In 1983, adverse environmental and social conditions had - as in many areas of the West of Ireland - combined to produce low levels of agricultural productivity, low standards of living, and high rates of emigration. Harvesting the turf was a seasonal aspect of life in the 1980s and, as the photograph below shows, remains so in 2015.
Transcript: The landscape of Southwest Donegal lies within the wider social context
PAT JESS: The particular geology and climate of this remote coastal location have combined to produce a basic resource which doesn’t seem so favourable now. In the past the combination of fishing and farming provided a subsistence local economy, but now the harsh climate and thin soils don’t provide the growing conditions suitable for modern agriculture. But these poor conditions have been caused partly by agriculture itself. In prehistoric times, farmers cut down the woodland which once covered most of this area, and that combined with the change in climate produced the blanket bog which now encircles the Glen. This huge tract of land now produces turf, which is the main source of fuel for the area. Harvesting the turf is part of the seasonal pattern of local life: one of the ways in which local society and the environment are linked. The agricultural landscape is an expression of this link. For while environment is certainly a strong influence on agriculture and the landscape looks natural, the explanation of agricultural practice and the forms and patterns in the local landscape lies within the wider social context.
Despite the long continuity of settlement in the area, the landscape of small farms and fields is of comparatively recent origin. It resulted from the attempts by landlords and governments to break up the traditional Irish rundale system, whereby a group of tenants held land and farmed in partnership. As you will have already read about and seen in the previous article ‘ The rural dimension – after rundale', the pattern the government commissioners preferred was the ‘squared farm’ with a single owner occupier and the house located central to the holding. The ‘ladder farms’ of Malin Beg, which you have already encountered in the video repeated below, represent a compromise between the local culture and the demands of the wider society. They are single owner occupied farms, but ‘stripped’ to provide a portion of good and less good land for each one, in accordance with the traditional practice. The houses are strung out in a line along the new road, each on its own land but adjacent to the neighbours’ houses, thus preserving some of the proximity and sense of community inherent in the traditional system. Here the synthesis of the different elements found in the area is clearly a combination of ‘local’ and ‘national’, ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ influences: the landscape is socially constructed.
Transcript: Ladder farms at Malin Beg, Southwest Donegal, 1983
PAT JESS: This landscape behind me at Malin Beg is called ladder farms. It’s a good description but it doesn’t explain very much. In order to understand how it came to be as it is, we need to know something of society processes, the cultural context and the role of the physical environment and how those combine and change over time. In order to reconstruct past landscapes, we rely heavily on secondary sources. For example, the first edition of the Ordnance Survey for this area, taken in the middle of the last century, shows no field boundaries here at all and the settlement clustered up in the middle of what is now a long row of houses. The change was obviously dramatic, effected through the political process and forced by Act of Parliament. It was socially traumatic as well, but, remarkably, changed agricultural practice extremely little.
Now move on to read about The realities of rural life in the 1950s-1980s.
See all the articles in this series
See all the series in the Change in the West of Ireland collection
This article is part of a collection on the 'Uniqueness, Interdependence, Uneven Development and Change in the West of Ireland'. To find out more about the collection, a good place to start is the introduction, Change in the West of Ireland.