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Our pastoral heritage influences everything

Including agriculture, population, urbanism, suburbia, home ownership, sport, levels of violence and politics

I recall a vivid simile used by Professor Tom Bartlett when I was a student in UCD. He likened Irish history to a pint of Guinness, “with black representing ownership of the land, and the white froth, including all the political movements, everything else”.

Old habits die hard. An obsession with property endures. By the year 2004 Ireland’s rate of private home ownership was the highest in the OECD at around 82%, a proportion that only declined (to 69% in 2014) after the property crash around 2008. Perhaps the evolution reflects the differing approaches of immigrants, many accustomed to rental for life. Now we witness another property boom and renewed scarcity of rental accommodation, which we can trace to the predilections of our peasant forbearers.

A nationality derives characteristics from its relationship to the land it inhabits, and draws sustenance from. Over recent centuries, in Ireland as elsewhere, mass urbanisation has occurred skewed to Dublin, but we build our cities on historical foundations.

There are two defining, and intertwining, legacies of the Irish approach to land that have seeped into the broader culture. The first is the impact of English colonisation on ownership, beginning in the sixteenth century, and the subsequent partial de-colonisation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second is the dominance of pastoral agriculture, especially cattle, particularly since the late nineteenth century.

It is wrong to assume that cattle-farming has always been the dominant form of agriculture in Ireland. Since the first human settlement emphasis has swung back and forth between tillage and pasture. Moreover, the introduction of the wonder crop of the potato in the seventeenth century created a novel opportunity for subsistence on small holdings, and brought poor land into cultivation for the first time.

What is clear is that the impact of Irish agriculture, especially grazing, on Nature has been profound and long-standing. According to Frank Mitchell in ‘Reading the Irish Landscape’: “from about five thousand years ago when the first tree-felling axes made woodland clearance possible man’s hands have borne down ever more heavily on the Irish landscape”. This left a mere twelve per cent woodland coverage by the 1400s, well before the most intense period of English colonisation. Today among EU countries only Luxembourg has a lower coverage, and much of our woodland is in the form of sitka spruce plantations that offer little scope for biodiversity.

The sixteenth and seventeenth century ‘plantations’ entrapped an overwhelmingly Catholic peasantry, denuded of a departed upper stratum of Gaelic society to restrain its fecundity, in a Malthusian grip of population growth. Describing the acquisition of annual leases by peasants who had previously held land in common under the Old Irish system Seán O’Faoláin said: “The thirst for security is, above all things, the great obsession of the peasant mind. And, in a long view, a deceptive obsession”.

Security of tenure under the new dispensation was illusory as land became an asset rather than a collective patrimony. Trade conditions shifted in the nineteenth century and cattle began to enjoy a comparative advantage over tillage because the British had found cheaper sources of grain after the Napoleonic wars. In effect the cheap availability of labour from an Irish peasantry, a substantial proportion living at a subsistence level, became an unwelcome anachronism.

The Great Famine was a catalyst for change that brought about the dominance of cattle agriculture under the native so-called Strong Farmer. The key point about this form of agriculture was (and is) that profitability depends on low labour input. Over the long term this conduced to population decline throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century.

As the country did not enjoy an Industrial Revolution, except in the north-east corner, this shift from growing food for direct human consumption to raising animals, mostly for meat, on grass led to unprecedented population decline. Ireland is perhaps the only substantial country in the world that has witnessed such a decline since the 1840s when the population reached up to nine million. Today it stands at just over six million on the entire island. In the same period the global population has increased seven-fold!

The struggle for Irish Independence was taken up by Strong Farmers, who emerged with enlarged holdings after land clearances, to become the dominant faction of an overwhelming Catholic ‘Nation’ at the end of the nineteenth century. Through a succession of legislative measures – especially Wyndham’s Land Act of 1903 – the British administration sought to ‘kill Home Rule with kindness’, allowing tenants to obtain freeholds over much of the country.

This allowed their sons and daughters to set about dominating local government, the Irish Parliamentary Party, and later Sinn Féin. They entered the professions, established a Catholic university and eventually won an independent state in 1922, wedded to a conservative pastoral outlook on land. The first Minister for Agriculture, Patrick Hogan (in office from 1922-32), was of that caste, and duly aligned national well-being with the economic fortunes of his class.

The overwhelmingly pastoralist Strong Farmers continued to sell commodities onto the Imperial market, and the aspiration of idealists like Robert Barton, the first Director of Agriculture (1919-21), for a reversion to labour-intensive tillage was not realised after independence in 1922. Except, that is, for a period in the 1930s and 1940s when national survival demanded increased focus on growing crops for direct human consumption.

The narrow interests of that group have informed our laws and values since the inception of the state, spreading from rural Ireland into an increasingly urbanized society. As O’Faoláin put it: “we have seen the common folk of Ireland rise like the beanstalk out of the Revolution of 1922 and, for a generation, their behaviour was often very unpleasant to watch”.

The arrival of mechanisation in the Green Revolution after World War II put tillage at a further disadvantage as, despite enjoying among the highest global yields, on account of the effect of the Gulf Stream, heavy precipitation and high humidity makes Irish-grown cereals, apart from oats, unsuited to mechanised harvesting. The traditional method of ‘bindering’ – drying the harvest over months in stacks – became uncompetitive due to high labour inputs.

Simultaneously, the belatedness of development of a native gastronomy generated little demand for horticultural produce. Since the 1970s price supports from the European Community’s Common Agricultural Policy have reduced flexibility and dynamism in land use by inflating values as farmers are guaranteed payments even on poor land, without adequately addressing the associated population drain.

This has left little scope for ‘alternative agriculture’ to emerge. Today a mere 2% of Irish agricultural land is devoted to growing fruit and vegetables. Average cattle farmers in Ireland receive 100% of their income from subsidies, and profitability, crucially, still depends on low labour inputs. Thus, excluding a portion of the rich dairying lands in the south and east, a welfare culture obtains across agricultural Ireland.

According to O’Faoláin peasants: “may have many wonderful and attractive qualities, and preserve valuable things in life such as kindness, humour, charity, oral traditions, fellowship, a sense of wonder, even a sense of the magic of the world: but his virtues are always passive virtues, not the active virtues of initiative, direction, or invention. He will never, for example, contribute generative or revolutionary ideas”. He contrasts this with the yeoman spirit that established English democracy: “the sturdy English spirit of popular independence’, which never allowed ‘the classes to get watertight”.

Clientelist-and-idealogically-torpid craic

Ireland’s stagnant politics of clientelism and ideological torpor embodied in the two main political parties can be traced to the risk aversion of a peasant mindset that has endured into the twenty-first century. Moreover, the attachment to landownership has flowed into prevailing judicial and legislative approaches to property rights in urban areas. State institutions have favoured the landed interest over the property-less, in a troubling reminder of a bygone era.

In 1973 the Kenny Report recommended that building land should be compulsorily acquired by local authorities for 25 per cent more than its agricultural value. According to Frank McDonald, the former Environment Correspondent of the Irish Times, Dr Garret FitzGerald, a member of the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition government that received the report could not remember why it wasn’t acted upon: “It just slid off the agenda”, and no subsequent government acted upon it. McDonald said that “Ostensibly, the reason for this was that Kenny – a constitutional lawyer himself – had proposed something that would be unconstitutional. But no attempt was made to test this in the courts”.

That was until Part V of the Planning Act 2000 was referred to the Supreme Court which found that a relevant provision relating to the acquisition of land for social and affordable housing did not offend the Constitution. Unfortunately that provision did little to ameliorate the housing crisis during the Celtic Tiger as developers were able to evade responsibility by paying over sums to local authorities and successive ministers watered the provisions down.

The reluctance of politicians to implement the Kenny Report reflected a genuine fear that any such provision would fall foul of the Courts, which have tended to vindicate a Constitutional right to property under Articles 40.3.2 and 43.1.2 over any competing interests of landless citizens in security of tenure or a controlled rent. This reflects a sectional bias as, on a harmonious reading of the Constitution, the common good (to which all constitutional rights are subject) should allocate a reasonable prospect of basic accommodation for all citizens.

The idea of an ‘unenumerated’ Constitutional right – in that instance a right to bodily Integrity – was first identified by the same Justice Kenny in his landmark High Court judgment of Ryan v Attorney General (1965) also. A right to adequate shelter may also be unenumerated. For instance Kenny’s seminal judgment cited the papal encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris’ (1963) which stated that: “every man has the right to bodily integrity, and to the means which are necessary and suitable for the proper development of life. These means are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care and finally the necessary services”.

Subsequently, however, the courts have avoided vindicating a basic human right to adequate shelter, and more recently the Supreme Court actually questioned the legitimacy of unenumerated rights altogether.
Moreover, the late Supreme Court Justice Adrian Hardiman led an ideological crusade against the idea of a ‘socio-economic’ right in Sinnott v Minister for Education (2001). In effect since independence the judiciary has vindicated the ‘thirst for security’ of the peasant farmer.

What imprints has pastoralism left on the Irish psyche? Slaughter of cattle, alongside depredations such as castration and artificial insemination, habituates individuals to violence against animals. This brutality seems to permeate the wider society, and might easily lapse into inter-human violence. Tracing such a connection is not straightforward, but it is noteworthy that India, a predominantly vegetarian society, developed non-violent resistance to imperial rule, whereas the struggle for independence in Ireland serves as a model for violent insurrection.

Admittedly, apart from those with a political motivation, murder rates have been comparatively low in post-independence Ireland, but a low-level of violence simmers, expressing itself in weekend punch-ups, and a taste for confrontational sports such as boxing, MMA, rugby and both GAA codes.

Moreover, the approach to what remains of Nature in Ireland is characterised by conflict, especially in rural Ireland where environmentalism is correctly seen as a threat to the endurance of Irish agriculture as it currently operates.

Also, underpinned by legal and political deference to the property interest, we see huge swathes of land and buildings that have been left fallow in urban areas: a recent report in the Dublin Inquirer identified at least 389 derelict sites. We are not accustomed to urban density. This reflects the legacy of extensive cattle-rearing as opposed to intensive tillage.

Sprawling over the pastures

Furthermore, the sons and daughters of pastoralists, accustomed to low-density living with few neighbours on the horizon, sought distance from their neighbours, accounting perhaps for the sprawl, and prevalence of demarcating walls, in Irish suburbia; and for the prevalence of one-off housing, even for commuters.

The commercial culture can also be linked to the pastoral outlook. It is revealing that few successful Irish businessmen have been technological innovators. Rather, success has been built on buying low and selling high, just as a cattle farmer buys a calf and seeks to sell him at a higher price. Ryanair founder the late Tony Ryan even admitted that he drew inspiration from the marts for his aircraft leasing business Guinness Peat Aviation. The Irish dream is to build up a company, sell it and live off the fat of the land.

The pathological excesses of Irish Pastoralism may be identified in the housing bubble that brought the Irish economy to its knees. Here speculative commercial tendencies and the ‘thirst for security’ dove-tailed with state institutions proving inadequate to hold these tendencies in check. Little has been done to lance the speculative boil on the body politic as we enter a new cycle of growth. Measures to tax windfall rezoning profits were quitely axed by a Labour minister in the last government

Millennials may prefer to drink micro-brew, and all sectors in Ireland are at home with a cup of tea, but the model of the pint of Guinness animates this still Pastoral Nation.

By Frank Armstrong