Jonathan Self: The peasants are anything but revolting

The people who worked the patchwork farms of Ireland until just a few decades ago are all but gone, laments Jonathan Self.

‘We couldn’t afford to live in St John’s Wood — think of the taxi fares’ (overheard in Claridge’s).

‘Are you going home with him?’ ‘I might as well: I am pregnant, anyway’ (overheard outside a Mayfair nightclub).

‘How do you take your coffee, madam?’ ‘Like my stewards.’ ‘I see, black and gay’ (overheard in British Airways Business Class).

‘I am so sorry my wife threw up.’ ‘Don’t apologise, darling, I have thrown up in far better places than this’ (overheard in Pizza Express).

Is there anything more fascinating than other people’s conversations?

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I couldn’t tell what the couple on the Cornish Riviera Express were arguing about when they boarded at Paddington last week, but at Reading the woman stood up, collected her luggage and addressed her companion in an extremely penetrating voice: ‘My mother said you were a peasant, and you are a peasant’ — before getting off.

As the descendant of peasants on both sides of my family, I have to say I was deeply offended. The word ‘peasant’ comes from the Middle-French païsant, which in turn derives from pays or pais, the countryside, and the Latin pagensis, of, or relating to the country. The Irish equivalent is probably ócaire (a ‘small lord’ or very modest farmer), bóaire (a rather grander ‘cow lord’ or better-off farmer) or perhaps túathannach (a country person).

Until relatively recently, Europe was dependent on its peasants. It was they who produced the food, paid the taxes, died in the wars, supported the Church and protected the environment. Their lack of education did not necessarily mean a lack of knowledge.

As John Clare wrote:

A silent man in life’s affairs,
A thinker from a boy,
A peasant in his daily cares,
A poet in his joy.’

The 14th-century Franciscan Alvarus Pelagius was missing the point when he sneered: ‘Even as they plough and dig the earth all day long, so they become altogether earthy; they lick the earth, they eat the earth, they speak of the earth; in the earth they have reposed all their hopes.’ No one understands the land like those who have made their living from it for generation upon generation going back thousands of years.

There is much else to admire about peasants. They are not in thrall to capitalism, nor are they obsessed with efficiency. They are dignified, patient and observant. Crucially, they are close to Nature in a way that no modern farmer ever is. Once, I would have said that peasants were survivors, but no more.

Thirty years ago, our parish here in the far west of Ireland was populated almost entirely by ócaires and bóaires. What I didn’t realise then, but am conscious of now, is how many of them were unmarried and how few of those who were married had children and how few of what children there were wanted to farm. Today, there are no small lords or cow lords left. Their farms, often only a few acres, have for the most part been inherited by distant relatives overseas and left to rot or sold. You may think I am making a fuss about nothing, that the world is no worse off without peasants. However, as Oliver Goldsmith wrote:

Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

The deserted man on the train, incidentally, clearly embraced his inner peasant: ‘At least,’ he shouted at the woman out of the window, ‘I am not revolting.’