Century of Endeavour

Irish Agriculture in Transition

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

I give a short abstract for each chapter, under the Table of Contents headers. I give Chapter 16 in full, as an illustration of how JJ in the 40s was attempting to develop his 'large-scale managed co-operative farm' model with fieldwork. I also give a substantial extract from Chapter 19 where he projects his vision of the co-operative agricultural future, developing the concept outlined by Senator Richards Orpen.

A full re-publication on the internet can be done, if it turns out to be of enough period interest to be in demand. There is also a review from the Manchester Guardian, dated October 5 1951, which I add below.

I have a letter to JJ from AA Luce dated 2/9/51 in which he thanks JJ for a copy of the book, and goes on to say that it '...shed(s) light on the emigration problem and the small holding and marginal land. The history is well told....objective and without frills, and with an occasional bit of mustard and a memorable phrase. The book like your senatorial rank will do good to the College...'.

I also have a letter to JJ from George O'Brien, dated 20/04/1948: '...I have read your manuscript with the greatest of interest and I am passing it on to Duncan. I think your idea of "Young's Tour of Ireland in 1947" an excellent one... There is no gainsaying your thesis that larger-scale farming should be attained, if at all possible. The scope for large farms is limited by the passion for land division, but the possibilities for co-operation are very great. Your insistence on the advantage of large scale production is very timely and I hope to see it published... The second part of the manuscript is one of the most acute analyses I have read of the underlying foundations of Irish agriculture...'.

JJ considered a reprint in 1959, and got a quote from Hely's, but apparently did not proceed with it.


1. The Legacy of the Land War
The main source for this chapter is the same book which JJ used in 1913 as background to his 'Civil War in Ulster', namely Dr Moritz J Bonn's 'Modern Ireland and her Agrarian Problem', published in English translation in 1906. The process of State-subsidised tenant purchase left in existence many isolated holdings without any social organisation such as had been provided, in a rudimentary and exploitative form, by the landlords, bailiffs and agents. There was no organised link via village communities, as was the case in most other European countries. The co-operative movement could have provided such an organisation, but failed to do so, except insofar as it organised the processing of milk. According to Bonn "...it cannot be said to have established in the country as a whole any system of 'communal agricultural organisation'".

In this introductory chapter JJ contrasts the unorganised mass of de-socialised 30-acre farmsteads with '...a well-known 2000 acre mixed tillage farm in the midlands (where) 100 workers are permanently employed, a ratio of 5 persons to 100 acres....Can we reproduce under a co-operative system the technical and other conditions which enable our best-managed, privately-owned large holdings to show a high density of employment and a high output per man and per acre?...'.

2. Agencies of Agricultural Policy
JJ in this chapter goes into the role of Horace Plunkett as the founder of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS); the stimulus was the danger of losing the British market to Danish butter, which was produced with good quality control by the Danish co-operative movement, by then well advanced. The first creamery was set up in 1889 and there were 17 in existence by 1891 when Balfour, then Chief Secretary, set up the 'Congested Districts Board, on which Plunkett served.

Writing in 1915 Plunkett remarked that '..the Congested Districts, where the Board's land purchase operations are advanced, are marvellously improved. The great defect I see is the utter ignoring of the social aspects of the problem. No attempt is made to build up rural communities.' This was despite the existence of the IAOS since 1894. In 1896, in the vacuum left by the collapse of the second Home Rule Bill and the Parnell split, Plunkett set up the Recess Committee (so-called because it met during the Parliamentary recess) and a case was made for an all-Irish Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, which was set up in 1899, with Plunkett as its Vice-President, in his capacity as Unionist MP for South County Dublin.

Plunkett lost his seat in 1900 but maintained his position in the Department until 1907, when he was succeeded by TW Russell, a Liberal Unionist Tyrone MP who was very much under the influence of the Nationalist Parliamentary Party, which was dominated by local shopkeeping interest. Under their influence Russell withdrew the government grant with which Plunkett had subsidised the work of the IAOS.

After the World War and the war of independence Paddy Hogan the new Free State Minister for Agriculture restored the IAOS grant, so that the IAOS again became, and remains, a sort of semi-official agency of government agricultural policy.

There always remained a gap between the educational system and such agricultural education as there was, the latter being in the form of specialist Agricultural Schools associated with Model Farms. There had been a total of 205 such schools specialising in agricultural education, but this initiative was killed in 1875 by decision of the British Treasury, under doctrinaire Free Trade influence. The Recess Committee later took up the issue, but never succeeded in restoring agricultural education to its proper place in the rural social environment.

3. Agricultural Policy after 1922
There was a modest increase in total agricultural output between 1926 and 1931, with increasing specialisation in livestock and livestock products. After 1932 with the de Valera government, under the self-sufficiency policy tillage cash crops increased from about 1/10 to about 1/6 of the total value of output, but total output actually declined, due to the effects of the 'economic war', and related British price policy. The ensuing divorce between animal husbandry and cash-crop production persisted during the second world war for the latter reason. A Committee was appointed in 1942 to report on post-Emergency agriculture, and this reported in 1945; there was significant input to this work from JJ. The Chairman was Bob Barton, who had signed the Treaty in 1921, and had now become a supporter of de Valera.

4. Raw Materials for Irish Animal Husbandry
In this chapter, which was written before the Agricultural Institute had come into existence, JJ attempts to quantify the variations in output under crops and pasture, and concludes that the growing of wheat prior to 1939 as a 'self-sufficiency' cash crop, divorced from a profitable livestock economy, was destructive of the fertility of the soil, and actually impaired our capacity to survive during the war years.

The primary agricultural raw material is grass, and this needs to be treated as the main crop, supplemented by tilled fodder-crops and imported feed.

5. Speeding the Plough
The effects of the economic war are analysed; in particular the disastrous drop in the application of phosphatic manure is noted, which gave rise to a cumulative deficit in soil fertility before the war.

6. Feed Costs and Animal Product Prices
JJ here remarks on the extraordinary stability of Irish agricultural statistics over the previous century, even given the economic war effects. There were 1M pigs, and as many milch cows, in 1939, the same as in 1850 or 1870. This sameness is unique in economic history. JJ attributes this to the price structure, due to external influences, making stall-feeding of animals in winter uneconomic. It had been classically noted by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations that "..it is with the produce of improved and cultivated land only that cattle can be fed in stable...". He contrasts pig and poultry statistics during the economic war and war years with the Northern Ireland situation.

7. Eire Bounties and British Penal Duties
There is more analysis here of the effects of the economic war, with particular reference to the attempts made to offset the effects of British duties by bounties paid to producers. The bounty policy discriminated against cattle exports and in favour of butter, eggs and bacon. British policy favoured importing Irish store rather than fat cattle. From 1934 they subsidised their own cattle production. The result of this policy, as well as killing any incentive in Ireland to stall-feed, was to encourage the export of agricultural labourers: "...British price policies, operated with exclusive regard for British interests, can have a disintegrating effect on the Irish agricultural economy."
8. The Capital Assets of Irish Agriculture in 1939

This chapter is developed around the arguments in the 1942 SSISI paper, which I have summarised elsewhere. JJ included his obituary of Major Barrow, of Castlebellingham, who had been a major source of information for the paper, and who constituted an exemplar of the type of large-scale employment-generating productive agricultural enterprise which JJ spent his lifetime trying to develop into a co-operative ownership model.


9. The New Attitude to Grass
JJ welcomes the new post-war interest in grass, its intensive cultivation, and making into silage. He notes that the increase in grass production is actually generating a surplus, some of which is being exported to Britain as grass-meal.

10. Signs of Change in Livestock Policy
The arguments about the 'dual-purpose cow' are summarised; opposition to specialised dairy breeds are based on the export dependence of the store cattle trade. People are coming round to the view that the shorthorn can be bred up to an 800 gallon yield without loss of conformity of the progeny to the store-cattle needs. There is however increasing pressure in the dairy counties to go for specialist dairy breeds, endangering the supply of acceptable male progeny for beef. Artificial insemination is beginning to have an important role in increasing milk yield.

11. Developments in Poultry Policy
The arrival of incubators and the availability of a supply of day-old chicks is a key factor enabling egg production to be extended to the winter months. The average flock is about 50 birds and this could easily be increased to 200 or so on the average small farm. Large industrial-scale flocks become possible, but these run the risk of disease. The economics of this process however depends sharply on the price of imported feed.

12. The Progress of Mechanisation
The co-operative ownership of machinery, while theoretically an option, is fraught with problems. The contractor route is identified as more likely to develop. Some creameries have taken on this machinery contracting role. Comparison with Denmark shows Ireland under-mechanised by a factor of 5 or even 10. Effective use of machinery can only be done with a large-scale managed system.

13. Women on the Farm
In this chapter JJ identifies as positive indicators the existence of Muintir na Tire and the Irish Countrywomen's Association, the Rural Domestic Economy Schools, and in particular Gurteen Agricultural College, set up under Methodist auspices in 1947.

14. Three Co-operatively Owned Farms
These are at Drinagh, 5 miles south of Dunmanaway, Kanturk and Milford near Charleville, all being in Co Cork. The first is a creamery with 1600 suppliers and employs 103 workers. In 1943 it acquired a 50-acre farm, where intensive dairy and pig-production is carried on, run by 3 people. The second, at Kanturk, was bought by the co-op (founded 1926 as a creamery and specialising in cheese) as a means of disposing of surplus whey, which is fed to pigs. The pig-manure is ploughed in when re-seeding the pasture. Milford functioned as an agricultural implement society as well as a general store and mill. Thanks to available electric power it was into incubation. It had recently also acquired a 150 acre farm of its own, near Kilbolane Castle (of Bowenscourt fame; according to JJ '..it owes its present picturesque appearance to the doings of Oliver Cromwell -- a noted Republican of the 17th century..'). This also is for whey disposal. There were 3 permanent farm staff, but creamery workers who had less to do in the winter were diverted to it.

15. A "Workhouse" that is a Workhouse
Donaghmore creamery, near Rathdowney in Laois, had some 500 suppliers, and took over an old workhouse building which it used to house stores, a hatchery, a mill and machinery with which it services the needs of some of its members. Most of the extensive premises remained unoccupied.

16. Dovea Co-Operative Farm
Dovea was a typical 'big-house' owned by the Trant family. Under the influence of a local lecture by Dr Henry Kennedy Captain Trant agreed to lease the property to the Centenary Co-operative Society, provided they could live out their term in one of the wings. There had been a 2000 acre estate, reduced to 200 by division of the remainder into 30-acre lots under the Land Commission. This constituted the closest approximation JJ found for his 'co-operative managed estate' model for productive farming, although the workers were employees not owners; the owners were the creamery and its many landowning small suppliers. JJ visited it on three successive years, and I have scanned in this chapter in full.

17. Mitchelstown Co-Operative Farm
The Mitchellstown creamery, founded in 1919, was by 1948 turning over £1M or more, employing 500 people, and supplying general services to members as well as taking their milk and producing cheese. Talk of the Mitchelstown merchants being 'ruined' by the co-op JJ discounts; what they lose in trade with the farmers they gain in trade generated by the workers employed. The co-op acquired the remnant of the Kingston demesne farm, reduced from 1100 acres to 160 by the Land Commission, for rearing pigs using surplus whey, and at the same time pioneering procedures for re-seeding old pasture and converting grass to silage. Pigs, cows, potatoes, whey and grass are the key actors in the regeneration drama, in a farm which employs 15 workers, confirming again JJ thesis that intensive management of large-scale operations units is the way to go, rather than subdivision into 30-acre lots.

18. The Outlook in 1950 and 1951
Hay will make way for silage; the midland beef farmers will have to begin to raise their own calves as the dairy people switch away from the dual-purpose cow; there will be more mechanisation; in this environment there is absolutely no future for isolated 30-acre farmers, unless they agree to pool their efforts and go into co-operative production units of 1000 acres or more. The case for subsidising butter production, introduced in the 30s, will disappear.
19. The Local Integration of Agricultural Effort

In this final chapter JJ takes a critical look at the principle of private property in land, and the results of 'peasant proprietorship', and finds it wanting, in the company of Fintan Lalor, Michael Davitt and James Connolly, all of whom he quotes. There is no direct relationship between land ownership and the type of innovative entrepreneurship required in agriculture.

In this context the co-operative movement has achieved only a limited success in the dairy areas, and has not caught on in the most needy areas. Modern mechanised agriculture can only work in units of 1000 acres or more. The way towards this is via the type of social architecture suggested initially by Senator Richards Orpen in his 1943 Irish Independent article on 'post-war planning in Irish agriculture', and further developed in his SSISI paper on November 27 1947. JJ quotes at length from this paper, and I have scanned in this section of the final chapter, as it sums up the essentials of JJ's vision for a viable rural civilisation.


The following review appeared in the Manchester Guardian on October 6 1947:

Irish Agriculture,
by E F Nash

Irish Agriculture In Transition, By Joseph Johnston, Dublin: University Press; and Oxford: Backwell. Pp xviii, 185. 15s.

Professor Johnston is a practical farmer as well as an economist. He wants Irish agriculture to be prosperous and efficient and to maintain a high density of rural employment. To this end he advocates a farming system based on live stock and grass But the small size of Irish agricultural holdings is in many ways an obstacle to efficient production, and Professor Johnston is greatly interested in co-operative methods designed to enable the small farmer to share the use of machinery and enjoy other advantages normally confined to larger-scale producers.

He describes several farming enterprises run by co-operative creameries, and his last chapter is a plea for the establishment of co-operatively owned 'economic farm units' which would farm comparatively large acreages by up-to-date methods and provide a market for some of the products of the member or subsidiary farms, besides undertaking marketing, processing, and the supply of requisites and technical advice on their behalf.

Before coming to these contemporary issues Professor Johnston surveys, in the first part of his book, the economic background from which they have arisen, discussing such topics as the legacy of the Land War, Irish agricultural policy since 1922, and the effects of the Anglo-Irish 'economic war' of the 1930s. Part of the material has previously been published elsewhere (some of it in the 'Manchester Guardian') and the book does not set out to be a detailed history or systematic treatise. But it has something sensible and informative to say on each topic treated, and It puts the main issues of agricultural policy in the Republic into a sound and rational perspective.

[To 'Century' Contents Page] [To Barrington in the 40s]
[To the 50s 'Sickness' booklet] [1940s Overview]

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999