Sunday 15 September 2019

Dubliner who gave up city life for the farm

Michael Miley

Many years ago, when Joe Bruton was attending mass in Lourdes, the priest asked for a male volunteer from the congregation to act as altar server. Joe put his hand up and joined the priest on the altar. The priest started the mass in Latin, then moved to French and ended the mass in English. Joe responded perfectly in all three languages.

After the mass, the priest complimented Joe on his linguistic skills and asked what he did for a living, thinking that he had the honour of having a high-powered professor of something or other as his server. "I'm an Irish farmer," said Joe.

The Irish farmer with untypical linguistic skills was buried last Monday on what would have been his 100th birthday. Joe Bruton, writer, communicator, raconteur, farming and community activist, and father of a former Taoiseach and of a former minister, has left an indelible mark on his community, the agricultural industry and on rural life.

Born in Dublin on March 2, 1909, Matthew Joseph (Joe) Bruton was one of four boys and two girls to Matthew and Nellie Bruton. He spent his first seven years in Conyngham Road, on the outskirts of the Phoenix Park. In 1916, after a bullet went through the window, the family moved to Leixlip. The Bruton family had grown from tenant farmers to substantial landowners in Dublin, Meath and north Kildare and were steeped in the business of cattle trading. After completing his education at Clongowes, Joe chose farming as his career. He left the business of cattle trading to other members of the family, saying, with typical unpretentiousness, that he "was never very good at it".

In 1942, he married Doris Delaney, from a farming family at Culmullen, Co Meath, and the couple moved to a new house on Joe's 400-acre farm at Newtown, Dunboyne, where they developed a progressive farm, reared their daughter and two sons and lived together for the next 64 years until Doris' death in 2006.

Paying tribute at his funeral mass, Monsignor Dermot Farrell described Joe Bruton as a man consumed by the passions of family, farming and faith. "For him, no sacrifice was too great to make for his children, John, Richard and Mary, and no journey was too long. He encouraged them and gave his two sons the freedom not to follow him into the family business. That is the sign of a truly magnanimous man".

One of John's contemporaries tells the story that when John was a boarder in Clongowes he got into a bit of trouble. Part of the punishment was to write home and confess his misdemeanour to his parents. Joe replied with a suitable admonishment and added that this was 'not the type of behaviour he would expect from a future Taoiseach'. Clearly, John's political ambitions as a teenager had been discussed around the family table.

The political achievements of his two sons -- John was a TD for Meath for 35 years and Richard has just completed 27 years as a TD for Dublin North Central -- and the honour of having one as Taoiseach and the other a senior minister in the same government was a source of quiet and restrained pride to their father. But he was not actively involved in party politics. His farming organisation required that its senior figures should be non-political and Joe, while serving at a senior level in the organisation, applied this prohibition to himself, even to the extent of not canvassing for his own son.

His farming organisation was the NFA (now the IFA) of which he was one of the founding fathers in 1955. He was a leader of the farmers' rights campaign in the mid 1960s and later became chairman of the IFA national livestock committee. Following Ireland's entry into the EU, he had the distinction of being the first Irish person to chair the influential EU beef advisory committee where his knowledge of French gave him a distinct advantage. He represented Irish beef farmers, large and small, with intelligence and zeal. In the business world, he was an effective chairman for an extended period of the Dublin Port and Docks Board.

As a farmer, he was an innovator and eagerly adopted new and better methods to lift productivity and income. Busloads of farmers from home and abroad came to Dunboyne to see the Bruton technologies. He specialised in producing beef for the home market and there were very few families in Dublin who did not at some stage enjoy a roast from the Bruton farm for their Sunday lunch. He was also an accomplished beekeeper, particularly in his single years, and served as President of the Irish Beekeepers Association

He was a passionate advocate of the role of science in enhancing Ireland's position as a world leader in food production. He was one of the first farmers to join the Irish Grassland Association, an elite group of leading farmers and scientists established in 1946 to tackle the impoverished state of soil fertility due to the fertiliser famine and the compulsory tillage regime during World War II. He later became president of the association. He was also president of the Agricultural Economics Society, a rare achievement for a farmer, and was never fazed at arguing the toss with some of the country's leading economists.

In the 1960s, he was a member of the board of the newly-established Agricultural Research Institute (now Teagasc) and his passion for innovation was a source of great encouragement to the institute's scientists whose work has helped to transform the face of Irish farming during the last 50 years. He also put the new science into practice on his own farm. A lifelong member of the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), he served as a member and chairman of the society's agricultural committee.

Joe Bruton was a gifted and witty writer. His eclectic column in the Farmers Journal on farming, family and community ran for 25 years without a break. He took a break from writing in 1991, at the age of 82. He was an equally skillful broadcaster and was a regular on RTE radio and television programmes in the 1960s and 1970s when farming issues got much more airtime than today. His earthy comments and memorable sound bites had the appearance of spontaneity but, as with all great communicators, they were meticulously prepared and cleverly woven into the story.

At community level, Joe was the classic example of 'if you want a job done, ask a busy man'. For more than 50 years, he was a prime mover in community activities in his parish of Dunboyne, including a major fund-raising drive for the parish church and the local community council. It was only in recent months that he resigned as a trustee of the local community centre.

Joe Bruton was, even by today's standards, a large farmer. But he never judged others by the size of their farm or the social class they belonged to. Everyone was treated with the same respect and their interests were pursued with vigilance and concern.

He is survived by his daughter, Mary; sons, John and Richard; sister, Kattie (Fay); daughters-in-law, Finola and Susan and eight grandchildren.

Joe Bruton: born March 2 1909, died February 27 2009.

Michael Miley is a former Teagasc press secretary and one-time adviser to Ivan Yates

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