The hidden legacy of ordinary people

Remembering Peasants: A Personal History of a Vanished World
By Patrick Joyce. Allen Lane. 2024. 400 pages

Remembering Peasants is a well-annotated scholarly work that ranges over a considerable span of time and looks at peasant lifestyles in places as far apart as west Mayo, Belarus and Southern Italy. With an academic background as a social and cultural historian, Patrick Joyce, the Emeritus Professor of History at Manchester University and the child of Irish immigrants to London from the rural heartlands of Ireland, is well qualified to address his subject.

Joyce, as a septuagenarian typically does, brings a living memory of peasant life, through visits to his respective grandparents’ homes in Mayo and Wexford. And of course, both parents and grandparents were sources of local lore from the generations before them. However, in this scholarly and granular presentation, his focus is pan-European. He finds there are general conclusions to be drawn from the particularities of the lives of peasant communities in very different geographic and political contexts.

Drawing from photographic archives of anthropologists, the breadth of Joyce’s study shows that similarities between peasant communities are stronger than their differences, which should not surprise us given that peasants everywhere are consumed by the harsh physicality of life and a daily struggle to survive, and that landlord oppression and exploitation play out under very similar dynamics, whatever the time or place in human history.


The biggest shock reading this book is that it shows how far from and yet how close we are to our peasant forebears. In one sense they are in touching distance. Joyce recounts stories from his parents and grandparents and shares memories from his own childhood which resonate with readers who like him are now the grandparent generation of our time.

He writes that among the people he visited on his summer holidays in Ireland, there was “more than half a belief in the banshee”. That just about nails the lingering influence of ancient beliefs that continued to weave itself into the fabric of everyday life in a society that had already absorbed Christian values and belief. “Peasant (religious) belief’ he writes, “was imbued with pagan ideas.”

On the other hand, in the context of the rapidity of material and technological progress of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Joyce points out that the pace of history has “accelerated”. Even today, looking back at life in Ireland in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s like looking at a distant past. A world without mobile phones and laptops and all the labour-transforming gadgetry and conveniences of modern living. That’s before we even get to the seismic, socio-cultural changes in culture and politics.

In less visible ways, the order of life has been radically re-set since the era of pre- and early-stage industrialisation. Peasant life was lived close to nature. Life was understood as cyclical rather than linear. The Irish phrase, “rotha mór an tsaoil” (the big wheel of life) expresses the sense of continuity within change. “Life continues in the family, even if individuals die.”

The fundamental conditions of life remained what they were from generation to generation. Life was lived in close geographic confines. Trees and fields had names. The past, its people and stories were woven into the fabric of the present. Families gave their children the names of parents and grandparents. Proverbs and stories carried wisdom down the generations. The spirit world was felt to be as close as the graves of the dead were. Everything was local. Everything was neighbourhood. People identified in a more intimate way with their past, their habitats, “the home place”, its topography and the weather cycles. Their lives were in every sense “less mediated” than modern life.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Technological and economic progress changed everything, gradually at first, then more and more rapidly.  Fewer workers were needed on the land. The peasant or farmer as he was now known became distinguished from his cousins who migrated to towns and villages as development advanced. He became a figure of scorn for his lack of refinement and large, coarse hands. He acquired disparaging titles like “culchie” and “hayseed”.

Eventually mechanisation, technology, economic expansion and centralisation all combined, cleared the peasants, leaving only the agribusiness farmer in ever larger holdings. With the development of the global economy, even large farmers found access to local outlets closed as large supermarket chains sourced supplies abroad “in a tiny handful of countries”. Land accumulation, efficiencies of scale and an expanding international market left only the very large, specialist producers on the land.

Looking back

Joyce’s book brings us up to the present time when the past is often romanticised. In an age that struggles with personal identity, that searches for it internally and externally, heritage has become “a commodity” to be mined for meaning and comparison. “Museums take over from memory”.

Often, the curating of the past serves a political or cultural agenda, making the point that hard-fought-for systems of government have secured positive change, that the wretchedness of the people was caused by an occupying power, or that the displays of signal breakthroughs and achievements by our ancestors reflect well on their descendants too. Joyce doesn’t make the connection to the spinning of the past in contemporary culture wars to bolster narratives of victimhood.

Curating and romanticising the past is often for tourists who also may be exploring their heritage in order to learn something about themselves and their forebears. But the exploitation of history is driven by more than marketing and politics. There is something deeper at play too. As we advance into more developed life conditions, we look back nostalgically at what we have left behind. Progress brings both loss and gain.

Our closeness to the earth and the seasons, our intimate relationship with nature and animals defined human existence for long centuries. We are drawn towards the idea of this less complicated, more holistic world among trees and hills, to the solidarity of small tight-knit local communities. There is a need to heal the sense of alienation from the world we have fabricated for ourselves. However, we tend to bring the comfortable trappings of modernity with us in our search.

Our peasant ancestors would have experienced the natural world very differently to us. We admire “wild beauty”, our ancestors, “plains of land that can be worked”. The task of staying alive in foul weather as well as fair, battling the elements, the wild animals, the rugged land wasn’t an idyll but something to escape from when new options opened up.

What was lost

Yet, coping with the pressures of a more developed and secure way of life does not necessarily answer the heart’s desires either.  Our world is atomised. Our forebears lived under the protective arch of kindred and community.  “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine” ( people live in the shelter of each other). Social cohesion was supported by a shared system of beliefs and values.

In modern Ireland today, most people live without any metanarrative, let alone a shared one. Religion, custom, ritual, ceremony and “a deep morality”, gave peasant lives a grace and dignity and answered their need “to have control over a threatening world”.

Reading this book is deeply humbling. We tend to think that the present is shaped by a past of frontiersmen, the strongmen or occasionally strong women of history, who fought, led, discovered and invented and became the giants on whose shoulders we sit.

Joyce’s book reveals the great, largely hidden legacy of the ordinary people “whose work, output, taxes and bodies fed civilisation and the wars that defended and expanded it”. “They existed at the bottom of the edifice of society while holding the whole thing up.” It’s significant that the word “humble” is rooted in the Latin word for the soil, “humus”. 

It is hardly surprising that the earth and nature continue to draw the urbanised human in such a variety of ways. Joyce’s book explores our spiritual as well as socio-cultural roots. However, for him, the function of religion is “to enable the passive suffering that made the world go around”. This reductive dismissal of the place of transcendence in human history does not reflect the reality of the transformative, life-enhancing effect of faith on our Irish forebears of every class and condition. 

Did you enjoy this journey into history? Share it with your friends via the social media buttons.

Margaret Hickey is a regular contributor to Position Papers. She is a mother of three and lives with her husband in Blarney.

Image credit: Pexels


Showing 2 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.