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Blow-in rural settlers made an impact in Ireland
March 2007

Garreth Byrne discusses the varied experiences and positive effects on rural Irish society of suburban people who, following the 1960s alternative living zeitgeist, took a daring leap into organic farming.

The second half of the 1960s in Western Europe and North America were marked by student radicalism, demands for educational changes, sit-ins, teach-ins and various manifestations against the Vietnam War. One dimension of that vanished period of youthful animation, introspection and protest was the focus, in San Francisco and elsewhere, on love, peace, the return to nature and alternative lifestyle. Some of it was faddish: Californian sunshine has seen artistic, psycho, techno, fashion and lifestyle fads come and go over the decades. Some of these tried -and-discarded social fads washed up on the shores of Ireland and other parts of Europe at later stages, where vanguard groups and opinion moulders tried them out, with varying levels of impact. A concern for nature, especially rural environment, was a beneficial long-term bequest from the love and peace generation, some of whom are today partly retired grandparents down on Maggie's organic farm.

Ecology and pacifist magazines and newsletters circulated in university campuses during the 1960s and 70s. Some of the articles on alternative living, alternative schooling and alternative farming turned the minds of student dreamers towards thoughts of what to do with life after graduation. It should be noted here that non-students from various urban backgrounds also came into contact, through similar magazines and publicity promoted by specialist organisations like the Soil Association, with back-to-the-land ideas.

Dreaming about it in student flats decorated with Che Guevara and Beatles posters and floors strewn with ever extending piles of long-playing vinyl records was one thing. Between the idea and the reality there fell the shadow. It took a lot of courage or impulsive caprice to pack up and go to unknown rural places and start living the alternative farm lifestyle. Newly graduated students cast dreams aside, donned their first business suits and disappeared into the professions. Some few of the sixties awareness generation carved out satisfying careers in entertainment. (Christy Moore's desertion of a banking career is a famous Irish example. You wouldn't imagine him working on Maggie's organic farm, but he'd certainly enjoy singing about it.) Many dozens of young couples, from Ireland, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere, took the plunge, left suburbia and salaried careers and settled into the Irish rural unknown. Property prices on the margins of Irish rural society were cheap then.

A new puritan ethic
Organic farming, vegetarianism and, more rarely, vegan diets, were features of a new puritan ethic that coloured the sporadic back-to-the-land movement in the rural fringes of Ireland during the 1960s onwards. The puritans often bought derelict stone cottages at knockdown prices in difficult, isolated places. Some were on the sides of windy hills in the Beara peninsula or the Bluestacks mountains of South Donegal. Counties including Leitrim, Sligo, Roscommon, Mayo and the flat, boring hedgerowed landscape of the midlands were also among the areas where incoming pioneers acquired their three- or ten-acre plots. Several of them arrived towing mobile homes in which they lived tenaciously over the first year of settlement, clearing away overgrown scrub, boulders and skutch grass. They learned stone building and slate roofing techniques in a desperate can-do way as they struggled to rehabilitate deserted cottages, put down flagstone kitchen floors, restore traditional open fireplaces and install back boilers, plumbing systems and basic washing facilities. The hardy few, in a rugged puritan spirit and maybe because of income constraints, drew water from traditional wells and constructed composting toilets that supplied additional fertility for the organic vegetable plots.

Preliminary digging and removal of large stones from virgin scrub soil or from fallow old vegetable patches was a blistering task. Lucky smallholders got assistance from neighbouring traditional farmers who came in, for a fee, and upturned the fields with tractor-drawn equipment. Then it was down to tedious spadework to shape and compost lazy beds, Rudolph Steiner biodynamic 'heaps', or regular drills and the erection of plastic PVC polytunnels. Reconstruction of outhouses for storage of tools and produce or for use of goats and poultry was another infrastructure task. Hedges were often thinned out or replanted to fill gaps. Some ambitious incoming smallholders were able to construct irrigation channels drawing on water from nearby streams.

When old cottages had been cleared of damp and mould it was safe to move out of the mobile caravans, which then served as accommodation for visiting guests and woofers. Woofers? Yes, those still rooted in cities wishing to test the life for themselves before deciding to take the plunge could link into a network called Working Weekends on Organic Farms. They could invite themselves to woof on smallholdings, at weekends or for longer periods during the summer. Their struggling hosts fed them, instructed them in organic ways and let them have some afternoons off work to explore the surroundings. The informal support of woofers made up the numbers during the critical growing season. I myself woofed for short periods in two different counties in 1977 after returning from a contract in Africa that had entailed teaching English and managing school poultry and vegetable production. I never took the plunge, but admired the gritty efforts of smallholders, and learned that I could never embrace the hazards of their chosen lifestyle.

My acquaintance with the alternative farming movement did not end at that point, and I did not remain entombed in the anonymity of suburbia and a pensionable career. In the early 1980s I got a development education job based in Sligo which took me on visits to schools, ICA guilds and other adult associations around four counties to arrange exhibitions and give illustrated talks on third world cultures and problems.

Publishing and food production
I came in contact with and heard about the enterprises of alternative farmers. They produced a monthly Gestetner-duplicated magazine called North-West Newsletter. This kitchen table publication was laboriously put together by an informal grouping of incomer smallholders from the mid-1970s. It soon became a communication network for smallholders all over the country. In the 1980s it went slightly upmarket with a typeset and web offset print run, making for better layout and the use of photographs and technical line drawings. It changed its title to Common Ground to reflect the island-wide readership. In the mid-1990s, after twenty years of intrepid part-time journalism, the producers decided to halt publication and left the field to specialist, more professionally supported magazines and newsletters dealing with ecology, environmental protection, promotion of deciduous afforestation, seed diversity, food safety, holistic medicine and alternative energy. These and other topics had been dealt with in the pages of NW Newsletter/Common Ground, of course. However worthy the specialist magazines may be today, many organic farmers, especially smallholders, feel the need for a revived publication on the lines of the defunct Common Ground.

Incoming smallholding settlers came from urban parts of Ireland - a small but determined number. Many more came from suburban England, and there were people from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and a few other continental countries. Not all continental and British farmers were vegetarians. They did not have bohemian backgrounds, indeed some came from farm families, had specialist third level qualifications and brought to their enterprises a sober, methodical middle class work ethic. A proportion of incomers also brought capital, enabling them to buy farming plots of 25 acres or more. No hillside frugality for them. Entrepreneurs of varied farm sizes specialised in organic beef and lamb production. Others went into organic fruit production, while others supplemented their incomes from home produced cheeses, jams, bread and novelty conserves that traditional farm families have also been associated with, often under the influence of ICA guilds. Yet others grew an array of herbal plants that have culinary and medicinal properties. Goats' cheese and milk is often a substitute food for individuals who are allergic to bovine diary produce, so smallholders have derived income from husbanding these docile but depredating grazers.

The tough life took its toll among the smallholding settler community. The cold, damp winters and seasonal storms broke the patience and physical stamina of some. Yet others, after laboriously insulating their dwellings and expertly conditioning the vegetable plots, found the culture and self-imposed social isolation too much, sold up and moved back to their suburbs of origin. Other settlers discovered, as Leitrim writer Brian Leyden notes in The Homeplace, a memoir of growing up in the Arigna area on the Leitrim-Roscommon border, that generations of Irish hillside smallholders had been forced into emigration by the harshness of nature and market economics. These disillusioned settlers cut their losses and followed the route of their indigenous predecessors.

Encouraging successes may have outweighed the failures, but at the expense of hard slog, economic and climatic setbacks, miserable incomes, illness and occasional marital breakdown. Nobody on a seven-acre farm can survive on the sale of vegetables alone; other income sources are necessary. I observed from my regional travels that rugged rural entrepreneurs survived if one partner had a salaried job (which often supplied capital for farm development), or earned money from the sale of crafts like perfumed candles and pottery, or did casual carpentry and building work in the area, or practised various forms of holistic medicine. Organic growers who introduced unusual or specialist vegetable varieties could derive niche seasonal incomes. On a small farm in a remote Sligo townland I saw how smallholders had paid a neighbour to plough sloping daub soil at the base of a wooded hill. The incomers then covered the surface with black PVC material to control weeds and then transplanted pumpkin plants grown from seed in a plastic tunnel by making incisions in the PVC. Solar heat was trapped under the dark covering thus 'forcing' the growth of pumpkins, which were sold to city restaurants and shops as a cash crop in the weeks before Halloween.

Filtering down into the mainstream
Traditional farm families may have looked askance at the attire, foreign accents and food production methods of incomers. (The word blow-ins was commonly used in local gossip, and it applied to incoming Dubliners and other Hibernians too.) One Irish neighbour asked a blow-in acquaintance of mine why he and his wife didn't use nitrate chemical fertiliser on their organic vegetable patch and pretend that it was organic. To which the foreigner, politely suppressing his exasperation, replied that his Irish neighbour had missed the ecological and health point of organic production and consumption.

Over the years groups of organic farmers, both Irish and foreign, have promoted ecological and organic ideas. They have increasingly become more professional and have lobbied government on policy matters. In the early 1970s individual farm advisors employed by local authorities expressed unfamiliarity with the nature and scope of organic farming, and in a few instances radiated scepticism about the smallholders who came looking for information and help. There were also problems about marketing vegetable and other produce, the smallness of scale being a factor that made a poor impression on supermarket managers. Smallholders had to organise and professionalise or perish.

The piecemeal implementation of EU directives and the introduction of area schemes like the REPS (rural environmental protection) have been a boon to organic producers and have helped to spread their ecological and other messages. Institutions have emerged from the diverse work of incoming smallholders. In Clare the Seed Savers Association has beavered away at promoting apple tree diversity and building up, in tandem with university academics, a national seed bank. Experiments have been carried out elsewhere on growing different indigenous varieties of cereal crops. The promotion of broadleaf afforestation has been the special work of Crann, based in Offaly, with support from organic farmers among a wider public. In Crannagh Castle in Tipperary, organic farmer and social philosopher Gillies McBain established research facilities and promoted barter as an alternative to traditional monetary systems of rural commerce, with mixed results. The Leitrim Organic Centre was established by small-scale farmers and now has a national reputation in the field of practical education. Feasta, which aims to spread the word about sustainable rural economics, was established by Richard Douthwaite, and has a base in Tipperary. Local Farmers' Markets operate around the country and allow consumers to buy and taste a wide range of organically produced vegetables, soft cheeses and meat. Associations of organic meat producers promote their particular interest, and try to enlighten the general public. In several villages and towns health and alternative food shops have sprouted up, giving shoppers interesting options. Health farms for weary urban workers have opened for business. The late Ernest Schumacher's bestselling book, Small is Beautiful, has had long term influence.

In many areas of Ireland the activities of back-to-the-land pioneers have enhanced rural society. Some of their environmental and organic concerns have filtered into the mainstream. Macroeconomic analysts might dismiss all this as Mickey Mouse stuff when weighed against the GDP of agribusiness. True, but the depressed years between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s in Ireland saw a bleeding of population from the rural periphery that macroeconomic theory would not cauterise. Nobody in authority shouted stop then. Only the new settlers made a difference - they and their institutions (mentioned above) and think groups like Fr. Harry Bohan's Rural Housing Organisation and Rural Resources Organisation, and smaller independent initiatives like the Rural Resettlement Organisation, which invited unemployed city dwellers to repopulate scarred localities. For promoters of such diverse rural initiatives the micro-economics of people has been more relevant than the statistical impersonality of macro-economics.

The overworked and financially under-rewarded smallholders have survived in an EU economic climate that relegated any farm holding below 75 acres to bureaucratic oblivion. Recently the Nobel peace prize was awarded to someone in Bangladesh who founded the grameen banking system to help smallholders obtain soft loans. Microeconomic thinking has been recognized, in the third world at least. It has been tried out with some success in Ireland's fourth world.

Copyright INNATE 2012