Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 7 July 2016
Remembering 1916, The Case for Irish Agriculture
In the press in early July 1916 focus was placed on the importance of labour in agricultural activities. Grass was being cut and in a time of World War 1 labour was scarce. The need for labour was also an issue, which kept the organised conscription of Irish people away from being a reality in Westminster statute books. Despite this, many labourers had volunteered to go to the frontlines. One body, which promoted the importance of agriculture, the interests of its community and its multiple facets was the Munster Agricultural Society. They are still going strong and just after finishing their successful summer show this year in their contemporary grounds in Curaheen.
However, on this week, one hundred years ago – on 4 July 1916 – the members of the Society opened their annual two-day Summer Show in Ballintemple. The show opened under glorious weather conditions. The Cork Examiner reported of the day; “it is indeed very gratifying to find that its sphere of usefulness continues. No doubt many obstacles and difficulties had to be overcome in the past by the members of the Society as they worked in the most untiring fashion and a few years ago the institution became not alone one of the most important in the country, but also one of the most successful”. The newspaper journalist continues to comment on the worries connected with the war. It was feared by the society that the fixtures conducted at different periods of each year would have to be abandoned, but with the “enterprise which has always characterised their work, the members of the Society decided in the interests of the agricultural community, and with the object of advancing their pursuits to continue the shows. It was only natural with the shortage of all classes of stock in the country, that entries were small at the fixture due to the war”.
From 1891 onwards, as the County of Cork Agricultural Society developed its home in a corner of the Cork Park Racecourse, it was dependent on the success of its shows and the subscriptions and voluntary contributions of its members. They worked in close association with the Department of Agriculture and the County Cork Committee of Agriculture and received grants from them for prize funds. In 1908 the name of the County of Cork Agricultural Society was changed to the Munster Agricultural Society.
Arising from World War I, the minutes of the Munster Agricultural Society (in the Cork City and County Archives) reveal several issues raised at committee meetings. There was a high dependency on exporting livestock, dairy and poultry produced for the British market. However, in 1915 the detained cattle at the ports was of serious concern for Irish agriculture creating serious hardships for farmers across the country. Instability in transport routes set in as sea channels became blocked and boats harnessed for military operations. The previous agricultural boom was reversed as declining prices set in. The war brought unemployment amongst agricultural labourers and less work for small farmers. The society struggled during the war years to attract farmers to their shows and sales. As an incentive, in the same year 1915 a sale of bulls was introduced into the spring show of cattle, and the total sales amounted to £800. In the year 1917 it was decided to amalgamate the cattle and horse shows and to hold it in the summer and to hold a show and sale of bulls and pigs in the spring.
The aims of the Munster Agricultural Society though were set against the national backdrop of change in Irish agriculture. The Department of Agriculture reports from 1916, available to read in the Boole Library in UCC, reveal that the decline in tillage farming began after the Great Famine. Ploughed land reduced from 4.4m acres in 1849 to 2.4m in 1916. Cultivation of cereal crops, mainly wheat, oats and barley, went from 3m acres to 1.3m acres, with the greatest decline of wheat growing in Leinster and Munster. Acreage under grain was halved, while at the same time, land in pasture doubled, alongside the growing numbers of horses, mules and asses. Land use shifted from crops to livestock. By 1916, 79 per cent of the average income for farmers came directly from livestock and only 20 per cent from crops. Cattle numbers rose from 2.7m in 1848 to 5m in 1914, and the livestock sector accounted for 75 per cent of total agricultural output in that same year.
Between 1910 and 1914 cattle numbers increased by twenty per cent, enabling the development of creameries to over a 1,000 throughout the island. Dairy co-ops also grew with around 350 operating in 1914. Agriculture in Ireland was also influenced by increasing commercialisation. Changes in transport, rail, shipping, technological progress in machinery such as milk/cream separators, and the growing use of statistical information for rationalisation and policy initiatives, moved farming toward an industrial pursuit.
Increasing urbanisation also encouraged a more market-led approach. Between 1845 and 1914 the ratio of the population living in towns of 1,500 or more doubled. Production and prices became connected with supply and demand, and Irish agriculture also contended on international markets with countries such as the United States, Denmark and the Netherlands.
851a. Cork Showgrounds, Ballintemple, c. 1929 (source: The Story of the Munster Agricultural Society by Kieran McCarthy)
851b. Call for support for Farmers Red Cross Fund during World War I (source: Munster Agricultural Society Archives)