Agricultural advisory services: the subject of a new book

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Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh, author, lecturer and historian, delved into the past to bring the history of previous agricultural services to life in his book, Developing Rural Ireland – A History of Irish Agricultural Advisory Services.

Mícheál’s family hail from Leenane and more recently Dunmore. For several generations, agriculture has been a major tradition in the family generations of the native of Galway.

“The tradition goes back several generations on both sides. Both on my mum’s side in Abbeylara, County Longford and on my dad’s side in Connemara,” Mícheál said. It’s farming.

“We haven’t documented it categorically – which is an indictment against me, as I’m an agricultural and rural historian.”

His father’s family had been upland sheep herders, ‘interspersed with a measure of inshore fishing in the port of Killary’, while his mother’s family had been cattle herders, both dry and dairy .

The first agricultural memories of this 42-year-old man are “quite sensory”. “As for my mother’s family farm, I can still smell the recently vacated barn next to the house – which I only dared to waddle into because the recent occupants had left.”

“The memory of this smell remains moving and reminds me of those marvelous beasts that are cattle; their bodies pulsing with so much power contained in restraint – I can fully understand why cows are revered in the Hindu religion.

“As far as my father’s family farm is concerned, my most salient formative memory is the memory of spring and newborn lambs making their way through the mountainous fields, with the entrance of the Killary and the colors cascading on the slopes of Ben Gorm, their dramatic backdrop.

Education

Mícheál enrolled at Trinity College Dublin in 1997, majoring in history. After graduating in 2001, he continued his studies in agriculture.

He continued to be interested in history but, in addition, he began to take a specific interest in agricultural and rural history.

Mícheál acknowledged that “it has been hopelessly overlooked in Ireland even though we have a rich narrative”.

Dr Ó Fathartaigh currently works as an author, lecturer and historian. He spends his time researching and writing at NUI Galway’s Social Science Research Center while lecturing at Dublin Business School.

Mícheál has been teaching, researching and writing professionally since 2010, while drawing on a “long but varied” learning in his postgraduate studies.

Mícheál’s tasks include:

  • Its responsibilities towards its students, colleagues and institutions, facilitating them, in every way possible, the best academic results
  • His responsibilities towards his scholarship
  • “To research and write the most accessible, yet at the same time academically sound historical literature, primarily in the field of agricultural and rural history.”
A typical day in life

When teaching, Mícheál engages with source materials relating to his modules before classes begin, and then interacts with students during class.

“On days when I’m not teaching, I either, depending on the stage of the project I have in hand, engage in vigorous research or writing.”

“In terms of teaching, I most enjoy encouraging students in my central belief in the relevance of history.”

“In terms of scholarship, I also like to convey to readers my central belief in the relevance of history, particularly agricultural and rural history.”

Mícheál admits that trying “to achieve job stability in a notoriously precarious profession and striving, in particular, to earn even the average industrial salary of an industrious historian” is a challenge.

career highlight

The highlight of Mícheál’s career to date is the publication Developing rural Ireland with Wordwell Books.

He is currently working normally, but he was working remotely until this current academic year.

“The pandemic has had a very direct impact on my work as my course modules are heavily dependent on students visiting Ireland.”

“Since September, there has been a partial recovery in their numbers; therefore, the pandemic continues to impact my work, but not as critically.

Initially, Mícheál was inspired by Professor Gerry Boyle, the former director of Teagasc, who sponsored the book, and whose commission he won to support the book.

“A desire to fill a major gap in Irish historical literature: the history of agricultural advisory services, which were instituted over 120 years ago.”

Greater ambition was also Mícheál’s main source of inspiration.

“A desire to use the history of agricultural advisory services as a prism through which to tell the widest possible story of the development of rural Ireland, in general, over the last 120 years.”

“This story had been largely ignored by Irish historical literature despite – and this is quite extraordinary – the centrality of the story to Irish history itself. In this I was encouraged by a group of work of experts, chaired by Larry O’Loughlin.

“Finally, a desire to weave the narrative of rural Ireland into the wider narrative of Ireland, particularly into the political and social narratives.”

“It makes the book relevant to anyone who is interested in and appreciates the importance of Irish history.”

“Agricultural and rural history is partly a hard sell because it is often perceived as boring: I have made it my mission to challenge this misperception.”

Don’t lose sight of the story ‘on the ground’

The book tells the story of farmers and their families in 20and century Ireland.

He successfully conveys this image by portraying the “various and successive interactions between farmers and advisers throughout the century”.

The book also documents the evolutionary history of advisory services in the 20th century.

“Counseling services have been around longer than most of our other public services, like, for example, An Garda Síochána, and yet, unlike most of them, their long history has never been told.”

“As noted above, Irish national history and 20th century international history as it relates to Ireland are also explored.”

“This has been explored again using the new light thrown on him by the review of the agricultural and rural history book.”

“What was interesting were the intersections between mainstream history and the agricultural and rural history that is central to the book.”

“In order not to lose sight of the story ‘on the ground’, I have incorporated 12 county case studies into the book.”

This book will appeal to anyone connected with “counties, but such was the brilliance of local history in these counties, I am confident they will have universal appeal”.

“The increasing levels of education of Irish farmers were very happy to discuss,” shared Mícheál.

“Today, we take our farmers’ level of education for granted. However, they have grown quite amazingly over the past 120 years.

“At the turn of the 20th century, most Irish farmers were semi-literate. Today, Irish farmers are among the most technically competent farmers in the world.

Developments

For agriculture, there were several crucial developments during the 20th century:

  • The creation of a native department of agriculture in 1899
  • Irish independence in 1922 – which gave us full control of policy-making for the sector
  • Joined the EEC in 1973, which gave the sector both the capital and the markets it needed.

In Mícheál’s view, these developments have all been individually recognized, but their cumulative impact has not been fully appreciated.

Developing rural Ireland its main theme.

“In short, rural Ireland was relatively impoverished at the start of the 20th century, and by the end relatively prosperous.”

“What has consistently held back counseling services, at various times, has been a lack of support.”

“It was both financial support, which periodically saw departments understaffed and therefore unable to help farmers adequately, and collegial support.”

“For much of their history, until the integrative initiative that was Teagasc in 1988, advisory services did not work closely enough with researchers.”

“It has undoubtedly hampered their efforts to help farmers as much as possible.”

“Everyone, no matter who, and no matter their level of expertise, benefits from compelling, relevant and knowledgeable advice.”

“Farmers benefit from advisory services as well as the agency of representative farmers’ organisations, newspapers and online journals.”

“Historically, advisory services have helped farmers farm better, earn better livelihoods for themselves and their families, and have a better quality of life.”

Today, advisory services continue to help farmers in this way, especially with sustainability.

Future

According to Mícheál, in the future, farmers will need help to meet the challenges of climate change, in particular.

They will need “guides, philosophers and friends – as Horace Plunkett envisioned counseling services when he created them – just as much as 120 years ago”.

“I plan to continue to emphasize the importance and real relevance of agricultural and rural history to policy-making today, and to attract the support from state, academia and institutions that is imperative in this regard”, concluded Mícheál.

To share your story, email catherina@thatsfarming.com

You can buy the book from Wordwell, price €30

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