Sunday 25 February 2018

How Irish agriculture boomed in 1916

Commercial farming came to the market in early 20th century, says Fergus Cassidy

A woman and her cohort set off with a basket full of eggs to the market in Galway. Photo: Getty Images
A woman and her cohort set off with a basket full of eggs to the market in Galway. Photo: Getty Images

Irish agriculture in 1916 reflected the history of land. What was cultivated on it, and who owned it. From 1851, when over 3m people were dependent on potatoes, the amount of acreage of that crop had almost halved by 1916. The development of agriculture had moved away from green and corn crop growing to animal farming, and the people working and living on the land started to become its owners. The outbreak of war in 1914 also provided further stimulus to the increasing commercialisation of Irish farming.

The decline in tillage farming began after the Great Famine. Ploughed land decreased from 4.4m acres in 1849 to 2.4m in 1916. Growing of cereal crops, mainly wheat, oats and barley, went from 3m acres to 1.3m acres, with the greatest decline of wheat growing in Leinster and Munster. Acreage under grain was halved, while at the same time, land in pasture doubled, alongside the growing numbers of horses, mules and asses.

However, those numbers dwarfed the amount of cattle on the land. Land use shifted from crops to livestock. By 1916, 79pc of the average income for farmers came directly from livestock and only 20pc from crops. Cattle numbers rose from 2.7m in 1848 to 5m in 1914, and the livestock sector accounted for 75pc of total agricultural output in that same year.

Between 1910 and 1914 cattle numbers rose by 20pc, facilitating the growth of creameries to over a 1,000 throughout the island. Dairy co-ops also grew with around 350 operating in 1914.

Sheep numbers increased from 2m in 1848 to 3.6m in 1914. Pig-rearing was an essential additional income especially for small farms, and the animals were known as the "gentleman who pays the rent". Poultry-keeping, with hens the dominant bird, became a national industry which women guarded as an important source of independent income (see panel).

In 1900, under the Irish Agriculture and Technical Instruction Act, an Irish Department of Agriculture was set up. Essentially a ministry, reporting directly to the cabinet in London, the department stressed the role of education, established training colleges and appointed agricultural instructors throughout the country.

A number of Land Acts passed between 1881 and 1909 effectively ended landlord control of the land. The tenant farmers of 1850 were replaced with owner farmers by 1914. The Wyndham Land (Purchase) Act of 1903 - Wyndham was chief secretary for Ireland - was the result of a negotiated agreement between representatives of landlords and tenants.

The 1916 figures for the size of land holdings provide an insight into how the land was divided up. The total number of holdings was 572,045, of which 480,883 were under 50 acres, 89,137 were between 50 to 500 acres, and 2,025 over 50 acres. By 1919, 60pc of all holdings had been, or were in the process of, being bought out. A few years later the majority of farmers owned their land.

Agriculture in Ireland was also influenced by increasing commercialisation. Changes in transport, rail, shipping etc, technological advances in machinery such as milk/cream separators, and the growing use of statistical information for rationalisation and policy initiatives, moved farming toward an industrial enterprise.

Increasing urbanisation also stimulated a more market-led approach. Between 1845 and 1914 the proportion of the population living in towns of 1,500 or more doubled. Production and prices became embedded with supply and demand, and Irish agriculture also competed on international markets with countries such as the United States, Denmark and the Netherlands.

In 1916, two years into the First World War, Irish agriculture experienced a boom. With a largely industrialised economy, agriculture was a minor part of the overall British economy which meant it was a major importer of food. The war brought heightened British government regulation such as compulsory tillage orders and guaranteed prices. Those prices rose sharply from 1914, with cattle and butter up 50pc and the doubling of barley prices.

Irish Independent

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