Gaels (Irish) - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. A mixed Subsistence economy prevails throughout the Gaeltachts, with some farm surplus being produced for sale to neighbors or in local markets. Since these areas are near the coasts, ocean fishing used to be a prominent activity. Its importance has diminished considerably, partly because of the risks to older men that would come from going out in frail boats, but partly too because recent commercial trawling by both Irish and European Community boats has largely destroyed the breeding grounds on the sea bottom. The remaining boatmen today are more likely to put to sea to take a group of tourists for an outing. Other aspects of the traditional mixed economy are still observable, however. Cows and poultry are kept for Domestic needs; goats or pigs are sometimes found. Horses and donkeys are used in all Gaeltachts to pull the carts and implements used in farmwork and dairying. Oats and potatoes are important crops, along with hay for winter feed, and some wheat, rye, and barley are also grown for bread. Timber is extremely scarce, requiring the reuse of old rafters and even the collection of driftwood. The common heating and cooking fuel is peat cut from the local bogs and dried for a month or more before being brought home. Cooking stoves using canned gas are now common. Sundry farm products are sold, privately or through cooperatives. There are also two major sources bringing money in from beyond the Gaeltacht: Tourism, and numerous government subsidies. Since many villagers claim to be unemployed they can obtain unemployment benefits ("the dole"); others receive old-age pensions from age 66 on. There are small financial incentives given for speaking Gaelic in the home or for supporting an incapacitated family member. In addition to these sources, many families receive cash remissions from relatives overseas, especially in Massachusetts, Chicago, and New York. Of these various sources, the provision of meals and accommodation ("Country teas" and "farm holidays") to tourists (high-school Students, urban Irish, and English and Americans) are among the most remunerative today.


Industrial Arts. There are very few towns in the Gaeltachts and virtually no industrialization. Boats, carts, and houses used to be made by Gaelic villagers. Now few have the skills or the need, as cars slowly replace carts and contractors build modern houses for the people. In earlier times coastal villages had large fishing vessels, but by the present century most fishermen only had small four-man canoes (called curragh in the north, naomhóg farther south). There were no shipbuilding yards for these vessels, which were built by the boatmen themselves and are still repaired by them. Small seaports no doubt used once to have a thriving shipbuilding and repairing industry for larger vessels.

Trade. A large village may often serve as a shopping center for a Gaeltacht, and a small town always exists somewhere nearby, perhaps an hour's bus ride away. Here a handful of shops, nearly as many pubs, a government office or two, and perhaps a weekly market supply the basic needs of the rural community.

Division of Labor. With little perceptible class differentiations among the Gaelic peasantry, division of labor along lines of gender and age is normal. Men do the fishing, dairying, and farmwork, and they cut and cart the peat, until at 60 or 70 they become too old for all this and have to rely on their sons. Women do the housework and may also handle the dairying and the feeding of domestic animals. They are largely responsible for bringing up the children. The entire family has to go into the fields in July or August to turn the hay repeatedly and then stack it. Children are normally at school, but they are given chores to perform around the house or farm and may work hard during the summer vacation.

Land Tenure. About 6 percent of Ireland is allocated to the Gaeltachts, and they are home to about 10,000 small farmers. These areas, however, contain some of the worst farmland in the country. It has been estimated that about 80 percent of the Gaeltacht land is mountainside, bog, or marshland, good only for grazing sheep or digging out peat: the good arable land is in the central and eastern parts of the country. Land tenure is intimately linked with the arranging of marriages and with migration. In the present century Marriages are still often arranged, but the small farmer can reasonably give his land to just one son: any other sons have to go elsewhere for work, emigrate overseas, or join the Priesthood. But the one son who stays on the farm of his ancestors inherits everything at his marriage. Generally, a formal contract is drawn up by a solicitor in which the old farmer agrees to transfer ownership of land, home, and livestock to his son upon the latter' s marriage. This contract then becomes a key part of the young man's marriage arrangements and also takes the place of a will. The money may be used to help support the old farmer and his wife in their retirement in the west room, or it may become the dowry with which one of their daughters is married off. All too often nowadays, though, no suitable girl willing to marry a young farmer is available, and so he goes through life remaining unmarried while he toils on the land and supports his aging parents. As long as the father does not legally hand the property over to his son, the latter will remain there in a web of obligations and delayed expectations.


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