The thing that I sometimes find frustrating about history is that it almost always focuses on rich people.

In reality, the vast majority of people who have come before us, including most of our ancestors, were pretty much penniless.

In his new book, Remembering Peasants, historian Patrick Joyce looks at the past through a different lens and pays homage to those who are usually forgotten about.

Tracing the origins of the word “peasant”, the author suggests its most basic definition means “a country person” or “a person of the land”.

This has been further expanded by academics over the years and can include anyone from a subsistence farmer, to a hired farm hand, to a small-holder with off-farm income.

Joyce was raised in London but has spent a lot of time in Ireland, as both his father and mother emigrated in the 1930s from Galway and Wexford respectively.

The book covers peasant traditions in Ireland, as well as peasants across Europe, including Poland, Romania, and Italy.


The author points out that the peasant way of life effectively disappeared throughout the 20th century. Indeed, a full chapter is titled “The Vanishing”.

However, in Remembering Peasants, many similarities strike me between peasant farmers of the past and small part-time farmers of today.

Joyce himself highlights some of these parallels, drawing comparisons to “the five o’clock farmer” who looks after a family farm but has other employment elsewhere.

He suggests there are two key components to defining peasant society, namely family and land.

He writes that “family anchors things in the peasant world” and land “is understood to be a social rather than an economic entity”.

Both elements still apply to many people involved in present day farming.

The book also covers the belief system of peasants in detail, including religion and superstitions.

Is there an argument that many peasant beliefs of yesteryear still influence some of our thinking on farms today? Many farmers still hang holly in sheds to try to prevent ringworm or know someone who has “the cure” for orf.

I probably wouldn’t be brave enough to cut down a lone hawthorn tree, just in case the old people were right about fairies after all.


Although he suggests there are many things we can learn from peasants, such as how they treated the environment, Joyce is clear that he is not advocating a reversal to peasant society.

The author is respectful of peasants but does not romanticise them. “I did not write this book to make peasants tutors of the present.”

After all, life for peasants was unimaginably tough. Hunger was part and parcel of peasant life. In particular, the book draws on the horrors of the Irish potato famine.

For me, it was a reminder that a handful of generations ago, this island could not feed itself. A stark contrast to now, where we produce enough to feed our population several times over, and we export food all over the world.

Towards the end of the book, Joyce offers an interesting analysis of his relative who now farms his father’s home place in Connemara.

Like many in the area, his relative has off-farm income but is “determined” to keep farming cattle and sheep even though the financial margins are slim.

“This determination takes the form of a desire to improve the old place, almost as if they are repaying a debt to the past by attending properly to it now that they have a bit of money to do so.”