A rural revolution - how Irish agriculture has evolved over the century

Kevin Hanrahan traces the evolution of Irish agriculture since 1916

Emmet Greaney, Tom Gibson, Shauna Dolan and Emily Greaney at the launch of the Teagasc Farming and Country Life 1916 event taking place in Athenry next month. Photo: Reg Gordon.
Emmet Greaney, Tom Gibson, Shauna Dolan and Emily Greaney at the launch of the Teagasc Farming and Country Life 1916 event taking place in Athenry next month. Photo: Reg Gordon.
Craftsmen from Bannerton's forge, Ahascragh, Co Galway at work in 1916 era. Photo: National Library of Ireland
1916 era photo courtesy of National Library of Ireland
Harvest time. Photo: National Library of Ireland.

The Ireland of 1916 was truly an agricultural economy. A century ago two thirds of Irish farms were owner-occupied and this trend was to gather pace in the following decades.

The size structure of farms was heavily weighted towards smaller holdings: about 230,000 farms were less than 30 acres in contrast with around 50,000 today.

The problem of uneconomic holdings was to be a feature of Irish land policy throughout the period and today the land question still dominates policy deliberations on Irish agriculture.

The number of farms in Ireland has declined by over 60pc since 1916 and landless agricultural labouring has all but disappeared over the last 100 years.

In 1916, approximately 860,000 people were classified as farmers in contrast to about 111,000 people today.

World War I ushered in a period of strong agricultural prices, and from 1914 to 1920 prices increased almost threefold for cereals, butter, eggs, potatoes, cattle and lambs.

This resulted in relative prosperity in the countryside which led, among other things, to extensive construction of new farm houses that still dot Ireland's rural landscape today.

In 1918 and 1919, it was estimated that Irish agricultural output was £110 million and national farm income was £22 million - this equates to £5.7 billion and £1.97 billion respectively today. Agriculture, food and drink accounted for 60pc of Ireland's merchandise trade in contrast to just over 10pc today.

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Farm structures varied across the country in 1916, similar to today. At that time, farms in the south and east of the country were in general larger than farms in the north and west.

Over the last century the number of farms has declined across all counties and regions though the largest declines have occurred along the western seaboard and in the midlands.

With the decline in the number of farms, and in particular in the number of small farms, the average farm size has more than doubled from 13.7 hectares in 1915 to 32.7 hectares in 2010.

The dominance within Irish agriculture of cattle and dairying has increased over the past century as other agricultural activities have declined in relative importance.

The growth of milk and cattle in total agricultural output value is particularly noteworthy as is the decline in the share of other livestock products and pigs. There has been a huge decline in the importance of poultry in agricultural output; from eggs accounting for 7pc of agricultural output in 1912 and 1913 to less than 1pc in total agricultural output in 2014.

Dr Kevin Hanrahan works with the Teagasc Tural Economy and Development Programme

Then and now: a snapshot of a nation in flux

Harvest time. Photo: National Library of Ireland.

Harvest time. Photo: National Library of Ireland.

Population (1911 Census) 3,139,688. It has grown by 46pc since then to 4,588,252 in 2011.

Farm numbers 359,700 There has been a significant decline in the number of farms over the past century. The statistics on agriculture were collected differently in 1915, yet they show there were 359,700 farms over one acre. By 2010 this had declined to 139,860 farms over 2.5ac, a drop of over 60pc in the number of farms.

Area farmed The volume of land farmed dropped by 7pc between 1915 and 2010, from 4,932 to 4,569 thousand hectares. Counties Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow account for over a third of this total decline in farmland.

Farm size Average farm size in Ireland has more than doubled over the same period, from 14 to 33ha. The average farm in Donegal has quadrupled in size over the last century, from 7 to 28ha, while average farm sizes trebled in Louth, Dublin and Cavan.

Tillage The area of land used for growing barley and wheat has approximately trebled between 1916 and 2010, while the area used for potatoes dropped by over 90pc, as did the area used for growing oats.

Cattle numbers The total number of cattle in Ireland increased by 58pc from just under 4.2 million in 1916 to 6.6 million by 2010.

Government spending In 1916, the overall fiscal situation in Ireland was very favourable for the British Government, with a very substantial surplus of £11 million.

Transport There were 9,850 cars registered in Ireland in 1915, compared to 1.9 million in 2014.

Birth and infant mortality rates In 1916 the infant mortality rate was 81.3, with 81 out of every 1000 babies born dying before they reach 12 months of age. The infant death rates were higher in Dublin city, with one-room tenements likely contributing to disease.

Deaths and life expectancy There were 50,627 deaths in 1916 which gave a death rate of 16.1 per 1000 of population, by 2014 this had dropped to 6.3. About one in eight deaths was due to bronchitis and pneumonia, another one in eight was due to TB. Baby boys born in 2011 can expect to live for nearly 25 more years than those born in 1911, while baby girls can expect to live 28 years longer.

Marriages 92pc of the 15,207 marriages in 1916 were Catholic ceremonies while Church of Ireland and Presbyterian ceremonies accounted for 7pc.

- Compiled by Helen Cahill from the Central Statistics Office

An era when the horse was king

The main emphasis in veterinary education in the early part of the century and right up to the 1950s - when I studied - was the horse, writes retired vet Joe Connolly from Co Galway.

The horse was king. The working or Draught horse was the chief farm drudge and was looked on reverently, not alone for its intelligence but also for its ability to perform the hard pulling; he was the "tractor" of the early 20th century.

There was at least one horse on each middling-sized farm; the poorer farmers had to be content with a donkey on which little enough respect was conferred.

Almost all medicines during the first half of the century were derived from the plant world and from various and even exotic plants worldwide. Synthetic drugs manufacturing was far in the future.

Oil of Terebinth - derived from turpentine - was used as an internal antiseptic, an anthelmintic agent against worm infestations and as an expectorant to help the animal cough.

No farmer's shelf was without a bottle of Coopers Gaseous Fluid. It was also a turpentine derivative and used for all of the above and for the mythical condition of 'wool ball' which was understood to be very widespread at this time.

It was a sure fire remedy for wool ball in lambs and digestive orders in calves.

Milk fever in cows was treated by pumping air in to the teats and udder to create a compression, while 'blistering' of lumps and bumps was often performed by local quacks.

Swapping the spud for white bread

There were very significant changes in the diet in the decades leading up to 1916, with the potato and milk, the  staples of rural Ireland, gradually being replaced by  processed foods.

By the turn of the century, Ireland was beginning to copy international trends, explains UCC food historian Regina Sexton. She pointed out it depended on whether you were in an urban or rural setting, with the likes of the wealth country houses following classic French-style cooking.

However, there was a rise in the consumption of convenience foods, with tinned products and processed foods in working and middle-class diets in urban areas, while there was still a mix of vegetables, potatoes and oatmeal in the diet in rural locations.

More wheat, meat, fish and eggs were coming into working-class diets, while tea drinking became a feature of both rural and urban dwellers.

Ms Sexton said that the diet of the average labourer may have become broader, but in nutrition terms it as inferior.

This was caused by easier access to cheap food like fatty bacon, white bread and sugar. Better transport meant more goods were in circulation.

"By 1915 and throughout 1916, the subject of rising living costs, the sharp increase in food prices and how people might adapt to these changes came to fill newspaper columns and attracted a raft of advertising for cookery classes, cookery books and food products," said Ms Sexton.

She pointed out the Irish Independent on Monday, March 20, 1916 showed prices were strong for items like eggs, and prices were high as demand surpassed supply in vegetables such as Savoy and York cabbages, sprouts, cauliflowers, celery, scallions, sea kale and rhubarb.

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