In the scheme of things, the emergence of the family farm in rural Ireland is a relatively recent phenomenon. The land laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries changed the character of rural communities and the character of people. They allowed tenants to become owners, leading to a new stratification of society. They also gave birth to a new strain of literature.
n the first paragraph of Agriculture in modern Irish literature, Nicholas Grene recognizes this when he writes “the small family farm continues to be a setting and a subject for Irish writers”.
While the cover claims the work covers the period since 1922, Grene follows these writers and their work from George Moore. The uncultivated field in 1903 at John Connell The cow book in 2018. This is a rich book written by someone who knows his subject: Grene was Professor of English Literature at Trinity College Dublin from 1999 to 2015.
Although this is an academic work, it is not dry reading. For the student of Irish literature this will be an invaluable resource. For anyone raised on a family farm, this will conjure up smiles, grimaces, laughter and more than the occasional chill.
From the chapter “Family and inheritance”, Grene goes to the heart of his subject. It examines how modern Irish literature manages the range of ingredients bubbling in the cauldron that is the inherited family farm.
“The small Irish farm, with its ideological freight, its property acquired after such a politically charged struggle was the site where money, meaning and emotional investment met in the crux of family relationships,” he writes.
Add to that institutional religion, emigration and bigotry, and the combination creates a nutritious stew for generations of authors, playwrights and poets. The author recognizes a multitude of them and cites extensively an astonishing range of works. By Padraic Colum Earth in 1905 to Eugene McCabe’s play king of the castle in 1964 and the contemporary works of Anne Enright and Belinda McKeon, the list of those inspired by the family farm is long and richly populated by many of Ireland’s most famous writers.
The pantheon of poets, novelists, short-story writers and biographers who dine on this pot is perhaps too vast for this relatively short work. In fact, each of the chapters contains enough material for a book on its own. When reading the study, one sometimes had the impression that the author was anxious to leave no one behind.
A chapter on ‘Life on the Margins’ deals with the literature that emerged on the west coast, from Donegal to the Blaskets. In an interesting layering, Grene identifies what might be called three schools of coastal writing. Northern writers such as Peadar O’Donnell, Séamus Ó Grianna and Patrick MacGill concern themselves with poverty. Grene describes the work of Aran writers, including J. M. Synge, Máirtín Ó Direáin and Liam O’Flaherty, as dealing with the idea of man “living in the natural world, struggling with the sea, struggling with bare rock”.
He views Blasket writers Tomás O’Crohan, Peig Sayers, and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin as primarily concerned with reminiscing and documenting a vanishing way of life.
Video of the day
A fascinating chapter on childhood memories covers works ranging from the benign pen of Alice Taylor to the scalpels of Claire Keegan and Edna O’Brien.
The family farm from childhood is remembered as a place of softness and hardness, light and dark, where bread-baking hands can twist a chicken’s neck with all the deadpan of a trained killer. .
Grene uses John B Keane Field take a cold look at the notion of rural community. He says of the work “despite all its elements of old-fashioned melodrama, it still presents itself as a study of a closed society”.
The last three chapters focus on the place of agriculture in the work of Patrick Kavanagh, John McGahern and Seamus Heaney. Kavanagh’s love-hate relationship with the land oscillates between its sense of the farm as a place of beauty and a place of trapping.
McGahern’s farming experience was gained on his father’s hobby farm. Grene argues that throughout his fiction, the farm is present “as a currently imagined way of life, whether imposed, chosen, or rejected”. His novel Among the women contains all the classic strains found on the Irish family farm.
Heaney left the family farm in Mossbawn, Co Derry, aged 12, but Grene cites an interview given by the poet in 1980 where he described the farm as the “first depot experience”, which informed his poetry, describing it as almost “hermetically sealed”. away from the rest of his life.
Even with the benevolent worldview of someone like Heaney, it’s inevitable that the family farm will emerge from a study like this looking like a haven of dysfunction. Literature, like news agencies, thrives on what is fractured and broken, tolerating only the occasional bout of redemption. For a complete stranger reading Grene’s study, the Irish family farm might seem like the last place on earth one would want to be.
In fairness to the author, he deals with what he finds and gives space to light as well as dark, spanning both extremes of the Kavanagh Oscillation.
This is not a trip down memory lane; rather, it is a journey into the experience of the Irish family farm as interpreted by writers who know its joys and sorrows, its warm hands and sometimes cold heart.
Nonfiction: Agriculture in Modern Irish Literature by Nicholas Grene
Oxford University Press, 256 pages, hardcover €77.50; e-book £50