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THE RALAHINE LEGACY
BIOREGIONAL FOOD PRODUCTION IN THE MODERN WORLD
The State is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution,
but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings,
a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships,
by behaving differently.
- Gustav Landauer
I am a traveller by trade
I only have what I have made
A fortuneteller too, they say
And I can take you all away
- Sandy Denny
Bismark, the German Chancellor, once remarked unkindly or perhaps
ironically that if the Irish ruled the Netherlands it would be under
water, but if the Dutch controlled Ireland they could feed Europe.
There may be some truth in this anecdote. The Dutch are model farmers,
even in remote unforgiving places like Connemara where the topsoil
is found in the crevices between the granite rock. The Irish, by
comparison, have struggled with the concept and practice of agriculture
as a means of growing food to feed their populace. Farming is an
industrial activity. Land is turned over for the use of monocultures
like wheat, oaks, barley, potatoes and sugar beet or for the raising
of cattle, and, where bogs and rocks predominate, sheep are grazed
which denude hill and mountain side. The country's daily food needs,
including vegetables and meat, is met by imports. Ireland's own
production of food, especially dairy produce and meat, is mostly
for export - as it has been since the land clearances of the 18th
The idea that people should grow their own food and keep animals
for their own needs is given no credibility. Organic farming is
not taken seriously, except by non-natives. Gardens are for lawns
skirted by roses. Self-sufficiency is a hippy phrase. Bioregionalism
is a word few understand and such a thing as a worker-led agricultural
co-op is a nasty communist scheme. "Do we want to be organic
farmers or waitresses or do we want to get on with it?" was
the prevailing theme as Irish society opted for post-modern urban
prosperity in the early 1990's.
A researcher taking the time to find out why this attitude prevails
might see a government policy which only encourages industrial agriculture
because the state abandoned the concept of community-oriented agriculture
in the 1950's when it decided to make modern Ireland a haven for
the chemical corporates. This was to boost its gross national product
at the time when the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund,
the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and US-led corporate
capital was mapping out the first territories for the establishment
of globalisation. Our researcher might also conclude that the majority
of Irish land is unfit and the climate too variable for small-scale
farming and gardening, that the amount of effort would not produce
sufficient foodstuffs, that the Irish do not have what it takes
to be farmers, unlike the Dutch!
The real reasons have both historical and contemporary precedents.
Bismark might have had a different opinion of food production in
Ireland if a utopian ideal in the early decades of the 19th century
had been allowed to flourish and gain popularity. Modern agriculture
might have included industrial, community, and family farming. Instead
the agricultural co-op founded in Ralahine, near the Limerick-Ennis
road in County Clare, in 1831 is a fragment of Irish history hardly
known. Where it is known, it is dismissed as a failure. Ralahine
failed because the proprietor of the land, John Scott Vandeleur,
retained legal ownership of the estate. It did not fail because
labour-intensive, worker-led, agricultural co-ops do not work.
This was the lesson of Ralahine, James Connolly wrote in Labour
and Irish History. "Had all the land and buildings belonged
to the people, had all other estates in Ireland been conducted on
the same principles, and the industries of the country also organised,
had each of them appointed delegates to confer on the business of
the country at some common centre such as Dublin, the framework
and basis of a free Ireland would have been realised."
In a moment of madness not unusual among the Anglo-Irish landlord
class, Vandeleur's utopian scheme crashed when he lost at the gaming
tables, fled the country, and allowed a Limerick relative to file
for bankruptcy against him. There has been a suggestion that he
was set up, because the British establishment did not want to see
anarchist-style co-ops springing up all over the west of Ireland
- particularly at a time when it was desperate to remove pesky peasants
from the land, to turn it over to grazing for livestock, and increase
the size of each farm.
The tragedy here is that a proliferation of food producing co-ops
might have prevented the famines, which raged from the 1820's until
the 1840's, because the peasant Irish would have had access to a
variable food supply which they controlled. This is crucial. Famines
are not caused by lack of food. They are caused by the lack of access
to food and the inability, for various reasons, of people to grow
or pay for it. In Ireland in the mid-19th century a species of potato
known to suffer blight was the staple crop for the peasantry, as
it was for most of the poor of northern and western Europe. They
became dependent on it. When the crop failed successively the people
starved, died of disease, or fled the country. They did not do this
without a fight because they knew who the architects of their misery
A select committee of the House of Commons on 'The Employment of
the Poor in Ireland' noted at the time that "those districts
in the south and west presented the remarkable example of possessing
a surplus of food while the inhabitants were suffering from actual
want. The calamity may, therefore, be said to have proceeded less
from the want of food itself than from the adequate means of purchasing
it, or, in other words, from the want of employment".
Vandeleur's personal motives for setting up the co-op are not known.
They were not as altruistic as some have argued. Vandeleur did not
make it easy for the co-op workers. The rent he required the society
to pay him was higher than the national average at the time, and
while the workers did begin to amass savings from their earnings
it would have taken them many years to accumulate sufficient funds
to pay for "the stock, implements of husbandry, and other property"
belonging to Vandeleur.
Yet the Ralahine co-op had a positive effect on the well-being
and health of the workers. Edward Thomas Craig, the manager of the
co-op, wrote that rural Ireland presented "a melancholy picture
of a rich soil only partially cultivated, and a willing people unemployed".
Irish peasants, Craig believed, did not know what to do with the
land! What he should have added is that they were kept ignorant
by a social system that was driven by a combination of absentee
landlords, their Irish agents, the catholic middle-classes, catholic
priests, and a belief system founded on religious autocracy. Their
other problem was access to land and seed.
So it was natural that the established order would object to Vandeleur's
Folly - the epithet given to the enterprise by Margaretta D'Arcy
and John Arden when they told the story as a stage drama in 1978
- because they did not believe the peasants could look after their
own interests. "Others objected to the system," Craig
observed, "because it was not in accordance with the established
rules of political economy."
Despite the opposition, Vandeleur's utopian dream was made a reality
by the shrewd management of Craig and the industriousness of the
workers. "The peasantry began to hope and indulge in the expectation
that other landlords would adopt similar arrangements on their estates,"
wrote Craig. It wasn't to be. The conditions for the genocide of
a people had been put in place. One million people are believed
to have died as a result of the 'Great Hunger' of the 1840's and
as many more immigrated.
MEAT IS MONOCULTURE
What happened at Ralahine resonates through to the modern era.
Large monocultural farming, with its emphasis on industrial and
technological fixes, damages land and poisons eco-systems. It also
produces high profits for land-owners, speculators, corporates,
governments, and shipping agents. Roughly one 12th of the global
population do not own the land they farm, "including a near
majority of agricultural populations in south and south east Asia,
central and south America, and southern and eastern Africa".
With seed production now under the control of the corporates, and
governments introducing legislation to outlaw seed saving, the means
to self-sufficiency are being challenged. No land, no seed, no food.
The western world's obsession with meat has seen global consumption
of beef, mutton, pork, and poultry climb to 217 million tons in
1999 - a five-fold increase since 1950. Most of this protein finds
its way onto the plates of the rich (relative to their geographical
location). The countries where land is used to produce meat have
high levels of poverty and malnutrition. Export cash crops like
coffee, cocoa, tea, sugar, and soybeans have the same effect. Rich,
fertile land is owned, controlled, and used for raising meat, feed,
or cash crops - all destined for the western consumer. Rice, wheat,
maize (corn), and potato are the staple carbohydrate-rich foodstuffs
for the majority of the 6.2 billion people who inhabit the planet
- rice feeding almost two thirds of the human population - yet more
cultivated land is being used for animal fodder (soybeans) and cash
crops (coffee). Production of soybeans, used as a protein supplement
in animal feed in the US, requires more land than wheat and corn.
Despite a fivefold increase in land use for soybeans since 1950,
the yield has increased by only a half. The consequence has been
to clear more land for the cultivation of soybeans. In 2000, coffee
production shot up ten percent to 7.1 million tons. Most the world's
coffee, which is harvested in central and south America, is consumed
in the stress-filled, industrialised world.
The result of this is malnutrition and starvation among the poor,
and obesity and immune dysfunction among the rich. One billion people
are under-nourished while one billion are over-nourished. Obesity
is the cause of 300,00 deaths annually in the USA. Diabetes now
affects 154 million people globally.
The alternative is a quiet non-violent revolution, which is gaining
more credibility in central and south America, Asia and in fringe
communities (such as islands) than in the western world. Yet wherever
you look around the world, people are coming together to create
co-operatives and movements which combine worker participation with
fiscal realities and ecological solutions. Food centred eco-villages
are lighting up like tiny beacons everywhere. Barter schemes, local
currencies, and mutual aid clubs are working alongside capitalist
economic methods of exchange in many communities. Movements set
up to preserve and reclaim soil, trees and, water can be found in
diverse locations such Australia, Germany, America, India, Ireland,
What all these activities have in common is a gradual drift towards
a bioregional paradigm, which - in a post-oil, post-consumer world
- will be necessary if we are to feed ourselves no matter where
we live. Without oil, food production and distribution will grind
to a halt. But before that happens industrial agriculture will play
a part. Ecologist David Pimental sees a grim future for a world
dependent on the present system of food production. "When global,
biological, and physical limits to domestic food production are
reached, food importation will no longer be a viable option for
any country." Despite an increase in global food production,
world hunger is also increasing leaving only one solution - indigenous
land ownership and bioregional production.
It would be easy to be cynical about these seemingly insignificant
gestures on behalf of an eco-centred future. Many of the eco-co-ops
and eco-villages in the western world lack significant social dimensions
because they do not involve the indigenous communities. They tend
to be elitist and isolationist in their orientation so from the
start they have been seen from the outside as something that can
be dismissed because, particularly in English language speaking
countries, they have been characterised by the Beatrix Potter -
JRR Tolkein - Edward Abbey - loving set. People who have never had
to work in factories or live in dysfunctional families or suffer
racial abuse or breath toxic pollution or experience gaol, alienation,
discrimination, sectarianism, migration, or any of the everyday
aspects of the lives of people in murderous urban ghettos and factory
towns and crowded cities.
If any bioregional model of society is to take hold, it will have
to embrace social as well as ecological issues. Despite five decades
of warnings about the disintegrating ecology of the planet and analyses
that our social problems have their roots in our domination of nature
and labour, not one single leader of any country anywhere on the
planet has taken notice. A report Walter Goldschmidt prepared for
the US government in the 1980's found that small farm communities
had better economies than agribusiness communities, were more stable
and contributed to a higher standard of living. The US Department
of Agriculture refused to release the report.
Just to make sure that the masses do not give it a thought, the
media in all its forms has dismissed all ecological-centred activity
as a threat to business, jobs, profits, and our benign material
societies. If people cannot be persuaded to think ecologically,
asking them to accept bioregional solutions to a problem they cannot
see is a blind step into a scary world. Kirkpatrick Sale, in his
impelling book on bioregionalism, does not underestimate the personal
and social obstacles. "It will take some broad and persuasive
education to get people to realise that it is not the bioregional
task that is irrelevant but precisely the business-as-usual politics
of all the major parties of all the major industrial nations, not
one of which has made ecological salvation a significant priority,
not one of which is prepared to abandon or even curtail the industrial
economy that is imperilling us. And it will take patience to lead
people past their fear and lingering hatred of the natural world,
which grows as their ignorance of it grows."
His words are echoed by Chellis Glendinning: "We need to integrate
into our lives a new philosophy that reflects the wisdom of what
we are learning in our recovery and the wisdom of the kind of cultures
that all humans once enjoyed - earth-based, ecological, and indigenous."
The Ralahine Co-op is not our past, it is our future and it is
beginning to happen. The island of Cuba is a model organic farm.
Arainn, off the west coast of Ireland, is becoming one. Regions
of India have flourishing eco-villages that are self-sufficient
in food. Projects to turn lawns into small-scale gardens in North
America are modelled on European examples, particularly in Austria,
Germany and Switzerland. It has been estimated that the USA could
be self-sufficient in its food needs if it turned over all its lawns.
John Holloway argues that the struggle for radical change is now
part of our everyday lives and that revolution must be understood
as a question, not as an answer. It was a question posed by the
peasant workers of Ralahine. The reclaiming of food production is
*An Talamh Glas (bluegreenearth) is a globally oriented collective
working on two specific projects
- the publication BLUE (www.bluegreenearth.com)
- the Ripple Project (an educational programme designed to help
individuals and communities plan and set up bioregional food and
craft producing centres, rural, and urban woodland forests and gardens.
Info from: firstname.lastname@example.org