Mary O'Rourke: 'We'll all regret it forever if we don't help our small farmers' – Farming Independent

I was in Dublin on the day of the recent farmers’ blockade, but nowhere near the protest itself. However, I found myself in strange sympathy with the group of independent farmers who knew that their livelihoods were slipping away from them, and that something had to be done to bring their dilemmas to the forefront of Irish life.

That night as we came home from Dublin, we passed James Geoghegan, of Tyrrellspass, on his tractor. We hooted and waved at him and, as we did, my mind flashed back to my link with the small farmers of Ireland.

As I have written before, my mother was the daughter of a Co Sligo couple from Drumcliff.

My grandmother was left with six children, and one in her womb, when her husband, Bernard (Brian) Scanlan, was carried home to her, almost lifeless, following an affray in a pub in Sligo town.

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So how did this come about? My grandfather was a member of the North Sligo executive of the United Irish League. This was an offshoot of the agrarian work of Charles Stewart Parnell, who passed away in 1891.

Bernard, in pursuit of his duties, was arguing in a pub about Parnell when the fight occurred, and the outcome was that my grandmother was left rearing all her young family alone on a bare 12 acres of Ben Bulben land at Drumcliff.

All of this came to my mind as I thought of the farmers fighting their case.

When my grandmother was left with her six young fatherless children, it was a time of very small social benefits. The social welfare reforms brought in later by Lloyd George had not yet reached Ireland.

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However, my grandmother battled on and was lucky in that she had a first cousin, a nun in the Ursuline Convent in Sligo, who saw each of her daughters through secondary school, which was practically unknown at that time for young women.

My mother recalled that her mother would often say, after they had all eaten together: “Now boys, ye do the clearing up, because the girls have to do their study”. What a great example that was growing up in that household.

History is so interesting, and that is why it was vital that Joe McHugh did what he did when he decided to continue to make it a core subject at Junior Cert level.

And so it was that I found myself in sympathy with the small independent farmers of Ireland. In my mind, I traced it back to the direct link with my grandfather and the work he did on behalf of small farmers in that remote area of north Sligo. So the link with Charles Stewart Parnell is not fanciful or out of this realm; it is clear and distinct.

We all, whether living in urban or rural areas, will regret it forever if we don’t attend to the definite needs of small farmers.

We saluted the valiant tractor being driven back to Tyrrellspass that day, and indeed those travelling to all the other areas throughout Ireland. They had gone to Dublin to make their case. Yes, they had upset so many people, and I fully understand that upset. But I also fully understand that my grandfather did his bit well over 130 years ago when he continued the fight for the small farmers of Ireland.

We know the government cannot directly influence the price paid to the farmers for beef at the factory gates. But what can be done as a government is to ensure utter transparency, so that it is very clear what exactly the farmers are getting, what it is costing each farmer to produce the beef, and then what is the price they are obtaining for it.

In a changing Europe, and in far more open markets, it is important that whatever ideas and plans the government has are open and transparent, so that everyone can see if it is worth the while of the small farmer to continue to produce beef and to continue to put their fine products on to the market, in the light of changing consumer tastes.

I think it is all worthwhile, and in my heart of hearts lies the memory of my grandfather, Bernard Scanlan of Drumcliff, who continued the Parnell fight for agrarian reform, and who represented the small farmers of north Sligo. And my grandmother who was left to rear her large family in the aftermath of his killing.

Ah yes, the shadow of the past looms large, but contains within it the hopes and the seeds for a better framework for the small farmers of Ireland as they continue to ply their living in a changed world.

Mary O’Rourke is an author and former government minister.

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