Too many bachelors are still chained to their land
Published 15/07/2014 | 02:30
It's the wedding season. Direction signs bearing variations of Ann and Dan or Olive and Oliver can be seen at crossroads across the country every weekend. In the midst of the celebrations, there will inevitability be some bachelors who will be subjected to teasing about their single status. I have often wondered why the Irish farmer bachelor in particular attracts so much humour?
The slagging can start when a first-born farmer's son is scarcely a teenager. It's hilarious at the age of 20, still funny at 30, wearing thin by 40, worn out by 50 and in tatters thereafter.
Is it the sense that he is, or at least should be, the favoured one who is going to end up with the family farm?
Does inheriting what can be a substantial asset make him well deserving of slagging?
These sons are often seen as the lucky ones with a carefree life, great craic, enjoying a few pints at the races or a match, playing hard to get, more in love with land and money, and afraid of walking up the aisle with 100 cows and back down with 50.
Another possible reason for the behaviour is that we see no real humour in the situation, but, rather, the slagging is a way of dealing with something that makes us very uncomfortable.
This is because sometimes the target is a member of our own family or someone we are close to. A case of half in jest, all in earnest, as if they just need to be shocked out of some sort of stupor.
What lies behind the exterior is often very different. It is a complicated and sometimes sad web of family duty and loyalty, an inherited passion born out of a troubled and impoverished history, a dread of making the wrong match and being the one to weaken the sacrosanct family farm. This is the poisoned chalice of the first-born farmer's son.
Last month, Teagasc ran a very informative conference entitled Family farming in Ireland in the salubrious setting of Airfield farm in Dundrum.
Professor Willie Smith of UCC presented a paper on farm and marital transactions in the southwest Tipperary parish of Clogheen Burncourt 1830-1974.
Up to the 1960s, he pointed out that obligations on the inheriting son included ensuring that a son or daughter not inheriting were to be placed in a position of equal or greater status while, at the same time, not weakening the farm. This created a dilemma of equality and patrimony.
This often presented a challenge of trying to secure a match for any sisters, with the caveat that these matches had to be to someone of at least equal status. Add into this the further burden of having to look after one or both parents, both financially and socially.
In his research, Willie Smith found that the widow, who was often much younger than her husband, was a barrier to direct continuity, especially on bigger farms.
Lorna Sixsmith quotes an ad from the Irish Press in 1946 in her hugely entertaining book Would You Marry a Farmer.
"Farmer, age 30, 40 acres, own farm, no encumbrance, would like to correspond with farmer's daughter, age 25-30, good strong girl."
Clearly this man saw a lack of familial commitments as a significant attraction.
In some sense we copied the notion of strategic alliances from the nobility. Unfortunately, our family farms often didn't have the financial strength to readily satisfy such lofty ambitions.
The system failed to see out the last leg of the puzzle – ensuring that once the heir had sorted out his familial obligations that he himself got married.
So for many of those inheriting land, they spend so much of their lives and energies fulfilling the demands of others that they often find the window for finding a spouse has closed by the time they get around to looking through it themselves – particularly given the familial, if not personal, expectations for such a spouse.
It's a system of inheritance that might have lots of benefits for the broader family and the continuity of the farm but few advantages for the individual involved.
Irish bachelors are often portrayed as hard men with gnarly hands and hearts. The reality is that they were not born that way. Instead, it can be the result of a life that's not been softened by domesticity or enlivened by children.
Regular visits to the mart, church and the pub offer a very different social life to one that might include schools, sporting clubs and wider family engagements.
So once the Macra and disco days have passed, the opportunities to meet a prospective spouse might not seem as plentiful and some may question what they have left other than Lisdoonvarna, which is not for everyone.
Around 20 years ago I wrote an article about the low rates of marriage in the farming sector. It opened with a jokey lonely hearts ad that included stuff like 'he likes the odd pint (1,3, 5 ... )'. I got a lot of feedback, mainly from lads around my own age, a few years either side of 30, who thought it funny. Many of those have since married, some have not.
The latest CSO figures available refer to 2012. In that year, 603 male farmers married. Of these, 70pc were aged between 30-45, but 16 were over 60 and two of those over 70 years old.
Of course, I totally recognise that marriage isn't everything and, on a daily basis, many of these farmers lead happy lives. But over a lifetime it's not necessarily what they would have wanted or chosen.
Willie Smith points out that a lot has changed except for the underlying passion for land and cattle. And, yes, apparently, farmers are still using the age-old chat-up line: Would you like to be buried with my people?
Some of the changes which have happened include improvements in dwelling quality and the fact that many daughters now get a site. With decreasing family size, there is a greater chance of discontinuity.
The proliferation of cars means that's when off-farm work is widely available, as during the Celtic Tiger, traditional migration can be replaced by commuting and this was a stabilising factor.
The dowry, which had an important role in establishing the new wife's status in the family she was marrying into, has gone out but in reality this has been substituted by women's off-farm jobs, which Willie Smith points to as being one of the biggest changes of the last 50 years.
He also detected a high rate of marriage between farmers and nurses.
To my own mind, a lot of farmers also marry teachers, whose long summer holidays fit perfectly with the busiest time on the farm, and sure what else would they want to be doing, only cooking dinners for the men when there is silage to be done?