Peadar O’Donnell. For or Against the Ranchers? Irish Working Farmers in the Economic War. (1932)

The ranchers and big farmers are sore distressed about Ireland these days. In fact, they say they are going to leave us; that this is no longer a country fit for their kind to live in. They do not seem to have noticed that for many, many years Ireland was no country for the small farmer youth to live in, and that, in fact, hundreds of thousands of them fled the land. These folk took it for granted that the rancher, big farmer groups were quite glad to see them go. They never thought of appealing to the ranchers to save them. But the new prospective emigrants have an idea that if they expose their sad plight to the small farmer masses that the rural countrysides will “pull down the house” rather than lose such good friends. It is for our own good we must defend the ranchers; so they say.

Miracle or Crime?

Now, what change has come over the land when those who so callously superintended the exforced exile of Irish youth for so long come now to the cross-roads shouting for a backing? Is it the duty of the countryside to back them? When two such warring interests as the Rancher-Capitalist alliance and the masses of the countryside discuss an alliance, the situation can be put thus: either the Rancher-Capitalist alliance is prepared to sink old privileges and work for the common good, or that alliance is merely attempting to assume a new disguise to harness the small farmers to new burdens so that the old privileges may live on. The first would be a miracle: the second would be a crime. To shut our eyes to a miracle would be stupid: not to open them to a crime would be worse.

The New Yeos.

The ranchers have come into prominence since the row about the land annuities and the Oath began. British imperialism naturally wishes to extact tribute from this country; imperialism is meaningless unless it can loot the country it captures. The British ruling class with its eye on India wishes to see the broad arrow of the Oath branded across the Irish parliaments. When there is resistance to the tribute and impatience with the Oath, what is more natural than that the garrison caste in Ireland should become the mouthpiece of the shock troops of their Empire? The Imperialists here are mobilized, therefore, and they release a campaign of great noise and range; they even begin to build a new Yemonary. In imperialist rule there is always a great deal of importance to be attached to the recruitment of native troops. So long at they fight on the right side they may even shout fag-a-bealach; didn’t the Famine Queen allow Irish regiments to sport the shamrock? Didn’t the Guards’ band play God Save Ireland in 1914? Why not allow O’Higgins’ Yeos to sing the Soldier’s Song provided they fight for the Empire? God Save Ireland, is the ranchers’ cry. And they tell God and us how to do it: just protect Ireland’s rancher-based cattle trade.

The repudiation (although qualified) of the Tribute and the abolition of the Oath is the work of the Fianna Fáil government, supported by the masses of the ocuntryside; the countryside’s repudiation is not qualified. Small farmers do not argue about these issues: they just point out those who would enforce the Oath or the Tribute. These people are public enemies. The task is to expose them, not to waste words on them; not good ones anyway.

Tasks and Plans

But as the conflict with imperialism develops small farmers get a little bewildered. The ranchers very cleverly develop their campaign so that they make it appear to be a question of whether you are for or against a cattle trade with Britain. When such a campaign is pushed into small farmer areas, it does spread confusion. Small farmers do wish to sell cattle to Britain; they have, however, an instinctive suspicion of the ranchers and big farmers, and a smouldering hostility for them. So they turn eagerly to read the De Valera government’s pronouncements. In the same press they read the news of the imperialist attack: Jacob’s threatens to dismiss its employees; Gallagher’s shuts down; Powerscourt threatens to leave; Captain This, M.C., sacks his hands; Sir Somebody That, O.B.E., cuts wages. Rural youth search the paper in vain for news of a counter-attack. But the government does not take over Gallagher’s for the workers; no bands of rural youth into Powerscourt’s to give him a hearty send-off. There is no counter-attack. No angry mass meetings. There is distant thunder – very distant thunder – about systems and education, but nothing up close, no swapping of blows. Where do the countrysides come in? Have they no interests in these issues? If they have interests they must have tasks. If they have tasks they must have plans. Their smouldering, instinctive hostility to the ranchers and big farmers boils over: Down with the Ranchers and Big Farmers! Down with the Yeos! And down with the policy of leaving the masses out of the fight. The countrysides don’t want to waken up some morning and find that the Battle of Ireland has been lost again while they who could have won it and on whom the ranchers’ whip will fall heaviest had been kept out of the fray.

The youth of the countrysides know that they must get into the struggle: that they must see the position in its setting and in simple terms so that they may handle it. The issue, therefore, has to be stated in very clear terms.

European Peasants Committee

The collapse of the British market has forced a crisis in Irish agriculture. That collapse is part of the world crisis in capitalist economy. The worsened British market was hammered at by the hard-pressed farmers of other lands, too, thus further depressing prices. American remittances dry up; migration to Britain yields less and less. The News Bulletin of the European Peasant Committee, circulating more and more in the countrysides, shows that small farmers everywhere are in dire need and forced to fight for their lives against the big farmers, who, in alliance with the capitalist bosses, try to pass the growing burdens of the crisis more and more on to the backs of the small farmers and workers; taking the rates off land and putting them on the sugar, is no solitary example of the interests the big farmer serves in his “reforms”.

Rural unemployment grows from the shutting down of emigration at the same time that prices for agricultural products lessen and credit dies; the shop-keepers, competing for custom, dribble out credits for a time, but where it is clear there is no wandering ready money to go to the shop next door, credit stops. Not only that, but pressure to get in debts grows. The youth of the countryside, finding new clothes almost beyond him, pocket-money growing scarcer and scarcer, looks round eagerly for the way out.


He makes his way to the towns: there is no extension of industry to take in the rural overflow. He makes his way to Dublin. He starts off around Government Buildings trying for a “swanky” job, and ends up at the entrance to the new buildings in Cabra looking for a job as a builder’s labourer. He gets a “lift” home on a lorry. He has probably pawned his watch, broken his boots, worn out his illusions, his socks, his hopes and his temper.

Thousands go through some such process as this. So the rural countrysides are well stocked with desperate youth. They hear the talk that the development of the Irish cattle trade is the way out. They are sceptical; on their travels they have seen the empty midlands; they have seen the capitalist farms that are around the big centres of population; their knowledge of Ireland has new pictures in it: capitalist farms with poorly-paid help (but with the yards thronged with men and women seeking work near the city markets); the empty midlands of the ranches; and then, farthest from the markets, crushed into narrow spaces and bogs, the small farmer masses. Will the cattle trade ever create work for the youth of the small farmer areas? What does the rancher-based cattle trade mean to the small farmer areas anyway?

The figures given in the 1926 Census returns are helpful. There were, according to these returns, 672,129 persons engaged in agriculture that year in the twenty-six county area. The total agricultural output was value for £64,757,000 – $50,500,000 of that total was live stock and live stock products.

There were among these 672,129 persons, 139,104 agricultural labourers whose share was $7,000,000 or about £50 each.

There were 284,468 tenants of holdings from one to thirty acres. Their share was £18,000,000, or about £63 each.

But 248,535 farmers owning thirty acres and upwards took £39,000,000, or about £150 apiece.

Youth Sees

The rural youth on his way to the city learned some facts that add light to these figures. He knows where the immature cattle sold from the small holdings go, to be put in shape for the market. The short stage pays the rancher better than the previous long and costly stage did the small farmer: the small farmer farthest from the market sells with least protection and guidance, and is robbed by the ranchers who buy his young stock. He knows a lot of the history of these ranches, too; he knows of the clearances that were carried out to make space for the bullocks, and he knows in a vague way that these clearances were as much an imperialist technique for enslaving the country as for enriching the garrison. Is the nationalist issue tied up in the change-over to tillage now?

It is clear that the imposition of an alien landlord and land-owning class would be in danger if rebellion was strong in Ireland, and rebellion has a basis while a race is plentiful and sees its lands in alien hands. If it could be seen that the Irish land could be used in a way that would be profitable to the alien owners and at the same time wither up the native population, then surely the imperial land policy must take that course. When Britain was building her industrial supremacy tillage was vital to her. She could not afford space for ranches. Make Ireland a ranch and grow cattle there! The people go when a tillage country is being cleared for cattle. Well, let them go; sufficient will hang around to do odd jobs about the ranches.


And even an agricultural population persists among the mountains and rocks: mountains and rocks it will be, if it is tied up with the English market, so very dependent on that British market that a threat to shut out their cattle will terrorise them as effectively as did the old scythe battalions. The thinning down of rural life and the organised dependence on the British, of what persists, was the economic organising for our national enslavement. It is the national issue that is in the forefront in breaking down that dependence and in increasing rural employment.

“Break the Connection”

This rancher-based cattle trade versus tillage fight now is primarily a fight on the national issue. The ranchers are not fighting against exclusion from the British market; they know they can always sell their cattle there. Nor are they concerned about the fall in prices; if there was no national issue involved, they would tell us we must work harder, eat less, and wait for prosperity to come back to Britain, when cattle prices would again rise. It is in their role as imperialists that the ranchers and big farmers are warring now, and it is in their role as nationalists that the mass of the Irish people must overwhelm them. Any leadership that does not take its sand on the full separatist platform must, therefore, fall short of the needs of the situation. Any stand, short of separation, endangers the whole tillage scheme.

The tillage scheme comes under review, therefore, as a contribution to the national struggle and as a contribution to the solution of rural unemployment.

(Now before passing on, let us be sure that by a change-over to tillage we mean breaking into new areas, not simply that Achill and Rosses men, Adrigole and Connemara men are to get new spades.)

A widespread turn to tillage must call for workers to whom the rancher cattlemen would never reach out a hand. Rural unemployment lessens promptly and very considerably in many areas.

Tillage makes new demands on the manufacturer of agricultural machinery; a new basis for that industry arises in Ireland, making a call for new workers.

Tillage pushes forward a pressure of grain around our mills. The mills re-open; new mills are set up.

Tillage First

The increased wage-earning population around the villages opens a new market for industrial products and quickens trade in the villages. At the moment village life is dying rapidly. This extension of a market for industrial products reacts on our textile trade, house building, quarrying, etc., and thus makes a contribution to the solution of urban unemployment also. The change-over from the rancher-based cattle trade to tillage is a first step in the creating of industry at this stage in southern Ireland.

Tillage comes before industrial expansion is possible in Ireland. But can tillage come before a market has been created? Tillage is only possible on the basis of a guaranteed price, which means on the basis of a subsidy.

In face of an enforced and subsidised tillage scheme, there will be some speculation on the role the ranchers may elect to play. While they are prepared to make a fight for the Empire, they only do it because the preservation of their monopoly is tied up with the imperial domination of this country. The forms of serving the Empire, however, change from time to time, and if the enforcementof tillage is drastic enough or profitable enough, might not the ranchers become capitalist farmers promptly and still remain imperialist influences in Ireland?

They will be slow to do that, because it is obvious that while Ireland will still have cattle to sell Britain even under tillage (and the British trade will buy them), the old dependence on the British market will be gone and the nationalist position shall have been strengthened. The terrific imperialist campaign against the change-over is due to this.

Class Issues

But suppose they see that their resistence will bring them into some such a situation as the landlords reached, and that, unlike the landlord days, the masses of the workers and small farmers will not allow the buying-out of land monopolists, may they not bend to the storm and, concealing their hostility, seek to retain power as capitalist farmers? And would not such a change-over by the ranchers lessen the national advance?

It is important that the imperialists be so hard pressed that they cannot escape into disguise; genuine identification with the struggle for national and economic freedom waged by the mass of the Irish people must alone be left open as the way out. And it is here that “classless nationalism” will fail, no matter how extreme its separatist phrases. The government tillage scheme will be tested by the ways and means it adopts to provide the subsidy.

Nationalist Ireland is the submerged Ireland; the road to freedom is the road of the submerged class in submerged Ireland to freedom. Every barrier on that road is a barrier to the nation’s struggle for freedom. The subsidy to tillage, therefore, requires to be set; it must be part of the process of passing up the burden of submerged Ireland on to the shoulders of the class who have prospered on that enslavement. As a first step, small farmers must be freed from rent and taxes. A steeply climbing income tax beginning at an agreed valuation must be fixed on the ranchers and big farmers. The subsidy must come from taxation of the rich.

The rancher-capitalist-farmers will react to such a drive by dismissing their employees in an attempt to frighten the rural workers with threat of increased unemployment. Such estates must be taken over at once and turned into state farms, or broken into small holdings if the local land workers insist. The government policy should be state farms, but where there is a demand that the ranch be broken up, then break it up. The taking over of the estate deals promptly with the problem of rural unemployment, sharpened by the alien monopolist, and it eliminates from the countryside an imperial influence.

Committee of Action

Here, then, in this issue of the source of the money for the subsidy, the national and economic streams of struggle flow together. Neither is well served unless both a served. It is only those to whom both these struggles are natural, therefore, that can carry either fight to complete victory. It is the small farmer and working class alone who can be the Army of Freedom, and they can only do that under a revolutionary leadership drawn from within themselves. The time is ripe and urgent with Committees of Action of small farmers must break in on this struggle with the ranchers. It is the duty and privilege of small farmer areas to lead the attack on imperialism just now.

And what an attack that will be once the youth of the countryside sees the road to be taken! There is a great privilege for the youth of our day; they can certainly undo the Conquest.

Railway Workers

The rural youth must remember that their allies in the fight are those who with them endure the distress of the submerged Ireland, the wage earners of the towns and cities. Working Farmer Committee movement will campaign in support of the workers in their fight against capitalism. In an issue that is likely to break into clear view soon, the railwaymen’s resistence to wage cuts, the railway workers must be made see, and it must be ensured, that they have the solid support of the working farmer households and committee movement. If the railway workers can only have their wages maintained by enforcing nationalisation of railways on proper terms, then the small farmer support will be with them to force it.

N.E. Ulster

The tillage versus rancher-based cattle trade war will not be conducted without attention to the unity of Ireland. The mass of the people of the south of Ireland and the workers and small farmers of the north-east fight the same imperialism. The imperialist attack in the north is made by direct imperialist drive; in the south of Ireland Irish capitalism is the front line of trenches for the Empire. The farmers of N.E. Ulster are having piled on them ever-increasing burdens until the struggle to meet land annuities, bank charges and other debts is rousing ever-increasing resistance. The attempt to perpetuate religious differences will delay our unity in the common struggle for freedom. But such differences are stupid, and one thing at least is certain: stupidities don’t last. A drive for freedom by the workers and farmers of the north-east would find the mass of southern Ireland rally to it with enthusiasm. The freedom of the workers and farmers of the north-east is not possible without such support. Religious conflict is an imperial technique for our common enslavement.

Now Then, Youth!

The rural areas of southern Ireland have a fight forced on them; the ranchers have to their doors with it. Rural youth have examined the ranchers’ case; the ranchers are their enemies and the enemies of the national struggle. The youth of the small farmer areas must get into the fray quickly. All that they have a right to demand of life this country can give them. They have the courage, the brains, the numbers, the power to achieve their inheritance. Falter now, funk now, and they will go into the gutter, and the chains will be rivetted stronger than ever on our country.

Committees of action of small farmers to mass the rural countryside. No taxes. No rent for small farmers. Make the ranchers and big farmers shoulder this subsidy. Take over the ranches: they are yours. Workers and Working Farmers – Unite! Long live the Workers’ and Working Farmers’ Republic!

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