The Regeneration of Ireland

IRELAND as an agricultural country is faced, like most countries in our western civilization, with the necessity of reconsidering its agricultural economy. We have to save what in all countries is the primary industry, but in Ireland is almost the only industry, from the tendency to urban concentration. It is true that with us the rural exodus is not, as in many other countries, a mere shifting of population. What is migration in the United States, is emigration in Ireland; and as the saying is, our town is America. What the agricultural area loses in the States the urban area gains. With Ireland, depopulation of farmlands is national exhaustion.

My country is a small island with a superficial area of some twenty million acres, of which one fourth is agriculturally unproductive. On the remaining fifteen million acres there are about half a million farms, the homes of about two and one half millions of agricultural folk. So, if all the holdings were of equal size, which they are not and never will be, the Irish farm would contain only thirty acres. As a matter of fact there are over two hundred thousand farms from one to fifteen acres in extent. These, the homes of a million peasant folk, are largely in the least fertile parts of the country, under a rainy sky, and with bad marketing facilities. The country is without coal, iron, or precious minerals, and it is doubtful whether its heavy rainfall furnishes any very considerable water-power.

Ireland is passing through an agrarian revolution which has rendered necessary and urgent a complete reshaping of its agricultural affairs. The settlement of the tenure question immensely facilitates, but it will not accomplish, the task of reconstructing our rural social economy on sound lines. No government can do this — we must do it for ourselves.

Until the land-purchase policy was determined upon, it was widely believed by the farmers that ownership of their farms was all that was required to produce agricultural prosperity, and to solve the problem of country life. The ‘magic of property’ is a well-known and pregnant phrase. Belief in magic always militates against the promotion of voluntary effort. Now, when these doubts are removed by land purchase, we are confronted with one great adverse fact, which is a far more serious obstacle than the passing hindrances due to political, religious, and racial animosities and complications. The Irish people are not agriculturally inclined.

The Irish at home vastly prefer grazing to tillage, while their history in America is sufficient evidence of the general statement that they prefer an urban to a rural existence. Any other occupation appeals to them rather than practical husbandry in the choice of a career. They govern American cities, for which I hope the cities are grateful, but they have not yet made that contribution to the problem of country life in which I would myself have taken more pride.

A few quiet-thinking Irishmen have been working upon this problem steadily for the last twenty years. Recognizing that the settlement of the land question did not do more than prepare the ground for the great work of rural regeneration which lay before their countrymen, they thought out, and have ever since steadily pursued, a certain policy.

Among ourselves we have a convenient formula which divides the solution of our problem into three parts. We say that we have got to bring about somehow better farming, better business, and better living. By better farming we mean simply the application to the practice of agriculture of that new scientific knowledge which has led to a more abundant, more certain, and more economic production. Better business implies the introduction of system into the marketing of produce, the acquisition of farmers’ requirements on reasonable terms, the obtaining of working capital at a low rate of interest, and upon terms suitable to the conditions of farming. It seeks further to enable the farmer to hold his own in his relations with those organized interests, whether financial, industrial, commercial, or political, which largely control his wealth. Better living, of course, means a life upon the farm-lands more nearly approaching in its comforts, conveniences, social amenities, and intellectual atmosphere, to the life of the modern city.

In the working out of this three-fold policy we began with better business because we believed it to be the foundation of progress along the other two lines. Both the reasoning upon which this judgment was based, and the experience which confirmed it, may have some suggestive value. I believe that American agriculture has suffered severely from ignoring this essential condition of agricultural progress.

It was our view that the chief difference between the business methods of agriculturists on the one hand, and of those who conduct all other important industries on the other, is that the farmer does not understand, or at all events does not know how to apply, the principles of combination. It is recognized as a condition of success in all commercial and industrial undertakings under modern conditions, that those engaged in any particular occupation must combine for mutual advantage, for protection of their particular interest in its relation to other interests, and also in order to secure political influence where economic legislation or administration affecting that interest is in question.

The reasons for combination are so convincing that it is worth while to consider why farmers remain the sole exception to what is an accepted law, and the universal practice of modern business. The failure of farmers to combine is in my judgment due to three principal causes.

First, the farmer’s calling does not lend itself to associative action. He lives apart; most of his time is spent in the open air, and in the evening of the working-day physical repose is more congenial than mental excitement. Domesticity is preferred to social activity.

Secondly, the farmer is everywhere the most conservative and individualistic of human beings. He dislikes change of methods; he venerates the traditions which have come down to him from his father’s father. He does not wish to interfere with anybody else’s business, and he is fixedly determined that no one shall pry into or interfere with his.

Thirdly, the kind of combination which is suitable to the conditions of other callings does not meet the requirements of the farmer’s industry. I suggest that it is this last difficulty which has chiefly barred the progress of agricultural organization in the United States.

We recognize that where farmers combine it is not a combination of money only, but a combination of the elements of the entire business and of personal effort. The share-holders in the coöperative society participate in control equally, irrespective of the number of shares held. But the profits are divided in this way: the first five per cent is paid on the capital stock, the balance being divided among participants in the project in proportion as they contribute to the profits. In a creamery, for instance, the suppliers and the workers each get out of this balance so many cents in the dollar’s worth of milk supplied, or of work done. Here the first essential of stability and success is assured. The interests of all the participants in the venture are harmonized, and it becomes the aim and object of all to contribute their utmost to its success.

The coöperative movement in Ireland is producing practical results. The coöperative creameries now manufacture something over one half of the entire export of Irish butter. But the same principle is being gradually applied to every branch of the farming industry. Agricultural coöperative societies purchase wholesale at the lowest price and, what is far more important, of the best quality, all farmers’ requirements— seeds, fertilizers, implements, machinery, and so forth. They jointly dispose of agricultural produce. There are poultry and egg societies, bee-keeping societies, combinations for joint ownership of breeding stock too costly for individual possession, and for the joint purchase and operation of steam-driven agricultural machinery not within the reach of individuals.

So far we have about a thousand farmers’ coöperative associations, with nearly a hundred thousand members, mostly heads of families, and consequently embracing nearly half a million of the population. The actual turnover for 1909 was about twelve million dollars. We regard the movement as being only in its infancy. We are far behind our fellow workers in Denmark, Germany, and several other Continental countries. The advantages of cooperation are not purely commercial. Men who have learned to work together in the business of their lives quite naturally use their business organiza-. tion for mutual, intellectual, and social improvement. Thus better living follows upon better business.

Another inestimable advantage of agricultural coöperation — I believe the real secret of its success — is its psychological effect. A great French psychologist who wrote a book which he called The Crowd, set out to demonstrate the proposition that an association of men is very apt to display qualities the reverse of those which characterize the individuals composing the association. One effect of organizing adult farmers for business purposes is that it completely changes their attitude toward their own problems. I could cite instances where agricultural coöperative associations, composed of individuals generally regarded as hopelessly unprogressive, have displayed in business, in politics, and in the promotion of education, qualities which, if applied to the more opulent circumstances of the agricultural community in the United States, would place American farming in a higher position than it occupies to-day.

While agricultural coöperation was chosen as the foundation of a complete scheme of agricultural development, the moment our farmers were sufficiently well-organized to appreciate and take full advantage of state assistance, we found that our organized farmers’ granges had developed a new political influence. Backed by them, we who were heading the movement were able to persuade the government to do its part in promoting better farming. After an agitation of pure reason, in which there was an unprecedented union of all creeds, classes, and interests, we won for Ireland, ten years ago, a Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, for the furthering of all the economic activities of the country, mainly those relating to agriculture and the subsidiary industries.

I was the working head of this department for its first seven years, during which I outraged all the proprieties of political life by appointing the best men I could get to fill the posts requiring expert qualifications, regardless of the party to which they might belong. Even this does not exhaust the tale of my iniquities. As we had no means of training men for expert work in Ireland, I had to bring them in from England and Scotland. In due time I was ‘fired out,’ but I had got together a splendid staff of workers. I have the satisfaction of knowing that these men have set up a practical education so effective that, in filling the many vacancies that must constantly occur in a department with such multifarious functions, the difficulty will not be to find competent Irishmen, but to select from the many qualified applicants.

The getting of this department, with an endowment of nearly twelve million dollars a year, illustrates a point cited above which I would emphasize. I was in the House of Commons for eight years. I entered it mainly with the object of promoting an agricultural policy. I noticed that when an agricultural member rose to address the House he usually emptied it. I do not think this was because he was a greater fool than others, but because the House knew that he spoke for individuals and not for organized men. I do not know how it is in America, but at home I have observed that, when legislation affecting any particular interest is under discussion, those who speak on behalf of that interest are listened to with an attention strictly proportionate to the organization of those they speak for. Not political organization, but business organization.

There remains the third ingredient of our Irish prescription for country life — better living. An improved social life in the open country is to my mind the most important of the three parts of the policy. We have always looked upon the problem of rural life in Ireland as being but one small corner of the problem coextensive with our western civilization. Everywhere we hear the cry that all that is most hopeful and most helpful in the rural population is being drawn away by the lure of the city.

I believe our main reliance must be upon a redirection of rural education. Up to a certain point education in the rural school is, in its essence, identical with city education. The character of the child has to be built up, and its mind stored with a certain number of necessary facts which nature curiously enables us to assimilate much more easily when they are of no use to us than when we want to apply them to practical life. But the point of divergence between town and country education appears to me to be reached when the course of study has regard to the mental outlook.

There are two human attributes to which the city appeals irresistibly, quite apart from the better opportunity it affords of material advancement — the gregarious instinct and the love of excitement. Improved locomotion and means for communicating thought from eye to eye and from ear to ear, the organization of social functions in rural centres, and lectures illustrated by the moving life of the cinematograph,— to take the latest addition to the mechanical aids to exposition,— will all help. But their influence may be centripetal with some, centrifugal with others. No conceivable device by which the country may gain some share of the enjoyment of the town can destroy the lure of the city. The farmer’s calling is one of constant and unremitting toil. No process of evolution will evolve a cow which will consent to do without milking on Sunday. A modest standard of physical comfort, devoid of all expensive luxuries, must continue to be the lot of the tillers of the soil. The one way to offset the townward tendency is to revolutionize the mental outlook of the rural population, to concentrate it upon the open country.

How this is to be done it is for those who lead thought in educational science to say. All I can do is to define the need as I see it. We want two changes in the rural mind. The physical environment of the farmer is replete with interest to the followers of almost every branch of natural science. That interest must be communicated to the agricultural classes according to their capabilities. ‘Nature study,’I believe, is the latest term of the pedagogues for the revelation of the simple natural processes; but to make those processes interesting to the child you must first make them interesting to the teacher.

The second change in the outlook relates to the spiritual rather than to the utilitarian side of education. Somehow or other that intimacy with and affection for nature to which Wordsworth has given the highest expression must be engendered in the mind of rural youth. In this way only will the countryman come to realize the beauty of the life about him, as through the teaching of science he will come to realize its truth.