IRELAND LIFE ON THE LAND.
For most of Ireland's history the overwhelming majority of her people lived close to the land. Planting and harvesting or grazing and tending herds.
Yet this relationship was a surprisingly unstable one, in which the balance between arable and pastoral, owner and tenant, was tipped this way and that, often under the influence of political and social conflicts.
From early Celtic times livestock were unusually important. They were usefully mobile assets in a turbulent society, prestigious prizes of war and were sources of milk and butter, which were for centuries the staple foods in the Irish diet. Although the Normans effected some improvements in farming the parts of the east and south that they controlled, most of the people continued to live at subsistence level, threatened with actual starvation whenever harvests disappointed or violence destroyed their meagre resources. The depth of misery in which the poorest Irish lived - in rags, with hovels for homes - struck outside observers of several different nationalities.
The threat of famine, and utter destitution at the bottom of the social ladder, were common enough in most European countries until at least the 18th century; but Ireland's experience of them lasted even longer. For a time it seemed as if the worst was over. After the grim struggles of the 17th century, outwardly amiable relations between the Ascendancy landlords and their Catholic tenants were established surprisingly quickly. And after 1750 the standard of living rose, rural housing conditions improved and a turn in British economic policy enabled Irish farms to grow and export large quantities of grain.
But the population was already soaring, and in Ireland, unlike Britain, there were no factories and expanding industrial towns to absorb the excess. The huge increase in numbers meant that there were not enough houses, lands or work to go around. The tumbledown shack again became a common sight, while the land was divided and subdivided into ever-smaller one-crop plots. Ireland's rural economy was already in crisis by the 1840s when the potato harvest failed and 'the Great Hunger' began.
The Famine resulted in suffering, death and emigration, it scarred the Irish people in a fashion impossible to quantify. When it was over, farms had become more substantial, but only the continued emigration ensured the viability of the economy. In fact the 'golden stream' - the remittances sent back to their families by millions of emigrants - became a vital element in maintaining the old way of life in the homeland, especially in the impoverished west.
During the Famine, many landlords - some faced with bankruptcy, some glad of an excuse - evicted tenants who could not pay their rent. Resentments were nursed which broke out fiercely during the great agricultural recession of the 1870s. The Irish Land League harnessed tenant discontents in campaigns that speeded the decline of the Anglo-Irish landlord class and the social revolution which turned Ireland into a land of peasant proprietors. There were drawbacks, notably the small scale on which the new owners necessarily operated, and Irish agriculture remained relatively backward. But the passionate hand-hunger of the peasants was at last satisfied as Ireland moved into the 20th century.
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