In Context: Irish Farming Traditions and OUTSIDE MULLINGAR
AUTHOR: Lorraine Koleski, ATC Dramaturgical Volunteer, with Erin Treat Schauer, Dramaturg
In part, Outside Mullingar revolves around four characters who are deeply tied to the traditions of Irish family farming. The characters’ essential connection to the land, to their ancestors, to each other, and to an uncertain future are all informed by traditions and practices that go back hundreds of years and are closely tied with the Irish identity itself.
People have been farming in Ireland for thousands of years, but modern farming traditions only developed after the Land War, dating from 1872 to 1892. Before the Land War, Irish farmers were simply tenants to often-absent British landowners and had very few rights; they were charged exorbitant rents, could be kicked off their land at any time, and most of their profits went to their landlords. Beginning in the 1870s, Irish tenants used economic pressure – and occasional violence – against landlords to gain rights over the land they farmed. In fact, one of their methods – refusing to rent or buy from certain landlords – is actually where the term “boycott” comes from.
Eventually the Irish farmers won the independence and stability they were looking for. Because of the struggle for ownership, these farms are precious to the families that tend to them. Once a farm is in the family, it is kept in the family. A common ideal in Ireland is to “keep the name on the land,” meaning family farmers only want to pass their farms on to children or relatives that share the family name. For farming men, their identity as “farmer” fulfills a sense of destiny, belonging, and responsibility to past male generations. This compulsion to maintain patrilineal succession – that is, passing down the farm through the male line – influences farm decisions, practices, and strategies.
In the instance that a farm owner has no offspring, he will generally pass their farm on to a brother, male cousin, or nephew. At any given time, only one percent of farmland in Ireland is up for sale, even during economic booms or busts. Farms are not sold because of how much value is placed on keeping farms in the family. In many rural communities, “keeping the name on the land” is even more important than the profitability of the farm. Often, decisions about modernization, expansion, or constriction are influenced less by economic considerations than they are by the availability of a suitable successor to the land.
Marriages within farming communities often take into account the likelihood that a particular couple will produce an heir who can inherit the farm. A farmer may refrain from retiring and handing the farm on to his son until that son marries and proves he can “keep the name on the land.” Farmers who have no sons will often encourage their daughters to marry the neighboring farmer’s sons with the understanding that their land will be incorporated into the son-in-law’s farm.
Close relationships to farming neighbors is essential to the prosperity of family farms in Ireland. The tradition of helping other farmers in the community is called “cooring,” which developed from the Irish word “cabhair,” meaning “to help friends and neighbors.” “Cooring” is when families assist each other during busy seasons like the harvest, and usually includes community festivals and celebrations. It is easy to romanticize the tradition of “cooring,” but relationships between farming families can go sour just like any other relationship. With families living next to each other for generations, their relationships are founded on their shared history, for better or worse. Families living and working together generation after generation can rely on each other, but by the same token, years of squabbles and distrust can make it hard for families to work together and get the help they need.
Even with the help of neighbors, remaining competitive and profitable in an increasingly globalized agriculture market is a challenge. Though family farms still account for the vast majority of farms in Ireland, most family farms now depend in part on income from other sources (usually, the employment of the non-farming children and siblings) to keep the farm going. As other industries (healthcare, tourism, and – notably – information technology) gain a foothold in Ireland, many farming families grapple with conflicting urges: the desire to see their children prosper in non-farming professions and the deep sense of responsibility to keep the name on the land.