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In 1886, the government had to send a gunboat, HMS Banterer, with meal and potatoes to relieve distress. Housing conditions were bad, too. According to a paper written by Charles Browne in 1893 for the Royal Irish Academy, a typical house at the time consisted of a kitchen and one or two bedrooms and was built of dry stones and was plastered inside with mud or mortar. The roof was thatched and the floor was of clay. The windows were small and at the front of the house only, because the landlord would have raised the rent if more had been made. Most of the wood used in construction had been found as driftwood on the beach. Furniture consisted of a 'few stools, a rough table or two, with a dresser containing a scant assortment of earthenware, a spinning wheel and a quilting frame' while the bedroom would have two tent beds, some chairs and perhaps a small table. Pigs, hens and cattle were brought into the living room when they needed shelter because, again, the landlord would have charged extra had the tenant built outhouses for them.

No-one would wish to see Bofin return to conditions such as these, but surely there must be a middle way lying between the extremes of almost complete self-sufficiency on the one hand and near-total reliance on supplies and welfare payments from the outside world on the other. The challenge facing the island is to achieve such a balance, a task that this book is all about.

The fact is that Bofin's circumstances are nothing special. Tens of thousands of landlocked communities throughout Europe share essentially the same situation. It is just that, as it is an island, we can see more clearly what its problems are. If it was joined to the Irish mainland, it would never occur to us to think it a pity that almost everything it needed was brought in. We would ignore it, just as we do the communities elsewhere which are just as grotesquely over-dependent on social welfare payments and which are slowly dying too because the economic activities that were once the basis of their existence have withered away. We don't expect people housed on urban estates with much the same level of unemployment as on Bofin to bake their own bread and repair their own shoes but isn't this is exactly where our thinking has gone wrong?

The decline in Bofin and tens of thousands of other communities is due to the collapse of ways of life which in many cases enabled their people to support themselves successfully for centuries, albeit at what we, today, would consider to have been an unsatisfactory level. The main cultural collapse has been that of peasant agriculture. In Ireland as a whole, 670,000 people gained their main source of livelihood from the land in 1926, the majority working for themselves or for members of their families. By 1991, the total had dropped to 154,000, only 14% of the national workforce, and was still falling at the rate of twelve families a day. As a result, 224 villages in county Galway were abandoned completely during the 65-year period. 10,000 people emigrated from counties Galway, Mayo and Roscommon in 1986 alone.

Similarly rapid changes have taken place throughout Europe, particularly after World War II. In the conclusion to the second volume of his book The Identity of France, the great historian Fernand Braudel writes that the ancient, peasant France - 'a France of bourgs, villages, hamlets and scattered houses' - survived more or less unchanged until 1945 when 'it fell victim to the 'Thirty Glorious Years', that period of unprecedented expansion that lasted until the 1970s.' The final blow which killed it, he suggests, was the introduction of the tractor,

a machine which could pull anything: the most advanced plough, the huge combine-harvester (a mobile factory) or carts piled high with bales or (these days) compressed blocks of hay and straw. If it has been possible to amalgamate properties, and if the size of farm that a family can now handle has increased, it is very largely thanks to the tractor. How else could the huge fields we now see in so many farming areas even be ploughed?4

He asks himself why peasant agriculture was able to survive until so recently and suggests this answer:

Is it perhaps for the simple reason that peasant life offered, to what was certainly an over-abundant population, a balanced way of life? Near Céret, where I live, the Aspre valley has now reverted to nature: today, only brambles, shrubs and broom flourish on the poor and untended soil. Here, 'the equilibrium based on almost complete self-sufficiency, combined with a little trading, which had more in common with barter than with imports and exports, was lost for good in 1950' Adrienne Cazeilles writes to me (20 January, 1985). The population gave up, leaving everything just as it stood, as if evacuating an untenable position in wartime. But before that, the position had been perfectly defensible. Life in Aspre was not wretched: people were poor, certainly, and it was a hard life, but that is not the same thing. As one of my friends, born in 1899 in a peasant family used to put it humourously but accurately: 'The only thing we were short of was money.'

The people of Aspre did not leave because their way of life was inferior to that in the outside world - they left because it had been undermined by the outside world, and in particular by industrialization. They were displaced, made redundant, by systems of agriculture which used industrial inputs like the tractor to enable food to be produced at progressively lower prices so that, eventually, they were left with too little income from the proportion of their output they did sell to buy even the limited range of goods and services they needed from outside. Industry also extinguished the settlement on Shark - one of the reasons the people left was that larger mechanized vessels began catching the fish stocks previously taken by their sail- and oar-powered boats. In both cases - and in thousands of other ones too - the world lost systems of production that had enabled families to live sustainably for generations from the resources of their areas with very little input from elsewhere. Those affected had no option but to give up their largely independent ways of life and become almost totally reliant on others and on the industrial system for everything they needed. They were never offered a choice. External circumstances compelled them to give up making, catching and growing almost everything they needed and to switch to purchasing their requirements using wages earned from an employer or money given to them as a dole.

So, just as nomadic herders were displaced by settled farmers, peasant farmers and fishermen were displaced by the industrial system. The main difference about the more recent substitution was the lightning pace at which it came about. The German economist Alexander Rüstow, who was born in 1885 when his newly-unified country was industrialising rapidly, regarded the destruction of the largely self-sufficient peasant way of life and its replacement by the factory system as the advance of an extreme form of tyranny. This was because the factory workers, unlike their peasant forbears, had neither land nor skills to employ on their own account in order to secure their families' needs and therefore had no alternative but to work for whatever wages and under whatever conditions the factory owners chose to offer. The livelihood of the new type of worker was completely outside his or her control. Today, we are all dependent. How many of us would survive should the industrial system fail?

Rüstow regarded peasant culture as superior to any other form, a view that seems ridiculous to those of us who accept the dictionary definition of peasant as 'uncouth or uncultured' and who would consider being called one a term of abuse. But Rüstow is not alone. In his book The Villagers, Richard Critchfield, an American journalist who until his death in 1994 was clever enough to get commissions from his editors to enable him to report on life in villages around the world for the previous quarter-century, also saw peasant culture as humankind's greatest achievement and was concerned that industrial culture may not evolve to provide a satisfactory replacement. This was because the codes of conduct and attitudes that have enabled peasant cultures to survive throughout the centuries are the direct opposite of those fostered by the industrial system.

What are these peasant values? Critchfield quoted the University of Chicago anthropologist, Robert Redfield: 'an intense attachment to native soil; a reverent disposition toward habitat and ancestral ways; a restraint on individual self-seeking in favor of family and community; a certain suspicion, mixed with appreciation, of town life; a sober and earthy ethic'. The industrial system, on the other hand, has no respect for the environment or tradition and regards land as simply a factor of production. Its heroes are individual entrepreneurs and its predominant belief is that except in extreme cases the market should limit the search for profit, not the community. Industrialism's supporters also accept that family should not stand in the way of an individual's career.

According to Critchfield, peasant culture is the source of the world's major religions and concepts of morality and, as urban industrial society is failing to ensure that moral codes are successfully transmitted from generation to generation, it is eroding the ethical basis on which it is built. He quotes Walter Lippmann:

The deep and abiding traditions of religion belong to the countryside. For it is there that man earns his daily bread by submitting to superhuman forces whose behavior he can only partially control. There is not much he can do when he has plowed the ground and planted his seed except to wait hopefully for sun and rain from the sky. He is obviously part of a scheme that is greater than himself, subject to elements that transcend his powers and surpass his understanding. The city is an acid which dissolves this piety. Yet without piety, without a patriotism of family and place, without an almost plant-like implication in unchangeable surroundings, there can be no disposition to believe in an external order of things. The omnipotence of God means something to men who submit daily to the cycles of weather and the mysterious power of nature.5

Critchfield feared anarchy and civil disorder would break out if the cities' acid ate away too much of the moral basis of life and that urban industrial culture might be unable to repair the damage due to the death of morality's rural roots. "All our culture - our institutions of family and property, religion, the work ethic, the agricultural moral code and mutual help - originated in the villages" Critchfield wrote. "Farming is hard....but agriculture creates societies that work... No substitute for the rural basis of our urban culture has yet been invented..... As President Clinton has reminded us, 'Our problems go way beyond the reach of government. They're rooted in the loss of values, in the disappearance of work and the breakdown of our families and communities'".

He therefore urged us to seek 'a substitute for the old rural basis of our soon-to-be global urban culture'. This book, however, is not about what such a search might find. Instead it discusses a possibility Critchfield probably thought too remote to mention, namely, that communities might find ways to resist being destroyed by the industrial system and, out of their struggle for survival, a modern version of a peasant culture might be born.

To those readers who think Critchfield and Rüstow wore rose-tinted spectacles and immediately associate a traditional peasant community with ignorance, extreme conservatism, bigotry and a chokingly-tight level of social control I would say that the new version does not have to be like its predecessor. In fact it would be almost impossible for it to acquire those characteristics because attitudes have shifted too far and because of the constant, unstoppable flow of information and ideas into every community, particularly through the Internet. What community in the industrialized world nowadays gives sole moral authority to its priest? Nevertheless, a great debate will have to break out in every emerging new-peasant community on the balance it should strike between the interests and rights of individuals and those of the group as a whole. Different communities will find different solutions but of one thing we can be sure: while no place will opt for the over-restrictive systems of yesterday, very few will find it possible to survive if they adopt the most extreme libertarian positions of today.

Click for 2003 update on Inishbofin's economy by Joanne Elliott, a journalist and resident of the island.

4 The Identity of France, Vol II (Harper Collins: New York 1990), p. 675 Back to text
5 The Villagers (Anchor Books, Doubleday: New York 1994), p. 431 Back to text

Chapter 1: Out of Control

Short Circuit by Richard Douthwaite: links within this site

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