The Small Farmer and the Rural Economy of Yesteryear

By James Reddiough

The small farmer is part of Irish life and has been for many generations, from the time of the tenant farmer to land ownership. They were, and they remain, at the backbone and heart of the community. This piece looks at some aspects of the social history of the small farmer from the 1950s.

The small farm was an economic unit. There were few grants or financial assistance back in the 1950s and early 1960s and the small farm had to pay its way. Whatever produce the farm yielded had to be turned into cash to meet the everyday costs of running the household and the farm. Along with this the men and youth of the farm holding had to work as seasonal labourers either at home in the locality, or else in England, to augment the income.

The small farmer would have had about 20 acres and a small yard with outhouses or barns where he would keep the cattle housed during the winter. In some areas of the west of Ireland the Angus or Aberdeen Angus was the common breed. They were hardy cattle and could survive the harsh conditions.

There might be four to six cows on the holding and they would be tethered and fed at the stalls for the night and milked by the lady of the house, who fed them bran and mash and hay and bedded them for the night with straw. Apart from the bran, all of the produce came from the farm; turnips were also fed to them. When the cows were fed the calves were then fed with the milk and so much of the cow’s yield was taken for the household.

At daylight the small farmer rose to let the cattle out and to clean out the dirtied straw and manure from the previous night and lay clean straw for the night. The walls and floor would be washed down before this. It would take a while to complete this job and then the cattle would be left out for the few hours of daylight along with the outliers – that is the cattle that were never housed.

The stable lamp would be in use for the evening again to get the cows in and settle them in the barn and milk them and the work would start again at the break of day. The same work would be done with the fowl and the pigs and they had to be carefully looked after and seen to and they were then prepared either for egg production, for the table or for sale.

The income from the sale of the pig and the Christmas sale of fowl and the selling of eggs to the eggler was an important source of income for the small farmer and his spouse in those spartan days of the 1950s. Sale of wool was another source of income. Very often the eggs that were collected that morning were sold to the traveling shop and then the money given was spent on groceries from the traveling shop. The shopkeeper would then box the eggs and prepare them for export or else for sale to his own customers in the village or town – a good example of the rural economy in action.

The farmer of the smallholding had to make everything on his farm pay because there were no state supports to live on or fall back on. Potatoes were graded and sold too. The soil was tested and passed by a government official and then the potatoes were deemed fit for sale and a certificate was granted for the potatoes. The farmer would only be back from working in England in the winter and he would spend the time at home looking after affairs for the spring and the summer when he would be away.

Cattle and other livestock such as sheep and pigs were brought to the market on a weekly basis or else to the fair which was held four times annually and this meant an early start for the family, as all the household, both young and old, were expected to lend a hand on the morning of the fair or market. In 1959 the marts were founded and this was the beginning of the end of the fairs in the streets of the towns of rural Ireland.

Community was at the heart of the small farmer’s life – men, women and children joined in the meitheal to harvest the crops and save the turf and hay. When the men went to England then the men who stayed at home would help the women of the house to get the work done. The threshing of the oats was a good example of where the meitheal was brought into action.

Farmers believed in crop rotation and the farmer set potatoes and then the following year he set oats, and then after they had been lifted he would set grass seed for pasture in the same land. This would leave the land fallow for a number of years. Life was hard and it was not until the introduction of the small farms scheme in the late 1960s that state money was received by the small farmer, which amounted to £300 per annum in total. A careful account had to be kept of the calf births, the number of stock kept and the acreage of potatoes and oats grown. The £300 was paid in three instalments during the year – £75, £150 and £75.

When you consider that the rent and rates had to be paid on the house and land, then this was an important source of income. Yet the vast bulk of the income came from the sale of stock and produce, including wool and seed potatoes. The money was spent in the local shops either in the townland or in the nearby towns and villages where there were many family run businesses at the time.

Yes, for today’s generation it is hard to imagine that such a way of life existed, but there was a time when the farmer won the turf by hand and saved the hay with a rake and fork, and also that the horse was the main form of power to pull the cart and the plough and draw the mowing machine.

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