Agriculture: 1845 to 1921

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Agriculture: 1845 to 1921

The extraordinary decline in crop production and conversely the rise of cattle and milk production characterized Irish agriculture in the eight decades after the Great Famine. In land-use terms the country became greener. The hay and pasture acreage increased from nearly 10 million acres in 1851 to 12.4 million acres by 1911. Conversely, over the same period the cultivated acreage declined from 4.6 to 2.3 million acres. The wheat acreage alone declined dramatically from half a million acres in 1851 to 150,000 acres by 1881, and finally to 45,000 acres by 1911. There was a brief turnaround in these trends during the plough-up campaign during World War I: In 1918 the arable area recovered to 3.1 million acres, hay and pasture fell to 11.2 million acres, and wheat lands rose to 157,000 acres (this last slipping back to 43,000 acres by 1921). At its lowest level, in 1904, there were only 31,000 acres of wheat. The only significant extension of the cultivated area occurred in response to the demand for animal-fodder crops. The turnip was formerly a neglected crop, but in the second half of the nineteenth century it was grown in large quantities. The ratio of pasture to arable rose from 2:1 in 1851 to nearly 6:1 in 1921. By 1900 one-half or more of all land was under permanent grass. This move toward pasture occurred everywhere in Ireland.

Land use captures the essence of agricultural change, but one specific regional observation might be made. For every hundred acres of hay and pasture (i.e., per unit of the main animal food), it was the northern counties (Ulster) that had the greatest density of cattle in the middle to late nineteenth century. It was not until the turn of the century that the counties of the south and west came into their own as substantial cattle producers. This reflects the more mixed and highly developed farming systems in the north around mid-century, but it also suggests the potential that existed for larger change elsewhere. Mixed farming continued to characterize Ulster in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Agricultural Output and Agricultural Change

In terms of the value to Irish agricultural output, tillage represented nearly 60 percent of final output in the early 1850s, but it slumped more or less progressively thereafter to less than 20 percent by the late 1890s. Conversely, the share of livestock and livestock products rose from about 40 percent in the early 1850s to over 80 percent by 1900, and peaked at 84 percent in 1910. The cash crops of wheat, barley, and flax declined from between 8 and 5 percent of output in the early 1850s to only 1 or 2 percent each from the 1880s. Potato output fell from a fifth or a quarter of output in the early 1850s to about 10 percent or less from 1860 onwards, and to an all-time low of about 5 percent in 1897. Conversely, cattle output rose from 20 percent in 1860 to over 30 percent by the late 1870s. Milk, as revealed in butter production, also accounted for 20 percent in 1860, though it declined after 1880 to about 18 percent. Therefore, the two components of cattle output contributed close to 40 percent of final agricultural output in the 1860s, rising to nearly 50 percent by the early 1870s, with a peak of 59 percent in 1903. By 1914 even hens and ducks added more to agricultural output than wheat, oats, and potatoes combined—crops that had contributed more than half of output in about 1840.

The postfamine changes illustrated by these statistics were not induced by the famine alone. In fact, the total cultivated area rose during the first twenty years or so after the famine, but thereafter it declined. The severe decline in population from 6.55 million in 1851 to 4.39 million by 1911 helps to explain the fall in the cultivated area, but not entirely the changes within agriculture. Purely for the purposes of self-sufficiency a much smaller land area was adequate as the decades proceeded, but the population of animals actually grew in numbers. In other words, the developments in Irish agriculture were not just negative responses to the famine; they were also positive responses to other circumstances.

The increase in North American grain reaching Western Europe at lower and lower prices by the late 1870s in an atmosphere of free trade may have led to the steep decline of corn growing in England, but in Ireland the economy had already adjusted output to cash products other than wheat before the 1870s. This is an important conclusion for the history of Irish agriculture, indicating that its reconstruction was ahead of that of many European rivals. While the flight from cereal production was pronounced in Ireland, in both Denmark and Germany there was actually an increase in the land devoted to cereals, and in France and Holland the cereal acreage held up very well.

External economic stimuli were increasingly important, but in Ireland, even on the eve of the Great Famine, the export trade accounted for as much as 27 percent of all Irish agricultural output. Thereafter it grew in response to the rise in demand for meat and dairy products generally in Western Europe, especially after the 1870s and particularly in Britain. At first, the milk and butter trades were important, but this gave way to the rising tide of fat-cattle and store-cattle rearing and export, especially after 1880. This was reflected in animal numbers. Milch cattle constituted about 70 percent of all cattle over two years of age in 1855, but thereafter their numbers dwindled, falling to less than 60 percent by the end of the century and only recovering slightly thereafter. The export trades to Britain were at full steam. By 1908, 58 percent of the net value of livestock production came from exports. In the 1850s between 35 and 40 percent of the cattle that "disappeared" each year from the annual enumeration were exported to Britain, increasing to 50 percent in the mid-1860s and to 70 percent by the end of the century. From 1850 to 1875 annually between 30 and 50 percent of the sheep were exported, and more than 30 percent of the pigs were exported as live animals and an untold proportion in the form of bacon.

Agricultural Depressions as Turning Points

Apart from the short-lived period in the mid-1850s during the Crimean War, when grain prices generally rose in Western Europe, giving some respite to the arable sector, there were two agricultural depressions in Ireland during the period. These were the depressions of 1859 to 1864 and 1879 to 1882. They have both been identified as watersheds in Irish agriculture, the first related to agricultural change, and the second very much associated with the tenant and landlord conflict known as the Land War. In the first period, for six continuous seasons, either grassland suffered from drought or the arable and fodder sector experienced either drought or too much rain. Crop yields turned down dramatically, but now the price for such crops was influenced more by the larger British or European market than by conditions in Ireland itself. Coincidentally, the cotton famine spilling over from the U.S. Civil War gave a brief encouragement to Irish flax production, and for this reason alone the depression hit Ulster less severely than elsewhere. The war also gave a brief respite to wool prices. But Ireland emerged from the depression finally realigned to pastoral agriculture. Before the depression the milk and butter trade was relatively ascendant, but it was already under threat from the cattle trade. The ratio of calves to milch cows declined from 45 per hundred in 1854 to only 34 in 1861, indicating the growing sale of calves to the veal trade and a greater concentration on milk and butter. Thereafter this ratio rose dramatically until in about 1865 it was 74 per hundred, and it remained at about 70 per hundred in subsequent years. The store-cattle trade had come into its own, and it flourished as the second half of the century unfolded.

It has been suggested that for much of the third quarter of the century there was a rising tide of expectation in the agricultural sector, especially for the stability or even improvement of tenant incomes. If true, this adds weight to the interpretation of the second depression, between 1879 and 1882, as a watershed in tenant-landlord relationships. The rising tide was stopped and replaced by a disgruntled tenantry struggling to pay their fixed rents at a time when their incomes were in rapid decline. The ensuing rent arrears had consequences in terms of credit restrictions, credit-worthiness, and the reduced incomes of the large service sector of shopkeepers and other suppliers on whom agriculture depended. The general malaise of relative and sometimes absolute poverty also hit landlords whenever their tenants were in arrears with their rents. The ensuing spate of land legislation resulted in a large transfer of ownership to the tenants. In 1870 perhaps 3 percent of Irish holdings were owner-occupied, but by 1908 the corresponding figure was about 46 percent.

SEE ALSO Banking and Finance to 1921; Congested Districts Board; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Famine Clearances; Great Famine; Indian Corn or Maize; Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960; Plunkett, Sir Horace Curzon; Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847 and the Gregory Clause; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Rural Life: 1850 to 1921; Subdivision and Subletting of Holdings; Transport—Road, Canal, Rail


Donnelly, James S., Jr. "The Irish Agricultural Depression of 1859–64." Irish Economic and Social History 3 (1976): 33–54.

Donnelly, James S., Jr. "Landlords and Tenants." In A New History of Ireland, vol. 5, Ireland Under the Union, I, 1801–70, edited by W. E. Vaughan. 1989.

Kennedy, Liam. "The Rural Economy, 1820–1914." In An Economic History of Ulster, 1820– 1939, edited by Liam Kennedy and Philip Ollerenshaw. 1985.

Turner, Michael. After the Famine: Irish Agriculture, 1850–1914. 1996.

Vaughan, W. E. Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland. 1994.

Winstanley, M. J. Ireland and the Land Question, 1800–1922. 1984.

Michael Turner