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The children of the small farmer inherited the earth


Eamon De Valera

Eamon De Valera

Eamon De Valera

Is rural Ireland dying today? Or maybe a better question is, when wasn't rural Ireland dying? It has always been the case that opportunities in cities are more plentiful and that people migrate from the countryside to the cities.

I was brought up in a suburban estate built in the 1960s and the vast amount of my mates had at least one parent, if not both, from the country. It was not usual to have two Dublin parents. Almost everyone had first cousins in England or close relations in Canada or the States.

For years, rural Ireland has been a reservoir of talent and has exported its migrants to cities and other countries. In the 1960s and 1970s if you had a parent from the country, you were as likely to be born in a Manchester suburb as a Dublin suburb.

Since then, this migratory pattern has continued, but it is not as significant as it once was simply because the rural population has fallen and the conveyor belt of people to the cities from rural Ireland is diminishing. By 2030 around 60pc of the population will live within 25 miles of the east coast. These days, Dublin accounts for around 40pc of our national economic activity or GDP. London, whose dominance the British worry about constantly, only accounts for around 20pc of the British economy.

Here I am going to focus on the socio-economic impact of the disappearance of the children of small farmers from the Irish landscape. It is a rarely appreciated sub-sector of the Irish class system that was once the most successful socio-economic animal in the Irish landscape.

A few years ago, two economists - Damian Hannan and Patrick Commins - wrote a paper called the 'The Significance of Small Scale Landholders in Ireland's Socio-Economic Transformation'. If anyone wants to understand the economics and the social patchwork that is Ireland today, this paper is invaluable. The writers chart the extraordinary success of the sons of Ireland's small farmers in the social revolution of the past few decades. The contrast between the fortunes of small farmers and the industrial working class could not be more stark.

The small-scale farming structure emerged as the system in rural Ireland as a result of the great class transformation that followed the end of the landlord oligarchy in the final decades of the 19th century. These small farmers experienced a significant increase in their living standards up to the late 1920s. From 1870 to 1930, the economic system was based on one son getting the farm and the rest emigrating. If they couldn't emigrate, they stayed, but landless and single. A few found jobs in the towns or in Dublin.

In the 1930s this system broke down. America closed its doors to migrants in the early 1930s, and Éamon De Valera's self-sufficient economy collapsed, meaning there wasn't a sniff of a job away from the farm and there was only England left to absorb Irishmen.

Between 1950 and 1960, 500,000 people emigrated to Britain. Their children were the English cousins of my friends on our Dublin estate when I was growing up. The most interesting social development at the time was how small farmers - De Valera's foot soldiers - adapted to the changing Ireland of the 1960s much better than the urban working class.

Amazingly, in 1950, after 30 years of independence, Ireland was more dependent on agriculture than it had been in 1870. This startling figure is either a damning indictment of De Valera's dingbat economics or evidence of the success of this rural fundamentalism.

But in the 1950s, the small farmers, or more accurately, their Irish Mammy, saw this dead-end coming. She realised that the game was up and that the only way out for the sons who didn't get the farm was either emigration or the public service. The rallying cry of Irish mammies went up: "Sure, where would you be without your education?" A new class was born which took full advantage of the free secondary education introduced in the mid-1960s.

Mr Hannan and Mr Commins found, amazingly, that the single most important determinant of a county's educational achievement in the 1960s and 1970s was the number of small farmers. This is quite extraordinary and unique to this country. The more small farmers in a county, the better educated the children were and the better they did in their Leaving Cert. The even found that the single most successful subsection of the Irish population were the children of small farmers in East Galway.

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De Valera's foot soldiers were on the march, sliotar in one hand, 'Latin for Today' in the other.

Compared to their urban, working-class counterparts, 30pc more children of small farmers did the Leaving Cert than working-class Dubs and 50pc more went on to third-level education.

They turned into the teacher aristocracy, bringing with them to Dublin a love of the GAA, squeeze boxes and Farah slacks. Their success in education catapulted them into the public service in great numbers. Now they are retiring as the best-paid public servants in Europe and, if they haven't opted for early retirement already, are earning on average 46pc more than their friends in the private sector.

They engineered this through operations like benchmarking and social partnership which saw them having the same success in wresting cash out of the State as their great-grandfathers had in prizing land from landlords.

But that's not all. They had an ace up their sleeves. While many thousands left the land, they did not sell it. Today only 6pc of the workforce work on the land, yet a quarter of all Irish households still own some agricultural land.

As Mr Hannon and Mr Commins conclude: "Not only have the smallholders succeeded in retaining their property and relative income position, but they have also succeeded in capturing a significant proportion of local off-farm employment. They have been more effective than working-class families in utilising the education system to gain access to off-farm opportunities for their children."

So the single most successful class in Ireland - the migrating children of the small farmer - is disappearing. Who will take their place? This is one of the biggest political questions for 21st century Ireland because upward social mobility is the story of the Irish Republic and one of the dynamos of this was the ambition of the small farming class. If the social escalator stops or goes into reverse, we will be dealing with a very different society in a few years' time.