Agriculture itself represents a synthesis of the social, the environmental and the spatial. A combination of factors within society and environment such as soils and climate, cultural forms, local social organisation and the wider economic and political context, both national and international, are drawn together in change over time.
The present rural landscape in the West of Ireland is a mosaic of small fields, small settlements and small farms. Most of them have been established since the middle and end of the 19th century and exist, not in response to physical factors, but as a result of wider social processes involving landlords, governments and the economic system. There are, of course, small farms all over the world, and in many parts of Europe and Britain as well as all over Ireland. In that sense, what we see in the West of Ireland is part of a widespread distribution of this system of agriculture. It is the process of their establishment in the West of Ireland that is distinctive, representing a clash between the remnants of a particular small-scale peasant society and a specific manifestation of large-scale capitalist society that has seen a progressive disintegration of the old additional systems of landholding, settlement and agricultural practice.
With fertile land limited in extent and uneven in distribution, the Irish rundale (or open field) system had maintained a rural society based on small kin groups living in clustered settlements or ‘clachans.’ Farming land was held jointly and distributed in separate, small pieces. When it functioned successfully, rundale was a finely- balanced ecological system, but it could not function effectively in the face of demands for increased productivity. These demands arose from two main sources. On the one hand, there was the desire of landlords and governments to improve agricultural practice in order to increase production and rents. On the other hand, population increase, which was closely associated with the nutritional capacity of the potato to form the basis of the diet of the poor, took place despite periodic crop failure through blight and the failure of society at large to prevent that crop failure. In other words, in a wider social context the traditional system could not deliver the economic and social goods.
Rundale had virtually disappeared in the West of Ireland by the 1920s, but some 20 years after that it was still a fact of life in Rathlackan in Northeast Mayo. In an article in the Irish Times in January 1943, the apparently bemused reporter described a historic layer which had only just succumbed to modernisation processes which were well-established elsewhere in the region (Irish Times, 1943).
Activity: Counting the differences
To feel the impact of the change, try locating and counting the plots held by farmer 3 at Cloondeagh Co Mayo, in rundale and after the rearrangement. (Image source)
We were able to count 22, or 21 if you count the westernmost area as a single plot.
It is also interesting to see that Jill Dale, writing on genealogy website County Mayo Beginnings, reported rundale being practised in County Mayo into the 1980s, long after the practice was thought to have died out (Dale, 2010) .
Now move on to read about The rural dimension – after rundale.
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.