Remembering Peasants: A Personal History of a Vanished World by Patrick Joyce - review by Jeremy Harte

Jeremy Harte

They Ploughed the Fields & Scattered

Remembering Peasants: A Personal History of a Vanished World


Allen Lane 376pp £25 order from our bookshop

Don’t impress me with peasant virtues, said Chekhov, I have peasant blood in my veins. Patrick Joyce has the blood too. His people won a living from the hard lands of Dúiche Seoighe, or Joyce Country, which stretch from Loughs Corrib and Mask to the Atlantic Ocean and straddle the border of County Mayo and County Galway. Although his father took the family to England in 1930, he brought his sons back every year and they would fall asleep night after night listening to kitchen talk in English and Irish. Joyce knows what he is talking about, and if his peasants are not always virtuous, they are at least vivid and real.

It is hard to hold on to that reality, for peasants will soon be as extinct as the aurochs and Irish elk. In western Europe, the proportion of the population employed in agriculture now stands at something between 1 and 5 per cent. It is lowest in England, the first country to replace its land-holding agrarian workers with a wage-earning rural proletariat. The ‘ag labs’ of Victorian census entries might romantically be called peasants, but they lacked the two key features of that class: self-supporting work and rights in the land that is worked.

Wealth in a peasant society is accumulated produce. Nothing is sold, unless to pay rents and taxes or to buy a few necessary goods. The peasant economy is a subsistence one, though it does not necessarily provide a bare subsistence, for the good house, with butter in the churn and beer in the barrel, feeds itself from its own resources. But the bitch of poverty is never more than half-asleep. Always the thought of famine drives the man behind the plough team, and those who have no team have to be their own oxen, dragging the plough with ropes that cut their backs, for the land has to be tilled somehow. The endless labour takes its toll on the body, so that Gascons bitterly talk of a man being as straight as a sickle. The opposite of the good peasant is not the weak or thoughtless individual, but the one who gives up the struggle completely. A remote Joyce cousin was remembered as the man who drank away three farms. And for those who cannot afford drink, there is always the rope in the barn and the black well in the courtyard.

Peasants have never had much power, but they do have land, and they have stayed on the land because they have to: if the peasant lays down his hoe, everyone starves. The definition of good tenure is not low rent or profits, but inheritance. The land should pass unimpeded from father to son, if it can be said to pass at all, for the elders never quite die: they are buried not far away and live on in talk. The landless, who have no real home, stand outside peasant culture. Like ghosts trying to become men, they snatch at any opportunity, however arduous or precarious, to get a piece of land.

Historically, the heart of the land-holding was the fireside. From that warm centre order was laboriously driven outwards, pushing back winter, hunger, darkness and death. Fire was the emblem of home and had always to be treated with respect, like the old people, and it had their wisdom, each spark or crackle predicting something. We can call this superstition but such beliefs mattered, not necessarily because they revealed the truth, but because they told you how the world should be. They asserted community between the living and the dead, between home and the world, between man and beast. 

Magic and faith are parallel, not opposite, in the peasant mind, giving answers when cattle sicken, crops fail and the state takes sons away to war. Magic restores the boundaries of a good, productive life after crisis has broken through them. It is not that peasants have a faith surviving from pre-Christian times, but that under all regimes – pagan, Christian, communist – they have placed their trust in a sacramental world. Peasants think through material things. Their tools have been used for so long that they become moulded to the hand that wields them. They have a kind of personality, and in fairy tales they act and talk. It is to the poorest of the peasants, to shepherds and to children that Mary appears, promising that hard times will come no more.

Peasant children learn through the disciplined observation of others at work in field and farm. As soon as their bodies are ready, they must put aside childishness and work, though the terror felt by a seven-year-old left alone in the fields at night might linger in the adult mind. Self-control is everything – it is necessary to see much and say little, remembering that language, like fire, can do great harm if it is not contained. Wit is mistrusted; wordplay is avoided; the individual is subsumed in the figures of Father and Mother. Eat slowly, because you are not a beggar to snatch at nourishment, and speak soberly, because you are not a fool to laugh at nothing. We can admire the grave solemnity of this world, though we wouldn’t necessarily want to live in it.

And not many did. It was not just hunger that drove emigration. Women, who had most to lose, left first. A society afraid of change and risk must crush dangerous ambitions, and for subordinates like women and the young, the crushing could be absolute. Those who could not get away, the deprived of the deprived, had nothing left but dramatised catatonia, exemplified by the tarantism of the Salento peninsula in southern Italy. Joyce approaches such rituals with great sympathy, sensitively reading testimony and photographs alike. It is the areas of greatest poverty that hold his gaze: Polish Galicia, Connemara, the Mezzogiorno. Such places have drawn ethnographers too. Happy peasants have attracted few biographers.

Joyce is a historian of the particular, not the general. Occasionally he writes as if there were an essential, universal peasant type, but then he will break off with counterexamples. His book is held together not by social theory, but by the triangulation of the Ireland in which he grew up, the Poland with which he has become familiar and vivid passages from literature. Much of what he calls peasant ways might be said to have pertained to most preindustrial workers, or to anyone living in the countryside. His historical frame seldom reaches back further than the earliest photograph, and it would take a book of another kind to do credit to the rustici of the Middle Ages, who cleared Europe of wood and fen.

For a grandson of peasants to write about peasants is a devotional act, even when he draws on the skill set of the social historian. Joyce writes with a split consciousness, like a man recounting his dreams. It was so real, this lost life, and yet it is impossible to recapture, for we today cannot think as they did, or even know the world as it was experienced though their weary bent bodies. How should we remember peasants? Not with uncritical admiration, certainly, and not with empty sentiment, but with respect for those lost generations who with axe and mattock and spade hewed out our world.

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