I’ve just concluded an interview with Pat McCormack, looking back across his time at the helm of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA).

It’s been an extraordinary 14 years since he became chair of the dairy committee, before serving six years as deputy president under John Comer from 2011-2017.

In 2009, dairy farmers were trying to get their heads around the implications of then-commissioner Marianne Fischer Boel’s declaration in late 2008 that dairy quotas would be removed in the next decade.

The Food Harvest 2020 group had been formed by Minister Brendan Smith to help the agri-food sector build on the opportunities that were now on the horizon.

By the time Pat became ICMSA president in 2017, the shackles of the dairy quota regime had been cast off and rapid expansion was under way at farmer and dairy processor level. There was hardly a cloud in the sky.

Range of concerns

Two years later, when McCormack’s fellow Tipperaryman Tim Cullinan was elected president of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA), a range of concerns were presenting themselves. The footprint of dairy expansion was being accused of gobbling up every acre that drystock and tillage farmers had been renting, with deeper dairy pockets outbidding allcomers.

The environmental footprint of all the extra dairy cows was a matter of debate, with An Taisce challenging Glanbia’s proposed new processing plant in Belview, on the grounds that it would encourage a further increase in production.

I’m not going to dwell on the legacy of Pat McCormack or indeed Tim Cullinan here or to further chronicle the times through which they presided over the two main farm organisations in the country, tumultuous as they were. That is for another day.

Today, I want to pay tribute to the service they have given to farmers over the years, as they step away from their leadership roles. For Tim Cullinan, like Pat McCormack and every other farm leader around the country and those that came before, leadership was preceded by years and decades of representation on behalf of farmers.

Sometimes that representation was on behalf of all farmers, meetings and dialogues and protests regarding universal issues such as CAP reform, schemes and payments.

Kitchen table

At other times, there were hours put in representing an individual farm family, perhaps late nights around a kitchen table discussing a catastrophic disease outbreak or a credit case or where there had been a farm accident or other life event that changed everything down one lane.

And it’s not just Pat and Tim whom I have in my thoughts at this time. Martin Stapleton and Pat Murphy have given many years of service in the same way.

They gained the support of around 13,000 farmers in last Tuesday’s IFA presidential and deputy presidential elections, but still fell a little short of the support gained by Francie Gorman and Alice Doyle in the respective contests.

They have put in days and nights of service to farmers and were willing to go the next step. Cynics will say they would have been well reimbursed for their efforts.

I don’t have a whole lot of time for cynics. They are the kind of people who describe the GAA as the 'Grab All Association' and whom are scoffing at JP McManus’s astonishing €32m gift to the thousands of GAA clubs around the country, saying it would be better if he lived here full-time and paid his taxes.

To a cynic, anyone who volunteers is either a sucker or a parasite. They’re either the eejit parking cars or collecting money at the gate of the local sportsground or else they’re the schemer ensuring a fair shake of that money is harvested as expenses.

Irish society, and particularly rural Irish society, is glued together by this volunteer army

But Irish society, and particularly rural Irish society, is glued together by this volunteer army. When you go to a funeral, the people parking cars are the local GAA and IFA representatives, along with soccer and boxing clubs, men’s (and women’s) sheds and community garden organisers, Vincent de Paul and Focus Ireland activists.

It’s easy to be cynical - it can be hard to get out there and make a contribution to your community.

There’s a whole army of activists representing farmers, of whom McCormack, Cullinan, Stapleton, Murphy, Gorman and Doyle are merely the nationally visible manifestation.

Denis Drennan and Eamon Carroll take over the top jobs in the ICMSA on Monday. Lorcan McCabe preceded Drennan as deputy president for much of McCormack’s time as president.

In the IFA, Conor O’Leary, Paul O’Brien and Brendan Golden join Frank Brady as regional chairs, with Harold Kingston stepping away (Gorman and Murphy were the other two outgoing regional chairs).

There were large teams of people canvassing on behalf of the various candidates in the IFA elections. Francie Gorman had former presidential candidates Jer Bergin and Henry Burns in his camp. Many people who would have supported them in their bids would have had a personal loyalty to those men.

Martin Stapleton had former president John Dillon tearing around the country on his behalf, with Sean and Mairead Lavery, who masterminded Dillon’s successful campaigns, again to the forefront.

Tapestry of Irish life

Former Macra president and current IFA animal health chair TJ Maher was also deeply involved. And another important aspect of the tapestry of Irish life comes to the fore here. The two men are not just friends, they are connected, being married to sisters.

To outsiders, the Irish obsession with establishing connections may seem inward-looking or incestuous. I don’t think that’s the case at all. For me, it’s how we Irish understand the fabric of the tapestry of life.

We don’t try to establish a mutual acquaintance with someone we’ve just met to pigeonhole them socially. It’s not the same as trying to place someone by class or profession, religion, school or social background.

Instead, it’s about forming a bond, through triangulation. Tommy Tiernan has said that when two Irish people meet anywhere in the world, they have 10 minutes to establish someone in common or they will both self-destruct. It never happens, because this little country is so interwoven a connection is inevitably made.

An example. I first met the new IFA deputy president Alice Doyle in 1985. I was thrown into the back of her car to make a trek from Cork city to Ballinspittle. I was at my first Macra rally and was introduced to the then Alice McCall as we headed to watch people watch statues until they moved.

Alice would later become principal at our tiny national school in Tombrack, educating my three children. Back then, she was the youngest principal in the country, in a two-teacher school in Garryhill in her native Carlow.

Her fellow teacher was even younger, Sandra Ryan. Sandra’s husband John Murphy was elected chair of the pivotal IFA environment committee on Thursday. John will now work closely with his wife's former colleague at the helm of the IFA. Connections.

I think, Pat boyeen, the first good frost will end all that

I went that same weekend to visit my granny Lynch in Bantry. I asked her what she thought of the moving statues (if you’re under 40, Google it). I’ll never forget her reply - “I think, Pat boyeen, the first good frost will end all that.”

Some people might think that makes my granny a cynic, but those people don’t understand the difference between cynicism and wisdom. The former likes to see the worst in people, the latter sees people as they are. My granny Lynch was a wise woman.

Footnote: due to my friendship with Alice Doyle, I played no hand, act or part in the coverage of her electoral contest with Pat Murphy. Pat, an absolute gentleman, has been aware of this. His acceptance of what must have been a personally devastating moment on Tuesday was a testament to his class. Like Martin Stapleton, his best wishes to the successful candidate were palpably genuine and moving, and his main concern was not for himself, but for the people who has supported him, friends, family and some who recently were strangers. People he is now forever connected to.

As Springsteen put it - the ties that bind.