Friday 21 October 2016

Eoghan Harris: Why the rural spalpeens left and took the Queen's shilling

Published 15/05/2011 | 05:00

"I wish the Queen of England, Would write to me in time,And place me in some regimentAll in my youth and prime..."

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The Rocks of Bawn rang in my mind while I watched Sean O Mordha's The Home Place about the Irish family farm. The ballad's class politics are clear. The spalpeen who sings it would rather fight for the Queen of England than work for Sweeney the strong farmer.

The land of Ireland has always loomed large in my mind. My mother came from the small farmer class of Co Roscommon. In the Fifties I carried water in a bucket from a well, was driven to mass in a horse and trap, saw my grand-mother chop the head from a hen for the Sunday dinner.

But, unlike her neighbours, my mother rejected the romantic victim folklore of the Famine survivors. They survived, she said, because they were ready to use a rusty shotgun to scare away the starved spalpeens who would skulk round stealing turnips. Her rejection of romantic nationalism started me on the road to revisionism.

Whatever else it was, the Famine was also a class war. When the smoke cleared the spalpeens and cottiers had been cleared. The strong farmers who survived sent the landlords packing, controlled the political culture of the Free State and Republic that followed, right up to the CAP programme of the Common Market.

When I joined RTE in 1966 -- I trained with Sean O Mordha -- I was still in love with the ideal of a workers' and small farmers' republic. Rural Ireland was also a repository of a rich heritage of Irish language and of Irish music. But on the RTE training course I met the late Jack Dowling, a former Army officer and a Marxist.

Dowling loved the land of Ireland as much as I did -- he was the author of the Shell Guide to the Shannon -- but he also saw it as a contested space between classes, a national resource in the hands of a small class or proprietors, a process which would intensify with entry into the EEC. Dowling saw this process dialectically -- subjectively tragic but objectively progressive since it would lead to the modernisation of Irish society.

Soon after I began to travel the country with Brendan O hEither. Both of us agreed that the small farmers were living on borrowed time. But what to do about it led to many a lively argument in the car. But the more I learned about the ruthless passion of small farmers for private property, the less I believed in the Left's romantic delusion that the small farmers would support a workers' republic.

By 1974, when I came to write the Irish Industrial Revolution, the unofficial policy document of the Workers Party, I had come to a classic Marxist conclusion. . . Commercial agriculture, driven by the Common Market, was a necessary stage in the modernisation of Irish society. Accordingly, it should be supported by any progressive party of the working class.

Why? Because the Common Market, by concentrating land ownership in fewer hands, was creating the political conditions for the future State interventions in land policy. This lead to a fruitful dialogue with Joe Murray, editor of agricultural programmes, who died last week (and to whom Fintan O'Toole paid a fine tribute in last week's Irish Times, reminding us that RTE treated Murray badly over the Larry Goodman affair).

Murray and myself, while disagreeing about ends, were agreed about the means. We both wanted an end to the degrading poverty of subsistence farming. Joe because he believed in commercially viable farms, me because I believed it would eventually make possible the political control of land policy by means of a land tax.

In recent years I have abandoned or modified my Marxist views. But not those about class. I still believe that the land of Ireland is a scene of class struggle, no matter how civilly conducted. Today, as I had hoped, the rural bourgeoisie is much reduced in numbers (soon there will be only some 50,000 strong farmers) and is thus more amenable to political pressure -- as proved by the PAYE campaign.

This then was the prism through which I viewed Sean O Mordha's two films. Behind their lyrical form these ferociously intelligent films dealt with nothing less than the dialectic between De Valera and Marx in relation to rural Ireland: the first focusing on the romantic ideal, the second showing the shadows on the landscape.

So far, De Valera, not Marx, has dominated our discourse. He saw rural Ireland as a repository of moral virtues. Watching the admirable O'Grady family at work, we would have to agree. The geographer William Nolan speculated on some surprising sources for the strong work ethic of some Tipperary farmers.

"All the landlords associated with this place were of origin Cromwellian. And they brought a very strong Puritan ethic into this landscape -- an ethic of work and moral probity in some respects. And I think we have a lot of that in our own psychology."

But if O Mordha's first film left a warm glow, the second scorched any sentimentality. Ethel Crowely, author of Land Matters (significantly subtitled Power Struggles in Rural Ireland), in the course of what I would call a neo-Marxist analysis, spoke without either rancour or romanticisim about the "dirty little secret of the European Union".

She was speaking of the symbiotic relationship between the rise of the strong farmer and the decline of the small farmer. As a sociologist Crowley is too savvy to believe we can completely roll back the capitalist forces which drive commercial agriculture. But she rightly believes in the countervailing force of human agency, to which Marx paid too little heed.

For the past 50 years we have allowed outside agencies to drive what happened on the land. Rural Ireland is increasingly merely an extension of suburban Ireland. But the land remains a huge resource. And, against all the odds, we are witnessing a surprising return of the small holder.

The Robinson family, who featured in O Mordha's second film, revealed that a small holding, worked by frugal farmers, can produce carefully chosen foodstuffs for local markets. This opens the prospect of a landscape filled with people, flowing with milk, honey and many other products.

O Mordha's films are a clarion call to return to the Rocks of Bawn. What happens to the land of Ireland must not be left to either romantic reactionaries or ruthless commercial farmers. We need a synthesis between De Valera and Marx. Dail Eireann and not the EU must drive future land policies.

Finally, let us not forget, on the eve of the Queen's visit, that it was England which took in the spalpeens who left the Rocks of Bawn, England which took in our emigrants in the 1950s, England which is still our best friend in Europe.

And in case you are wondering how to welcome the Queen you should follow her advice to Mia Farrow when asked how to approach rearing 14 adopted children. "I believe manners can get you through anything."

Sunday Independent

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