Bishop William Philbin on Rural Ireland — its Problems and Possibilities
Posted by shane
Photos from Inniscarra, Co. Cork:
Switch on at Inniscarra, 22 December 1947. (Note the prominent presence of the local priest – a testimony to times when clergy were expected to take on a leadership role in their communities extending beyond purely religious matters.)
Rollout of the Rural Electrification Scheme, 1947
Inniscarra Dam in 1957 — constructed as part of the Lee Valley Hydro-electric scheme
The following lecture was given by the Most Rev. William J. Philbin D.D., Bishop of Clonfert, to the Agricultural Science Association in University College Dublin on 25th September, 1959:
Emigration, with its roots in the lack of a livelihood at home for all our people, is the chief social and economic problem in Ireland. It is usually considered in association with the depopulation of country districts, not only because the exodus is mainly from the agricultural community — which might, perhaps, be regarded as a natural consequence of our being mostly a rural people — but also for the reason that the drift from the land, even within our own country, is matter for worry in itself. We are concerned, not merely to keep our people in Ireland, but also to keep them on the land. Our land needs more workers to develop its potentialities and, if progress is made in this way, it is capable of supporting a much larger number of people than at present — with consequential rises in output and in economy of production. Our agricultural rivals are making these truths more unpleasantly clear of late years. Although the development of agriculture alone may not meet all our needs, it is recognized by everyone as an essential part of any economic progress and as likely to remain indefinitely in that position. It is the starting-point in our industrial regeneration. The well-being of the majority of our people — and, therefore, that of our people as a whole — depends on the use we make of our soil. There is every reason, therefore, why we should consider critically every aspect of Irish farming and explore every possible approach to its betterment.
The outstanding feature of our farming economy and, indeed, our chief social characteristic is that we are a community of small landholders. We have reached this condition as a result of one of the most momentous and successful struggles in all our history and the benefits that resulted from this success were probably greater than those proceeding from any other happening of the same order that has ever occurred here. Although there are many reasons why there should be a certain proportion of somewhat larger holdings in the midst of a predominance of smaller ones — including the need to cater for special kinds of farming and also to provide incentive to capable and ambitious agriculturalists by the prospect of acquiring more land — there is no likelihood that the existing pattern will be drastically altered in foreseeable time. This is not to say, however, that modiﬁcations in the position are not being made. The decline in the rural population is not due merely to the emigration of young people: it also arises from the movement of whole households from their farms; which are then either sold or let to neighbours or left to be managed by neighbours until their owners have decided what to do with them. This development is the most alarming kind of emigration and while there are many instances where the amalgamation that results from it gives the new owner an economic acreage for the first time, this is far from being true in all cases.
Our ﬁrst objective in dealing with the twofold problem of emigration and the drift from the land would seem to be the correction of this movement from holdings which can provide a reasonable family living. An important aspect of this effort should be to increase the number of economic small farms. Having as many families on the land as the land will adequately support is the best social policy. Whether greater production would be achieved by the larger units or not — and I suggest that with fuller education the small landowner can do better than the machine and hired labour on larger holdings — the social advantage which springs from the greater well-being, broadly speaking, of the owner-worker than of the hired labourer ought to be decisive. The difference is between having a community of people who are comparatively independent and maintain a preponderance of persons and families who live under the control of others. The former condition is surely the healthier one from the point of view of the full development of character in individuals and also for the full flowering of family life.
Modern industry in most forms requires a great deal of subordination and regimentation of human beings and the best we can do is to attempt — by such means as share-holding by workers — to minimize its de-personalizing effects. But in those departments of the economy where there is fuller room for individuality, it is most desirable that this should be fostered. Distributism is an ideal that we should not lose sight of in the midst of so much drift towards socialistic measures. We ought to try to extend ownership more widely rather than allow it to be contracted into the hands of fewer individuals or of a few State institutions. Private property is the safeguard of personal freedom: we must not be brought to think of it merely as the means of gratifying greed or as something that stands condemned because it can have the name of capitalism or ‘the proﬁt motive,’ — with so many evil associations attached to it. It is of the law of nature, because ownership of material things is necessary for men’s physical and moral development. In no element is ownership more fundamentally realized than in the earth’s surface from which the chief essentials of life are derived.
Ownership of land, with the freedom and responsibility to use it to best advantage, ought to develop initiative, self-reliance, judgment, foresight, patience. It may even over-develop these qualities to the exclusion of others that should complement them. It is the oldest of all conditions and also the most stable, being the one most likely to be handed on through generations. It provides the greatest incentive to hard work. Having a portion, even a small portion, of the earth’s fertile soil in one’s possession, ‘a place of one’s own,’ imparts a satisfaction, a feeling of dignity and responsibility that attach to no other kind of property: it therefore ideally fulfils the function of ownership. There is no other way of life that so fully recognizes the family as a unit of society or so fosters the development of family character and traditions. The ruthless opposition of Communism to private land-ownership arises from the recognition that it develops such personal values as these and is, therefore, an obstacle to the de-humanizing of society which is the goal of materialism. It is perhaps a paradox that appreciation of the importance of material possessions for the individual’s well-being is essential if we are to ensure that the individual will not be subordinated to the material. But life has many paradoxes — we must be guided by experience as well as by logic.
We in Ireland, whose history is so largely that of small farmers and would-be small farmers striving persistently to achieve their religious, political and economic rights, ought to be the last to forget what Goldsmith wrote about the unique importance to the community of the small landowner. Because it is good for the nation, and, more importantly, because it is good for the individuals that compose the nation, we ought to favour the ownership of land by as many households as is economically feasible. We must, of course, be aware of the danger of encouraging the development of a universal rural slum — which would be a certain way of defeating distributist aims — at a time when standards of living are rising throughout the countries into which our people have entry. But it is hard to imagine that this can be a grave danger with us to-day. What the size of an economic farm may be is open to debate: most people, I think, favour not less than thirty-five acres, though there are some who suggest that smaller divisions can yield a reasonable living. Account should, perhaps, be taken of such factors as the quality of the land and the availability of a city market in coming to a decision. The willingness of people to accept smaller holdings, because of the kind of farming they would pursue, should be considered. One need not have arrived at a decision on such matters of detail in order to approve of the desirability of widely extended ownership in general terms. At the other extreme, any rigid limiting of the extent of ownership by individuals would seem to be undesirable since, as has already been suggested, the ambitious and progressive young people whom it is most important to keep on the land will be deterred from farming if it does not offer good opportunities of self-improvement.
We are not necessarily fighting a losing battle in defending the ideal of widely extended land-ownership in the midst of the collectivist tendencies of our time. The drift from the land and the depopulation of the countryside have been deplored since the beginning of urban civilization: they were noted with alarm in the early Roman Empire and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they seemed in some countries to portend the end of rural life as it had up to then existed. Yet the population of the countryside has a way of replenishing itself, even after it has seemed to have given its substance to cities and industrial centres. The remnant that is left after the waves of migration has enough vigour to make up for what is lost.
In Ireland we should not allow ourselves to become pessimistic to the point of passivity about what is happening. We have advantages and assets which we ought to cultivate in order to balance the difficulties we must contend with. The chief reason why I am confident that we can maintain a wide distribution of land-ownership is the attachment of so many of our young men to the land and their desire to become farmers, even in a small way. This may seem an extremely controvertible statement in view of the extent to which young people are deserting the countryside. Yet, to anyone who examines the picture carefully at close quarters, the most significant fact is not the numbers that are leaving the land, but the extent to which the love of farming and the desire to become farmers are rooted in the bulk of our rural population. This attachment to the land is surely our greatest single economic asset. It behoves us to give every encouragement and satisfaction to it, to see that it secures the recompense without which it cannot survive, and to neutralize, as far as we can, the influences that are countering it. I am convinced that if we build upon this foundation, we can go a long way towards minimizing the evil effects of emigration and rural depopulation, even though we shall probably always have to accept a certain measure of these.
In particular I would suggest that we ought to try to find ways of introducing, in the place of those who will not be persuaded to stay on the land, others who are only too willing to do so. We may thereby strike a kind of balance that may leave us some advantage in the quality of the newcomers. Their eagerness and enthusiasm give grounds to expect they will make better use of the land than those who are ready to relinquish it. My personal experience is that, in every district where new homes have been set upon the land, a continuing increase of population follows and a new atmosphere of industry and confidence is perceptible. To keep as many existing holdings in occupation and to introduce as many new landowners into possession of any holdings that can be made available: these seem to be the two most necessary parts of a programme to counter the evils we are experiencing. The fostering of the will to become farmers and the satisfying of that inclination where it exists are the obvious means of making such a plan effective.
It is, as I have said, controversial to suppose that so many of our people want to be farmers. Only a close sociological survey such as is being carried out at present in Limerick under the direction of Muintir na Tíre can decide whether this supposition is well-founded: indeed the suggestion might also need to be put to experimental proof. One can only offer an opinion based on personal experience and enquiry. I believe we have been concentrating too much on one side of the picture — the unfavourable and discouraging side — and have not taken enough account of the desire of many who have no land to become holders. We have not appreciated the significance of the latter factor to make up for the drain which is so generally deplored. I have come across many young men, and have heard of many others, who cherish this ambition, some of them tied to their fathers’ farms through lack of opportunity to make a start on their own, some labourers, some making a precarious living by having land set to them, some working abroad, some at home, and saving money with a view to buying a small farm. There is often a sharp sense of grievance among those whose ambitions are frustrated in this connection. I believe that finding occupants for new holdings, if these were offered, would not be as great a difficulty as deciding between the merits of numerous applicants. But this would surely be a welcome embarrassment. At any rate an impossibility to provide land for all applicants would not be a valid reason for doing nothing: there would still be the duty of going as far as we can to meet the demand.
It must be conceded that the desire to become a farmer’s wife does not seem to be nearly so extensive as the desire to be a farmer: the amount of work that falls to the lot of a woman in the country is a real deterrent. Nevertheless, nature is resourceful and this part of the problem too might solve itself in due course in that a sufficient minority of women might be found to realize the compensating advantages. A visitor to English hotels and restaurants who questions Irish girls employed there will get the impression that there are many, though not perhaps a majority, of those who would be willing to come and settle down on the kind of farm they were reared on with the improvements that modern times have made available. Disillusion about life in England often comes acutely to those who are faced with the problem of bringing up children there. There are many other girls at home who have not been asked because no opportunity is offered to the young men who might marry them. I believe that the low proportion of our married men — the lowest in the world, as we have recently been reminded — is not due to an aversion from marriage, which in the estimation of some can be spoken of in terms of race suicide, but is principally caused by this lack of opportunity. It may be corrected to a great extent by making marriage economically possible at an early age for the largest section of our population. Until we have fully explored the possibility of remedying the decline in our rural population from this source, we are not justified in merely deploring it and considering ourselves blameless in regard to it. A dispassionate judgement may show that we have to regard ourselves, not just as its victims, but to some degree as accessories to it, through inertia and complacency.
It would appear, therefore, that the most obvious remedy for rural depopulation should be sought in seeking young men who are anxious to become small landowners and providing holdings for them. This conclusion is being arrived at by many people who have given thought to the problem. Macra na Feirme put forward, in 1957, a scheme of agricultural education and apprenticeship for young men with a view to their becoming the owners of fifty-acre farms after a period of probation. Mr. Whitaker’s Economic Development recommends some form of State-aided arrangement by which an aspiring farmer would be enabled to rent land until he is in a position to buy it. The Third Report of the Capital Investment Advisory Committee has recommended that lands held by the State should be rented where suitable on short leases to promising young men.
That something along these lines should be done is in our present circumstances almost a social necessity. It has been recently declared to be Government policy that the State should intervene more extensively with public money in the economic life of the community. One may hope that this intervention will not be directed solely towards the extension of State Capitalism — or State Socialism, whichever we may choose to call it. Only the lack or failure of private enterprise justifies the State’s taking over certain necessary functions in industrial and economic life: otherwise it is the sounder policy to foster the initiative and sense of responsibility of its citizens in these fields.
Opinions are being sought at present as to the best ways of expending public money to our economic advantage. I would suggest that the State should enter into the market for land more extensively and on more competitive terms than at present and set up machinery by which it would be allocated to prospective farmers. Many farmers who could be described as indifferent in more senses than one would be induced to sell by the offer of a good price. Keeping on the land people who are never likely to be really interested in it or consequently to make good use of it would be doubtful social or economic policy. The interests of the individuals concerned and of the community lie in the opposite direction. It seems to be desirable, and it should be possible, to devise some kind of bank in land, through which those who wish to have it should be enabled to do so and those who are inclined to get rid of it may be able to dispose of it. There are a number of farms coming on the market constantly in the ordinary course of events and these in themselves would make a contribution towards the need in question if they were, as a general rule at least, acquired for landless people. Some system of repayment could be devised on attractive terms which should be considered in the context of the grants made to prospective industrialists. Hire-purchase is nothing extraordinary in these days and it admits of many variations.
The State has already taken an active part in the moulding of our industrial life — as is indicated by the grants referred to and the expropriation of many prosperous concerns to make way for certain public utilities. But the land seems to offer both the most secure prospects economically and the most rewarding social results for any investment the State may make in it. In an agricultural country it should be the first field in which a remedy is sought for our obvious ills.
The State indeed is doing much for farming already by way of financial aid in various forms. In particular, many inducements are offered to improve land by assistance towards the cost of fertilizers and the carrying out of drainage. Here again, since suggestions are being asked for ways of putting public money to good account, there seems to be room for an extension of the State’s activity. One of the chief factors, if not the factor-in-chief, that keeps the farmer from improving his land, even at reduced costs, is the uncertainty about the extra return he may have for his labour and expense. It is this same consideration chiefly which holds in check and counteracts the desire to become farmers among our young people which must be considered the necessary foundation of any attempt to revitalize our rural economy. This uncertainty is due to the extraordinary fluctuations of price, particularly in live-stock, to which the farmer is exposed.
The record of the past five years in regard to cattle and sheep proves this clearly. The farmer cannot fix a price at which it is economic for him to sell and, if this is not forthcoming, stack away his produce till better times come. He has to take what is offered when his animals are mature and his land is becoming overcrowded and it is often his experience that he has to sell in a market that is moving in the opposite direction from a general inflation. Sometimes he attends fair after fair without getting any bid at all for his stock. The prospect that this may happen is the dark cloud on the horizon of every farmer. Irish live-stock prices are as unpredictable as Irish weather. Certain tillage products are already benefitting from guaranteed prices. It would be a source of immense reassurance to farmers if some system could be adopted by which guarantees of some sort against falling markets could be extended to live-stock also. Indeed the case which I have been making for encouraging more young people to become farmers will stand or fall by the degree in which we make our chief farming product, live-stock, steadily profitable. The reproach of our neglected grass-lands will yield to the same remedy. As things are, it is easy to demonstrate to a farmer that a certain expense of labour and money will repay him in pasture; but experience has taught him to doubt whether improved pasture will repay him in terms of income from live-stock.
This suggestion brings planners up against the factors that make world-prices in agricultural products subject to great changes. I am not going into these or the many other difficulties inherent in any scheme of this sort, beyond saying that it obviously entails some regular expense to the State as well as the prospect of having to make up for a drop in prices from time to time. Difficult as it may be to organize a system of this kind, we have reason to feel it is not beyond the ability of our experts. In such ways as these lies the greatest good of the greatest number — and this is one of the definitions of good government. Another kindred matter for specially expert knowledge is the finding of suitable markets. This is, of course, a prime aim of every agricultural system and the final determinant of success or failure. Progress in this field would greatly brighten the picture for people considering farming as a possible career. Unless we make progress here proportionate to our efforts to increase production, these efforts are wasted: it has been proved to us again and again in recent years that there simply is not a market at all times available for all that we can produce. We must recognize that it has never been more difficult to foresee and plan what should be done in this field than in the midst of the confused and indecisive economic alignments of European countries to-day.
In any survey of rural developments, account should be taken of the possibilities of co-operation, by which in addition to maintaining the advantages of self-employment the benefits of combination are also secured. Some of our voluntary organizations are forwarding this movement, which promises to help the small farmer both in the production of his goods by the best methods and in exploring possibilities of marketing them. This is a development which is often ably advocated. In our age, amalgamation and mass-trading are becoming more and more the rule in the world of commerce and the voluntary association of producers is preferable to State monopolies and increasing centralization.
I should like, in conclusion, to refer to a more general way in which the progress of our agricultural economy and the welfare of our rural community might be promoted. This is by the utilization of various methods of education and instruction. These may serve to convey, not only information on how land can be put to better account, but also the stimulus to put such knowledge into practice, with the raising of morale that comes from consciousness of advancing skill and more rewarding results. There is the widest scope and the widest need for our best efforts in this field. These should begin with the very young: children have an extraordinary natural interest in animals from their infancy and very early too they can be attracted by the mysteries of plant life. We do not take sufficient advantage of this innate curiosity about all living things in order to found upon it an interest in the agricultural economy which is our chief support and which provides the environment in which the majority of our young people grow up.
We are maintaining an unnatural separation between education and life in this connection, and opportunities are being ignored for which we are paying dearly. If one talks to those who went to school seventy years ago or somewhat less, one will be surprised to find that they remember from their school-books many pieces of wisdom about animals and the cultivation of the soil. It is clear that this kind of knowledge, closely linked with everyday life, makes a greater impression than many parts of the more academic education, which young people are apt to unload, like so much ballast, when they start to acquire the knowledge on which their livelihood is to depend. We should not overlook the cultural aspects of the study of natural processes — there have been poets and thinkers who boasted their whole philosophy of life on the cult of nature, and however incomplete such an outlook may be, we must recognize that our age has much more unworthy ideals to offer youth. Nature-study is a vast field in which we can find plenty of food for mental development.
If provision cannot be more widely made for agriculture in some form as a substantive subject in the various branches of education, it should at least be feasible to have included in school-reading books a larger proportion of matter introducing children informally to this subject. The more we treat farming as the scientific and extremely fascinating subject which it is, the more status we give it in the sensitive minds of young people who will later have to make up their minds whether or not to take it up as a way of life. Our vocational schools have the largest opportunity and responsibility here. Much has been done in organizing lectures for those who have left school and it is good to learn that a scheme for winter classes is to be put into operation during the coming season. Agricultural education is something that must be continued into adult years, and indeed indefinitely, not only in order to take advantage of fuller mental capacity, but also because of the constant advances that are being made in this science.
Instruction in agriculture cannot be thought of merely in terms of school-lessons and lectures. The processes of nature can adequately be described only by pictorial methods and to-day we have an unprecedented range of such methods. Sound-broadcasting has made a very large contribution to our means of communicating information to the farmer and stimulating his interest in new developments. The film has not been put to service to the same extent, although it should be practicable to induce cinemas to include in their programmes short features on farming activities which could be made at least as interesting as much of the matter for which time is found. Such programmes would hold the attention of more than the farmer: everyone is interested in other people’s jobs. We are now on the eve of establishing our own television service, and one of the difficulties being envisaged is the provision of programmes that will be Irish in character and not too costly to produce. In all aspects of our agricultural work — not only in connection with tillage and animal raising, but also in gardening, fruit-growing, beekeeping and other ancillary pursuits — there is the widest field for exploitation in a manner that could be made both interesting on its own merit and profitable to our national economy. The featuring of such activities cannot fail to make more young people interested in our main industry, thus attracting many towards it as a way of life.
Such a policy is also certain to raise the standing and self-esteem of the farmer, who will come more fully to appreciate what limitless room there is for varied knowledge and skill in his calling. Every means should be taken to encourage love and pride in the craft of farming. We should not exclude the purpose of making those who are not farmers appreciate the wide range of capacities which the successful farmer must develop: when the farmer sees that he is regarded as a skilled worker and the importance of what he is doing is recognized, his attachment to his way of life and his keenness to become more proficient are bound to increase. We have a lot of leeway to make up in this matter of giving the farmer the prestige that is his due. These purposes are being admirably promoted by the work of several rural organizations, whose establishment and flourishing condition are among the most hopeful signs in recent years.
In the last analysis, our success in developing our farming industry and in building up a strong and prosperous rural community will depend on the attitude of mind our farmers have towards their work. They will be happy in their labour and consequently make a success of it, according to the degree in which they have come to be interested in it and find it worthwhile. This attitude will be founded both in a moral and a material foundation. The financial rewards of agriculture must be made sufficiently attractive, and at the same time the farmer must not see his way of life merely as the resort of those who have been outstripped in the race for better callings. He must not regard his work as a mere routine of drudgery, but as giving scope for originality and experiment and the constant application of new information. It behoves the community which depends so largely on the farmers to try to advance both these ends.
The presentation of the advantages of agricultural pursuits through education and publicity should not stop short with the material field or the pride of craftsmanship and status. These things do not form the complete picture. Even at the best the farmer has many difficulties to contend with — dangers from disease and accident and bad weather, unforeseen falls in price and lack of demand, hard work and long hours sometimes extending into the night, a poor income which in the case of most smallholders needs to supplemented from other sources. (On the last head, a recent survey of income from farmers suggests that financially very many smallholders are worse off than farm-labourers.) On the other hand, there are advantages in this way of life, many of them not fully appreciated and many not translatable into terms of income — although from this point of view, the reserve position of defence which a farmer holds in virtue of the fact that he will not at the worst be without essential foodstuffs or some productions for sale at some price or other, is an important asset. ‘How well-off farmers would be,’ a Roman poet said, ‘if they only knew how well off they are.’
The attachment of Irish people to the land, in spite of many severe experiences, is proof that they are not unaware of their advantages. They realize that there is no calling more healthy, — physically, mentally and morally — and none that offers better circumstances in which to bring up a family. They find, too, that there is a unique psychological satisfaction in working as partners in the process of nature in rearing and caring for living things. They feel that they are in direct touch with the continuing action of the Creator. Although the earth does much for him, the farmer realizes that, under God, ‘it is the eye of the master that fattens the oxen.’ The keeping of pets by those who do not make their living by raising animals is, it might be argued, a kind of evidence that we are all frustrated farmers. The farmer’s is the first and the most natural of all vocations and it conveys the most immediate and obvious benefits to others. His exposure to so many hazards and his experience of so many windfalls of good fortune make him more conscious of his dependence on God than he might be in other more secure ways of life. Many a farmer includes in the family prayers special petitions for his live-stock.
I believe the farmer appreciates the blessings of this quality that belongs to his calling and that they are a chief source of his attachment to it, in spite of the trials it imposes. In considering the instruction and counselling by which our rural community may be benefitted and our farming economy forwarded, we should not leave such considerations out of sight. But our first responsibility is to see that the natural advantages of this way of life should not be made valueless for the bulk of our farmers and would-be farmers by obstacles which it is in our power to remove.