Lorna Sixsmith is at the forefront of a new wave of blogging farmers who are changing the perception of agricultural life in Ireland. Her first book, Would You Marry a Farmer? showcases the richness and diversity of rural life.
Would You Marry a Farmer? started life as a humorous post on her popular blog, Irish Farmerette. Her truthful and affectionate take on the pros and cons of marrying into such an all-consuming way of life touched a chord in a country where nearly everyone had farmers somewhere back in the family tree. After a successful crowd-funding campaign to prove the demand for the book (farmer’s are eminently practical) she expanded that initial post into a book exploring the ups and downs of modern farm life. I picked up the book expecting something in the nature of a humorous gift-book: a light-hearted distraction with a grounding of good sense; but, I found a much richer story.
The first third of the book is an excellent social history of the Irish farmer and farm family. Detailing the traditions of hard work, inheritance, and the economics of marriage, and how marriage have changed over recent years. Traditionally, farmers married late in life, and prospective wives were expected to bring a substantial dowry (or even their own farm) into the marriage. Farm-wives spoiled their sons, often manipulated them in their choice of wife, and tragically discouraged many from marrying at all until their mothers were dead — when it was often too late for the middle-aged farmer to find a wife at all. The relationship between a farmer’s wife and her mother-in-law could be viciously combative, with the old woman afraid the young one would put her out of her home, and the young woman having to endure constant battles and criticism over ever minor decision.
This lead to the very real fear that farm families were dying out int the 1950s, and necessitated the match-making festivals depicted by John B. Keane and others. The patriarch also controlled the purse strings, and many farmers’ sons worked for their fathers into their 50s without a wage or any experience of managing money. How could they be expected to find wives when they had to beg the price of a pint from their parent?
This section on the social history of marriage among Irish farmers shed light on many things about my own grandfather. A small farmer in Co. Monaghan, he had to sneak around behind his father’s back to go to dances and court my grandmother (his own mother surreptitiously helped him). Despite her mother-in-laws’ covert enabling of their courtship, my grandmother had a combative relationship with her mother-in-law, and when they finally sold the old farm and had a house to themselves, my mother recalls that my grandmother was so happy she would sing as she took care of the daily chores.
As Ireland modernized in the late 20th century, many people migrated to the cities in search of employment and a less-difficult life. The interest in marrying a farmer began to wane. My own mother was part of that generation; moving to Dublin to train as a nurse, she had no interest in the drudgery of farm life.
Over the past decades, Irish farmers have been following a different career path. Many going to college or working in other fields before returning to farming, or maintaining a small farm while holding down a 9-to-5 in another industry. Farm-wives have also moved beyond the traditional role of bringing up the children and managing the house, many working outside the home or developing work-from-home businesses that tie-in with agricultural life (often in the food industry). Sixsmith’s book is of course an example of a modern farmerette’s side project. It should be said that this is among the best self-published books I’ve seen. It’s well-edited, in both its overall structure and the mechanics of eliminating typos and professional formatting, and the text is illustrated by cute line drawings throughout (check out Sixsmith’s blog to see some of these). If only more self-published books were of this caliber.
The middle part of Sixsmith’s book does recall her blog more directly, with discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of different aspects of farm life, and colorful stories from her own experiences. Structured as a volume of advice to a woman considering marrying a farmer (“real” farmers are still predominantly male, hence Sixsmith’s tongue-in-cheek description of herself as a farmerette), this section is humorous and offers gentle advice to a presumably mainly female readership. As a man, I still found this an enjoyable read, even though I’m not trying to marry a farmer;-) Although, there are perhaps too many lists of advantages, and these tend to repeat when you read the whole book in one or two sitings.
Towards the end of the book, Sixsmith slips back into the tone of the earlier social history, discussing the modern roles and responsibilities of farmers and their wives, involving smart phone apps, side-businesses teaching social media, and the adjustment to rural life for urban dwellers. This is again very interesting, and shows how much some aspects of farm life have changed, even though the rhythms of the seasons and nature of farm work would still be recognizable to my grandfather’s generation.
Overall, Would You Marry a Farmer? is far more than just a humorous gift book. It’s a lucid discussion of farm life in the 21st century, and a perfect book for both visitors to Ireland who wish to better understand Irish life, urban dwellers seeking to learn more about their farmer forefathers, and anyone curious about the social history of agricultural life in Ireland.
You can read Lorna Sixsmith’s blog at IrishFarmerette.com/blog…
Note to Americans: There are many references to “Calf Nuts” throughout the book. This refers to calf feed that resembles dry dog or cat food. It does not refer to the testicles of recently castrated calves.
The author very kindly sent me a review copy of Would You Marry a Farmer?