Rosemary Barnes, 2018
This paper is based on Mrs Ann Gibbons’ work of 2010 “Farmers on the Move: The Strategic Mobilisation of the Farming Lobby in 1960s Ireland”1. Mrs Gibbons was an active participant in the mass movement of farmers which culminated in The Long March of 1966 which highlighted farming rights and social exclusion in pre-European Union Ireland. Their actions drew attention to the States fear of collectivism and the discourses and practices which are rarely explicit. They are comprised of self-evident givens for the ways things are and are contained in institutions, organisations and practices which constrain certain citizens and enable others.
In the 1950s, Irish farming families were perceived as romantic with a distinctive culture and traditions “with comely maidens [and] dancing at the crossroads”2, but this perception disguised the hardship of farming before mechanisation. The business of running the family farm was labour intensive, water was often drawn by hand and rural electrification still had to reach many areas. Much of the work was done manually and invariably shared by adults and children. It was a times of horses rather than tractors, cattle were driven to the fair on foot, creamery cans were left at the end of the land for collection. It was an era of long days of toil, sowing, reaping and gathering. Trading was confined to the local area and the U.K.3
It is estimated that farming families’ income was less than £5.00 per week compared to non-farming families for whom £10.00 per week was considered a living wage4. Excessive taxation in the form of rates was placing further financial pressure on families, which challenged the farms ability to support all family members. As a result emigration to major cities and abroad continued to rise, resulting in social and economic problems, and mainly the elderly and children were left on the farm5. Rural Ireland was in crisis, a way of life was dying and the government was not prepared to listen or act.6
Without support from their Dail representatives farming families had to organise as a unified group regardless of political and sectarian affiliations; In January 1955 the National Farmers Association was formed.7 When Charles Haughey became the Minister of Agriculture he was believed to have referred to the NFA as “a pipsqueak organisation” 8.
The NFA was determined to secure basic rights for members. Eamonn DeValera had placed the rural idyll as the heart of Irish identity in its purest form9, now the NFA demanded more than lip-service for their recognition of their place in society. Gibbons states that Farmers wished to control their own industry with the power to negotiate and income to be on a par with the non-agri sector, marketing by necessity needed to be farmer led and price stability was crucial. With these six declared objectives, throughout the 1950s and 60s the NFA attempted to gain representation and consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture.10
To this depressed social, economic and political situation the 1966 harvest failed, the land was so wet that Gibbons describes it as “more suitable for growing rice as corn”11. The lack of produce meant no income and no food to feed the animals during the winter and the following spring. Therefore credit was urgently needed for fodder to keep animals fed and alive. Calls for support were met with non-productive talks and broken promises.12 At the NFAs 1966 AGM the decision was taken to take their protest to the capital and this action became known as “The Long March”.
Gibbons states that It took 7 weeks to organise and started from Bantry, Co. Cork on 7th October 1966. It was 217 miles to Government Buildings in Dublin, they walked 17 miles per day in silence and were joined by similar groups from every county and arrived in the capital 11 days later on 19th October.
The Kilkenny contingent were led by Tom Neary of Keatingstown, and they wore black and amber armbands. They assembled in Loughboy where Miss Costello and her team provided refreshments. The Gowran branch of the NFA provided food and shelter at the Parochial Hall and the group moved on to Garryduff in Paulstown13. Others attended the Merrion Square Rally by a special train from Kilkenny at the cost of 23/-, a journey lasting 2 hours and 10 minutes14.
On the 19th October the 30,000 protesters marched through Dublin led by a lone piper, they stretched back for over a mile, powerfully silent except for the sound of their footsteps but on-lookers clapped loudly in support.15 It was estimated that 200,000 people around Ireland were actively involved in the march. All with the same determination to make a firm stand for the future of Irish farming and their families way of life. The declaration of farmers rights was read “Not a bad effort for a pipsqueak organisation” declared TJ Maher.
A delegation of nine men, Deasy, Maher, Gibbons, Dunphy, Stack, Bergin, Holland, Leddy and Cahill slipped away behind the barricades to the steps of the Ministry of Agriculture where they were met by the Ministers secretary and refused entrance.16 And so nine protesters waited on the wet steps for the Minister to receive them. The 30,000 marchers peacefully filed away,” they went home silently as they had come, by train, by bus, by car, and by foot”17.
The Merrion nine waited through the night believing that come morning they would enter the Ministry. Instead the Gardaí, picked up each person from the steps and placed them on the pavement. “They sat in the gutter … through October into November,… groups of farmers from every county kept vigil with the delegation for the entire duration”18. “Messages of support came from farming organisations worldwide. Meals and hot water bottles were supplied from the Gresham Hotel”19.
After 21 days looking up at the stars they were invited into the Department to meet with Neil Blaney, the new Minister. In order to protect the men’s position outside their wives sat in their seats in their absence. Negotiations took place, promises were made and those promises were broken20.
With the failure of discussions the farming community escalated their protests and so the government reacted by imprisoning some 200 people [Ibid, p. 13.]. The impasse allowed a truce of sorts and the Minister and the NFA were to start new talks on 28th April 1967. Unfortunately government made a pre-emptive strike ahead of these talks and took action, a series of dawn raids were carried out across the country. In Kilkenny, family farms in Bonnettsrath, Duninga, Danesfort, Tullaroan, Kilmanagh, Windgap and Stoneyford were woken up to Special Branch, Gardaí and up to 50 trucks of military personnel who assisted the Sheriffs seize domestic and farm property.21
That evening Taoiseach Jack Lynch went on television and threatened the NFA with proscription, to be condemned as an illegal organisation22 and its members criminals, on the same legal footing as an IRA member. Lynch “said they had gone past the point of no return” by threatening the power of the government.23
“The transition to normality came in 1969 when TJ Maher met with Jack Lynch”24. The NFA was granted recognition for consultation and negotiation, and invited to contribute to the Third programme for Economic Expansion.25 This reconciliation was probably necessitated due to the impending entry into the EEC (The EU), as facilitation, social and economic inclusion and matters of equality or lack thereof may have delayed Ireland’s entry into the EEC for several years. “This dispute should never have happened”26, the governments right to govern was never challenged, it certainly wasn’t revolution but more likely a fear of collectivism that led to these events.
Half a century later the surviving walkers believed the Long March was a turning point in achieving recognition for farmers, farming families and a way of life. In appreciation of their outstanding contribution the Merrion Nine and their partners27 were presented with awards28 on the 50th anniversary29 by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
1 Gibbons, Ann. 2010. “Farmers on the Move: The Strategic Mobilisation of the Farming Lobby in 1960s Ireland”. UCD School of Social Justice Working Paper Series. 10(3):1-16. Dublin: University College Dublin.
2 Eamonn de Valeras St. Patricks Day address 1943.
3 Arensberg, Conrad M., and Kimball, Solon T. (1940) “Family and Community in Ireland”. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
4 Gibbons, A. 2010. p. 5.
5 Hannon, Damian F.,(1979) “Displacement and Development: Class, Kinship and Social Change in Irish Rural Communities”. ERSI Paper No.56.
6 Brody, Hugh. (1973) “Inishkillane – Change and Decline in the West of Ireland”. London: Penguin.
7 Gibbons, Ann. (2010) p. 3.
9 Saris, A. Jamie. (2000) “Culture and History in the Halfway House: Ethnography, Tradition, and the Rural Middle Class in the West of Ireland”. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
10 Gibbons, Ann. (2010) p. 4.
11 Ibid p. 6.
12 Ibid p. 6.
13 Ibid, p. 8.
14 Ibid, p. 8.
15 Ibid, p. 9.
16 Ibid, p. 10.
17 Ibid, p. 10.
18 Ibid, p. 11.
19 Ibid, p. 12.
20 Ibid, p. 12.
21 Ibid, p. 14.
22 Ibid, p. 14.
23 Ibid, p. 15.
24 Ibid, p. 15.
25 Ibid, p. 15.
26 Ibid, p. 15.
Arensberg, Conrad M., and Kimball, Solon T. (1940) “Family and Community in Ireland”. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
Barnes, Rosemary. (2003) Unpublished Masters Thesis in Anthropology in a Global Context. “Womens Work”. Department of Anthropology NUI Maynooth
Barnes, Rosemary. (2001) Minor thesis “An exploration of HIV/AIDS risk for disadvantaged women using narrative”. NUI Maynooth.
Brody, Hugh. (1973) “Inishkillane – Change and Decline in the West of Ireland”. London: Penguin
Commins, Patrick. (1986) “Ireland: A Sociological Profile”. Patrick Clancy et al. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.
Gibbons, Ann. 2010. “Farmers on the Move: The Strategic Mobilisation of the Farming Lobby in 1960s Ireland”. UCD School of Social Justice Working Paper Series. 10(3):1-16. Dublin: University College Dublin.