BY BRIAN MOORE
IT is half a century since Jackie O’Sullivan rowed across from Bere Island to join his fellow West Cork farmers in Bantry as they set off on their long march to Dublin in pursuit of farmers’ rights.
Back in 1966, Jackie and 15 other West Cork men walked the 217 miles to the steps of the Department of Agriculture, where they were joined by 30,000 other farmers from across the country. ‘When we arrived we were delighted to see such support from the rest of the country,’ Jackie said.
‘But we really didn’t know what the reaction was going to be from the government and from the then Minister of Agriculture, Charles Haughey.’ Indeed, Minister Haughey refused to meet with the farmers and so began a sit-in that lasted almost three weeks until, finally, the Minister agreed to meet with the protestors.
Now on a bright, calm November day in 2016, while sitting in his living room overlooking Berehaven harbour and the fishing boats tied up in Castletownbere, Jackie and his son Brendan spoke with The Southern Star about how much farming on Bere Island has changed since that foggy morning in Bantry 50 years-ago.
‘At the time when we set off on the walk to Dublin, there were over sixty farming organisations in the country, and we were all trying to negotiate separately,’ Jackie said. ‘This was a complete nightmare when it came to any dealing with the department or the minister. Today, farmers are much stronger and much better at fighting for their rights.’
While Jackie and Brendan agree that a lot has changed for the Irish farming family both feel that farming in Ireland and especially farming in remote areas such as on Bere Island is at what they see as a crossroads: ‘Back in 1966, people were poor, but we were all able to get some bit of a living from the land. Times were tough for us all but I think these days the young farmer has more difficult time,’ Jackie said. ‘Back then there was very little fear that the bank was about to come knocking at the door.’
Jackie would, just like many others in rural Ireland at the time, spend his winters working in England. ‘We would all go away to earn a bit of money, sending it back to the farm for the others at home we all knew that we had to this do because these were the times before the Common Market, so we were on our own,’ Jackie said.
Brendan, while agreeing with his father, feels that for his generation that is farming on an island, or indeed trying to make a living on marginal land in rural Ireland, has its own set of challenges: ‘For us here it costs €5 per animal just to get them off the island,’ Brendan said. ‘Add to that the mart fees and the fact that the cattle have to wait overnight before the sales, and you can lose up to 20 kilos per animal. ‘It is getting more and more difficult for the small farmer to make a living. You could be looking at between €60 to €70 of a loss before your cattle even get to the ring.’
While these days Brendan has the single farm payment, he feels that this scheme needs to be overhauled and updated. ‘We are not getting paid for what we are producing. Many are just drawing the subsidy and producing nothing. This is no way to keep the next generation on the land,’ Brendan said. ‘
Jackie agrees that the future is not bright for those who might want to take over the farms on the island: ‘There is very little for the young people who might want to make a hand at farming, not only on the islands but right across the area.
‘I think that we in the IFA needs to focus more on the remote parts of the country,’ Jackie said. ‘We (IFA) once had our own MEP in Europe, and I believe that we should get back to that again. We need someone who is there fighting for farmers and for rural Ireland.’
So, if Jackie was asked to march to Dublin once more, would he get our his Australian boots again? ‘I don’t know if we would get many to join us these days,’ he mused.