Irish Farming Life: History and Heritage

farming, Ireland, history, heritage

Irish Farming Life: History and Heritage

Jonathan Bell and Mervyn Watson

This book examines Irish rural society and its basic social unit – the family farm – as well as important issues such as neighbourly ties and the use of hired labour. It discusses ways in which recent history is communicated by country people in oral testimonies, local songs and poems, and in rural events such as ploughing matches and threshing festivals. Museum and heritage centre displays are examined, showing how the historical narratives presented by professionals are also based on value judgments and stereotypes, as well as valid historical data. The book does not neglect the negative aspects of rural life, but overall its intention is explicitly celebratory, presenting past experience as a victory over almost impossible odds, and a triumph of decency, intelligence and generosity.

My Thoughts

I saw this mentioned on Twitter and thought it looked interesting. It was.

I found this book to be completely absorbing. It is scholarly but eminently readable for anyone interested in rural Ireland and/or farming over the last few hundred years. The authors bring together their research from thirty years of working at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. They quote and reference work from historians (written and oral), anthropologists, novelists, poets, photographers and artists, and the history encompasses the whole of the island of Ireland (with a few forays into Scotland and England).

The subtitle is ‘History and Heritage’ and in the Preface the authors explain: “By history, we mean the past as described and interpreted by scholars. We use the term heritage, on the other hand, to describe how the past is presented in art, folklore, drama, music, poetry, literature, films, re-enactments and museum displays.” The research, extracts, quotes, poems and pictures are all seamlessly woven together to give the reader a wonderful overview of rural Ireland and how it has changed over the years. It is heartening to read about how important the past is viewed and the efforts taken to preserve this history.

There are 190 pages of text, 14 pages of notes and bibliography, and a comprehensive index. I was inspired to buy a few of the books that the authors used for research. There are over a hundred illustrations, mainly photos. The photos are fascinating, but I wasn’t so keen on the abstract paintings, “included to show how awareness of visual aspects of heritage can be abstracted in the same way as a piece of music, but still evoke the changing beauty of the Irish landscape” – just one would have been enough (but then I am a bit of a philistine when it comes to abstract art).

The book is divided into sections: 1 Country people talking (about the importance of oral history and how people remember the past, which isn’t always the same as the actual past, although this difference is important in itself); 2 The family (with fascinating information on how women’s roles changed (not for the better) with mechanisation); 3 The neighbours (including neighbourliness, community and helping each other out); 4 Farm labourers and servants (about how labourers offered themselves or were offered by a parent at hiring fairs, and how people travelled to Scotland for months at a time to work on farms); 5 A sense of belonging (about community and local culture); 6 Horse ploughing matches: history and heritage (even today, the ploughing matches are very much a part of rural Ireland); 7 Celebrating farming history: heritage events, heritage centres and museums.

If you have even a passing interest in any of that, I heartily recommend this book. It will be enjoyed by anyone interested in history (farming and social) or rural life (whether that’s in Ireland or elsewhere); horse lovers will find a lot to interest them, too (particularly in chapter 6). It is not so much about farming as it is about farmers – men, women and children. In their conclusion, the authors say: “This outline of farming history has been arbitrarily selective, and pushed by an ideological agenda: to celebrate the technical, social and cultural achievements of Irish farmers and farming society.” I’d say that agenda has been fulfilled. The authors are to be commended in making their research so accessible, and also in explaining how they interpreted that research. I loved it, and now have a better idea of just how hard a farming life was (and still is, but with different challenges).

Editorial Input & Design

This is a professionally produced book through and through. There are a few typos – so few, I am mean to mention them. The copy-editing and proofreading have been done superbly. The pictures are clear and well labelled.

Cover: Lovely, and evocative.

Internal design: Very well laid out. There are pictures on the majority of spreads.

Book Clubs & Reviews

There would be plenty to discuss – for book clubs in Ireland or other countries. I’d say it would best suit a rural club, especially one with some slightly older members who would have memories of rural life to share. Topics could be on any of the subjects in the individual sections of the books, how things have changed, the sense of community then and now, how events such as ploughing matches keep rural traditions alive, whether there is such a sense of community now, what we have lost and gained by mechanisation, how the life compares with farming in other countries. Food could be farmhouse fare – fruit cake and scones.

What others are saying No reviews yet on book sites.


Lorna at gives it a good review.

Buy & Author

Published by Four Courts Press.
ISBN 9781846825316

Available from:

Four Courts Press (€22.45)

O’Mahony’s Ireland (€24.95)

Amazon (paperback £19.95/$39.95)

Follow the author:

Ulster Folk & Transport Museum


Twitter @UlstrFolkMuseum

Over to You – Comment and Share!

  • Lorna says:

    I really enjoyed it too, it’s so readable and really gets into the farming social history. Like you, I wasn’t sure about the abstract paintings but got over that. I must get it back from my dad and have a look at some of the books they referenced again.

    27 Feb 2015 12:31:14

  • Clare says:

    I thought I’d find it interesting, Lorna, but was pleased at how much I enjoyed reading it as well. I’ve got about four second-hand copies of books mentioned in the bibliography (from Kenny’s and from Abe) - it really sparked my interest, especially after reading the historical bits in your book.

    27 Feb 2015 17:39:19

  • Lorna says:

    Second-hand – even better. I love Kennys for that as well as their free shipping. I contacted them via twitter recently to enquire if they might have a book secondhand as it was quite an old one (only new ones on the site) and they did – only €6 and free shipping.

    27 Feb 2015 18:18:56

  • Clare says:

    Good idea to contact them even if the book isn’t on their website. Kenny’s is great – the books arrive really quickly too.

    27 Feb 2015 19:40:53

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