Home Page







Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Eight

                      The Primary Sector I: Agriculture

Summary of chapter. The Irish economy, like almost every other economy at the time was based primarily on agriculture. Every branch of the livestock and tillage industries were being developed as farmers in the British Isles strove to improve their seeds, their breeds of animals, and their methods of agriculture. Though in some limited areas there were large numbers dependent on the potato and casual labour, this was not typical of the Irish economy as a a whole.                      

(i) Cattle

(ii) Sheep

(iii) Other Livestock

(iv) Tillage: Implements

(v) Tillage: Cultivation of the Soil

(vi) Tillage: Fertility and Crop Hygiene

(vii) Tillage: Seeds and Crops


(i) Cattle 

By the beginning of the eighteenth century the improvement of livestock had been undertaken in Britain, and even before 1750 progressive Irish farmers were importing improved English cattle. The most famous improver of livestock in England was Robert Bakewell of Dishley in Leicestershire who discovered about 1750 that by judicious breeding he could put extra mutton on any part of the sheep he wished. He proceeded to establish improved Dishley, or Leicestershire, breeds of sheep, cows, horses, and pigs. 

The traditional Irish cow was small and black like the Welsh or Kerry breeds. The terms 'black cattle' and 'horned cattle' applied to cows, for the word 'cattle' itself could apply to horses. The Irish cow had a reputation for hardiness and an ability to survive, if not actually to fatten, on poor pastures. Some of the improved breeds were considered delicate and needing to be stall-fed. The rough grazing on the mountains and bogs was used in summer to pasture the cattle in common. But by 1820 it was complained that much of this traditional mountain grazing was being divided into potato patches (IFJ 3 Mar 1821). 

By the year 1800 Lancashire and Leicestershire breeds were being imported and the Irish improving farmers discussed the merits of the various breeds. The first was the Dishley, or longhorn (not to be confused with the Texas longhorn). It was the favourite with the improving farmers despite its reputation for delicacy and need for good pastures. For many years in Ireland the longhorn was the most important breed. It was not regarded as a good milker, which indicates that for the improving farmers its beef-producing qualities were the more important. Devon cattle were regarded as good milkers, and the best for ploughing, but were not supposed to be successful in wetter parts. The Hereford fattened well but was not a good milker. The Talbot premiums given by the Lord Lieutenant (Talbot) in 1818 for Longhorn, Durham, Teeswater or Holderness shorthorn, Devon, and Hereford bulls were adjudicated on 'quality of flesh, lightness of offal, propensity to fatten, early maturity, size and symmetry. (IFJ 18 April 1818) 

Only around Cork was there an interest in Continental breeds and ninety five Dutch dairy cattle were imported in 1818. The Holderness, Suffolk, and Alderney, Lancashire, Ayrshire, and Galloway breeds were considered good milkers, but little serious attempt was made to improve milk-production until about 1825 (IFJ 11 Feb 1826) 

But the Durham, or shorthorn, was to emerge as the favourite, and by mid-century was already more numerous than the longhorn. It was a dual-purpose cow, giving a useful quantity of milk and fattening well. (After the Second World War it lost its place to the Friesian.) The breed had been developed by Charles Colling with the aims of giving a good yield of milk, increasing the size of the carcass, improving the taste and quality of the meat, and getting animals with a pleasing conformation which matured early. (Nowadays farmers would also look for easy calving, and a good conversion rate, i.e. the increase in weight for a given quantity of food.) Irish farmers had some doubt about its hardiness so Irish shorthorns usually have some admixture of native blood. 

No doubt the smaller farmers used the cheapest bull and his cows would be a mixture of this and that. Also the further inland one went the less emphasis would there be on improvement. [Top] 

(ii) Sheep 

It proved difficult to produce a dual-purpose sheep, one that produced abundant fine wool and fattened well. The flesh of the mature sheep was called mutton. It was always eaten fresh as it had proved impossible to salt in a satisfactory manner. At the beginning of the century over most of Ireland for this reason sheep were kept for their wool. 

Sheep usually produce different kinds of wool on different parts of their bodies. For manufacturing purposes two were important, the woollen or clothing type and the worsted type. Woollen yarns have shorter wavy fibres. These are spun loosely with little twist and are loosely woven. The cloth is then washed causing the fibres to mat or felt with each other. Worsted wools were longer and straighter with a lesser felting quality. In spinning they were given a high twist which produced a thin smooth thread. This was then closely woven to produce a light smooth cloth. 

Lowland sheepwalks seem to have reached their greatest extent in the 1690's before the export of woollens was prohibited. There were several Irish sheep breeds known by name like the Roscommon and Wicklow sheep but it is not clear what were the precise differences between them. The Roscommon, in the eighteenth century, was considered the best in Ireland, and Roscommon, Galway, and Wicklow were the great wool counties. The native Irish sheep was a lowland breed, of which the Roscommon was the most noted, reasonably hardy, and giving about two or three pounds of mixed combing and clothing wool a year. The Kerry sheep produced a very fine wool but the fleece was light. The Spanish Merino gave about four pounds of fine combing wool. Nowadays the great sheep flocks of the southern hemisphere are mostly Merino, but the breed was unsuccessful in the cold wet climate of northern Europe. Most improving farmers tried to cross the Merino with various local British or Irish breeds to find the best cross possible for their purposes. The Dishley sheep was the one they settled on, apparently chiefly for its fattening qualities. It gave eight pounds of rather coarse wool, which caused the manufacturers to import the combing wool they needed. Efforts to upgrade the Irish breeds to produce reasonable quantities of combing wool were unsuccessful. 

From the late eighteenth century onwards experiments had been carried on in the north of England and south of Scotland to produce hardy breeds which gave a good wool and which could survive throughout the winter on open mountains and moorlands. The most famous of these were the Scottish Blackface and the Cheviot sheep. The introduction of the Cheviot by the Marquis of Stafford just after the Napoleonic Wars to the wild moorlands on his wife's estates in Sutherland proved to be the key to the commercial development of the area. The sheep made a good profit, while the black cattle they displaced did not. Though recommended by Sir John Sinclair about 1800 as the best breed in Britain, the Cheviot sheep was not introduced to the mountains in the west of Ireland until after the Famine. It was to prove one of the most popular and successful breeds in Ireland.[Top] 

(iii) Other Livestock 

The keeping of pigs and poultry followed on the spread of tillage chiefly to use up the by-products of milling such as bran and pollard. 

The pig was important in Irish agriculture both for consumption on the farm and for sale to the provision merchants for curing or salting. Before refrigeration meat of any kind could rarely be eaten fresh except in the big cities where animals could be slaughtered daily. The flesh of the pig was called pork, and it was eaten either fresh or salted. The native Irish pig, an ugly bony animal that fattened well, was remarkably suitable for salting and it was discovered on Captain Cook's voyages that Irish salted pork could be taken on a three year cruise in the Tropics and still remain edible if not exactly palatable. During the Napoleonic Wars the army and navy placed great contracts in Ireland for salt pork in barrels. With the end of the war the demand for highly salted pork declined, and with it the demand for the Irish pig. Other forms of curing the flesh to produce bacon and ham were developed or improved, and with the coming of the steamship, the demand for live pigs in England increased. The pig could thrive and fatten on almost any kind of waste thrown at it, though the resulting flesh was too fat for modern taste. The pig was valued by smaller farmers as 'the gintleman that pays the rint', though pig-keeping was not as important before the Famine as it was later. 

By the year 1800 the native Irish pig was being replaced by the improved Dishley pig which matured and fattened earlier. By mid-century the Black Berkshire was being preferred. Nowadays Large Whites and Landraces predominate.

The egg and poultry industry virtually owes its existence to the introduction of the steamship on the Irish Sea though of course eggs were consumed domestically before that. The steamship could sail as soon as it was loaded, not being dependent on favourable winds, and so regular schedules could be kept up. It became feasible for merchants to collect fresh eggs, freshly killed poultry, and indeed fresh butter, from the farms for swift transport to the markets in England. The railways made collection even easier, but it had started before them. (Fresh eggs meant mostly fresh, and the prudent cook broke each egg separately into a cup.) In the 1840's eggs, poultry, and feathers were being exported through the east-coast ports from Londonderry to Cork. The Dorking was considered the best dual-purpose hen. The Malay was a good layer but the eggs were small and the flesh not of a good flavour. The Speckled Hamburgh was regarded by some as excellent but by others as a mere ornament. The Polish and Dutch breeds were also being tried. 

Ireland was not noted for its farm horses. The native garran or pony was useful for packwork, for drawing a light car, or for riding to market, but not for pulling ploughs. For this latter purpose oxen were preferred. The native Irish pony probably resembled the modern Exmoor pony, but the present day Connemara pony has been upgraded by crossing with Andalusian horses. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth century there had been an Irish 'hobby horse' highly esteemed at the time on which the swordsmen rode to war, for they did not walk if they could ride. It was almost certainly a pony rather than a heavy war-horse. From 1690 onwards, in England and Ireland Arab horses were used to produce fast racehorses. The Byerley Turk (an Arab despite his name) was present at the Battle of the Boyne. This cross produced good hunters who were however useless with the plough. One would have expected that the cavalry would require hunters but this was not the case. Taste preferred breeds like the Andalusian and the Austrian Lippizaner that could be trained in the riding schools. (By the end of the nineteenth century military fashion had changed and Ireland became a noted source of cavalry horses.) 

A wealthy gentleman could afford to keep a variety of horses, farm horses, hunters, hacks, and carriage horses, but the ordinary farmer wanted an all-round horse for all these purposes. Following the example of George III, some attempt was made to improve farm horses by importing Hanoverian and Holstein stallions. At the beginning of the century the Leicestershire horse was the most popular on the farm. The enormous Shire and Suffolk horses were too large and unhandy for Irish farms. Continued attempts were made to improve the Irish pony by crossing it with the thoroughbred. By mid-century there had emerged a strong handy horse useful for most purposes, the Irish Draught. This horse is nowadays crossed with thoroughbreds to produce showjumpers. 

There was nothing peculiar about the Irish thoroughbred early in the nineteenth century, for it had much the same bloodlines as the English breed. By 1800 the Galloway was obsolete as a racehorse. The Irish bloodstock industry was centred on the Curragh of Kildare, and thoroughbreds from there or from England won nearly every race. Races were held carrying weights for distances of three or four miles, but the custom of breeding horses for short sprints was just coming in.

  Considerable efforts were made in the eighteenth century to improve the Irish ass by importing Spanish jackasses, but little further seems to have been done in the following century. 

The same is true with regard to beekeeping where the efforts made in the eighteenth century were not kept up. However after 1800 the use of beehives rather than the straw skeps which were destroyed annually became more general. These hives were cylindrical in shape and made of straw. They were placed one on top of another and separated by lattices. [Top] 

(iv) Tillage: Implements 

(Only systems of cultivation are described in this section; systems or tenure will be treated elsewhere.) 

One of the great objects of patriotic gentlemen in the eighteenth century was to increase the area under tillage for large amounts of corn and even potatoes were being imported while labourers were going abroad to seek work. Tillage, or the cultivation of the land, probably reached its greatest ever extent in 1845 just before the repeal of the Corn Laws. It is difficult to be precise about the number of acres under the plough for one never knows if fallow land is included or not. Lands actually under crops, including temporary crops of hay, plus land left fallow, should give the total area under cultivation. The rest was either permanent grassland or else wasteland (unimproved land). Figures from before the Famine claim that a quarter of all land, or a third of improved land, was under crops. If we can add a fraction to cover fallow lands we can conclude that more than half of all agricultural or improved land was regularly cultivated. Mr Griffiths, the chief valuation officer, estimated that 15 million acres out of a total of 20 million acres could be regarded as improved land. Of these 15 million acres 6 million acres (he estimated) were under grass, 4 million under oats, 2 million under wheat, and 1 million were under potatoes. (Of the remaining approximately 1 million acres a good deal was probably under barley, but all the figures are very rough. Tillage declined after the repeal of the Corn Laws, and there were 10 million acres under grass in 1910. The nutritional yield of potatoes per acre was twice that of wheat but the market value was much less. They were too bulky to transport, and there was no known way of preserving them. Each family therefore just grew enough for its own use. 

There were two principal instruments used in tilling the soil, the spade and the plough (plow).

The common spade at the beginning of the century more resembled our shovel, but there was also a narrow spade in use for breaking the ground, after which the shovel-like spade was used to make drills or ridges. Cultivation with these spades was inevitably very shallow, consisting merely of turning over the sod. Improving agriculturalists insisted on the necessity of deep digging, so two types of spade were developed. The true spade is intended to be driven into the ground with the foot. Every Irish spade is therefore provided with a footrest on the top of the blade. In Ulster there were iron footrests on either side of the handle, and the blade was broad. The southern spade, more useful in stony soil, had a narrow blade, and a footrest consisting of a wooden wedge on one side only. Within these broad types there were hundreds of different patterns. But up to the Famine the older inefficient type remained in widespread use. 

Where ploughing was done the 'great plough' or medieval plough, drawn by a team of oxen, was commonly used in Ireland around 1800. In Roman times the plough was little more than a vertical stick with handles attached and drawn by oxen. It was used to stir up the light Mediterranean soils during the hot dry summers to prepare a seedbed. In the Middle Ages the 'great plough' was developed drawn by a team of oxen, fitted with a ploughshare, and capable of turning over the sod, even in heavy clay soils. It was made of wood, but with cutting edges of iron, and had a flat mouldboard for turning the sod. Irish ploughs usually had no wheels. They could cut a sod up to 18 inches wide and nine inches deep. The sods were not exactly turned over, but stood on edge, which however buried most of the weeds. The great plough required a team of six to eight oxen and large fields. Smaller farmers had to combine to afford such a plough. The large fields belonging to (or rented by) the co-owners were therefore often ploughed into strips, one for each of the owners or partners. The ridges were called runrigs and the valleys between them rundales, and the term rundale came to be applied to joint-tenancies. (In Ireland, in the nineteenth century, rundale holdings were invariably cultivated with the spade.) The team and plough were managed by two men, the ploughman who guided the plough and the ploughboy who led the team and urged it on with a monotonous chanting. 

Agricultural improvers turned their attention to the plough, and a Scotsman named James Small concluded that the most important thing was to completely invert the sod to kill all the weeds. To do this he made the mouldboard curved, and made it of metal that was easier to shape. The new Scotch plough could now be made smaller and lighter, requiring only two horses or oxen and one ploughman. In a well-ploughed field not a blade of grass should be visible, but it was some time before single ploughmen began to win prizes in the annual contests. 

Horses gradually displaced the oxen. They were faster, and could also be used for riding and for drawing the new 'Scotch cart'. It was considered that a pair of horses became economical if a man had twenty acres of his own or neighbour's land to plough. Oxen were cheaper to buy and feed, and could later be sold to the butcher. Oxen had virtually disappeared from the British Isles by the middle of the nineteenth century, but remained in use on the Continent almost until the present. 

The Scotch cart was gradually displacing the Irish 'low-backed car' As the name of the latter implies it had small wheels, so that the shafts ran down at an angle from the horses neck until they almost touched the ground at the rear. In the Scotch cart (apparently of English origin) the wheels were larger, so that the shafts were horizontal. Heavier loads could be carried, and the cart could be unloaded by tipping. By 1815 the new cart was universally used in Ulster. Experience showed that for nearly all transport work the horse was most effective when used singly in the Scotch cart, and indeed, as noted earlier, with a medium sized horse. Wagons and drays were not used except by breweries. In favour of the smaller cheaper traditional car was said to be the fact that it was easier to cheat with while selling loads of hay! But more seriously, it was more convenient where fields were small, gates or gaps narrow, and lanes also narrow. 

Agricultural machinery was being improved and developed as more emphasis was placed on the use of the horse. The increasing use of the horse in the first half of the nineteenth century meant a decline in the need for agricultural labour. A new form of harrow was imported from Scotland, rhomboidal rather than rectangular in shape, giving each tooth or tine its individual track. Planting in drills became widespread. Horse-drawn drills for sowing and grubbers for weeding were invented. An early attempt in the Thirties to use a steam engine for ploughing proved a failure. 

Threshing machines were coming into use on the larger farms. As they were powered by horses they were much smaller than the later steam-powered machines. They could be powered by up to four horses. Nevertheless they were considered better and cheaper than using teams of men with flails. But the reaping machine did not catch on until McCormick's model was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851. 

The sickle continued to be used for reaping cereals, and the scythe for grass. Straw was of little importance, and it was easier and less wasteful just to collect the heads, and bind them into tiny sheaves for threshing. The land was then cleaned and fertilised by burning the straw as it stood. The reaper caught a handful of stalks high up with one hand and sawed through them with saw-tooth sickle. This minimised the shedding of the grain. The scythe began to be used for cutting cereals about mid-century. It was therefore necessary to cut the crop when not quite ripe and allow it to ripen in stooks or shocks.  

An advertisement in an Irish newspaper in 1798 lists machinery of interest to farmers: machines for carding and spinning wool and cotton, for threshing corn, for cutting straw, winnowing, churning, and washing, hand rollers for grinding malt or bruising oats for horses, wire machines for sieving flour, mangles, etc. They were driven either by hand or horsepower. [Top] 

(v) Tillage: Cultivation of the Soil 

In general, improving farmers in northern Europe they did not have to consider irrigation; the abundant rainfall meant that drainage was more important. They found they had five problems to tackle: (1) draining the land, (2) preparing the seedbed, (3) killing the weeds, and (4) adding or restoring fertilisers, especially nitrogen. In addition on reclaimed bogland especially (5) the acidity of the soil had to be corrected by adding lime. 

The usual system of draining the fields in pre-Famine Ireland was by means of surface drains. Under-soil drains, called 'thorough draining' was known in the eighteenth century but did not become common in Ireland till after the Famine. With surface draining a deep trench was dug along the lowest edge of the field and connected to a river. The land was then ploughed into drills or dug into beds up and down the slope so that drills or trenches carried the superfluous water downhill into the trenches. Irish rain being light if frequent there was not much problem with erosion. 

There were two systems for preparing the seedbed, one done with the plough and the other with the spade. 

The system of spade cultivation was usually called the 'lazybed' system because of the bad practices of many lazy farmers. But when well-done it involved much hard work, and produced excellent results. When done properly the soil was dug over first to a depth of nine inches with a straight spade. Then parallel beds five feet wide and separated from each other by a space twelve to eighteen inches wide were marked out and the manure was spread on them. The seed was placed on top of the manure, scattered by hand in the case of cereals, or placed in rows across the bed in the case of potatoes, this latter to facilitate weeding. The soil from the interspersed spaces or strips was then dug out and placed on top of the seed to cover it, and the same time making drainage trenches between the beds. Later still, as weeds began to appear, more soil could be dug from the trenches to cover them and keep them down. This method produced deep drains and was very useful in the mountainous regions of the west. 

Opponents of the system were scathing in their criticisms, and said it was well named. The old shovel-like spade was used, so there was no preliminary deep digging. Manure, if used at all was placed on top of the undug ground. The weeds were not killed. The seed was placed on the ground, and lightly covered with soil shovelled up from the trenches, but not enough was shovelled up to kill the weeds. Digging the potatoes was more expensive from beds than from drills (Farmers' Gazette Feb. Mar. 1846). 

. The system of ploughing was somewhat different from that in use at present, whether done with the great plough or Scotch plough. With the drains now under the soil the modern farmer tries to plough his field as flat as possible. The aim in the old days was to use the plough to form ridges with valleys for drainage in between them. The ploughman therefore ploughed along the length of the field for about 220 yards, a furrow-long or furlong. The next furrow was ploughed right beside the first one, going back in the opposite direction. The sod was therefore always thrown inwards. The third furrow was alongside the first and the fourth alongside the second, and so on. The statute acre represents a strip 220 yards long by 22 yards wide, or 22 times up and down with an 18 inch furrow. In practice, the strips were only 6 yards wide, or in wetter ground 5 yards wide. When the ploughed strip was sufficiently wide the ploughman began another similar strip beside it. (No doubt, in practice, the ploughman worked two strips simultaneously, going up one and going down the other as this would avoid tight turning on the headlands.) When it was finished the two strips were separated by a shallow drain two furrows wide. The ploughed field therefore presented an appearance of parallel ridges about 220 yards long by 6 yards wide, separated by shallow valleys one yard wide. (The ridges were not quite straight, but slightly S-shaped at least when an ox-team was used. The reason for this was that the team was veered slightly as it approached the headland in order to make the turn.) Harrowing was then done along the ridge, and if drills were used, as they increasingly were, they too were made along the length of the ridge. In the following year the ridges were, or were supposed to be, shifted sideways, by half their width. When undersoil drainage was introduced cross ploughing was done to produce level fields.  

This ploughing was done on the larger farms. When oxen were used the fields had to be large, but with a smaller lighter plough and one or two horses, much smaller fields could be cultivated. No villages jointly ploughing large open fields with oxteams seem to have survived in Ireland after the Middle Ages, joint holdings, as we have noted earlier being invariably cultivated with the spade. By 1800 drill cultivation of potatoes on the larger farms was very common and the costs were said to be only a quarter of those in the lazybed method. The farming societies introduced ploughing contests and raised the standards of ploughing which had been very low. 

The smaller plough allowed smaller fields. The changeover to grazing also tended to produce smaller fields for more intensive grazing. Where small fields are common it is reasonable to date the hedges or fences to the nineteenth century, but fencing of large fields or parks was common in the preceding century. 

For preparing a seedbed for wheat a single ploughing was considered sufficient after a crop of potatoes, but three after a fallow. More preparation was required for flax that needed a finer seedbed, but it is probable that spade culture was widespread in flax-growing areas. [Top] 

(vi) Tillage: Maintenance of Fertility and Weed Control 

The next problem was the maintenance of fertility. This largely meant adding or restoring nitrogen. This could be done in various ways, by leaving the land fallow, by planting clovers or leguminous plants, and by adding manures especially farmyard manure. 

Nitrogen is fixed naturally in the atmosphere during thunderstorms and falls on the land. Exhausted land therefore naturally restores itself after a few years. In primitive 'slash-and-burn' systems the land is cultivated for a few years and then natural vegetation is allowed to grow on it for several years. The undergrowth is then burned and the ashes provide a fine manure. A great disadvantage of this system is that weeds are allowed to seed freely. Though this system was not used in Ireland in the nineteenth century a variation of it was. This was burning the sod. The field was dug or ploughed and the sod allowed to dry. It was then burned. The resulting ash produced good crops, but it was realised that the soil was being destroyed. It was useful however when reclaiming bogland. Burning of stubble produced the same effect. 

Another system was known as the 'infield-outfield' system. This was very ancient and was known in classical and Biblical times. In the Mediterranean lands there were small patches of fertile soil surrounded by larger areas of rocky soil. The village or farm stood at the centre of the fertile patch (the infield), which was intensively cultivated. All manure from the animals was spread on this patch. The barley crop was harvested by Pentecost, and weeds were controlled by constant ploughing during the hot dry summer. Seed was sown in the autumn. Animals were grazed on the outfield and crops were sown on it occasionally when fertility had been naturally restored. This system was widely used in Scotland up to 1800. The great disadvantage was that northern summers were neither long enough not hot enough to permit the extirpation of weeds, so weeds and pests built up in the infield. Scottish fields in the eighteenth century were notoriously dirty. 

The third system was the 'champion' or 'open-field' system, or more properly the 'two (or three) field system'. Champion (champagne) and open-field (the terms are equivalent, one from French one from Anglo-Saxon roots) referred to the large unfenced fields ploughed communally with the great plough and oxen as described earlier. The three-field system referred to the system of rotation. The principle of rotation produced two good effects. Firstly, the nitrogen level could be naturally restored by leaving one field fallow, while at the same time, the whole summer could be devoted during the fallow year to ploughing and rooting out weeds. A three-field system allowed for a three-year rotation, a cereal crop, a leguminous crop, and a fallow year. In the fallow year the land was ploughed several times during the summer to eradicate the weeds, and then sown in the autumn. This simple medieval system was rather inflexible and was limited by the great size of the fields necessary for the oxteam and great plough and the need of each villager to get his strip in the ploughed field. This system was widely used in England until about 1800 when it was replaced by enclosures and the Norfolk rotation. 

The Norfolk rotation did away with the fallow year, and introduced a short intensive ploughing followed by a heavy crop of turnips. The turnips were then fed to cattle as a winter-feed and the more abundant manure from the cattle was spread on the land. Sheep could be kept instead of cows. It was essentially a system of mixed farming and dependent on market outlets for the produce. 

That animal manure was a valuable fertiliser for soils was known from ancient times. It was spread on the land either by folding animals on it, i.e. by confining them to particular parts by means of hurdles, or by carting out the manure from the sheds and yards. The bulk of the manure was increased by using straw for bedding and by spreading it around the yards and the roads approaching the farmstead. In places near the sea, wrack and even rotten fish were used. At the beginning of the nineteenth century chemists studied the composition of manures and this led to the development of artificial fertilisers like superphosphate from bones. Guano was imported from South America but was not widely used in Ireland before the Famine. About 1850 it was noted that some farmers in England were beginning to apply heavy dressings of artificial fertilisers. 

It was also noted that the fertility of acid or bog soils could be increased by the application of lime. Limestone was widely available in eastern Ireland. But in counties like Wicklow where it was rare and the roads were bad it was expensive to apply. Connaught was the province with the least limestone. 

The introduction of clover, which was a nitrogen-fixing crop, enabled the cycle to be extended, and also it was recognised that wheat and potatoes took different nutrients from the soil, so that potatoes could follow the wheat. But if potatoes and a cash crop of flax were added, or a crop of hay, a six-year rotation would result. 

In Ireland, the ownership of estates in land with agricultural holdings leased out in fee farm meant that each farmer possessed his own fields, whether the land was good or bad. The large farmer might still plough his own land with an ox-team, but would have the fields enclosed with hedges, and probably subdivided into more manageable units. Small farmers who used the spade could still follow a complicated rotation. Individual leases gave great freedom to farmers to select which elements of agriculture appeared best for their own holding. No particular system of fertility-maintenance and weed-control became dominant. 

Weed and pest control was largely done by the system of the fallowing and was closely bound with the system chosen for restoring fertility. In the fallow year the land was intensively ploughed in the summer, a least three ploughings being recommended. The hotter and drier the summer the better for killing the weeds. Crops were also weeded by hand, the only way possible on lazy beds. Hoeing with the horse hoe was possible with drill cultivation. When the Norfolk rotation was introduced, the fallow year was dispensed with. Turnips that produced a dense cover were sown which, after one weeding, kept down the weeds. Potatoes were more used for this purpose in Ireland for there was no great demand for turnips. The turnip was an animal feed and so suitable chiefly for mixed farming. Turnips were regarded as better for weed-control especially on light soils. Beans, peas, cabbage, tares, and rape, drill-sown, and heavily weeded were also recommended for the purpose but were probably not widely used (IFJ 20 Sept 1823). In the early part of the century this 'green fallow' was used only on lighter soils. On heavy clay soils the fallow year was better for control of weeds, reduction of vermin, the incorporation of vegetable matter, liming and harrowing (IFJ 2 May 1818). It was also usual to burn the stubble, which was left quite tall, with the objects of incorporating fertiliser and for destroying pests 

In flax growing districts the flax should have been fitted into a proper rotation with proper fallowing. The smaller the holding the less easy was it to take land out of cultivation. But the observation that fields in Ulster were very dirty shows that this was not usual. According to Wakefield's informant potatoes, flax, and oats were sown for several years after which the land was 'rested' by intensive grazing (IFJ 3 Dec 1825). Similarly, in the wheat-growing region of Leinster, when there were high prices for wheat during the war, the farmers sowed crop after crop of wheat resulting in exhausted and immensely dirty fields just when the prices collapsed at the end of the War. But Wakefiled had noted earlier in this region that systematic rotation was followed and turnips widely sown. Of north Leinster he remarked that the English system of rotation was followed with both wheat and clover, but there was carelessness in weed-clearing. 

Standards of agricultural practice varied widely. According to Wakefield the best was to be found in the wheat-growing ploughlands in south Leinster, and also around Cork city. He mentions some areas where agriculture was notoriously backward. Among these, significantly, was the cottier region of south Cork where the Famine was to strike so savagely forty years later. This was an area of extremely dense population, sub-division, potato-growing, and little knowledge of agriculture. Another backward area mentioned by Wakefield was along the Cork-Waterford border, an area into which an improving landowner was to introduce the Cistercian monks to improve agriculture. One might be surprised to find Wicklow and Wexford listed by Wakefield as backward. Doubtless they were in parts, and it may be that in the baronies of Forth and Bargy, where the people spoke their own dialect of English, new methods only slowly penetrated. Standards in Ulster were poor at the beginning of the century but in some parts were up to Scottish standards by mid-century. In general agriculture was best in the commercial sector, merely traditional and poor in the subsistence sector, and bad in the cottier sector. 

Wakefield was dependent on replies sent to him by his correspondents, and seems to have been a bit gullible. Some of the information supplied to him about what happened 'in other parts' was received with scepticism, to say the least, by the editor of The Irish Farmers' Journal' (18 July 1826). Wakefield was told that in other parts a man sat on the plough, or a third horse was provided for him to ride on, that the plough was attached to the horse's tail, that wheat was unknown in Ulster, and that in Cork the farmers deliberately collected weedseed to mix with the wheat. The editor dismissed these bits of information as ludicrous. It is not clear if ploughs were ever attached to horses tails, or if this is only a belief among the law-making classes about what was supposed to occur among the 'wilde Irish'. The usually reliable Arthur Young however reports a case as late as 1770. Mixing weedseed with wheat is only comprehensible if they were selling it to a stranger, but putting stones in the bag was perhaps more common. 

As most of the information we have comes from improvers who were describing either the latest trends or the worst aspect of the old system it is not easy to get a picture of traditional agriculture at the beginning of the century. No region in Ireland was typical of the whole, nor any particular farm. But a farm in the subsistence sector in the Midlands would probably have the following characteristics. 

It would be quite large, from fifty to a hundred acres, enclosed in one or more large fields, and would include some waste or bogland. The most fertile part would be cultivated more or less continuously in ridges formed by a great plough and oxen that formed ridges. A rotation would be confined to cereal crops, wheat, oats, and barley, followed by fallow. The varieties would be disease-resistant, hardy, short-stocked, late-ripening, firm-husked, but fairly low-yielding, and would be cut with the sickle midway up the stalk. Some of the straw would be used for feeding, and some for bedding. Between crops the land would be partially cleaned by stubble-burning and the inefficient great plough so would have numerous weeds. Half-rotted manure and straw would be spread on the fields. Only sufficient potatoes for the farmer and his servants would be sown, as there was no market for potatoes or anything else except wool and butter. The barley would be purchased by the local brewer or distiller. On the permanent grasslands and the rough grazing and on the ploughed fields during winter unless there was autumn-sown wheat cattle and sheep would graze. The cattle and sheep would be the hardy native breeds that could survive the winter on very little out-of-doors. Their numbers would be cut down to a minimum by slaughtering when the grass failed. The yield of milk or wool would not be great but would fetch in some useful cash. 

Within the parish would be at least one gentleman's demesne with gardens, orchards, horses, and some stall-fed cattle to produce tender meat. Also within the parish would be numerous smaller farmers following much the same programme but with spade cultivation and lazybeds. The nutritious potato would occupy more of their land.  

It was often noted that the further down the social scale one went the less was the knowledge of agriculture, and the less the care. It was observed that the lands cultivated by Lord Clancarty at Ballinasloe were among the best cultivated in Ireland, but the smaller farmers who went to the fair every year just ignored the new methods. During the Famine the Government provided agricultural instructors to teach this class. Nonetheless, all through the first half of the century the general standards of agricultural practice were rising, and fields filled with weeds were becoming something about which remarks would be passed. [Top] 

(vii) Tillage: seeds and crops 

Improving farmers paid as much attention to improving their seeds as they did to improving their animals. They looked for hardy, easily-germinating, disease resistant, heavy-cropping varieties. When buying seed the careful farmer took a handful to see that the grains were full and not shrivelled, and then he tested the seed on his own land. The best farmers used only clean selected seed, but other farmers were content with what was cheapest locally. The use of poor seed was prevalent in the inland counties. 

Potatoes presented a special problem. They do not breed true from their seed, so they are propagated by taking the swollen underground tubers and planting them. After this has been repeated for a number of years the quality of the variety declines, so improving farmers constantly try to develop new varieties. 

Before the great potato blight there was a much wider variety with regard to size, colour, flavour, and texture of potatoes sown. In the 1820's potatoes were classified as blacks, whites, and pinks, but any crossing of these was considered inferior. The Apple potato, supreme for half a century, was in decline, but was being replaced by the White Apple and the Red Apple. The Cup potato was also in decline but was being replaced by the Yam potato that was expected to yield 15 tons to the Irish acre. Yams were very coarse and given to pigs and servants. Potatoes, unlike turnips, were boiled before being fed to animals. Lancashire Pinks, Tartans, and Early Champions, were other esteemed varieties (IFJ 4 Dec 1824). 

The Farmers' Gazette (16 July 1850) gave the results of a study of the incidence of potato blight on 32 varieties of potatoes planted in adjacent test plots. The worst hit varieties had about 50% of the plants affected. The hardy and prolific Lumpur, popular with the lower classes, showed only a 20% incidence. Regents, Early Shaws, and Lapston's Kidney had about half the plants affected. Cups, White Blossom Cups, and Cherry Apples were free from the disease in the trial plots but some plants were diseased in neighbouring fields. The experiment raises many interesting questions about what actually happened to the potato during the Famine. At the onset of the failure, though the nature of potato blight was known, the pattern of failure did not seem attributable to any single cause. Much later in the century the 'Bordeaux mixture' of copper sulphate and lime effective against blight in the vineyards proved equally effective against potato blight. Later a mixture of copper sulphate and washing soda was used.

Potatoes were widely grown in potato gardens for home consumption but because of their bulk and perishability made a poor cash crop. At the end of the eighteenth century Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow, Carlow, and strangely Westmeath were considered the great potato counties. As water transport improved so did the possibility of sending potatoes to market. This was true of large parts of Ulster. On the larger farms there was a switch from spade to plough cultivation of potatoes. 

The Dublin Society in the eighteenth century made great efforts to improve the growing of flax, the great cash staple crop of Ireland. Not only the growing of flax but all the preparation of the tow ready for the spinners was considered farmwork. Wastage from poor methods or poor handling was possible at every stage, and the profitability of the crop depended on eliminating this waste. Otherwise it would not have been possible to compete with the highly efficient producers in the Low Countries. Great efforts were made too to improve the saving of flaxseed, but imported seed from the Baltic lands gave better crops so the import of such seed was always considerable. 

Of the cereal crops, wheat was grown commercially chiefly in south and east Leinster, but could be grown for home consumption anywhere except in Ulster. Oats was widely grown and was the only cereal in Ulster at the beginning of the century. Oats was also the chief cereal in Connaught, but some barley was grown for brewing and distilling. Barley was the only grain used for brewing and distilling and so was grown in most places. Most care was taken to secure improved seeds in the commercial sector. In the subsistence sector there was a preference for old-fashioned seed which clung to the husk and did not shed easily. Farmers were worried about shedding and preferred the sickle to the scythe because fewer grains were shed. Irish oats was traditionally sown in spring but it was recommended that an earlier-ripening variety should be chosen and sown in autumn. Little use was made of the straw, which was another reason for preferring the sickle. As noted above, stubble burning returned the nutrients directly to the soil. Wheat followed a fallow and was sown in autumn. 

Haymaking seems to have been introduced at a comparatively late date into Ireland. Traditionally, superfluous cattle were slaughtered in the autumn, and in the early nineteenth century this was still the case with cattle supplied to the meatpackers. But haymaking was becoming more common. In mountainous districts the cattle were moved to upland fields in the summer, and hay was made in the lowland fields. At the beginning of the century the hay was made from the natural grasses. The mowing of grass commenced towards the end of July, and the hay was made up with a long-handled fork. Most farmers over-dried their hay, so reducing its nutritional value. 

Some authors felt after the War that light soils had been exhausted by excessive monoculture of wheat and would be more profitable under grass especially for sheep-grazing. 

For laying down fields in grass the Farming Society in 1806 recommended meadow foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis), great meadow grass (Poa pratensis), and meadow fescue (Festuca pratensis) (SNL 2 July 1806, Latin names as in original). Experiments with perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) showed its advantages especially in the length of its growing season. Italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) was introduced later. A clergyman, one of many with a strong interest in improving agriculture, the Rev. William Richardson, the Rector of Moy, Co. Tyrone, promoted the cultivation of the very nutritious fiorin or Irish winter hay. It grew well on poor wet soils, but had to be planted by means of rhizomes or root cuttings, and it could not be trampled by animals. By mid-century interest in it had ceased. The intersowing of clover with hay was widely adopted in the commercial sector from the end of the eighteenth century. It extended the grazing season and restored nitrogen to the soil.  

Several other crops found their place in various rotations. Oil seed rape (Brassica napus), turnips, (Brassica rapa), cabbage (Brassica alba capitata magna), and kale or borecole (Brassica laciniata rubra) were mention from time to time. The growing of turnips was advocated during the Famine as an alternative to potatoes, and cultivation increased from that time onwards. 

Horticulture was fully developed in the eighteenth century including the use of sheltering walls, glass frames and hothouses, and hotbeds, and all the large estates at least had both vegetable and flower gardens. Large numbers were employed in the gardens. In the absence of shops and refrigeration the head gardener was expected to provide a wide variety of vegetables fruits and herbs throughout the year. Among these were salsafy, shallots, savoys, turnips, brown Dutch cabbage, green Dutch cabbage, Silesian cabbage, purslane, radish, common and French sorrell, cress, mustard, green and white cos lettuce, hardy green cos, black-seeded cos, black American cress, Indian cress, chervil, basil, borage, caraway, fennel, marigold, majoram, mint, sage, tansy, tarragon, and thyme (IFJ 14 Mar 1818). A similarly wide variety of fruits and flowers was expected. 

Re-afforestation was a particular concern of the Dublin Society from its origin early in the eighteenth century, but only the great landowners took the matter seriously. Most of the mature woods in Ireland today date from plantations by gentlemen in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Foster estate at Collon, on newly reclaimed heavy clay soils, was famous for its trees in the nineteenth century. It suffered great damage in the great gale in 1839. When granting leases the landlord reserved all trees to himself. If he had not there would be few trees left. Around 1800 ash was the favourite tree for planting, but experiments in the south of France showed that resinous pines did very well on the poorer soils (IFJ 4 Mar 1826). 

The collection and drying of kelp was an important industry on the coasts. When burned the ashes of the seaweed were little inferior to those of imported barilla for bleaching. As it was rich in soda it was also used in the manufacture of soda, glass, and soap.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.