A Four Nations Approach to Rural Education and Employment

A Four Nations Approach to Rural Education and Employment

This week, Barry Sheppard (Queen’s University Belfast) explores ideas which came to Ireland and Belfast from Europe during the 1930s depression era.

The historiography of Anglo-Irish relations in the post-Irish revolutionary period is characterised by strained political relations, religious nationalism, and ideas of national exceptionalism. Of course, as historians we know this doesn’t tell the full story. A major factor which underpinned much of this era, affecting all concerned was the 1930s Depression. Therefore, in terms of economic matters it is prudent to look beyond national borders to gain a new perspective on a well-studied period in British/Irish history.

The emerging field of transnationalism in Irish historiography has challenged outdated ideas of national exceptionalism and placed ‘local’ events in a wider context. Historian Enda Delaney has railed against the traditional Irish historiographical narratives which in the past have been presented as ‘a morality tale’ rather than explaining Ireland within an international context.[i] Unsurprisingly, transnationalism has taken some time to bed down in Ireland. Niall Whelehan has wryly suggested that Ireland has proved immune to the charms of transnational history.[ii] Nevertheless, it has gained traction in recent years.

This approach is no doubt a welcome development in Irish historiography. However, there has been a tendency to marry it with one of the most well-known Irish historical themes, the diaspora. Specifically ideas and movements travelling from Ireland to the outer world with the politically and economically dispossessed, resulting in the impression that the island of Ireland has been a starting point for eventual transnational movements, rather than a willing receiver of transnational influences.

My own research has attempted to steer clear of this by exploring social ideas coming to Ireland, and indeed Britain from Europe and beyond which attempted to address poverty and despondence during the depression. Ideas which were adapted to suit native conditions when they arrived on Irish and British shores before transcending the fraught internal borders of Britain and Ireland of the 1930s and 40s in the form of educational gatherings, seminars and print media coverage.

Numerous international influences permeated Britain and Ireland in the first decades of the twentieth century which had a positive effect upon the unemployed poor. The social Papal Encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno revolutionised on a global scale the way lay Catholics formed workers associations, how rural land was worked, and provided a blueprint for equitable Christian societies. The Vacant Lots Cultivation Society, an urban allotments movement which originated in the United States in the 1890s provided food for unemployed and low income families. The Folk High School Movement which held that informal education alongside new farming techniques was a means for creating productive citizens in Denmark. These movements all made a significant impact on British and Irish society by the time the turbulent 1930s arrived.

The ideals of Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno were embraced in Ireland by Fr. John Hayes of Muintir na Tire[iii], and in Britain by a fringe group, the Catholic Land Movement of Britain, supported by G.K. Chesterton and the ‘fanatical antimodernist’ priest Fr. Vincent McNabb. The Vacant Lots Cultivation Society blossomed across the island of Ireland after American philanthropist Joseph Fels addressed the Mansion House in Dublin in 1909 on his scheme which was a ‘palliative for the evils of unemployment’.[iv] While in Northern Ireland, The Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster adapted the ideals of Bishop Grundtvig’s Danish Folk High Schools for a generation of rural Irish youth robbed of income and opportunity.

There was a significant crossover of ideas between each of the movements and organisations which transcended the cultural and political borders which existed on the island of Ireland and across the Irish Sea during the 1930s and 1940s. Educational gatherings held by Muintir na Tire called ‘Rural Weeks’ brought to delegates ideas of small-scale land reform and schemes to alleviate unemployment. Initiatives enacted by various movements were examined and debated to see if there were lessons to be learned from them. At the 1935 gathering the allotments movement which had flourished in Dublin and Belfast were given prominence in debates and lectures as a means for helping the unemployed at that particular time.

Significantly speakers from other movements were invited to promote their respective organisations’ philosophies and to forge links with people involved in a common cause, despite the political and ideological differences which existed on a state level. At the 1938 Rural Week, Catholic Land Movement representative Mr. Harold Robbins’ keynote speech addressed the zeal of the disparate groups around the world engaged in common struggle for the right to a productive existence.[v] At the 1942 Rural Week Mr. W. Rankin of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster was welcomed to the event ‘not as an outsider’, and left a lasting impression on the attendees including a certain Éamon de Valera.[vi]

Debate and engagement were not confined to Rural Week gatherings. Representatives of the British Land Movement came to Irish venues to publicise their land and employment reform efforts. The father of Muintir na Tire Fr. John Hayes travelled to Belfast in 1942 addressing over 1,000 people ‘of all shades of religious and political views’ in an effort to build a strong, harmonious rural population in cooperation and peace on both sides of the border.[vii] After the Ulster organisations’ Rural Week appearance in 1942 a noticeable interest in their brand of rural self-help swept through a number of locations in the Irish Free State.

Although each body had their own identity and philosophies, the willingness to share ideas with similar-aimed groups points to an informal and extended network of charitable and philanthropic groupings which looked beyond party politics and national boundaries in an effort to tackle important social issues which were not being adequately addressed by their respective governments.


[i] Enda Delaney, ‘Our island story? Towards a transnational history of late modern Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies, xxxvii, no. 148 (November 2011) pp 599-621

[ii] Niall Whelehan, ‘Ireland beyond the nation-state: antecedents of transnational history in Irish historiography’, Edinburgh Research Explorer, (2013) p 1

[iii] People of the Land, the English translation of Muintir na Tire.

[iv] Irish Independent, 26 June 1909

[v] Irish Independent, 1 Sept. 1938

[vi] Irish Independent, 21 Aug. 1942

[vii] National Archives of Ireland, TAOIS/S/10186 – MNT General File

Barry Sheppard is a part-time Masters History student at Queen’s University Belfast, studying an MA in Religion, Identity and Conflict in History. He was a recipient of the Robert Dudley Edwards History Prize 2012, from the Irish History Student’s Association. He is the current recipient of the Giving Northern Ireland MA research bursary.


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