Academic journal article Ethnology

Irish Farming Households in Eastern Canada: Domestic Production and Family Size (1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Irish Farming Households in Eastern Canada: Domestic Production and Family Size (1)

Article excerpt

Irish farming households in Eastern Canada during the postfamine period (1861-1871) are used as the basis for a theoretical discussion of domestic production and family size. The purpose here is to extend discussion of the Chayanov (1966) model of peasant economies, and offer modifications of this model based on empirical variations in Irish Canadian household composition, dependency ratios, and overall farm size. This article suggests that the topic of choice and the assumption of risk be made a more explicit part of the Chayanov analysis, since farmers' decisions regarding productive capacity are apt to be made on a more holistic view of a farm's assets, and not just on the basis of cultivated acreage per worker. (Irish Canadian households, domestic production, family composition, Chayanov model)


On the subject of farm performance, or what Sahlins (1971) referred to as the intensity of domestic production, previous studies by Kane (1968) and Symes (1972) have raised several important substantive issues concerning Irish households that have not yet been adequately resolved. (2) Kane (1968), for example, draws comparisons between rural households in southwestern Donegal and those of an Irish-American community in Ohio. Such studies of transcontinental relationships in Irish families are a valuable addition to the literature because they illuminate structural similarities and differences in Irish farming as adaptations to new ecological and social settings. Thus, farm performance can be understood in a transitional sense, as an adaptive process. Differences between Irish American and Donegal households affecting performance include kinship structures that "serve as a central distributing point for services, minor economic aid, and the exchange of goods" (Kane 1968:254).

Based on ethnographic research in Ballyferriter, southwest Ireland, Symes (1972:25) concluded that "the most important variable is the structure of the family unit itself [and these] variations occur both through time and through space." Examples of these variations include decreases in household size due to depopulation, transitional or structural factors such as those resulting in a change from "stem" to nuclear families, and a growing scarcity of farm labor. All in all, "with a fairly rapid decline of household size during dispersal [resulting from emigration and moves to urban centers] and the increasing age and diminishing aspirations of the farmer, the level of farm production may be expected to decline" (Symes 1972:35).

This article on Irish farming households of Renfrew County (Admaston Township) in eastern Canada differs from those just mentioned in some significant ways. First, based on Canadian census data from the postfamine period of 1861-71 (Canada 1861, 1871), farm performance is explored

in the context of population expansion, rather than depopulation, as is the case with most previous Irish studies. Theoretically, it is beneficial to study farming communities undergoing growth and expansion as a balance to a focus on those communities in decline. Second, the longitudinal approach taken here, extending over a decade in the same geographical area, illuminates the extent to which variations in household size and composition affect farm performance.


Prior to the cataclysmic Great Famine (1846-49) in Ireland, emigration to Canada varied considerably from one decade to another (Elliot 1988; Houston and Smyth 1990; MacKay 1990; Mannion 1974; and Moran 1994). Migration from Irish ports to British North America (Canada) between 1825 and 1845 reached a high of 40,977 individuals in 1831 and a low of 2,284 in 1838. Curiously, corresponding figures for Irish emigration to the United States for this period are much lower, reaching a high, for example, of only 6,199 in 1842, and a low of 1,169 in 1838. Of course, sailing from an Irish port does not necessarily mean that the individual migrant was actually Irish. …

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