The first night, it was raining so hard that I had to pull in on the Featherbed and wait for it to ease off, even though I was already late and not at all sure how I would find Glenasmole Community Centre in the warren of roads that lay below me in the dark. Yet as I crawled down the flooded boreen, grateful for the burnt-out cars that marked out verge from bog, I felt full of the joyful conviction that I would succeed in my mission: to pass the REPS course that would make me a farmer, if only on paper. The most important thing I had found out since becoming caretaker of my late uncle’s flock of 57 ewes and herd of 14 cattle was that the state agricultural agency Teagasc, for a modest annual fee, would suffer to answer the enquiries of a Big House ingénue. It was Teagasc who advised me that twenty hours’ instruction on the maintenance of hedgerows, farm safety, fertilizer usage and drainage schemes was all that stood between me, my certificate, and the monthly paycheque, issued in Brussels, for entering the Rural Environment Protection Scheme. But while I was confident that I could pass the course, I had to acknowledge that much of a sheep was still a mystery to me, and quite what suckler cows were for, or, more to the point, how they generated any income in their steady mooch from mart to abattoir with only the occasional calf squeezed out every other year, remained an unsolvable riddle.
My REPS advisors, Vincent Salter and Sean Finn, were huddled in the porch smoking as I dashed from the car in the torrential rain. Inside, I got myself a chair and budged up next to the only other woman present, Mary. A poster for Relate and a typed advertisement for free-range geese were pinned to the noticeboard behind the door. The gas heaters high on the walls gave out a steady heat that soon had steam rising from my modestly high-heeled leather boots. ‘You’d have been better off in Wellingtons’, advised the man sitting behind me, and I couldn’t disagree.
There were about thirty men in the hall, mostly in their fifties, some older, including one man who looked to be in his early eighties, with white hair stained nicotine yellow, accompanied by his teenage grandson or great-grandson. Saying hello to the people around me, I sensed myself being discreetly but firmly placed when I gave my surname. In 1936 my great-grandfather, Col. Charles Davis Guinness, shot what was probably the last corncrake seen on Glendhu mountain, above Glencullen. One of the men told me that his father used to beat for him, alongside many other neighbours from the valley.
That night, and over the following six weeks of the course, I would learn that REPS provides a financial incentive to create a pastoral world of ecologists’ and poets’ dreaming. Under a five-year plan drawn up in consultation with the farmer, stocking densities are kept low, down to one cow or – marvellously – 6.66 sheep per hectare, and fertilizer usage is minimized. Two out of a list of fourteen optional measures must be undertaken within the first two years of the plan; these include the planting of broadleaf trees, the maintenance and repair of dry-stone walls, permitting public access to architectural sites, and the creation of new wildlife habitats. Supplementary payments can be earned through the establishment of native apple orchards and – most lucratively of all, at €1,300 for 2.5 hectares – the sowing of bird seed. (‘Would it not make more sense to be paid to feed them by the Department?’ one participant quipped.) The scale of payments, which trails off at 40 hectares, is designed to make REPS attractive to part-time, dry livestock or mixed tillage farmers, not the beef barons of Meath or the dairy kings of north Cork.
Farm buildings must be painted in the vernacular colours authorized by the Department of Agriculture (rust-red, dark green and grey), and screened from the surrounding countryside by stands of trees, with native oaks, whitebeam and ashes preferred to the planter’s beeches that still glow along the autumnal avenues of refurbished country house hotels. Nothing to do with history, I am assured; where a whitebeam might support 5,000 species of flora and fauna, a beech is considered sterile with a mere 500. National pride is catered for by the extra subsidies provided for keeping pedigree breeding stock of Kerry cattle, Connemara ponies and Galway sheep. There is special provision too for harvesting hay meadows from the centre out in the Shannon callows where the last corncrakes hide.
The farmers around Glenasmole mostly graze sheep on commonage on top of Glendhu and Kippure, and some have small suckler herds in the lower fields. Grazing rights have been passed down through families and measured in callops – a callop being the amount of land it takes to graze the animal most usually stocked on any particular section of commonage, whether it be sheep, cow, horse or goat. In the townland of Castlekelly, the callop needed to graze an upland ewe translates into 1.039 hectares of heath. This year, when for the first time the payment a farmer receives from Brussels will no longer take account of what he has produced on the farm, this practised knowledge of the terrain and what it can support will finally become obsolete; satellite photography will determine the number of hectares farmed. The satellite eye requires each field and each farmer to have a file of documents: land deeds, ewe subsidies, area aid applications and the like. But agricultural practices up here have been informally documented for much of the twentieth century. The poorest hill farmers risk losing thousands of euros in the transition from payments based on headage to payments based on hectares in places where verbal agreements between one generation and the next have stood in place of wills and the Big House ledgers that allocated grazing rights on the commonage to tenant farmers have been lost via the sale of estates. In the absence of written documentation, these farmers may be unable to demonstrate that they have inherited the right to farm a given number of callops. Under REPS, meanwhile, the number of livestock on the commonage is to be reduced, in theory allowing the heather and frauchauns to reclaim the hillsides – at least, as one man pointed out, until weekend walkers and their dogs make new paths across the slopes. ‘Sure some Sundays you’d be out and there are cars stretched all along the top road and the dogs just let off the leash with no regard for ewes about to yain or anything. And then there are the kids on scrambling bikes …’
I commiserated with him about it all – all the noisy encroachment of a city in search of peace and quiet in a landscape proudly considered empty – but realized too that the proximity of urban jobs is what has kept this valley populated and halfway prosperous without yet selling out too many fields for planning permission. There wasn’t a full-time farmer in the room, Mary assured me: ‘No one could be now with the way it’s going, not on this scale, not up here.’ By the end of the year, it is expected that 50,000 Irish farms will be in REPS, with holdings averaging 30 hectares, most of them farmed part-time. The average payment of €7,000 will fail to provide a living wage, given that the profit margins on lambs and suckler cattle are barely sufficient to cover the costs of their keep, particularly on so small a scale.
After two hours of a PowerPoint presentation on nutrient management, tea came as a welcome relief. The men milled round in the hall while Mary and I gravitated instinctively towards the kitchen, where I filled teapots from the Baby Burco and lobbed what I hoped were unobtrusive questions: ‘Mary, you couldn’t tell me what “pine in the sheep” is by any chance? And “u-grade lambs”, what does that mean?’ Outside, explosive crumbs of Kimberley and Goldgrain biscuits punctuated the laughter of sturdy men chafing each other about their different ways.
On the way home across the Featherbed, a car was blazing on the roadside despite the rain, and further on three cars packed with teenagers were parked facing out over the glen, headlights on, wipers going, little to see bar the wet and the bog and the blurred lights of Tallaght beyond. Up above, the mast on Kippure flashed its new strobe lights onto the low cloud. I thought about how my account of the evening would have amused my late uncle, Charles; how he would have set down The Times crossword, got up from his armchair in the drawing room to hunt out a photograph of a Massey shooting party up at Cruagh and read out the names of the participants penned in on the back, looking for the name of my classmate’s father among the beaters. Or he might have searched out the Colonel’s game diaries and found with a gleeful giggle the few days when the tallies of snipe, widgeon, woodcock and grouse shot by Father Behan and the gamekeeper, Stubbs, outnumbered his own grandfather’s poorer bag. But Charles’s greatest amusement, masking a supportive concern, would have been reserved for the efforts I was making now, returning home at 10.30p.m. on a Tuesday night, to turn a semi-feudal, neglected and impoverished estate into the very latest in EU-subsidized, under-productive, Capability Brown-style fermes ornées.
Down in the pen, the ram looks like Tony Soprano, which Colin and I think is a good thing, but he also reminds me of the model sheep / footstool they used to have in the Bunratty Woollen Mills, which might be bad. We bought a Texel because the flock, according to Joe, was ‘getting too pure-bred’. ‘Let’s hope there’s a bit of a spring in him,’ he says, while punching a tag through the ram’s left ear. At €600 hammer price at Blessington mart, it had better be well-sprung. Over breakfast that morning we’d already had a confusing conversation about his possible prowess, with Joe announcing that of the rams he’d seen he’d picked the best: ‘Some of them had no length in them at all, they need a bit of length, but your fella would be a good two foot or so long, so he should be fine.’
Joe has been buying and looking after what I still think of as my uncle’s sheep, in addition to his own, for a shocking number of years. In late November, after my REPS course outing to a beef farm in Meath, I had come back home all gung-ho. ‘Joe,’ I started carefully, ‘you know the way you’re meant now to have a farm safety statement for insurance and to check over all the machinery and make sure it’s all working right? Well, I thought perhaps we should draw one up together, if you had the time.’ ‘Yes, Selina, if you think it’s needed,’ he agreed. I opened up the form I’d been given and started going through the categories. Halfway through page one, I saw we had a problem: I’d written ‘N/A’ next to most queries relating to farm machinery, and now found myself writing ‘N/A’ across the whole section on power sockets. I put down my pen. ‘Joe, if there’s no electricity in the yard, how do you manage in the winter?’ With a twinkle, he replied, ‘Well, it’s not used for much bar dipping and the day is long enough for the work that’s in it.’ We completed the rest of the form very quickly.
Joe used to work in forestry, but he started off his working life with plough horses, which he would round up as colts and then break in for a farmer up at Mont Pelier. ‘You see there’s an awful expense in this machinery, and in the fertilizer and sprays they use now,’ he tells me as we’re loading timber from a fallen oak. ‘Whereas when you had the horses, didn’t they manure the ground as they went along, and you always had a colt to sell in the spring.’ I nod in agreement, thinking about how the world turns back to the same place, and glance up for a minute, before he starts the chainsaw again.
On clear days it looks as if you could step out from the bottom of the lawn and reach the Pigeon House in a few short strides, but today the trees of St Thomas stretch down through Marlay Park and end in obscurity. When a visitor complimented Mary Davis on the view from her new house, built by her father as a wedding present, she is reported to have replied, ‘I have grown heartily sick of it.’ That was in 1859, when she married a Castleknock solicitor, Thomas Hosea Guinness, and moved two hundred yards up the hill from the house she grew up in. I imagine her looking out over Dublin Bay, watching the passenger ships coming in and out of the North Wall and receiving letters from a brother, or later her son, telling of their adventures or sicknesses or the plain tedium of working in the imperial services in Persia or China. But the field that she would have looked out on, with its slim lime tree, would not have been empty as it was now, saving Joe and me. When I came to live in the house as a child, Muriel Jackson, who worked for my grandmother for over thirty years, used to tell me of going down to watch ‘the men’ playing football on long summer evenings, matches with thirty or more who worked here or down at St Thomas for Aunt May in the 1940s and early ’50s. She spoke with such wistful regret for lost conviviality that I realized the strange household of my grandmother, her eldest son, the cook Kathleen Fox, Muriel, and my eleven-year-old self represented a skeleton crew on the Mary Celeste, listening for the echoes of more propitious times.
What made the pitch playable was the hard work of the previous generations who drained the land. One night up in Glenasmole, Sean, Mary’s husband, explained to me that the green pastures I so admired as the outcome of Ireland’s natural fecundity were simply a delicate skin concealing a robust dermis of engineering works. Probably running underneath our fields, he told me, certainly under his, were little stone channels about twelve feet down, laid at five-foot intervals and bedded in gravel that drained rainwater away into the perimeter ditches. ‘If you cut back the brambles and clear the sides you should be able to see thin streams trickling out in a storm.’ He went on to talk about the land he used to rent for grazing at Stocking Lane, sold last year for a housing estate of 1,500 units. ‘If you go down there now, you’ll see water everywhere, and it wasn’t wet when I had it. They’ve broken up the old drains and have yet to lay the new, so the whole place is flooded.’
I think about the men who dug these deep gullies spanning the fields and how they laid the stones – flat, sides and cap – to create the small channels. How the gravel they laboriously pitched in on top would have been dug from the river bed, fetched by donkey and cart up the slope, piled out, pitched in, then the earth packed back in on top, over and over again. I wonder what they were paid. I don’t know whether this work was carried out for John Jones, the farmer whose house, described in 1839 as being of ‘tolerably good repair’, provided the foundations for Mary Davis’s new residence. Perhaps the heavy labour began earlier for the family of itinerant bookseller turned millionaire financier Luke White, who bought land here and in Killakee from Speaker Connolly in the mid-eighteenth century; but that too seems late for land that cost good money. Maybe it was on the orders of Peter Talbot de Bulloch, into whose hands much of the townland passed during the reign of Henry VIII when it was confiscated from its previous owners, the Fitzgeralds, on their conviction for high treason. But if it was worth as much then as was reported, most likely the fields had already been drained for the Kilmainham Priory of St John at Jerusalem, which held the lands from the late 1100s.*
When Mary Davis was a child, she would have watched workers pass through this field on their way to the mills powered by the River Glin. The women walking down to Mr Hughes’s silk factory and the men heading for Mr Doolan’s flour mill down at Kilmashogue Bridge would have made use of the old drive that is now a gentle hollow winding for a mile or more along what we now call the stream. In the 1840s there were thirteen mills on the Owendoher River and the River Glin employing between 20 and 120 people each, making paper, silk, wool, and flour. One, run by Moses Verney in the 1760s, made paper foil to prevent gold and silver lace from tarnishing. I fancy the foil was used in the main for keeping ecclesiastical fineries bright at the altar, but there might also have been a small domestic market for it within the parish of Whitechurch, for the parish was prosperous. The 1841 census records that only 2.9 per cent of its population lived in ‘category one’ housing (one-room cabins), compared with 28.8 per cent for Co. Dublin as a whole; and the number of good farm- and town-houses was nearly twice the county average. Despite this relative prosperity, the same source reveals that over the four years to 1841 the parish population dropped by 20 per cent, to 2,354 inhabitants. A cholera cess of one penny levied in the early 1830s hints at one possible explanation. It is clear, in any case, that by the early 1860s, when Mary’s husband, Thomas Hosea, decided to put in a boating pond on the River Glin and lay out its banks as a Victorian water garden, many of the mills on this river had gone. When she was growing up, Mary Davis’s prospect would have been crowded and busy in the foreground, with carts travelling along the old avenue to the mills. By the time she was a married woman, the unlit city must have seemed to loom closer as the fields and river emptied of this industry and the estate became one of the main local employers: beaters, gardeners, a gamekeeper, men to clear the silt from the traps in the river and to maintain the boat-ponds. Servicing the recreational pastimes of gentlemen amounted to its own small and prototypically modern leisure industry.
Early spring brings an odd problem: an orange helicopter has appeared in the lower lawn where the ewes due to lamb later this month are grazing, and I don’t know who owns it or why it’s there. A friend suggests clamping it, but is short on suggestions as to how this might be achieved. I call a new neighbour, who has a helicopter of his own berthed next to his house. ‘It belongs to a relative of mine,’ he states matter-of-factly of the intruding craft, ‘he had to land there yesterday afternoon.’ It transpires his nephew lives in Rathfarnham and berths his helicopter in west Dublin; after landing yesterday, he cadged a lift home with another of our neighbours, who assured him I wouldn’t mind if he left the craft there overnight. I’m not entirely convinced by the story I’m told of an emergency landing in sudden mists (which escaped me while I was weeding), and I suspect traffic on the M50 was the more immediate cause. After some discussion, we agree his relative might call up to the house for a brief chat when he comes to collect his chopper. I am surprised, when I open the door, by the nephew’s youth: he looks to be in his early thirties. ‘Do you mind me asking what line of business you’re in?’ I inquire, as neutrally as possible. ‘Property,’ he replies, ‘but I’m training to be a flying instructor.’
Shortly after starting my REPS course, I heard Shane Kenny on the News at One interview a developer about the future of the Dublin housing market. ‘I think it’s a disgrace that young people should have to commute from Gorey and as far away as Longford town when there’s plenty of land around Dublin that could be rezoned for housing. From the M50 you can see whole fields across South Dublin that are just lying derelict.’ Later, I cruised the stretch of motorway between Leopardstown and Firhouse, and, passing St Columba’s College, slowed down to look up the slopes of Kilmashogue. The broad green expanse of Marymount was illuminated in the winter sunlight, its pasture lying fallow in preparation for spring. A dark speck hovering above the landscape suddenly swooped down towards the traffic: one of the kestrels nesting in the blue cedars that crosshatch the long, white stone wall between our field and the townland of Aidencarrick above it.
In a sense the developer is right to say the fields are derelict. On my REPS plan, most of the hedgerows are listed as ‘escaped’; I am required to fill the gaps with sheep wire and spindly new hawthorn whips rather than attempt to cut the hedgerows back to their original lines. Gorse trims our view of Dublin Bay with a gaudy braid and blackberries are plentiful on the long briars that sometimes ensnare our sheep. Deer and grey squirrels have ring-barked some of the oldest trees along the stream so that we lose more with every storm. For the six years my grandmother managed the farm during the Second World War, it turned a good profit with a herd of 400 ewes. Now we are down to fewer than 60.
Under REPS, this state of natural dereliction can generate a modest income in ways a developer would be slow to comprehend. If I fence off the gorse bushes at the end of the field and abandon ‘any agronomic activity’, allowing the pimpernels, harebells and stitchworts to grow back along the sheep tracks and the grass to grow long enough for hares to hide their leverets, I’ll be creating a new habitat in accordance with Measure 4A. Another option (4C) would be to create a ‘nature corridor’, which means leaving a 2.5-metre margin out from the perimeter of each field when spraying with fertilizer or pesticides so the weeds can grow and provide cover and food for wildlife. The way Vincent and Sean see it, this farm’s long-standing inefficiency means that, bar the odd unsightly pallet stuck in a gap, there are few changes to be made to ensure we accord with ‘environmentally friendly farming practice’. The balance between wildlife and our paltry amount of stock seems to be just about right for a time when the European Union has decided it is no longer feasible to continue linking subsidies to agricultural production amid a landscape of butter mountains and milk lakes.
REPS is not the only agricultural policy to encourage a decrease in agricultural production. This year, the quietest revolution in Ireland’s history is underway as reforms to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy finally take effect. Under the Single Farm Payment Scheme, the subsidies that farmers used to be paid for producing livestock and tillage crops will be replaced by a cheque at the end of each calendar year whose value will not be linked to current farm output. The reforms, devised by the former EU agricultural commissioner Franz Fischler, are rooted in the idea that ‘decoupling’ payments from actual production will diminish the stockpiling of commodities like sugar and dairy produce whose prices were kept artificially high through subvention for the last forty years. This change has allowed the EU to argue during world trade talks that these payments will support farmers rather than produce, and hence will not contravene trade agreements with the United States. Without subsidies, it is predicted that true market values for agricultural produce will finally be established within the EU, ending decades of waste and the practice of dumping Europe’s excess produce on poorer markets. However, both Sustain (‘the alliance for better food and farming’) and Oxfam have greeted these claims with scepticism. They point out that by the Commission’s own assessments, gluts of grain and dairy produce will continue to be a feature of European agriculture for many years yet, partly because the many rounds of negotiation among member states mean that the cuts in subvention monies have turned out to be far less radical than originally promised by Fischler. These NGOs also predict that the EU will simply become more adept at hiding the export subsidies that allow European farmers to undercut producers from poor countries. Their reports make Fischler’s reforms seem less concerned with ensuring the stability of Europe’s rural civilizations than with the smoke and mirrors of a Victorian conjuror, making excess commodities vanish with a quick wave of the fiscal wand.
At the national level, these conjuring tricks take on a Gothic character: farmers will now be paid for the ghosts of those sheep and cattle that grazed the land at the dawn of this millennium. Each member state was allowed to choose the method by which a farmer’s entitlements would be allocated, and Ireland was one of the few to opt for the full severance of payment from production. As might be expected, Ireland selected the ‘historic model’ to implement these changes. Farmers are assessed retrospectively on the subsidies claimed and number of hectares farmed during the years 2000–2003 (known as ‘the reference period’).
Whereas inefficiency in our fields has produced a haven for wildlife that chimes well with REPS, my uncle’s scant regard for correspondence with the Department of Agriculture during these years may weaken our position when it comes to reckoning our Single Farm Payment. Spidery biro figures on the backs of unopened envelopes indicate that a bare minimum of ewe and slaughter premiums were claimed, while the accounts of how each field was used don’t seem to have been transcribed from scribbled notes made in conversation with Joe onto the required application forms. This past year I’ve felt like an archaeologist of sorts, piecing together the jottings I’ve found tucked into battered ledgers or in drawers filled with string and paper bags in the hope of assembling a record of what was actually farmed during ‘the reference period’.
With almost 50 per cent of Irish farms less than 20 hectares in size, and 41 per cent of farmers over the age of 55, there are concerns for the many, like my late uncle Charles, who never quite managed to keep up with the paperwork during the subsidies era. Few realized at the time that their future farm income would depend on the level of their activities during those four crucial years. Teagasc hopes that the poorer 50 per cent of Irish farmers will avail of REPS and choose to scale back their enterprises further, putting some of their land into forestry, and keeping a bare minimum of livestock, if any at all. Under the Single Farm Payment Scheme, the area farmed can be reduced by half without affecting the payment. For the many in dry-stock cattle and sheep production, the opportunity to abandon activities where profits were minimal or non-existent is welcome. Although farmers must continue to engage in ‘agricultural activities’, this no longer necessarily means rearing livestock or growing crops: it is defined simply as ‘maintaining the land in good agricultural order.’ This condition suggests it will still be necessary to keep some four-footed lawnmowers to graze the pastures clean, even though the new regime makes keeping a small herd seem like an expensive hobby for the future.
If all this looks like a good deal, it should be noted that the payments take no account of inflation; and most agricultural advisors believe the single-payment scheme will be abandoned in 2013, when it is euphemistically ‘due for review’. What will succeed it is as yet unclear, but out of each farmer’s payment, a clawback of between 3 and 5 per cent is being set aside for ‘alternative rural development.’ Reading the Irish Farmers Journal, it becomes clear there is little consensus on how this reserve should be spent – whether it should be reinvested in agriculture, or perhaps used to provide start-up loans to off-farm local enterprises that might benefit the whole rural community. The latter view accords with the implicit argument running through both REPS and the Single Farm Payment Scheme that at least half of Ireland’s farms are simply not viable in the mid- to long-term future, and that other sources of employment, such as rural tourism, will need to be found. Over 80,000 Irish farmers currently do not rely on farming for their main income and it is anticipated that over 6 per cent per annum will give up entirely.
Combine the Single Farm Payment Scheme with REPS, then, and you seem to have a phased-in retirement scheme for more than half of Ireland’s farmers. Outside the areas of interest to property developers, the price of agricultural land is likely to fall as the older generation retire to garden the hedgerows or to watch goldfinches feed on the new patches of wilderness seeded in place of corn or pasture. The Irish Farmers Journal has calculated that, in order to gain a €28,000 profit from sheep farming (including REPS payments), a farmer will have to own a minimum flock of 850 ewes producing 1.4 lambs per ewe at €70 a lamb, yielding a €20 net margin.* The consensus emerging is that under the new market rules beef farms are unlikely to attain good profits unless they comprise upwards of 2,000 acres of good pasture.
These figures suggest that over the next two decades the Irish landscape will come to resemble a patched and darned blanket more than the kitsch patchwork quilt of lore. Interspersed between cattle ranches and large tillage farms planted with GMO crops to reduce the escalating costs of pesticides and fertilisers will be a greater number of small forestry plantations, mainly of conifers, and pockets of straggling fields grazed by sparse herds, perhaps of native breeds, or exotics for which premium prices can be attained at farmers’ markets. The last slide on that first REPS evening in Glenasmole displayed a stark message for all in the room:
- Look at all your options
- Less could be more
- Don’t farm for the sake of it
The return to nature supported by REPS and indirectly by the Single Farm Payment Scheme may be greeted with some joy by the leisured urban classes who, like my ancestors, look to rivers not for mills but for recreation, whether as boating ponds or the spawning grounds for trout. Rural diversification might result in the proliferation of small food companies whose home-cured bacon and organic sausages, ordered online, will arrive vacuum-packed with the post in time for breakfast. It might mean planting willow saplings to be harvested after five years and turned into wood pellets to burn for industrial heating. The Green Party T.D. Mary White has suggested that the beet growers of Co. Carlow, recently made redundant, should cultivate rape and other brassicas to supply the vegetable oils which new research suggests are a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels for the tiny numbers of cars yet adapted to run on them; and the small producers of farmhouse cheeses, hedgerow jams and upper crust B&Bs heralded each weekend by the Irish Times magazine as the new rural pioneers may be ideally suited to the changing patterns of subsidies. But many of these markets have barely been tested and require the enterprise skills, training and financing that few of Ireland’s smaller-scale farmers possess, or, given their age profile, are likely ever to possess.
With the decline of manufacturing, class has become defined by habits of consumption: a hearty peasant stew cooked to Hugo Arnold’s recipe offers not just gastronomic pleasure, but something akin to transubstantiation for a middle class that has become evangelical in its worship of nutrition. Meanwhile, the hearty if hapless proletariat and peasants on You Are What You Eat have their turds picked over by Dr Gillian McKeith to diagnose not just the physical but the moral ills of eating the white bread that serves as communion wafers across these islands. CAP reform, too, ultimately comes down to shite. The Nitrates Directive, adopted by the Commission in 1991 but not yet implemented in Ireland, holds governments responsible for the pollution of watercourses and inland waterways by silage effluent and runoff from other farm fertilizers. It seems at first sight surprising that of all the Commission’s agricultural reforms, this piece of legislation controlling water pollutants should be the most keenly contested by the Irish Farmers’ Association and the Department of Agriculture. For recreational users of the countryside the penalties demanded by Brussels for Ireland’s non-compliance with this measure are expensive reminders of the wider shame we should feel over the abuse of our natural resources. But the reason for Ireland’s resistance gradually becomes clearer as we are asked to take out our calculators in the REPS classes.
The directive sets a limit of 170kg of nitrogen per hectare. This doesn’t just cover the spreading of artificial fertilizers or slurry; it also includes the shit produced by each animal in the field. Let’s take Joe’s example of old-fashioned agricultural efficiency: the plough horse that manures the soil as it tills each furrow. Each horse will produce upwards of 50kg per annum of nitrogen in its own dung, which sets a stocking limit of three horses and a lowland ewe (at 13kg per annum) to graze each hectare. More critical are the figures for dairy cattle, which produce 85kg of nitrogen per annum: this allows for only two cows per hectare. The implications are not hard to see. A profitable dairy farmer with a herd of 500 cows, mostly housed indoors, will under the current directive now need upwards of 250 hectares of land to meet these requirements regardless of the grass quality or how much extra feed they are given. The Netherlands has managed to negotiate a higher limit for its nitrogen production, due to its reliance on intensive farming, but so far the Irish government has been unable to win a similar concession and negotiations are ongoing without any prospect of a deal in sight. Without the derogation, the larger farmers will be unable to expand their herds without considerably expanding their farms.
If the directive is implemented here as it is currently drawn, a new market is expected to open up which will bring the small REPS farms and the larger cattle ranches into a symbiotic co-existence. Commercial farmers who strive to continue their intensive dairy or beef farming without purchasing more land will be forced to buy up spare nitrogen quota from part-time farmers, who, in accordance with the slim stocking levels allowed by REPS, will be grazing barely half the number of animals allowed by the directive. Put simply, those who don’t farm up to the 170kg limit will be in a position to sell their unused shite allowance to over-producers. This is analogous to the provisions of the Kyoto Agreement, which will require Ireland to fuel its continued economic expansion by buying spare carbon quota from less prosperous nations.
After doing these sums, and thinking about it on my way home, it dawns on me that the logic of Europe’s consumer society is revealed in all its scatological glory within the Nitrates Directive. Under its requirements we witness what Freud might term a ‘return of the repressed’ as the anal origins of money are revealed in the exchange of euros for the license to shit freely. Long before Freud, it was Jonathan Swift who saw the indispensable logic of repletion and excretion in the liberal economy and who, in Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels, satirized the bourgeois shame in its denial. Just as Joe’s plough-horse would have me learn the true value of production, so Gulliver is taught the lesson of his own beastliness by rational horses in the land of the Houyhnhnms. His revulsion at the filthy habits of those hairy quadrupeds, the Yahoos, kept by the Houyhnhnms as servants, who climb to the tops of trees and pelt him with excrement when he first arrives, is insufficient to protect him from the slow realization that he and his fellow Europeans are of the same kind. In daily conversations with his master, Gulliver seeks to explain how human civilization differs from his host’s in its politics, law and economy, and in time he comes to explain too the basis of its trading empire:
England was computed to produce three Times the Quantity of Food, more than its Inhabitants are able to consume, as well as Liquors extracted from Grain, or pressed out of the fruit of certain trees, which made excellent drink, and the same proportion in every other convenience of life. But, in order to feed the Luxury and Intemperance of the Males, and the vanity of the Females, we sent away the greatest Part of our necessary Things to other Countries, from whence in Return we brought the Materials of Diseases, Folly, and Vice to spend among ourselves.
To the gentle horse, Gulliver’s account of his country’s inability to share surplus produce among its citizens, rather than dumping the ‘greatest part’ on foreign countries, is incomprehensible, and positions Gulliver firmly among the Yahoos.
For Freud and Erich Fromm, capitalism shows human society to be arrested at the infantile stage of anal erotism, fascinated by the symbolic meaning that attaches to its own shit as gift, property, weapon or play. In his essay ‘The Excremental Vision’, Norman O. Brown observes that Swift understood that the elaborate system of bourgeois manners in the eighteenth century merely served to repress this association, thus allowing the circulation of commodities to continue without association with the natural and human waste left in its wake. Gulliver’s great insight from his observation of the Yahoos is that society can never hope to disguise the excremental origins of capitalism’s grubby interest in hoarding or throwing or boasting about money. When the traveller returns to civil society, he is forced to block his nose against the stench of denial within the polite confines of his family home, his only relief from hypocrisy afforded by close conversation with his odorous gardener.
Gulliver, who is a trained physician, notices during his stay abroad that the Yahoos have discovered a particularly nasty but effective cure for their own ailments. Whenever one of them falls ill,
a Mixture of their own Dung and Urine [is] forcibly put down the Yahoo’s throat. This I have since often known to have been taken with Success: And do here freely recommend it to my Countrymen, for the public Good, as an admirable Specifick against all Disease produced by Repletion.
The Nitrates Directive is undoubtedly a Yahoo cure for the ills of European agricultural repletion which the Irish farm organizations are finding difficult to swallow but will have to in the end. In contrast, it is unlikely that the developers who view these fields as simply the next meal for their gargantuan appetites will ever submit to such a purgative. Their prosperity depends upon denying the logic that endless consumption inevitably entails waste. The process of being forced to confess publicly at the Flood Tribunal to every symbolic turd passed in a brown envelope might have served as a form of colonic irrigation for the most affluent members of Irish society, but it is one that seems to have served little lasting effect on ‘the publick good’.
Perhaps, however, there are a growing number of Gullivers in Ireland today who share his nostalgie de la boue. Shoppers in the farmers’ markets dream not just about how their purchases will taste, but about the good which unindustrialized modes of production will bring not just to them but to society. The pork sold at my local farmers’ market, which is touted as coming from ‘happy Tamworth pigs’, is not just tastier: it is seen as a more moral purchase than the intensively reared and processed Danish chop sitting on the supermarket shelf. But the ethical superiority felt in purchasing from the small agrarian producer should not blind us to the fact that being able to taste the difference is intrinsic to our bourgeois identities, and serves also to put distance between our ‘tasteful’ lives and the ‘tasteless’ pursuits of the white pan eaters whose livelihoods have traditionally depended upon areas of processing and manufacture no longer considered viable in Western Europe. With half of Ireland’s farmers likely to cease agricultural production, a few instead becoming guardians and protectors of the remaining outposts of rural heritage squeezed between expanding cattle ranches and tillage farms, our sense of an autochthonous national identity – which for so long has relied upon the stability of the rural landscape – will have to adapt rapidly.
As the weather turned colder in January, a neighbour asked me whether I had any sloping fields that might be good for tobogganing should it snow. When I confirmed I did, and asked him whether this was one of his own winter pursuits, he tutted briskly. ‘You know it takes only one stupid fecker to hurtle off, smack his head on a rock and paralyse himself for there to be a claim against you, and the insurance won’t cover you unless you’ve signs everywhere warning everyone that they are stupid fecking eejits at their own risk.’ ‘Well, you can’t stop someone from tobogganing down a hill if that’s what they want to do,’ I protested, remembering the exhilaration of the snowy Glencullen slopes when I was a kid. ‘No, you can’t,’ he admitted, ‘but what you can do is take out your slurry tanker the night before and give the field a good coating. That’ll stop most of them.’
Out in the carpark, or more accurately on the basketball court that serves as one on REPS nights, Sean says to me, ‘Do you remember the first night when you came up here and you didn’t have a clue where you were coming to at all?’ There’s a warm quiet in the valley and voices float down from the top road. Sean glances up. We can see the interior light of a car and another pair of headlights. ‘You usually go up that way, don’t you?’ he asks. ‘Better go down by Billy’s Bridge at Oldbawn tonight. You never know, probably teenagers, but they can be wild.’ I linger a bit, reluctant to head for home now that the course is over. I realize that I had been vaguely hoping for an announcement on this last night that a refresher course was planned for later in the year, or, even better, a practical course in sheep-shearing and dipping. As I drive away, glimpsing the reservoir between the trees, I remember that Glenasmole is where Oisín stooped to help his aged friends from the Fianna roll away a stone, and falling from his horse, instantly grew old. And I think of a poem by Fergus Allen, which ends like this:
Glenasmole now has its solitaries, flitting
Between the alders, senses tuned to receive
Warnings and conjurations that rarely come –
Lonely, if that’s how you see them, or defenders
Of the last bridgehead, as they themselves might put it.
*For much of this local information I am indebted to Ernie Shepherd, Behind the Scenes: The Story of Whitechurch District in South County Dublin (Dublin: Whitechurch Publications, 1983), pp. 5-9.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 19 Summer 2005