From lifting peat to lifting faces

Remembering Peasants. A Personal History of a Vanished World, Patrick Joyce, Allen Lane, illus, £25.00.

In the small Irish town of Westport, County Mayo, a quarter of the town’s population are employed by a firm making Botox, the neurotoxin widely used as an anti-wrinkle cosmetic. The workers who produce the world’s supply of the cosmetic were once small farmers or the children of small farmers. These who lived and farmed the land now work in the cosmetics industry.

It is these past farm workers and small farmers that Patrick Joyce is recalling in his book. The great wheel of life which turned human beings from hunter gatherers to Neolithic farmers has turned again. Worldwide the human beings who lived off the land are vanishing, displaced by the post-war agricultural revolution of the last century and the ever-growing urbanisation.

“Peasant” is the term Patrick Joyce, a history professor, uses to categorise his subject. Within this somewhat vague group he includes both the relatively rich and definitely poor people who directly supported their families by their work on the land. The term therefore could include smallholders, farm labourers, sharecroppers, the small poor farmers of Ireland, the serfs of the Russian landlords, and the independent peasants or Ukrainian kulaks forced back into a kind of serfdom on Communist collective farms.

The decline has been rapid. In Europe, as late as 1950, about a quarter of the population in France and Austria were peasants, but by 2019 this had shrunk to a mere three per cent and four per cent respectively. In Ireland, their disappearance was most marked in the “tiger” years of the economic boom from 1993 to 2008. In those 15 years, the number of Irish farms declined by a third. Those people who may still run a family firm are more like hobby farmers, having to find a second income away the farm to survive.

Patrick Joyce examines not just the peasants of Ireland in detail but also those of Poland and Italy, drawing together the similarities in lifestyle, religion and bleak hardship of trying to make a living off the land. Mere survival required unremitting labour. In Poland at the end of the nineteenth century, 80 per cent of the peasant plots were less than five acres. In Sicily in the 1940s a farm labourer would work till late in the night and then might have to walk long miles home in the dark. The only escape or respite from this toil would be seasonal work in the town or abroad, or full emigration. Remittances from family members abroad were, and in some countries still are, vital for family survival.

Peasant houses could be very basic. In Poland the peasant house was traditionally made wholly with wood and consisted of two rooms, one with a stove called the black room and one without called the white room. In Ireland a peasant house, usually built with stone, would also have only two rooms. A window for each room was found in the better houses; in the poorer ones there might be no windows, only the door to let in light.

For some unfortunates the peasant house in either Ireland or Poland would be made of sods, sections of turf, rather than stone. Joyce comments that a sod house was a “dwelling sometimes no more than if an animal had burrowed into the earth to cover itself.” But occasionally, if a sod house was roofed securely, the building could be waterproof and quite elaborate.

In both Irish and Polish peasant homes, animals like hens and dogs wandered in and out, sick animals were nursed near the fire or stove, garden produce was ripened either inside or outside the house in summer. This comment by the author lets slip that the author was brought up in a town. Both Polish and Irish ornaments in a peasant house were usually pictures and figurines of saints and the Holy Mother.

For the peasants of most of the European countries mentioned in this book, Catholicism has permeated their lives. Photographs of religious occasions in the last century, whether inside church or upon a pilgrimage, show the men and women dressed in their Sunday best. The men are wearing suits, worn and threadbare perhaps, but bestowing a certain dignity to the wearers. A particularly touching photo shows six Irish men at a pilgrimage site in County Mayo in the 1970s. They are wearing ties and suits under their coats; they are bareheaded having taken their hats off at the holy site; and one of them, kneeling has no shoes. He has walked up to the summit of the holy mountain with bare feet as part of his religious observance.

Other black and white photographs in this book tell the story of peasant hardship – three women pulling a plough in the place of donkey or horse, an Irish housewife sitting in front of the open fire smoking a man’s pipe, the author’s young cousin Sean barefoot in a family photo, a husband and wife with a little girl kneeling by a sheaf of corn with a cross on the top for a blessing on the first of the harvest. For in most peasant families women and older children worked as hard in the fields as their menfolk.

Hunger cast a shadow over most peasants. For many there was yearly family hunger when the previous year’s produce had been eaten and the present year’s harvest was not yet gathered in. Famine was never far away. The most severe famine of the nineteenth century was the potato famine in Ireland resulting from the blight on potatoes. Thanks to the totally inadequate help from the authorities, a third of the population died or emigrated. In the 1940s the same lack of help from a British government created a high death rate in the Bengal famine of India. But it was deliberate party-political policy that created Stalin’s famine imposed upon the peasant kulaks of Ukraine in the l930s and the Chinese deaths of Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s.

Remembering Peasants is not an easy book, as the writer at times assumes the reader has knowledge of previous studies of peasant life. Nor is it, strictly speaking, A Personal History of a Vanished World, for many of the author’s sources are literary rather than personal recollections. His comments upon these literary sources are referenced, but more of the data behind his reflections would have been welcome for this ordinary reader. Another problem is that the photographs have been inserted directly into the text, rather than on a glossy insert, and they are sometimes used unnecessarily small. When the author comments on these at length it is difficult to see in the blurred photo what he is mentioning. Better design and more intelligent use of the photographs by the publisher would have enhanced my enjoyment of this book.

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