“Daddy was always gone,” said Tommy Lane, speaking of his late father Paddy’s tireless service for the Irish Farmers’ Association.
From 1976-1980, Paddy Lane led an IFA campaign against the introduction of rates. From Parteen, in Co Clare, Paddy also served in the army, played rugby for Ireland, and ran the family farm.
“It was always IFA first and rugby second,” Tommy told the 1,700 farm leaders packed into the National Convention Centre, in Dublin, for the IFA’s 60th anniversary. “If he was playing now, it might have been a different approach.
“I was quite young when Dad was president of the IFA. It is great to look back, now, and see all that the past presidents have achieved.”
Current president, Meath’s Eddie Downey, outlined the history of the IFA, which has grown from humble origins to being arguably the most powerful representative body in the country.
The IFA has had 14 presidents and was formed as the National Farmers’ Association, in the Four Provinces Ballroom, Harcourt Street, Dublin, on January 6, 1955.
In 1971, the NFA joined forces with specialist organisations — the BVA, Leinster Milk Producers, Cork Milk Producers and the Commercial Horticultural Association — to establish the IFA.
Lane was the first to serve a four-year term, which is now the norm for the post.
The IFA’s first president, Juan Green (RIP), served from 1955-62. He trained as a doctor, then served in the RAF medical corps during World War II, then returned to farming in south Kildare.
His wife, Juliet, recalled how the farm had to be run by hired help in Juan’s absence, and how she had to teach herself farming.
Juan was succeeded by Rickard Deasy (RIP), who served from 1962-67. Rickard was president of the NFA during its most turbulent period.
Rickard led the farmers’ rights campaign in 1966 and marched to Government Buildings to secure recognition for farm families. His son, Ruaidhri, was deputy president of the IFA from 2002-06.
The IFA’s third president was Tipperary’s TJ Maher (RIP), whose term ran from 1967-76. He oversaw the organisation’s change from NFA to IFA, and Ireland’s entry into Europe in 1973.
From Boherlahan, he was a phenomenal public speaker. He identified membership of the EEC as crucial to Ireland’s farmers and he campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote in 1972.
He created a full-time presence for Irish farmers in Brussels.
His daughter, Julianne, said: “I knew I was coming to the IFA anniversary, so I spoke to my mother and my brothers about my father over the Christmas. It was quite emotional. My mother said to me, ‘I married a farmer, and I thought I knew what that meant’. They got married in January. The milking had to be done, but he was gone.
“So she went out and started milking with a bucket and a stool; she slipped and sent the bucket flying. She said she just got used to it; she had to become the farmer.
“My younger brother, Denis, recalled once when Dad was home one summer. He was fixing a mower when he cut off his toe. Apparently, Denis asked my mother, ‘Why is Daddy home so long?’ He was home a long time recovering, which was very rare.”
RTÉ’s Mary Kennedy chaired the 60th anniversary. Chatting with Donie Cashman, president from 1980-84, she said senior IFA officers also tend to be active in the community.
“If you want to get something done, get a busy man to do it,” said Donie.
Cashman is the oldest surviving president of the IFA, and the only Cork farmer to have led it. He is still involved with his local school board and finance committee, and with Enable Ireland. During his presidency, the Government agreed to put 0.1% of the value of Irish food goods into the IFA to support its running costs.
His term was marked by the superlevy campaign, which culminated in Ireland securing a significant increase in the country’s milk quota, in 1984. The outcome was achieved after intensive lobbying at the highest national and European level, with the then Taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald, invoking the veto to signal that the national interest was at stake.
Cashman also chaired IFAC (Irish Farm Accounts Co-operative Society) and still maintains a strong interest in IFA. He took part in the recent beef-price protests in Cork, and his son, Teddy, is chairman of the IFA’s national liquid-milk committee.
Kennedy said it was apt that the IFA celebration took place on January 6, to coincide with Nollaig na mBan, as Women’s Little Christmas was the perfect day to also celebrate the huge contribution made to Ireland’s farming life by the wives of the IFA’s presidents.
“Joe was home as often as he could, and he always came home at weekends to give instructions,” said Margaret Rea, of her husband, Joe Rea (RIP), president of the IFA from 1984-88.
“Joe also served as president of Macra na Feirme. He loved helping people. The highlight, for him, was looking back at all the farmers he had helped.”
Meath native, Tom Clinton, led the IFA for two years, from 1988-90. His work on behalf of farmers who had credit difficulties with the banks earned him a reputation as a tough negotiator.
Tom built up his dairy farm, which is now farmed by his son, John, and also has an operation in New Zealand. A hard worker, legend has it that when tired he’d take a nap under the warm tractor.
Wicklow farmer, Alan Gillis, president from 1990-94, was an equally hard man. He was part of the 1966 farmers’ rights campaign and served time in jail.
“It was not just myself,” he says. “Within a fortnight, 80 of us were in Mountjoy. It’s no big deal, when you have friends like that with you. It was an interesting time. A job had to be done, just like it still has to be done today.
“It seems a pity that to achieve something good you have to protest. I don’t think it’s always the best way to do things, but, sometimes, a show of strength is necessary.”
Kennedy asked whether today’s farmers would rather negotiate than protest.
“It is time to move on, but I would expect others to move on as well,” said Mr Gillis. “The whole question of the farmer’s share of the final retail price is the big issue today. The farmer’s share is totally out of kilter. If we can put that right, we’ll all be happy.”
However, militancy clearly has its place. Galway farmer John Donnelly, president from 1994-98, drove his father’s tractor to block the bridge at Portumna, in 1966, as part of the same farmers’ rights protest.
“My father had his licence taken and did six months [in jail],” said Donnelly, whose presidency was dominated by the impact of BSE on farmers.
“One highlight of my term was the abolition of the tax on the transfer of the family farm,” he said. “The State abolished the tax altogether, which was worth about twice what we were looking for.”
Mr Donnelly also served on the board of FBD, until 2011. His son, Barry, has chaired Galway IFA. He said the IFA’s strong positions on issues such as the Disadvantaged Areas scheme helped then Agriculture Minister Ivan Yates, whose talks with the EU took place against the backdrop of a significant threat from farmers.
“We made his job easy,” said John Donnelly. “Every time he went to Brussels, they just handed him over what we wanted, without question.”
The beef blockade was the standout issue facing the IFA’s tenth president, Offaly farmer Tom Parlon, 1998-2002. The courts imposed huge fines on the IFA for protesting outside meat factories. Those fines threatened the IFA’s existence.
The National Conference Centre exploded with laughter when MEP Parlon said: “The biggest challenge I ever faced was challenging John Donnelly for the presidency. He’s a hard man; it’s great to see him looking so well.
“I had to resign due to the costs of the court injunction against the protests outside the meat factories. Justice O’Donovan imposed fines of €100,000 per day, plus costs, in favour of the meat factories.
“The IFA felt that the protest was still worth it. Then, the courts pushed the fines up to €500,000 per day, so we all resigned from the IFA. We continued to protest outside the factories, but, this time, as individuals, in the hope that they wouldn’t try to impose these fines on individual farmers.
“The loyalty that farmers showed during those 14 days of protest, and again during the super-levy protests, will always stay with me.”
Parlon’s IFA dedication was seen in September, 1988, when he dislocated his shoulder in a fall. With a big protest planned at the Farm Centre, he popped the shoulder back in. While reading a newspaper report about his native Offaly defeating Kilkenny in the All Ireland hurling final, the shoulder popped out again.
“Michael Berkery took me to the hospital,” said Parlon. “I was just going into the theatre to have the shoulder popped back in, when Berkery rushed over to the doctors and said ‘You can’t put him on a general anaesthetic, he’s speaking on-stage tonight’.”
Limerick’s John Dillon took the helm from 2002-06, after one of the hardest-fought contests, when four candidates battled for the presidency.
“There was a strong view that I shouldn’t get the job,” said Mr Dillon, causing a ripple of laughter.
“So my first job, once elected, was to get a team together of the best people in the IFA. When I looked across the table, I realised that very few of these people had voted for me.”
He cited this as a great strength of the IFA membership — an ability to park personal interests and work together towards agreed goals. Dillon’s term was dominated by the switchover to the Single Farm Payment system, the growing threats from international trade talks, and the closure of the sugar industry.
He led the famous Tractorcade in 2003, re-enacting the 1966 farmers’ rights march that had started in Bantry. He remains a believer that actions speak louder than words.
“I say we should never be predictable,” he said. “Don’t tell the Government about what you’re going to do next. Have a lightning strike. Tell your members what you want to do, hoping that they agree with you, and then attack.”
Former presidents Padraig Walsh (2006-10), from Laois, and John Bryan (2010-14), from Kilkenny, highlighted the evolution of recent years, by which agri-food has gone from forgotten country cousin to the centre stage, with the nation looking to the sector to create jobs and underpin the national recovery.