Ireland’s rural landscape is noted for its field network, with hedges predominating as field boundaries. All of this is relatively modern, dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, at that stage, most of the land was owned by English landlords and the land tenant farmed.
It is at at the level of medium sized tenant in the mid 19th century that we find the earliest evidence for the introduction of new, standardised farm machinery. This included the introduction of the all-metal ploughs, reaping machines or horse drawn potato diggers. These medium sized commercial farms were also in the forefront of the development and introduction of standardised breeds of farm livestock during the later nineteenth century.
In the much of the west of Ireland, and especially on marginal land, many tenant farms were very small, and provision of a subsistence living for the farming family was a major goal. It is on farms such as these that we find the biggest reliance on manual labour, and also evidence for implements such as spades, sickles or flails, used in techniques which often showed great refinement in their adjustment to local conditions.
Just before the Famine of the 1840s, two-thirds of the Irish population depended on farming for their livelihood. There were 685,309 farms, well over three times the number of holdings today. Approximately 45% of farms were between one and five acres, and only 7% over 50 acres. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the average size of Irish farms has increased. In part this was due to emigration from the countryside.
Hilly areas especially became depopulated, and the small farms established on them were no longer viable. All over Ireland the implementation of the land acts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced owner-occupied farms that proved too small to be economically viable, and their owners sold up.
This allowed enterprising farmers to rent, or buy the land which then became available, and increase the size of their own holdings. Between the 1840s and 1911, the number of holdings between one and five acres fell from 182,000 to 62,000, and the average farm size was 15-30 acres.
By the end of the twentieth century, the average size of farm in Ireland was 30 hectares (almost 75 acres), and it has been predicted that the number of farmers will continue to decline dramatically. The history of Irish farming in the twentieth century was at least as complex as that of the previous centuries. The long term swing away from tillage to pastoral farming continued, with some dramatic short-term reversals during the century’s two World Wars. These wars also entrenched the direct engagement of government with farming, including the protection of farmers’ incomes through guaranteed prices. There was also ongoing mechanisation of farming.
From the 1930s, the market for Irish agricultural produce was regulated by price controls and other mechanisms. After 1932, the emphasis in the relationship between the Department of Agriculture and the farmers changed to one of price stabilisation, bounties and compensation payments, subsidies to domestic producers, and measures designed to achieve the Irish government’s self-sufficiency programme.
The Second World War led to even greater government intervention in farm production. The expectation that government would support farming through grants and subsidies was well established by the end of the war, in both parts of Ireland, and indeed throughout Europe. One massive consequence of this was the introduction of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Common Market, which survives today. Its implementation has led to the evolution of specialised farming systems: dairy, beef, tillage etc and a move away from the mixed approach to farming, which predominated up to the 1950s..