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Chapter 3 – Physical Geography

A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – stave #4

Chapter 3 – Physical Geography

The preceding two chapters sought to provide a broad outline of the historical developments that shaped the relationship between Ireland and its larger neighbour, producing a situation in which ownership of the land was determined by the English ruling class. We now turn to the nature of that land and the reasons for its attractiveness to settlers.

An English man or woman driving around Ireland today, almost anywhere East of the river Shannon, will be struck more by similarities in the landscape than by any differences from their home nation. The central plane and much of the Eastern seaboard, through Leinster and into North Munster, is characterised by low, wooded hills, fields of grain and other familiar crops in the valleys; meadows with cattle grazing contentedly on the higher ground. It is a region of fertile river valleys, farm buildings, villages and market towns.

Ireland is well known internationally for its beef and dairy production and its brewing and whiskey distilling tradition. Artisan breads, beers and cheeses are to be found in specialist shops and markets everywhere, as are jams and preserves. The government’s food quality assurance agency, Bord Bia, certifies such products as having been produced to the highest possible standards.

According to Bord Bia, whilst wheat for bread baking and barley for malting are grown in significant quantities, only 8% of agricultural land is used to grow commercial crops, including fruit and horticulture. Half of that is devoted to barley. The remaining 92% of all agricultural land is grazing, hay, and silage production, supporting the massive beef and dairy sectors.

Total agricultural production in 2014 was worth €7 billion, about 7.6% of the economy. Irish food accounted for 12.3% of all exports at €11.15 billion* in 2016. €2.4 billion of that was accounted for by 534,000 tonnes of beef and €3.38 billion by dairy products and ingredients. The principal export markets were UK (37%) and the rest of Europe (32%)¹.

This modern pattern of agricultural production is, perhaps surprisingly, not too different from the past. Certainly it is the case that, in the period immediately preceding the famine, cattle and grain were regularly exported to England. The beneficiaries of this trade were not the tenant farmers who produced it, but the land owners and merchants. What angers and frustrates many Irish people is the fact that this pattern of production and trade continued throughout the famine years.

Once our traveler crosses the Shannon he or she will immediately notice a marked difference in the landscape. Fewer hedges and trees are evident, field boundaries being generally marked by dry-stone walls and barbed wire. Soon this landscape, too, gives way to a much more mountainous region. The same is generally true of that part of Ireland – West Cork and Kerry – south of the Shannon estuary and west of a line running south from Limerick.

The island of Ireland has been likened to a bowl, the coastal regions generally consisting of mountains, the central plain comparatively flat. That is to ignore the older, lower, mountain ranges, like the Slieve Blooms that mark the centre of the island. The coastal mountain ranges are much more extensive in the West, from the extreme South West to the far North West.

To the stranger this landscape appears both beautiful and inhospitable: ideal, perhaps, for a summer holiday enjoying walking, fishing and surfing, but unsuited to daily living throughout the year. Frequent rainstorms may offer a bracing challenge for a fit young person suitably clothed; as an environment in which to attempt to make a living from the land it requires a hardiness of body and spirit that is entirely alien to our modern desk-bound lives.

Yet it is here that the native Irish lived out their lives, herding cattle, growing oats, manufacturing their own clothing by spinning and weaving wool from their sheep, and tanning hides.

Prior to the arrival of the Normans, there was a long tradition of cattle stealing as part of the warfare that manifested itself in constant battles for supremacy between clan leaders. This tradition continued long after the presence of Anglo-Norman settlers introduced farming methods more like those in use in England. Such methods were unsuited to the rugged land of the West, however, and the Irish continued their traditional pattern of agriculture despite the added burden of having to pay an absent landlord for the right to do so. That right, to occupy the land, was traditionally passed from father to son. If more than one son survived into adulthood the land would be sub-divided unless a marriage could be arranged with the daughter of a neighbour with land to spare. Disputes between clans, and attempted truces, centred on such relationships.

Another important tradition, one that dated back to the establishment of the Church of Rome in these islands, is that of ‘Tything’. One tenth of all food production, or an equivalent in gold or other forms of sponsorship, was given to the Church to provide the personnel and infrastructure needed to maintain the Church and its mission. Sons who chose the Priesthood would not need to inherit a portion of the family land.

In addition there were, especially after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, frequent calls to furnish man-power and other supplies, or the equivalent in gold, to finance military campaigns such as the Crusades and the frequent wars against Scotland, France and Spain to which brief reference was made in the preceding chapters.

One other geographical feature distinguishes Ireland from its neighbour: the peat bogs. These are most extensive in the West but can be found right across the country. Country dwellers annually harvest peat for their own use for heating their homes. Others use commercially produced peat brickettes. The use of peat in horticulture, actively discouraged in the UK, is still common in Ireland. There are still 3 power stations fueled by peat, although their future is, at the time of writing, under threat. Their retention depends upon conversion to bio-mass, a process already underway using imported wood waste. Longer term it is hoped to produce sufficient volumes of home grown bio-mass.

The important fact about peat, from the point of view of food production, is that it is acidic and needs the addition of a source of lime in order to make it suitable for the cultivation of more than a narrow range of crops. Traditionally this was achieved, in the West of Ireland, by the use of seaweed and/or crushed sea shells. In the rest of the country limestone was quarried from the hillsides and burned in kilns fueled by wood or peat. The use of lime for agricultural purposes was probably introduced by the Normans in the 12th century. By the middle of the 17th century its use was widespread.

In England and Wales prior to the eighteenth century, and elsewhere in Europe for another hundred years, agricultural land was organised on the basis of open fields. These were divided into strips each strip belonging to a different member of the community and each growing a different crop so that crops could be rotated to prevent exhaustion of the soil. Beyond the open field was common land where everyone could forage for wild food, for firewood and to graze sheep and cattle. At the centre of such communities was a manor house and church building, surrounded by the cottages occupied by the owners of the strips. In addition to submitting a tythe to the Church, each strip owner had to submit a part of his produce to the Lord of the manor. He, in turn, submitted rent to the member of the aristocracy who was the true owner of the estate on which the village – and many others – was located.

The greatest source of wealth in England from medieval times was wool. Initially wool was sold to weavers on mainland Europe. Later, cloth production in England increased so that it was cloth rather than raw wool that was exported. In order to increase the volume of wool and cloth that was produced it was necessary for two things to happen: more people had to be employed in cloth production instead of subsistence farming, and more land had to be devoted to the grazing of sheep. This was accomplished by a process of enclosing previously common land. Often unpopular, the source of conflict between peasants and aristocracy, the process began in Tudor times and accelerated under various parliamentary acts throughout the 18th century. At the end of the process the land had assumed the patterns familiar today: individual farms dedicated to efficient food production with sheep reared on high pastures in the more mountainous regions.

As the process progressed, food production increased. The discovery and use of various fertilisers played an important part in this increase. The population increased, too, and at a faster rate. The industrial revolution, which enabled the increase in cloth production and the mechanisation of agriculture and transportation, ensured the rapid growth of large centres of population but did not end the poverty that was endemic in the old subsistence farming method. It seemed that the production of food could never keep up with the increase in population. A man called Thomas Malthus developed a theory about this.

So did Adam Smith who also pointed out that this process of privatisation of land ensured that the decreasing number of people occupying land nevertheless received an increasing share of the value produced from the land. It was the aristocratic owners of landed estates who benefited most through the rents charged to farmers and through their control of the manufacturing processes which soon included machinery as well as cloth and other commodities, including the very fertilisers used in food production.

In Ireland some of these developments were introduced by the same aristocratic land-owners, enabling increased production of grain, much of it used to make good the shortfall in production on the mainland. Grain was imported from North America as well. This tended to lower prices so the land-owners successfully lobbied parliament to introduce tariffs – the so called Corn Laws. As parliament consisted largely of the same land-owners, this was not difficult.

Meanwhile in the West of Ireland life continued much as before. The Irish equivalent to the open field system of subsistence farming is called rundale. The people resided in a cluster of homes called a clachan. The adjacent land radiated out from the cluster and was farmed communally. The right to grow crops on individual plots rotated among the members so that each had the opportunity to use the best land. In some such communities plots were re-assigned every 3 or 4 years by the casting of lots.

In most clachan‘s the homes were rudimentary, often consisting of mud walls surrounding a single small room with a turf roof and bare floor. There was very little in the way of furniture. People slept on the floor on straw pallets.

The arrival of the potato changed this pattern. The potato is a highly nutritious food that is easy to grow on poor soil so long as manure and/or seaweed is available to feed the plants. Such reliance on a single crop is, however, dangerous. There were failures of the crop in some years before 1845. The famines that accompanied such failures were short-lived because potatoes were grown in sufficient quantities the next year.

There is a 2-3 month gap between the exhaustion of one year’s stock of stored potatoes and the time to harvest the next year’s crop. This period, lasting roughly from early June to July/August, saw many people having to rely on whatever they could glean by foraging in the countryside. Those who had cash available could purchase imported maize. Some families pawned their winter clothes in order to raise the necessary cash. At this time of year there was little work to be had on Irish farms. Some men were able to find work on English farms at this time, leaving their women and children to a summer of hunger.

There is ample evidence, however, that the prominence of the potato in the Irish diet ensured that the Irish were generally fitter and stronger than their English counterparts. Studies have found, for example, that Irish men were taller than their English counterparts. They also lived longer than most other Europeans.

In all parts of Ireland people generally married at a younger age than did the English. One benefit of a nutritious diet is the increased survival rate of infants. The population of Ireland generally increased at about the same rate as on the mainland. But there was a far greater increase in the north and west – the very areas that were most dependent on the potato.

Moreover, whereas English peasants displaced from the land could seek opportunities in the rapidly growing industrial towns and cities, no such opportunity existed for the Irish, unless they migrated across the Irish Sea to those same cities, as many did. On the contrary, the mass production of cheap cloth in the Mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire displaced cloth produced by small family weavers in Ireland. Unlike the price protection offered to farmers for their corn, there was no such support for cottage industries in either England or Ireland.

The aristocratic land-owners, however, showed no inclination to follow the pattern of enclosing land. Indeed, they often took little interest in their Irish holdings, leaving decisions in the hands of agents whose principle task was to collect rents. The pattern of continually sub-dividing land continued as the population increased. Many peasants in the lowland areas were permitted to occupy small plots of land on which they grew potatoes. They provided labour to the larger tenant farmers at busy times of year, enabling them to pay rent and buy seed.

*The explanation for the value of exports exceeding the value of total production lies in the added value imparted to exported goods, especially dairy, by processing within Ireland.


  1. Factsheet on the Irish Agricultural and Food & Drink Sector, Bord Bia, 2017

Continue to Chapter 4


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