September 26, 2007
The ploughing championship gets into full swing today and, together with the extraordinary popularity of inter country GAA, it shines a light on the thriving nature of rural Ireland. Sometimes with all this talk about how the economy has changed and how Ireland is unrecognisable, we forget that certain things are permanent. Not only is the rural economy permanent but it has strengthened in recent years. This is evidenced by the fact that the President opened the Championship.
The power base of rural Ireland is still strong and despite all the chatter about new commuter towns, immigration and whither the soul of Ireland, the place will be full of glad-handling politicians.
The reason is quite simple. This is one of the most extraordinary constituencies in the country. A few years ago, two economists Damian Hannan and Patrick Commins wrote a paper called the ‘The Significance of Small Scale Landholders in Ireland’s Socio-Economic Transformation’. If anyone wants to understand the economics and the social patchwork that is Ireland today, this paper is invaluable.
The writers chart the extraordinary success of the sons of Ireland’s small farmers in the social revolution of the past few decades. The contrast between the fortunes of small farmers and the industrial working class could not be more stark.
The small-scale farming structure emerged as the system in rural Ireland as a result of the great class transformation that followed the end of the landlord oligarchy in the final decades of the 19th century.
These small farmers experienced a significant increase in their living standards up to the late 1920s. From 1870 to 1930, the economic system was based on one son getting the farm and the rest emigrating. If they couldn’t emigrate, they remained around the place, but landless and single. A few found job in the towns or in Dublin.
In the 1930s this system broke down. America closed its doors to migrants in the early 1930s, and De Valera’s self-sufficient economy collapsed, meaning there wasn’t a sniff of a job away from the farm and there was only England left to absorb indigent Irishmen.
Between 1950 and 1960, 500,000 of us emigrated to Britain — the country which the mullahs who ran our Banana Republic told us was the Great Satan.
The most interesting social development at the time was how small farmers — De Valera’s foot-soldiers — adapted to the changing Ireland of the 1960s much better than the urban working class.
Amazingly, in 1950, after 30 years of independence, Ireland was more dependent on agriculture than it had been in 1870. This startling figure is either a damming indictment of De Valera’s dingbat economics or evidence of the success of this rural fundamentalist movement.
The small farmers, or more accurately, their Irish Mammy, saw this dead-end coming. She realised that the game was up and that the only way out for the sons who didn’t get the farm was either emigration or the public service. The rallying cry of Irish mammies went up: “Sure, where you be without your education?” A new class was born which took took full advantage of the free secondary education introduced in the mid 1960s.
Hannan and Commins found, amazingly, that the single most important determinant of a county’s educational achievement in the 1960s and 1970s was the number of small farmers. This is quite extraordinary and unique to this country.
De Valera’s foot soldiers were on the march, sliotar in one hand, ‘Latin for Today’ in the other.
Compared to their urban, working-class counterparts, 30pc more children of small farmers did the Leaving Cert and 50pc more went on to third level education in the 1960s.
They turned into the teacher aristocracy, bringing with them to Dublin a love of the GAA, squeeze boxes and Farah slacks. Their success in education catapulted them into the public service in great numbers when the government went mad and started handing out civil service jobs like miraculous medals in the 1970s.
Now, they are the best-paid public servants in Europe and, if they haven’t opted for early retirement, are earning on average 46pc more than their mates in the private sector.
They engineered this through shams like benchmarking and social partnership which saw them having the same success in wresting cash out of the State as their great-grandfathers had prizing land from landlords.
But that’s not all. They had an ace up their sleeves. The same forces that propelled them into education also left them with an inheritance. This inheritance of farming land has been re-valued by the housing boom and the land frenzy, with the result that they have been enormously enriched.
While many thousands left the land, they did not sell it. Today only 6pc of the workforce works on the land, yet a quarter of all households still own land.
One of the hangovers from the past in Ireland is a reticence to sell land. No one wants to be landless again. So if there is land in a family it gets handed down long after the last sons have stopped farming.
EU subsidies had enormous ramifications for the new rural landed class. It allowed them to hold on to the land in the 1980s and early 1990s, leaving it fallow at no cost. As the price of land soared in the mid-1990s, they have been sitting on goldmines. They have been selling sites ever since.
If you could have planned an agrarian revolution, you couldn’t have done it better. This was a Marxist revolution without bloodshed and today, these same children of small farmers run large parts of the country.
As Hannon and Commins conclude: “not only have the smallholders succeeded in retaining their property and relative income position, but they have also succeeded in capturing a significant proportion of local off-farm employment. They have been more effective than working-class families in utilising the education system to gain access to off-farm opportunities for their children.”
The success of the sons of small farmers — many now in their 50s — due to their enormously revalued property portfolios, explains the recent provincial chic phenomenon.
It explains the explosion of French restaurants with misspelt names, organic food shops, Botox parties, Versace handbags and Manolo Blahnik shoes in places like Thurles, Roscommon Town and Abbeyleix — places you’d have spotted tumbleweed in 10 years ago.
It also explains why no politician worth their salt will miss today’s jamboree in Tullamore.