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The rural dimension – after rundale

Updated Wednesday, 30 March 2016
How did the rural areas of Western Ireland change after the rundale system was replaced?

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Once wider social processes impacted on the rundale system, the delicate balance which it had maintained was broken and the result was poverty and political reaction. The eventual outcome was complete reform of the system of landholding and settlement that created compact, independent, small farms. The pattern preferred by the Irish Government’s Commissioners was ‘squared’ farms with a dwelling centred on the holding. This might have been useful for efficiency of agricultural organisation, but isolated the dwelling from its neighbours and hence was at variance with traditional social practice.

Malin Beg during rundale in 1840 A rundale cluster in Malin Beg

This pattern now prevails over much of rural Ireland, but in many parts of the West one sees a variant in the so-called ‘ladder’ farms where dwellings are strung out like a street and holdings run parallel to one another and perpendicular to the line of settlement.

Dispersed farms in Malin Beg Dispersed farmsteads

These ‘ladder farms’ represent a compromise between the old and the new; it is one way in which the operation of ‘national’ processes has been affected by the local culture and environment. The maps of Malin Beg in Southwest Donegal show that a rundale cluster in 1840 has been replaced by ladder farms by 1907.

Ladder farms in Malin Beg Ladder farms

Comparison between the patterns of a rundale cluster and ladder farms illustrate the visible change in the landscape and also the way in which social change is mediated between the local social systems and the wider social context. It is not that the patterns of landholding did not exist elsewhere that makes the West of Ireland unique; it is the manner in which this set of characteristics has survived and influenced the present pattern of social relationships. (Image source)

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.


As well as the new landscape, land redistribution created a new class of ‘peasant proprietors’, the owner occupiers of the small farms. Staunchly conservative in culture, attitudes, politics and agricultural practice, this class came to dominate rural society. The deep attachment to land, a characteristic of traditional rural societies, featured strongly amongst these farmers for whom the land had been hard won. They remained unwilling to part with it in more recent times and resisted government programmes such as farm amalgamation schemes. These farmers have also been slow to innovate or change their use (or non-use) of their land and commercial agriculture has stagnated as a result.

Context and interdependencies

But the wider context has been inhibiting for them too. Until the 1960s Irish agriculture was locked into a British market where a policy of cheap food for an urban industrial society dominated, and so rural Ireland remained economically dependent on Britain despite political independence. Now that Ireland is a member of the European Union, agriculture and much of rural society is dependent on policy formulated in Brussels which is often inappropriate to the small farms in the West of Ireland, In other words, in successive systems of interdependence, farmers in the West of Ireland have been constrained by the wider context of which they were part.

Land redistribution was supposed to produce a general improvement in rural conditions. However, while landownership conferred social status, the small family farm did not provide a good income. Many of the farms depended as much on money sent home by migrant members of the family, working in cities in North America such as Boston and New York, than on income from agriculture. This represents another set of interdependencies within a wider geographical context. The apparently isolated farm in the West of Ireland remained far from independent. Generally, the families were large, but only one son could inherit the farm. There were few opportunities for alternative employment. Emigration, which had reached high levels before the changes in landholding, continued.

With many of the young and enterprising choosing to emigrate, communities in the West of Ireland became isolated and depressed by the continuing losses of traditional rural society to urbanism and industrial capitalism.  From the world outside, the West of Ireland looked either hopelessly backward or beautifully unspoiled, depending on the point of view. 


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