John Feehan: Irish Farming and its Colonial Past

John Feehan’s book, Farming in Ireland: History, Heritage and Environment (UCD Dept. of Agriculture, 2003) is another one of those modern classics which is out of print and difficult to find. [Update:: now available again on Amazon. Link on title above.]

Just to give a flavour of the analysis, I found this video of a talk John Feehan gave in 2005 at the Food Security Conference, UCD. I’ve transcribed a section of it where he talks about the colonial legacy with regard to land and farming in Ireland.


We [the Department of Agriculture at UCD] celebrated our centenary about three years ago. We were set up, little more than a hundred years ago, we were established to serve the farming community in the years following the establishment of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland as it used to be called. This is back in 1899. And graduates in the early decades, from this institution, included for example the tiny group of young agriculturalists in their 20s who transformed the economy of the entire west of Ireland in the wake of the Great Famine and under the Congested Districts Board. A remarkable achievement. It included the men and women who steadily injected the basis of good farming practise throughout rural Ireland at the beginning of the last century, end of the 19th century, as it adjusted to the demands of becoming for the first time in our history a nation of freehold yeomen under the Land Acts.

Now this is something you don’t often see this in the history books when it talks about the great things that happened at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, but so many of these new freeholders, the majority of these new freeholders, lacked what I might call the ethos of the yeoman. Now this wasn’t the case everywhere of course but probably applied to the majority of farmers. And the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction and the farmer education system it developed made an enormous contribution to remedying this.

It’s not without significance that we have no modern word in Irish, no word of our own in other words, for yeoman. Or rather, that we have to go back several centuries to the medieval bóaire [cow-carer] to find an Irish tradition of skill, diligence, responsibility and groundedness that matches the compass of the word.

But you see there’s more to creating a nation of yeomen than transferring title, which is essentially what the Land Acts did.

The yeoman ethos involves a relationship with land that is only built cumulatively on experience garnered over generations, characterised by self-sufficiency, craft and community. It requires the context of tradition within which understanding of the land is acquired, developed and passed on.

Now I can’t resist the temptation, briefly, to observe that what happened in Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a development that exactly presages the experience of countless nations newly released from colonial shackles in the last [20th] century – particularly what we now call developing countries.

It’s often forgotten that England obtained much of its early experience of being a colonial power on this little next-door island. And one of the things this involved was the extinction in the 16th and 17th centuries of a tradition of indigenous food production that was rich and absolutely unique. Such was the eradication of local knowledge […] such was the extinction of that tremendously rich tradition of authentic food production that its very existence is news to most Irish people today.


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