Irish Farmers' Association honours great campaigners

Ray Ryan reports on the 300 surviving veterans whose efforts 50 years ago led to farmers having a voice in national policy formation.

MEMORIES will be recalled in Dublin tomorrow when the Irish Farmers Association commemorates the campaign conducted 50 years ago to secure formal negotiating rights from the government.

Some 300 surviving veterans will be presented with a certificate at a ceremony in the RDS to mark their contribution to a defining chapter in rural and political history.

It saw farmers, angered by low commodity prices, clash with the government that believed the issue was about who should determine agricultural policy.

Rickard Deasy, president of the National Farmers Association (NFA), led a 250km march in October 1966 from Bantry Bay to Dublin to support the demand for official recognition. 

They walked in rain, cold winds and occasional sunshine for 11 days, were given food and shelter by fellow farmers along the route and arrived in Dublin with aching limbs and blistered feet not knowing what to expect.

But their spirits were boosted when 30,000 farmers turned up for a mass rally outside Government Buildings.

Agriculture minister Charles Haughey refused to meet a delegation and a small group of farmers, who would probably be known today as ‘The Merrion Nine’, began a 21-day, round-the-clock vigil on the footpath. The government adopted a hardline approach. 

Hundreds of gardaí were deployed to police the march and protest and the Department of Justice even considered the possibility of declaring the NFA to be an unlawful organisation under the Offences Against the State Act.

Taoiseach Seán Lemass described the campaign as an attempt to undermine the authority of the elected Government and to make it subservient in regard to agricultural policy to the NFA leadership.

Deasy and his people held firm. They strongly rejected the charges made against them. They insisted they had never questioned the government’s right to govern but wanted to ensure that farmers had a say in how their industry was developed. Public opinion was behind the defiant farmers who were presented with apples, oranges, and ripe bananas on the first night of the sit-down protest. They were also given cigarettes and newspapers by sympathisers and served with soup and sandwiches.

Lemass eventually decided, in one of his last acts as taoiseach, to invite the NFA leaders to meet with Haughey and himself. Deasy, who had pledged to remain outside Government Buildings until “the crack of doom,” had won his demand to meet with the minister.

Tensions temporarily eased. Jack Lynch became taoiseach and Neil Blaney was appointed minister for agriculture. But trouble erupted again. There were protests and heated actions.

Farmers picketed rates offices and disrupted traffic. Troops were even deployed in Kilkenny to support gardaí and officials in seizing property for non-payment of rates. The protests went on for three years.

Some 200,000 farmers and supporters were involved in the demonstrations and 200 farmers were jailed. It was a dark and difficult time. But the NFA eventually secured the right to negotiate on behalf of its members.

Ireland’s entry into what is now the EU loomed and the NFA became the IFA which opened an office in Brussels and embarked on a new era of lobbying.

Rickard Deasy, who died in 1999, led the rights campaign, carrying a home-crafted blackthorn stick and wearing a black beret with an attached small medal that had been personally presented to him in Rome four years earlier by the man who is now Pope Saint John XXIII.

Looking back on it some 30 years later, Deasy wrote that the survival of farmers and the NFA had been on the line. The Department of Agriculture of the day was entirely preoccupied with preserving its own power, with policies that had no relevance to the worldwide farming revolution then in train. Deasy praised the support of thousands of supporters, the NFA staff and the role of wives, families, and neighbours who carried on when the men had to be away for days, sometimes for weeks.

Recalling that a European friend and farm leader mentioned to him at the time that “all the big decisions are lonely ones,” he said there were thousands of lonely decisions during the Rights Campaign.

Farmers had to decide to join their fellow members in actions that were quite strange to their family and traditions. No decision could have been lonelier than that faced by so many when the squad car came to the haggard to collect yet another ‘Guest of the Nation’, he wrote.

The late Raymond Smith, who served for a period as NFA press officer, gave an abiding account in his book, Urbi Et Orbi and All That, of those stirring days and nights. He said the spirit and solidarity that was born out of it was channelled by farmers into constructive ends, such as the formation of FBD and other ventures.

Smith wrote: “Before there had been a feeling that their individualism would never permit them to march under a common non-party political, non-sectarian banner to assert their rights. Now all was changed, utterly changed.

“They saw the new dawn. They discovered what they could do for themselves. They could respond to leadership and discipline as a body. They saw clearly too that without a strong overall national organisation to crystallise their claims, they would get nowhere.”

Joe Healy, current IFA president, who was in Bantry last month to honour the 16 West Cork farmers who began the march from the town in 1966, said Raymond Smith’s words still ring true today: “As we build for the future, we recall the past, we salute the great men and women from the Farmers’ Rights Campaign.”


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