I’ve often wondered how many Irish farms would have survived the 20th century without the contribution of women on the farm. Whether they were married to a farmer or the farmer’s sister, aunt etc, they were rarely regarded as farmers, despite their contributions.

While some women worked off-farm and their salary kept the enterprise viable, those that worked on the farm made a huge and often unrecognised contribution.

Though they were not referred to as farmers, many of these women milked cows, kept poultry or pigs, did the herding, fed lambs and calves. On any given morning, a woman might have fed her baby and then gone straight out to feed an orphan lamb.

Many routine tasks on a farm require two people and women were that unpaid second person.

Whether it was chickens, ducks, geese or turkeys, keeping poultry was seen as women’s work. Many families enjoyed a roast chicken on Sundays that was killed, plucked and stuffed by their mother on Saturday.

Selling eggs was a contributor to what was regarded as pin money, meaning money to buy non-essentials. While they might not have been essentials, thousands of children enjoyed birthday and Christmas gifts, or had a new dress for their confirmation, due to their mother’s pin money.

A woman’s budget

Preserving farm produce was an important contribution to the income on the farm. My neighbour told me tales of making butter and selling it in the local town. I remember my own mother baking cakes to sell at the local country market.

Nowadays, we would call them micro enterprises and encourage women to develop the business.

These women were very adept at making do. ‘Make do and mend’ was a saying I heard often. With many farms only having a cash income once or twice a year when cattle were sold, it was most often up to the women of the house to budget accordingly.

If there were children, money had to be set aside for times when cash was needed, such as back to school and, of course, Christmas. Meals were prepared using cheap cuts of meat, with vegetables grown in the garden. Clothes were mended rather than replaced. Socks were darned again and again as heels wore out. Buttons were sewn back on shirts and trousers and skirt hems let down until there was no material left.

Hand-me-downs were the norm and, again, the needle and thread came out to make them fit as best as possible.

Recognising farm women

Some women turned their dressmaking skills into an income stream, altering clothes for neighbours, while others knitted. Hand-knitted Aran jumpers that were sent all over the world were knitted by these women for a tiny fraction of the price they were sold for.

Whether it was helping directly on the farm or managing the house and budget, the farm women of the 20th century were hugely important to the viability of the family farm. While many of their husbands, sons, brothers etc appreciated them, many more were treated poorly. The final insult was that after a lifetime working, the majority of farm women were not entitled to a contributory pension. In the eyes of the State, they did not make a recognisable contribution.

With International Women’s Day taking place this week, I raise a glass to the farm women of Ireland. Their labour, skills and ingenuity helped ensure the success of family farms and thriving rural communities.

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