season was extended. If the land was being returned to pasture a different mixture of seeds of permanent grasses was used. Rye grass, though it gave a heavy crop, was short-lived.

The following year the grass was cut with the scythe or mowing machine and allowed to dry thoroughly. Then it was built up into haystacks where it could keep for a couple of years. By 1900 many farms had large haysheds made of corrugated iron which more effectively kept out the rain. In the north of Ireland where hayseed was collected, the hay was made into sheaves and threshed like an ordinary cereal. Good-quality hay needed to be cut at the proper time, and then rapidly dried and made up into stacks. But with Ireland’s climate of constant intermittent rain this was easier said than done. If the grass was not properly dry and withered it heated and spoiled in the stacks. On the other hand, the longer was spent turning the hay to dry it properly the less was its nutritious quality. So around 1880 attempts were made to introduce the art of silage-making by means of which even wet grass could be saved and stored with even less loss of nutritious value. But the process never became popular until the introduction of proper machinery after the Second World War to lighten the work. Its advantages were that it could be made in bad weather; its disadvantages were that it was heavy, hard to handle, unsalable, and did not keep after it was removed from the pit; there was also some loss round the edges.

Once again, the officials of the Department of Agriculture found many examples of bad practice. One was planting impermanent Italian ryegrass and red clover when it was intended to lay down a permanent pasture. Eventually good land would re-seed itself with local grasses, but not for many years. But second-rate soils re-seeded themselves with local grasses, daisies, moss, bent grass, and other weeds, and this kind of pasture was very common. Application of fertiliser was useless for it only fed the weeds.

One problem was the absence of proper seed merchants in most country towns where people like publicans or iron-mongers often sold seed as an adjunct of their business. At times they sold the sweepings of the lofts, weed-seeds and all. The IAOS took steps to improve the quality of the seed they sold, but they had to charge a higher price, which did not please the members of some associated societies who wished to meet competition from the seed merchants. The use of cheap seed, like the use of scrub bulls, was probably common among the older farmers on the smallest farms, and it never got better. On the other hand, some Irish nurserymen and seeds men had an international reputation. [Top]


            Horticulture was an area where Ireland was still a leader in 1900. Gardens both for flowers and vegetables were maintained by many of the leading farmers. Gentlemen could have large gardens with a large staff. Then there were market gardeners on the outskirts of the cities and towns. The professional people, including the clergy, school-teachers and such like could maintain smaller gardens either for flowers, vegetables or both. Finally, even labourers in the labourers’ cottages could maintain small gardens. This practice was not universal, and many small farmers did not have gardens, being contented to grow cabbage and turnips in a field. Any woman with even limited social pretensions would plant some flowers in front of her house.

David Drummond, a Scotchman, in the 1840’s settled in Dublin and established a seeds and nursery business which became Messrs. William Drummond and Sons, seeds merchants and nurserymen. Alex Dickson of Belfast was another seed merchant and nurseryman, as was Tait's of Dublin (Farmers’ Gazette 19 Feb 04). Alexander Dickson of Newtownards and Belfast, speaking on rose growing, said it was not until 1877 that his firm distributed their own roses, but were now the champion rose growers and had been awarded 17 gold medals by the National Rose Society (Farmers Gazette 9 March 04). By 1918, the sales Dickson’s ‘Hallmark’ seeds were eight times what they were in 1908. Horticulturalists visited the famous daffodil bulb farm of Hogg and Robertson at Rush, Co. Dublin (Farmers’ Gazette 7 May 04). The Gazette published an Article on the cultivation of the tomato. This is the rising vegetable of the day; the demand is only recent, yet seems set to increase immensely. The taste is an acquired one; the habit of eating them raw has been imported from America, either whole or shredded in salad, with only salt and pepper added. They are in demand all the year round. They are grown from seeds in hotbeds; potted when the leaves are formed; and planted out in June. They need plenty of food and water (18 June 04). Later it was realised that with the Irish climate tomatoes could only be grown for market under glass, and the great expansion of the tomato-growing industry had to wait until after the Second World War.

 Irish horticulture was flourishing; formerly flowers were grown for exhibition only; now they are grown almost exclusively for the market; in some cases however, like hyacinths, tulips, pot roses etc. the standards have not changed, and the plants now on sale are as good as those of 25 years ago. There were far more average gardens now than there were then, and vegetables and outdoor fruits were grown more; also some flowers like cut roses, chrysanthemums, some dahlias, some begonias, and sweet peas have improved out of recognition. Irish nurserymen and seed merchants now have an international reputation; Irish seeds are even bought in Holland.

The county councils have employed peripatetic instructors drawn from men who had been gardeners in private establishments; the development of gardening would bring an excellent diversity to the cottagers’ diet. The districts which have adopted fruit-growing, Lough Gall and Richhill in Armagh, and Duleek and Gormanstown in Meath were notably prosperous. The Department has established several fruit-growing centres for instruction in fruit-growing. As in similar districts around Dundee in Scotland, the fruit-growing districts became famous for jams and preserves (Irish Gardening, March 1906). A letter in the December issue complained that Irish fruit, especially Irish apples were unobtainable in Irish country towns; the shopkeepers say they can only get American apples; there are no Irish suppliers (loc.cit.). [Top]


            Unlike other countries on the Atlantic coasts of Europe Ireland never built up a great fishing fleet, fishing as far away as Newfoundland and Iceland. Nevertheless, in the Irish Sea and some distance out into the Atlantic Irish boats fished. Almost everywhere along the coast there was coastal fishing in small open boats. Decked boats were used in the large fishing ports. There was also oyster-fishing and the collection of shell-fish on a small scale, and eel-fisheries despite the fact that the Irish did not eat eels, and little shellfish. There was no mass-market for fish in Ireland. Herring, mackerel, and whiting were eaten on Fridays, each in their season, when they were available. The freshwater fishing was almost exclusively for the sporting fish, trout and salmon, which would be served in the local hotels, if not eaten by poachers, a flourishing trade. Herring, the bedrock of British fisheries, had virtually disappeared from Irish shores. But in the nineteenth century, Irish fishermen turned towards mackerel, a deep-water fish which feeds on the surface at certain times of the year. The centre of the industry was Kerry, few mackerel going further north. The herring fishery off Donegal had an unexpected revival in 1900. By 1910 about 40 steam drifters were involved, each costing between three and four thousand pounds; all were owned by English or Scottish companies. Irish fishermen did not combine to buy boats like these (Weekly Irish Times 2 April 1910). Individually owned boats were still the norm in Ireland. The fish however were landed and cured in Donegal, providing local work. The herring fishery in the Irish Sea revived too. By 1919 local inshore fishermen in Dublin Bay were complaining that ring-fishing, where the seine nets are cast out while the boat sails in a circle, was even more devastating to fish stocks than the trawlers which were banned from the bay (Weekly Irish Times 23 August 1919). Oyster fishing off Clontarf on Dublin Bay had to be discontinued because the beds were contaminated by sewage. By 1920 the herring was the most valuable catch, but was again declining, while catches of mackerel now almost equalled the herring catch. By the beginning of the 20th century coastal fisheries were thriving following the introduction of motor vessels. This led to great activity in Irish boat yards (Enniscorthy Echo 12 Aug 1911)

            By 1900, improvements in communications and in the ability to preserve fish meant that a considerable part of the catch could be exported, and the value of fish exports was almost £0.5 million, about a third of wool and woollen goods. Mackerel was pickled and sent to America. But the bulk of exports was to Britain and consisted of salmon which were netted in the estuaries as the fully-grown salmon were returning to spawn. The great centre of salmon fishing was in the north of Ireland. Ireland was catching more salmon than Scotland.

A Government Report in 1908 was pessimistic with regard to fish. Despite all its natural advantages it was a paltry affair; in 1905 it was estimated that the value of all fish exported, sea, freshwater, and shellfish was £403,000, while £275,000 was imported. No industry was declining in Ireland more rapidly than the fishing industry. Protection from the poaching by [foreign] steam trawlers, better harbours, greater restrictions on the use of the seine net, and provision of better boats, are all specified as remedies (Weekly Irish Times 6 June 1908).

In evidence before a House of Lords committee a witness stated that there were there were nine-steam trawlers in Dublin landing about 3,000 tons of fish annually, and a number of sailing trawlers on the west coast, chiefly at Dingle and Galway landing in total about 500 tons. Sailing trawlers had virtually been driven from the North Sea by this date by the steam trawler. Where fish were landed, there were jobs onshore for the curers and the carters. The demand for fishing boats in the Irish boat yards increased. Motors were gradually added to fishing boats, or may have replaced steam engines

County Down emerged as a great fishing county. In 1923 the total number of boats engaged was 505 and laid up 207; motor vessels 219, sailing boats 331, oars only 162. Herring boats numbered 163, trawlers 80, Danish seining 14, lines 118, lobster 100, while about 200 people were engaged in collecting shell fish. The three principal branches were herring fishing, line fishing [usually for mackerel; lines with hundreds of baited hooks were used], and inshore trawling. The Co. Down summer herring fisheries at Portavogie, Ardglass, Kilkeel, and Annalong were the principal fisheries; of these Ardglass was the chief, for fish could be landed there at any state of the tide; the fish were sold fresh in the Belfast market, the port being connected directly by rail. Formerly they were also pickled for the German market. There was little deep sea fishing done from Ulster though there were fishing grounds off the north coast exploited by others (Weekly Northern Whig 8 March 1924).

Irish eel fisheries exported eels worth £21,018 in 1913 and £15,217 in 1914. The most important eel fisheries were on the Shannon and the Bann, the former employing 200 and the latter 300. The fisheries in Limerick, Waterford, Galway and Connemara have not shown the same improvement as those on the Bann including Lough Neagh. Nearly all went to the English market. There were complaints from buyers there that Irish eels were badly packed and often dead on arrival, so they preferred to buy from Denmark and Holland where they were properly graded and packed. Another buyer said he liked Waterford eels for they did not fill the boxes more than 2/3rds full so the eels arrived in London alive and in good condition. Many Irish fisheries were abandoned because the Irish no longer eat eels, and the weirs were in poor condition; the eel fishery around Limerick is now thriving and profitable, all being sold in England. The Shannon fishery was centred on Athlone, and on the upper reaches of the Shannon, but none was sold locally (Weekly Irish Times 9 Dec 1916).

The chief inland fisheries in rivers and lakes at this time seem to have been concerned with angling for sport. A lot of fish were of course caught by local fishermen and these were not all necessarily game fish. A great problem with the industry was the prevalence of poaching. None of this surprises those who lived in the Irish countryside where poaching is regarded as a basic human right. A writer attributed the decline of inland fisheries to excessive and illegal netting at the mouth of tidal rivers; the introduction of poisonous substances from factories and mills; the non-observance of the close time and the general lack of water bailiffs; the killing of small fish; poaching and illegal methods of fishing; the great increase of perch and pike, and the excessive numbers of anglers (Farmers’ Gazette 23 June 1900). One observer considered that with proper preservation in the closed season and the hiring of a sufficient number of bailiffs, the catch of salmon on the Shannon could be doubled (Irish Field 21 Jan 1900). The value of the inland fisheries of Ireland was said to be worth around £350,000 annually, equal to that of the marine fishery, though not of course in the sale of the fish at market. Rentals of fishing rivers in Scotland made them a valuable national asset. Values in Ireland could be as high if poaching could be controlled (Warder 9 Aug 02). Angling on the lakes in the Midlands was better provided for than on many English lakes, and anglers from Manchester used to travel there regularly. All commentators were in agreement that fishing in inland waters was in decline (Farmers’ Gazette 20 April 1900). 

The Congested Districts Board made great efforts to develop the fisheries along the western coast, advancing money for boats, and providing curing stations for herring and cod. The Department of Agriculture also tried to promote fisheries, in its first year allocating £10,000 towards the promotion of fisheries. There was also an Irish Fisheries Board charged with their encouragement. Professor John Joly and Professor Daniel Cunningham of Trinity College developed a programme for marine research for the benefit of Irish fisheries (Joly DNB; McDowell, Irish Administration 208-9).

The person behind the project was the Rev. William Spotiswood Green, of Carrigaline, Co. Cork. In 1887 the Royal Dublin Society appointed a Fisheries Committee and Mr Green was asked to report on the fisheries in his area. The usual way of conducting enquiries in the nineteenth century was to write to the leading gentlemen and clergymen in the chosen area and ask their views. Later, in 1890, the Society agreed with the Chief Secretary, Arthur Balfour, that the Society would conduct a survey of the west coast fisheries, the Society and the Government each paying half the cost. Mr Green was placed in charge of the survey having been appointed Inspector of Fisheries (White, The Royal Dublin Society, 162-5; Encyclopaedia of Ireland, Edward Holt). White noted that there were endless Reports on the subject from royal commissions, the Board of Works, and the Inspectors of Irish Fisheries covering the same ground over and over again. The work of the Society was taken over by the Department of Agriculture in 1900. Despite Government efforts over the centuries, Irish fisheries never developed to the extent of Scottish fisheries. [Top]


            Since early in the eighteenth century Ireland’s deforested state had worried Irish gentlemen and the Irish Government, and from time to time great private efforts were made at planting trees. Ireland was still however, after Iceland, the most treeless country in Europe. By 1850 there was in the whole of Ireland about 350,000 acres, which had declined to around 300,000 acres by 1900. (For comparison, the present Irish Government has a target of 2.5 million acres or about 15% of the country.)

Hardwoods like oak had been traditionally planted. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the introduction of fast-growing softwood trees from the American Pacific coast like the Douglas fir, the Sitka spruce, and the Japanese larch. Planting by landowners, like many other things, declined with the passing of the Land Acts from 1881 onwards, but by no means ceased. Tree-felling however exceeded tree-planting. The tenants normally when they got possession of land sold the trees on it. The Department of Agriculture’s figures for tree planting and felling in 1900 showed 1,243,544 trees planted against 1,596,959 felled. Planting was done by landlords on their demesne lands or waste lands.


Province          planted                        felled

Leinster           386,946           224,824

Munster           537,189           600,692

Ulster               232,854           285,228

Connaught         86,555             46,215


The counties with the largest number of trees planted were Cork 248,469; Waterford, 158,000; Kings Co. 107,000; Tyrone 83,000; Tipperary 77,000; and Queen's Co 72,000. At the other end of the scale were Leitrim with 15 trees planted, Longford 400, and Clare 700 (Farmers’ Gazette 20 July 1901). It was estimated that land let at 8 shillings an acre or less could more profitably be planted with trees. The drawbacks were the initial heavy cost with no return for 30 years (Farmers’ Gazette 19 Oct. 1901). At the formation of an Irish Arboricultural Society in 1901 it was noted that the total superficial area of Ireland was 20,327,947 acres of which 4,787,003 were bog, waste, barren mountain waters and marsh (say roughly 5 million acres) and under woods and plantations in 1900 311,648 acres. There were 2 million acres of absolutely denuded and steep uplands every acre of which should be planted; last year only 629 acres were planted and 1451 acres cleared; only 1.5% of the surface of Ireland was under forest (Farmers Gazette 26 October 1901).

Lord Palmerston showed that it was possible to stabilise sand-dunes and plant trees on his estate on the Atlantic seaboard at Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo. (Lord Louis Mountbatten was later murdered there by the IRA). Professor Lyons, a Dublin physician and professor of medicine in the Medical School of the Catholic University collected information on forestry in other countries and published the results of his enquiry in 1883 (DNB R.S. Lyons). The Recess Committee in 1896 considered the matter and concluded that there were 3 million acres of wastelands which could be planted. Perhaps unduly impressed by Palmerston’s success, Arthur Balfour decided that the Government itself should give a lead in reforestation. In 1890 the Irish Government procured 960 acres near Carna in Connemara with a view to planting it with trees. The property was placed under the Irish Land Commission who spent £2,000 in draining, fencing, and planting. On the formation of the Congested Districts Board, the forest called the forest of Knockboy, was transferred to it, and it entered into the scheme with enthusiasm. It was maintained that if the experiment was successful at Carna, on mountain slopes covered with a shallow boggy soil, and exposed to the Atlantic winds, it would prove that Ireland could be reforested anywhere. Planting was carried out on a large scale in 1893 and 1894; in 1895 it was reported that the trees were not thriving and planting was suspended. In 1898 the experiment was abandoned; the total amount spent had amounted to £10,500; total receipts were £24 4s; it was a costly failure (New Irish Jurist 6 Feb. 1903).

 The question arose whether forestry could pay. The Royal Commission on Forestry in 1887 took much evidence which tended to throw doubt on the subject; virtually everyone agreed that however desirable the reforestation of wastelands, it could never be commercially profitable. The demand for timber is insatiable; the amount of timber used in the construction of a Belfast White Star liner is said to equal the amount in a fleet of old battleships. There was also a great demand for housing timber; but even more for crates and other forms of packaging, whether beer barrels or butter crates, fish crates, etc. (Farmers’ Gazette 8 Nov 1902). There was also the value of belts of trees as shelter belts, either along fields, or to the windward sides of farmhouses, besides their amenity value especially in cities. Trees were planted along Dublin’s principal street, Sackville Street in 1897.

The Department of Agriculture acquired the Avondale Estate in Wicklow to establish a School of Forestry. In 1907 a Forestry Commission was appointed by the Government to study the work of reforesting Ireland. In 1919 a Forestry Commission for the whole of the United Kingdom was established. The Forestry Act (1919) established a Forestry Commission for the United Kingdom; commissioners, of whom two must have experience of forestry in Scotland, were appointed. Three of them were to be paid; in Ireland the powers of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction with regard to forestry were transferred to it, and also the powers under the Destructive Insects and Pests Acts (1877-1907) with regard to forestry pests (Irish Law Times 1920 Statutes). Though it commenced work planting trees in Tyrone in 1920, and work continued in both Northern and Southern Ireland in the inter-war years, the main effort was not made until after the Second World War. By 1920 the felling of trees on estates sold under the Land Acts was in full swing, as either the landlords sold the timber separately before the sale or the former tenants did so immediately afterwards. The value of mature timber locked up in a well planted estate was often considerable. [Top]

Leases and Tenancies

            The conclusions which W.E. Vaughan reached in his doctoral thesis regarding landlord and tenant relations in the post-Famine period are now universally accepted (Vaughan, ‘Landlord and Tenant relations’, 216). The old nationalist propaganda regarding oppressive evicting landlords was comprehensively discredited. He made the following points. Rents were neither high nor frequently raised, even though prices of agricultural products were rising. Nor were evictions frequent. When they occurred it was almost always for non-payment of rent. Tenants in practice had security of tenure on most estates. Nor were landlords backward in improving their estates and allowing tenants to improve their farms. By Irish law, unlike English law, it was the tenant who was responsible for ‘improvements’ to the land he rented, constructing the buildings, fencing and draining. The rents were correspondingly lower, but the tenant had a grievance that if his lease was not renewed he got no compensation for fixed improvements, though if he improved his livestock he could take it with him. But when non-farm investment is taken into account, the provision of roads and railways, local markets, arterial drainage, the maintenance of a police force and law and order, the provision of good bulls and rams, and so on, it could be claimed that most of the increase in the tenants’ income was due to investments by the landowners. Nor did actions of landlords provoke widespread agrarian crime. Figures for agrarian crime were low. Nor was there a link between the number of outrages and the number of evictions. Nor did a change in the law giving tenants security of tenure cause a great improvement in Irish farming. It was shown that farming in Ulster where compensation for improvements was available the farming was worse than in Munster and Leinster. Nor did farm production rise dramatically after 1881 when tenants received security of tenure (Vaughan op. cit. This dense Article should be studied in full; O’Grada, Ireland, 255-6).

            One feature of land-holding in the post-Famine period was the shortness of leases. The basic system of land-holding in the British Isles was that of ‘estates in land’ dating from the feudal period. As English law was progressively applied in Ireland and Scotland, chiefs came to hold their land directly from the crown, and these estates were usually enormous. Following rebellions these lands were transferred to tenants-in-chief of the crown in huge chunks. To get an income from their lands, the tenant-in-chief broke up his estate into lesser units to sub-tenants for a low rent and a long lease, usually of ninety nine years. (This followed the earlier custom of sub-infeudation.) The sub-tenant then let the land out in individual farms at somewhat higher rents for shorter leases, often for three lives i.e. until the three sub-sub tenants named in the lease died. Such a lease was regarded as conferring a ‘freehold’ for political purposes in Ireland. A lease for thirty one years which was an equivalent period of time conferred only a leasehold. The freehold could normally be extended indefinitely, on the death of one of the ‘lives’ by paying a fine to substitute another name (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland 155-9). The fine or fee was a sum of money, often considerable, paid to the landlord on entering or extending a lease, in order that the rent may be reduced OED.)

The original sub-tenant was usually not a nobleman, and often not even a gentleman, and was usually called a ‘middleman’. As was not infrequently the case the tenant-in-chief resided on his main estate in England and was called an ‘absentee landlord’. There was no Irish law against further sub-letting, if the landlord or the middleman was deemed to give his consent, so that in extreme cases there could be a chain of five landlords with progressively shorter leases and higher rents between the tenant-in-chief and the actual cultivator of the soil. This led to extra-ordinary sub-division on particular estates where the cultivators of tiny patches could be numbered in their thousands, and these were paying what was called a ‘rack-rent’, the rack being almost the total produce of the holding for a year. In this kind of series it is not obvious who is to be regarded as ‘the landlord’ and who as ‘the tenant’. This did not matter much in practice for people were graded by their status (nobleman, gentleman, farmer, etc.) and by their income (Forty Shillings, Ten Pounds, Two Hundred pounds, etc.). But it did matter when Acts to provide for the sale of land were passed. Most landlords and larger tenants wished to root out sub-letting and associated rackrenting. Rackrenting remained as a term of propaganda and political abuse long after the practice ceased.

Land can be regarded as a common good so that it is in the interest of the whole country or nation that it be used as effectively as possible. Fragmentation into tiny holdings on the one hand and socialist collective farming on the other hand proved equally inefficient. It was considered that an estate farmed directly by the landlord with sufficient capital could produce up to four times the amount of output as one divided among a thousand cultivators. It should also be noted from this point of view that rent, namely the landowner’s share of the output, is not necessarily an evil provided he spends it. On the other hand, by constantly raising rents in line with increasing returns from agriculture, the rent stimulates output and so benefits the country as a whole as the landlord spends his income on goods, services and taxes. Without this stimulus, and without the threat of being replaced by a more energetic farmer, the peasant proprietor can limit his output to what suits himself or to minimise his rent or taxes, and the economy stagnates.

The original tenants-in-chief in the eighteenth century gained nothing from the ever-increasing prices for agricultural produce for they were paid only the original rent. It so happened that many of these original leases came up for renewal early in the nineteenth century so thereafter they only allowed short leases. Also the only way to stop the sub-division was when the original head lease came up for renewal, for then a clause could be inserted forbidding sub-letting. But inserting such a clause involved ‘clearing’ an entire estate of thousands of the cultivators of tiny patches, and there was a huge uproar when it was attempted. It would seem however that a loophole was found, namely conacre. This meant renting individual fields for less than a year. Conacre for eleven months but renewed every year was the equivalent of an annual lease. At the same time, when Daniel O’Connell led the Forty Shilling Freeholders to vote against their landlord, the whole point of giving leases for lives ended. When the lease came up for renewal, a lease for a number of years or even for one year renewed annually was substituted. This became a great source of indignation to the more prosperous tenant farmers who lost status and security, and led to prolonged campaigns denouncing the iniquity of the system.

Between 1820 and 1850 great efforts had been made by the landowners to establish some kind of rational structure. Though not perfect, by 1850 a kind of sensible system had been developed. Landlords brought in, originally from Scotland, agents to manage the letting of farms rather than middlemen. (One result of this was that political rants against middlemen were transferred to land agents.) Many impoverished estates changed hands by being sold under the Encumbered Estates Act (1849). The chief grievance now was the loss of the tenure for lives which affected the strong farmers. Liberal governments tended to support the tenant farmers, while Conservative governments supported the landowners. The tenants’ arguments have been summarised in the opening paragraph of this section where it was also indicated that none of their contentions were valid (Vaughan, above). The Conservatives at the time always maintained that the arguments were false, and that the interests of the landlords (and of the country) were being injured by legislation that could do no good. There is no doubt nowadays the Gladstone’s intended remedial legislation was based on false premisses.

In the past there was considerable confusion between the struggle of the tenant farmers, many of them from Ulster and many of them Protestant, to secure Tenant Right and the political struggle of the Land League. By Tenant Right was meant certain demands that came to be known as Tenant Right or ‘Ulster Custom’, or the ‘Three F’s (fair rent, free sale, fixity of tenure). What they wanted was a return to the leases for lives renewable forever, moderate rents which involved no competition for farms and decided if possible by a neutral judge solely on the basis of agricultural prices and not competition, and compensation for any improvements to the landlord’s property if they made any improvement, if the lease was not renewed. This they felt would equally benefit the landlords.

The landlords, mindful of the recent past, wished to be able to recover their property within a reasonable time, to be able to raise rents in line with improved agricultural prices, improved land (for example by arterial drainage), or a bid from a prospective better farmer, and if there was to be tenants’ claim for improvements, there should be a countervailing landlord’s claim for dilapidation. If rents were to be arbitrated the market value of its potential output should be the basis. The fair rent should be the market rent. The landlords had no intention of allowing the unlimited competition such as had occurred when unrestricted sub-letting led to rack rents for this inevitably led to the deterioration of the soil, and lessened the value of the estate. It would follow that an applicant for a vacant tenancy who was young, who had sufficient capital to effect improvements, and had shown success with improved methods of farming (perhaps in Scotland), would be preferred to even a sitting tenant who lacked these attributes. Such an ideal applicant might be difficult to find, so a sitting tenant who paid his rent regularly and did not dilapidate the property excessively was likely to be left in place. Problems of course arose when badly deteriorated estates were purchased from bankrupt landlords through the Encumbered Estates Commission or the Landed Estates Court. (Up to 1858 £23 million were spent on purchasing bankrupt estates, probably affecting around 70,000 farms Curtis, History, 368.) The new owners were normally anxious to put their new estates on a sound business footing though the tenants did not relish the necessary changes. These were just general ideas through which each side tried to maximise the benefit to itself, and rarely were demands pushed to extremes. Landlord and tenant relations were on the whole tolerant and harmonious and the first two Land Acts, those of 1860 and 1870 reflected this moderation.

Entirely different was the agitation of the Land League. It was founded by former Fenian revolutionaries, and had a political aim, to smash the financial and political power of the landlords. The leaders of the Land League would then replace them politically in every county in Ireland and a political regime similar to that of Tammany Hall would be established. The agitation was primarily among the tenants with small holdings in the West, and was closely connected with agrarian terrorism. The local tenants themselves should decide what a fair rent was, and should pay no more. With rents reduced to a trickle, the political power of the landlords would end. Massive intimidation tried to prevent other applicants taking the farms of tenants evicted for non-payment of rent, and also tried to make life a misery for anyone who sided with the landlord. Anyone who defied the League for any reason whatever was subjected to the same ‘boycott’. It was almost exclusively Catholic in character, and almost immediately it came up against opposition not only from landlords but from the mass of Protestants in Ireland who realised what a Tammany Hall regime in Ireland would mean for themselves. For centuries Protestants had controlled patronage and corruption in government. The aim of the League was to seize them for the benefit of the Catholics: as was said to put the boot on the other foot. [Top]

Land Acts

The first Act passed dealing with land, Rickard Deasy’s Landlord and Tenant Amendment (Ireland) Act (1860 attempted to codify the great mass of laws pertaining to landlords and tenants and to base the relationship on contract. A straightforward process for eviction, based on breach of contract, was established if the tenant was in arrears by one full year. Deasy deserves more credit for this Act than he is usually given. In establishing a farm tenancy as a simple contract it was doing what Master and Servant legislation and Municipal Reform acts were doing around this time, namely sweeping away ancient customs, laws, and precedents. Compensation for improvements was not mentioned. This might have been the Act that was needed but it was not the Act that the tenant farmers wanted. Gladstone’s Land Act (1870 was a modest affair. It recognised tenant right and Ulster Custom but did not define it. It was left to the tenant to prove that it was in force in his area. It got legal compensation if the tenants were turned out by the landlord, and for any improvements they allegedly made; no new rights were given and none taken away from the landlords. The importance of this Act was that it, like the Act the previous year disestablishing the Irish Church, showed that Gladstone could be pressurised into further concessions. Included in the Act were the ‘Bright Clauses’ inserted at the instance of John Bright. These allowed the sale of tenancies to the tenants through the Landed Estates Court, and allowed the Board of Works to advance two thirds of the agreed price at 5% over thirty five years (Burke, Industrial History, 304).

A commission of enquiry which became known as the Bessborough enquiry after its chairman, the 6th Earl of Bessborough, reported in 1881, advising the repeal of the Land Act of 1870, and the enactment of a simple uniform act on the basis of fixity of tenure, fair rents, and free sale. The Ulster Custom or the ‘Three Fs’ generally had the following features;

1) Fair Rent: the rent charged was a fair one not fixed by competitive bidding;

2) Fixity of Tenure: the tenant could not be evicted so long as he paid his rent;

3) Free Sale: the tenant could, with the approbation of the landlord, sell his tenant right;

all arrears of rent must be paid off before such a transaction was completed.

This custom was not recognised by law; however in general it was observed (Belfast Weekly News 24 Jan 1901).

This was largely what the Land Act (1881 contained. Fair rent for a defined period was to be fixed by an independent arbitrator. Fixity of tenure was granted while the rent was paid. Free sale meant that a tenant could sell the remainder of his lease to another tenant with the landlord’s permission. If the landlord did not wish to renew the lease he had to pay compensation to the tenant for his improvements. None of the above was to apply if the tenant was in arrears. It was enacted that a Land Court should be formed to fix judicial rents. Either landlord or tenant could apply to the court, and the rent thus fixed was to last for fifteen years, giving in effect a fifteen year lease. There was to be a Land Commission composed of three commissioners, one of whom would have the status of a judge, and there were to be assistant commissioners for each county. The assistant commissioners were to be the people who decided in the first instance what a fair rent should be. The landlord might deplore the dilapidation of his land but he was made powerless to do anything about it.

The Act was more complex than this summary and it was said that only half a dozen politicians fully understood it. Parnell’s lieutenant, Tim Healy, was one of these and he got the ‘Healy Clause’ inserted and passed. This said that no rent could be charged on a tenant’s improvements. Hugh Law, then the Irish Attorney General and shortly afterwards Lord Chancellor, missed the point and did not challenge the clause (DNB Healy, Law). If the tenant wished to purchase his holding, the commissioners were to advance three quarters of the purchase price, and the purchase would give a full legal title to the land. There were the usual exclusions, so that those hopelessly in arrears with the rent could not apply. The Land Commission was empowered to make advances for purchase of ¾ of the price at 5% over 35 years.

            Had this Act been passed thirty years earlier following the recommendations of the earlier Devon Commission it might have done some good, with both landlords and tenants trying to make it work as intended. But by now, the Land League was active whose members were determined to smash their political opponents the landlords and to use the Act to this end. The great flaw in the Act which became apparent over time was that neither the rent nor the compensation were to be fixed by the free market but by a court which followed arbitrary rules. Arbitrary they were to the extent that they introduced factors that the free market would not consider. This Act was described by Judge O’Connor Morris, a County Court judge who had to administer the system, as “a clumsy and ill-conceived attempt to make the Three F's the mould of the Irish land system. Fair rent was to be settled by the tribunals of the state. Fixity of tenure was to be created by subjecting nine-tenths probably of Irish tenancies to leases for fifteen years, renewable practically for ever by the same tribunals, and free sale was permitted under restrictions rather vexatious and troublesome than of real value". Though it was not intended the judges felt it was their duty to reduce rents which were already comparatively low, and reduced them again at every fifteen-year valuation. So between 1881 and 1901 rents were reduced by 40%. The best landlords, those who spent most on improvements and had the lowest rents lost most, and the thrifty industrious farmer who paid his way and did not run down his farm gained least (Belfast Weekly News 31 Jan 1901). All rents in Ireland now tended to be settled by litigation; nobody gained from this except solicitors who registered a 30% increase since the passing of the Act. Also the Act reduced the incentive of the landlord to improve his estate. After 1847 Irish landlords borrowed £7 million from the Board of Works for landlord's improvements to their estates besides any money they had of their own; but since the 1881 Act there as no point in borrowing (Warder 2 March 1901).

The commissioners were not equal to the demands of the task in the face of the No Rent campaign led by capable lawyers and terrorists. The first decisions were made by sub-commissioners in the various counties. These were ill-trained and ill-instructed, so appeal followed appeal to the great enrichment of lawyers (ibid). The Act itself gave no indication what a 'fair rent’ should be, and the Commissioners themselves never attempted a definition. They did not take into account the Report of a Commission [Bessborough Commission] which said that rack-renting was extremely rare; they should have taken into account estates where rents had not been raised for a long time; they should have taken into account not only the state of the land, but whether its run-down condition was the tenant's fault; they should have foreseen that under the 1881 Act the tenant had a direct financial interest in running down his holding. The Commissioners should have given the greatest latitude to the landlord when he appealed, but did not do so; they should have ensured that the sub-commissioners were capable, well-trained, and properly remunerated, but did not do so; these sub-commissioners or valuers were in fact the court of first instance.

Judge O’Connor Morris continued: having neglected to make a definition of "fair rent", the Land Commission on this subject ran into the grossest errors. It excluded the principle of competition in considering the standard for rent; it refused to allow the rents of land in a neighbouring district to be any evidence of the 'fair rent' on a given farm; it permitted rents to be fixed on lands deteriorated through the tenant's default and even deteriorated for this very purpose. Rents were reduced to an extent not contemplated by any statesman, or by any well-informed person who knew Ireland; they were fixed on principles which did the landlord wrong. Agriculture declined in many districts especially as to arterial drainage and to the breeds of most farming animals, for a large expenditure was made by the landlords on this account. This, as a matter of course, has ceased, and the tenants, as a rule have done simply nothing. In addition land bound in the fetters of a vicious tenure has been thrown into a kind of mortmain; it is all but impossible to sell an Irish estate on the open market, or even to borrow money on it (Warder 6 Oct 1900). Nor was any attempt made to value the land at market prices before and after, or to penalise a tenant who had not made sufficient improvements in the course of fifteen years. The court reduced and fixed the rent for a first term of 15 years, and reduced it again for the second term.

Though the Act was intended as an aid to the improvement of agriculture, there is no evidence that it had any such effect. Shifting political influence and control of patronage and corruption was done more easily by establishing county councils elected by popular vote. Its most immediate effect was to increase the terrorist activities of the Land League. Ironically, it made the landlords more ready to sell their tenanted lands to the tenants just at a time when the returns from land were beginning to fall sharply. The landlords were well-advised to sell when they did.

The Conservatives came to realise that Land Purchase was the only way out of the mess. Under the Land Purchase Act (1885 (called the Ashbourne Act after the Lord Chancellor, Lord Ashbourne) the Government would advance to the tenant the whole cost of his holding to be paid back over 49 years. The tenant paid £4 for every £100, of which £3 2/6 represented the annual interest on the land and 17/6 was placed in a sinking fund to pay off the capital. The Land Commission was empowered to purchase estates in the Landed Estates court (Encumbered Estates court) when such were available for the purpose of re-selling them to the sitting tenants (Beckett, Modern Ireland, 394; Weekly Irish Times 21 February 1903; Burke, Industrial History, 307). The repayment charge on the tenant amounted to about 70% of his present rent. The £5 million voted for the purchase was soon exhausted and further grants had to be made. This method was very expensive to the Government who paid up front and the debt would not be paid off for 49 years. The total amount advanced under three Land Purchase Acts up to 1903 was £25.5 million which purchased 71,754 farms (Weekly Irish Times 5 August 1905).

            Arthur Balfour’s Land Purchase Act (1891) was similar but the landlord selling was paid in guaranteed Land Stock paying 2¾% per annum which was also exchangeable for Government Consolidated stock. The Act was emended in 1896, but the principle of being paid in stock with a fluctuating price was unpopular. The point in the Act from Parliament’s point of view was that re-payment of annuities by the purchaser would commence before the Government had to make payments to the landlords. In all these Acts there was no question of compulsory sale or purchase. The demesne lands, those parts of an estate not let out in tenancies, were never purchased.

The basic principle of the Land Act (1903 or Wyndham Act was that Government offered a bonus to landlords who would sell, and tenants would make repayments over 68 years. Landlords were paid in guaranteed Land Stock, saleable on the Stock Exchange. Landlords were to be encouraged to sell all their land leased to tenants at the same time, and the sale could proceed if three quarters of the tenants on an estate agreed. The price of each farm was to be within a band of from 18½ years purchase to 24½ years purchase on farms with first term rents under the Land Act (1881) and from 21½ to 27²/³ years purchase for second term rents fixed after 1896. This roughly equalised the purchase prices of farms on an estate. The money was to be advanced by the Government to the purchasers and the repayments over 68½ years meant a return of 3½% to the owners of the Land Stock (Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine, 219). About ¾ of all tenancies were purchased under the 1903 Act.

Finally, after two independent parliaments were set up both decided to tidy up the remnants of unpurchased tenancies by compulsory purchase. [Top]


            Drainage rather than irrigation was the great need in Ireland, and progressive landlords and tenants always made sure their land was drained. The Irish Government encouraged drainage as one of the best means for supporting an ever-increasing population on the land. Drainage on a given estate was often not easy because of the character of the worn-down surface of Ireland. The water-level of whole areas of marshy or boggy land often could not be lowered until a rocky cill was blasted out miles away on some other estate. In the 1840s, even before the Famine, Drainage Acts were passed allowing the Board of Works to give loans for drainage schemes, and enabling landowners to put in stone or tile drains and to make the necessary outfalls on other estates.

            The Land Improvements Acts (1864, 1869 applicable to England, Scotland and Ireland, allowed the advance of public money as loans for the straightening, deepening and widening of existing drains; the embanking of land from rivers or seas, the enclosing of lands and straightening of fences; making permanent farm roads and tramways or navigable canals for the improvement of the estate; the erection of labourers’ cottages, farmhouses and other farm buildings or the improvement of existing dwellings and buildings; the planting of shelter; the construction of engine houses, waterwheel sawmills, kilns, watercourses, and sluices which will increase the value of the agricultural land; the construction of permanent jetties or landing places on the sea coasts or the banks of navigable rivers or lakes suitable for the transport of lime or cattle or otherwise beneficial to agriculture. If the landlord made the improvement he was entitled to place a rent-charge on the various farms (Irish Law Times 28 April 1900).

The proprietors of a river basin were empowered to form themselves into a drainage district. The Board of Works, after enquiries and the examination of their plan could constitute them as a drainage board; the board then appointed a secretary, an engineer, and a solicitor, and employed a contractor to carry out the works; funds could be borrowed from the Board of Works. When the works were completed the Board of Works made up an account of the expenditure and published an assessment award which assessed each proprietor with his acreage share of the expenditure, to be repaid by instalments spread over a number of years. In practice often the work was initiated by an engineer as a speculation who then organised the land-owners; he was then appointed the contractor to carry out the approved works, getting the usual 5% commission on the whole. This was perhaps unavoidable because proprietors were normally unwilling to go to the great expense of preparing the plans themselves.

A defect was that the only persons recognised as proprietors were owners in fee or fee farm [fee farm: land held in fee simple subject to perpetual fixed rent]; no tenant, whether by lease or yearly was recognised in the statute. In conformity with this principle repayments were assessed only on the proprietors; there was provision for assessing a portion of the repayment on the lease-holders, but not on the yearly tenants whose rent was varied annually. The Land Acts totally ignored this Act; the Land Commissioners did not recognise any improvement to the land further than 40 feet from the river; any improvement in drainage further than that was attributed to the tenant; the landlord’s expense was therefore awarded to the tenant. With this condition the landowners were simply being robbed. It was also totally unfeasible to organise all the tenants on several estates even if it were lawful.

Another defect was that the repayment rate was assessed on land lying not more than five feet above the original level of the main channel, the owners of the worst land; as the benefits were far wider, the assessment should have been wider. This has resulted in a cost, according to the calculations of the Board of Works at an average cost of £7 1s 6d per statute acre, giving an annual instalment of 8s 10d per Irish acre; with judicial rents being given as low as £1 an acre for even better land the burden on the proprietors is great (New Irish Jurist 18 April 1902).

The last defect was with regard to the necessary acquisition of parcels of land to complete the works; it does not seem that the framers of the Act knew what they were doing, at least as far as Ireland was concerned. Every leaseholder, yearly tenant, and occupier immediately saw scope for some claim, and the expense became enormous; to give one example, the arbitrator framed his award on the basis of £20 per Irish acre to the tenant even though the piece of land taken was virtually useless for agricultural purposes (New Irish Jurist 25 April 1902).

Despite these drawbacks, quite large drainage schemes were put in place in the second part of the nineteenth century, especially in the fifties. The number of Drainage Districts formed in Ireland was 60; the area of flooded land dealt with was 128,638 acres; this cost a total of £961,235 or £1s 6 d per statute acre, towards which £50,725 was recovered from Grand Juries. The largest, that of the Suck in Co. Galway, was peculiar in that half the expenses were placed the proprietors and half on the occupiers. The costliest at £181,557 for 15,327 statute acres was that on Lough Erne. The matter was considered by the royal commission on public works of 1887 chaired by Sir James Allport of the [English] Midland Railway which made several recommendations with regard to the legislation which were not pursued (New Irish Jurist 2 May 1902). A major problem, for which no easy solution was found, was the drainage of lands around Lough Neagh and the Lower Bann. In the 20th century both northern and southern governments pursued various schemes. [Top]

Other Aspects

Farming Societies and Agricultural Shows    

            If the development and modernisation of Irish farming was measured by the enthusiasm for establishing farming societies, we must conclude that it proceeded by fits and starts. In the early years of the nineteenth century and again in the 1840s new societies were formed, but after a number of years became inactive. The Royal Dublin Society founded in 1731 was still active but the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland founded in 1840 was moribund, and in 1886 was amalgamated with the Royal Dublin Society. Large parts of the grounds of Leinster House, the headquarters of the Royal Dublin Society which they had purchased from the Duke of Leinster were taken over for building a national library, a national museum, and a national gallery, while the Royal Dublin Society moved its shows to a new property at Ballsbridge.

            In 1868 the Royal Dublin Society held its first Horse Show to promote the development of the various kinds of horses being bred in Ireland, farm horses, riding horses, carriage horses etc. It has become an international event and a high point in the social calendar. A Spring Agricultural Show for Irish livestock and agricultural machinery is also held and is chiefly of interest to the farming community (White, The Royal Dublin Society).

            The next great fillip to the development of Irish agriculture came with the co-operative movement. Though its influence was not as great in Ireland as in other countries, and there was great indifference to it in many rural circles, nobody could ignore it. One result which followed it, even if not necessarily caused by it, was the transformation of agriculture in Ulster. Around 1850 the province of Ulster with regard to the quality of its agriculture was ranked third, above Connaught but behind Munster and Leinster. The indicator chosen was crude but significant, the amount of weeds in the fields. By 1920 the standard of farming in Ulster was probably the highest in Ireland and the fields the cleanest. Part of this transformation may be attributable to the decline of the flax crop as more and more better-quality flax was imported. For over a century flax had provided Ulster farmers with an excellent cash crop so they had little stimulus to improve other crops. The growing cities and towns provided an increasing market for other produce. The climate and soil of Ulster was much the same as in the rest of Ireland except that it was outside the region where wheat could be successfully grown in most years. Oats was the great cereal crop in Ulster and by 1914 Ulster (nine counties) was producing half of the total crop. Ulster farmers led the way towards fruit-growing. Agricultural shows were established in Newry and Carlow at the end of the century after having lapsed for 20 years (Farmers’ Gazette 10 August 1901). In 1854 an agricultural society called the North Eastern Agricultural Society embracing the counties Antrim, Down, Armagh and Monaghan was established. Lands at Balmoral along the road between Belfast and Lisburn were acquired in 1895; and a sum of £30,000 was expended making the showgrounds second only to those at Ballsbridge; in 1903 the name was changed to the Ulster Agricultural Society, and given the title royal the following year. By 1920 the show of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society (RUAS) was regarded as equal to that of the Royal Dublin Society.

Farming Education

            The system of teaching farming and marketing can only be described as deplorable. Sons learned from their fathers and daughters from their mothers. The National Board of Education had decided that the basics of farming should be taught to every schoolboy. The National Board established an agricultural college, the Albert College, at Glasnevin in 1838 principally to train teachers in farming, and then began to develop model agricultural schools with ten-acre farms attached. (Model schools were primary schools where the principal teacher was a trained and approved teacher where instruction in teaching and teaching practice could be given to aspirants.) There were also ordinary national schools with some land attached where there was a teacher trained to teach agriculture. The existence of these depended entirely on there being a local patron willing to donate the use of his land. There were benefits for the local landlord (before the Land Acts) for he could get a more skilled workforce, more progressive and capable farmers. The tenant farmers believed that the chief purpose of teaching agriculture was to increase the rents. This was of course true but ignored the fact that the chief beneficiary was the tenant farmer himself (Bell and Watson, Irish Farming 10-12). However, the mid-century was the heyday of laissez-faire and it was objected that the state was competing directly against private colleges, so the teaching of agriculture virtually ceased in Ireland. Irish farmers saw no need to support private education in agriculture even if they did see some point in a classical education. Progressively, the schools dropped the subject, so that by 1883 there was only one left besides the Albert College. The one that survived became the Munster Institute. The latter was locally funded and chiefly taught dairying and butter-making to girls. Though the Albert College was allowed to survive the number of its pupils was restricted to twenty, i.e. prospective teachers. Ordinary national schools teaching farming actually increased and arrived at the number of 137 or about 2% of all national schools managers (Dowling, Irish Education, 128-9).

The two institutes were transferred to the new Department of Agriculture and Technical instruction in 1899. By 1900 both were giving courses in dairy science mainly to women students of which there were 50 or 60 each year with an excessive number of applicants for each course. The Department speedily took steps to develop them, and also established new colleges beginning with one at Athenry in Co. Galway. Another was established at Conakilty, Co. Cork, and apprenticeships were made available at them. Others were established in Ulster. By this time the Royal College of Science was also teaching courses in agriculture, and instruction was now being provided at three levels (Weekly Irish Times 3, 10 July 1920). Some religious orders like the Cistercians and Salesians also taught practical courses in agriculture. Though the numbers being taught were still quite small, agricultural education was at last being taken seriously in Ireland. By 1920 The Queen’s University of Belfast, aided by a bequest and the Department of Agriculture set about establishing a degree course in agriculture.

Farm Labour

            It is difficult to generalise on the quality of farm labour for the range spanned from the very best to the very worse. Some were little better than unskilled labour. Some were permanently employed on large farms, while others had small farms but could be employed at seasons of intensive labour like sowing and harvesting. It is likely that the most skilled farm workers were those who were permanently employed on large farms. They would have been taught a whole range of skills over the years, ploughing, reaping, fencing, draining, felling and sawing timber, storing crops, milking, calving, lambing and so on. It was a matter of pride for the skilled ploughman to direct a pair of horses in a dead straight line across a field, and then lay every furrow exactly parallel to it with no tufts of grass appearing between them. His handiwork would be reviewed critically by every passer-by. They were also expected to be able to handle all the machinery the owner of the farm had bought.

            Towards the end of the nineteenth century there were many complaints about the lack of farm labour. Most labourers had a better chance of earning more, getting married, and raising a family if they emigrated. In those parts of Ireland which had turned to raising beef-cattle labourers skilled in tillage scarcely existed. Many labourers were hired for the season only, usually six months, and hiring fairs were held in May and November where wages and contracts were negotiated. They survived to the end of the nineteenth century in Ulster. Migratory labour for the summer season to farms in England and Scotland was very common before 1850, but had declined by the end of the century, and was then largely confined to counties Mayo and Donegal. They were regarded as mostly hard-working and reliable, worked up to 16 hours a day for about 10 weeks, and sent home remittances regularly (Farmers’ Gazette 29 March 03).

There were complaints that the shortage of labour had been keeping down the development of dairying over the past 20 years. One of the great problems of dairying is that it needs to be done seven days a week, 365 days in the year; all other kinds of work have breaks, and no servants will undertake this kind of work if they can possibly avoid it. At present contractors and public bodies are paying at the rate of 6 pence or 7 pence an hour for casual labour with earnings of 24 shillings a week; while farm labour is paid 3 pence an hour [12 shillings a week] in winter rising to 6 pence in harvest time. For those working in dairies there are no days off, and the day is also longer, so the labourer is working from 12 to 14 hours a day. In some cases it is worse; if the milk has to be delivered fresh in time for breakfast the milker must be there at 3 a.m. The author was well aware too of the fact that 12 shillings in the country equalled 21 shillings in the town, but the fact remained that farm work is hard and the hours are long (Farmers’ Gazette 2 November 1901).

In the twentieth century efforts were made to spread trade unions among farm labourers. The Farmers’ Gazette in 1920 claimed that this reduced the number of dairy farms because the farmers could not risk a strike (23 October 20). In 1919 the Kildare farm labourers' strike took place with damage and intimidation: non-union workers were intimidated, crops trampled, and haycocks overthrown (Weekly Irish Times 26 July 1919). There were skirmishes between farmers and labourers also in Co. Meath. Farm labourers’ trade unionism, organised by Joseph Arch, began in England and the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union was formed in 1872. It was followed by the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union which after a strong start declined (DNB Arch). The Kildare strike immediately caused bad relations between farmers and labourers. In actual practice the take-home wage of a labourer was considerably higher than the nominal. The farmers retaliated by refusing to take any union man; though since then trade unions have been everywhere recognised (Farmers’ Gazette 19 June 20).The wages of agricultural labourers were in fact fixed by the Agricultural Wages Board under the Corn Production Act (1917) (Farmers’ Gazette 6 March 20). (These violent farm strikes must be placed in the context of the terrorism for political or social reasons by other groups at the time.) The organisation of farm labourers caused the farmers to form their own organisation, the Irish Farmers’ Union in 1919. Farmers’ organisations became very important after the Second World War.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.