Just Transition and Representation of Farming in Ireland

Written by Prof. Patrick Brereton
Prof. Patrick Brereton is an emeritus Professor at the School of Communications at Dublin City University. His most recent monograph was Essential Concepts of Environmental Communication: an A-Z Guide (London: Routledge, 2022) and he was one of the editors on the important Palgrave volume, Ireland and the Climate Crisis (2020).



From an Irish perspective, the exponential growth in dairy and beef production produces a major challenge in reaching our net zero carbon targets. At the same time, supporting a Just Transition demands that farmers receive financial and other supports as they transition from an intensive model of production. Encouraging more carbon sequestration, together with stemming the tide of biodiversity loss, and monitoring ever-increasing levels of pollution across our precious water ways, are all major objectives. Yet many of our environmental challenges come at a major cost to small famers in particular and the rural economy generally, requiring a robust sustainable and Just Transition plan.

As suggested by several farmers and commentators, this process requires clear and transparent monetary payment for environmental services rendered as well as fair farm gate prices for produce, worked out in advance,[1] to ensure an equitable transition in the face of our climate crisis. Such ongoing struggles to secure transitional justice can draw on lessons learned from the experimental ‘brown to green’ transformation of Bord na Mona and the subsequent fall-out for peat workers and other communities in the Midlands.[2]

In this paper I seek to highlight the central importance of farming and farmers in creating a Just Transition in Ireland. Recalling ongoing media and historical filmic representations of land and farming, which tend to put farmers in opposition to environmentalists. These tensions have been most recently articulated by a number of conferences on the topic and echo an environmental history of farming and the rural economy on film in Ireland. A quick survey of Irish farming films help to demonstrate these tensions and call out a range of pressures, which speak to the ongoing challenge of realising a Just Transition in which farmers need to be centrally involved by co-creating solutions.

Current Conversations

Tensions are rising between urban and rural communities, environmentalists and businesses, alongside farmers who have to make major sacrifices by transforming their production practices, as a transformation of food production becomes a necessity. This is before the even more controversial land use-changes are discussed. At a conference ‘Rewild and Renew’ on Biodiversity loss at Dublin City University (26th April 2023), the Minister for the Environment, Eamon Ryan, called out various tensions in the body politic and affirmed that farmers will nonetheless have to be at the front line in any restoration of our natural habitat.[3] Government policy at present is focused in particular on land use reform, as Ireland strives to face up to its climate challenges and EU targets.

In a later Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conference, titled ‘Climate change on ground: Land use, land-use change and Forestry’ (May 25th 2023), the Minister for the Environment again re-affirmed the need for dialogue with farmers to ensure a fair transition.[4] But a number of farmers speaking to the conference in the afternoon discussed how among the top stressors for farmers at present were ‘government policy, with outsiders not understanding farming’, and calling out ‘ongoing concerns over the future of the farm’. Thomas Ryan, who is head of agri-sustainability and customer engagement with Tirlan, continued that ‘this does not equal denial of climate change’, as some suggest. As is often said by farmers and other professions at the coalface of the climate crisis; it is hard to be green when you are in the red!

By all accounts, regulations, extra funding, and clarity into the future are badly needed to make the radical change in land management that is needed over the next decade. While Paul O’Brien who is a sheep farmer and works for the Irish Farmers Organisation (IFA), spoke passionately about how farmers are very suspicious. Because of what has happened in the past, they can’t simply make a ‘leap of faith’, much less countenance an ‘income deficit’ in the current economic context. Basically, as with all difficult transitions, ‘farmers need to be supported’. Later a young female farmer from Cork, Nicole Keoghan, echoed such sentiments and spoke of fears about a lack of support, not having enough knowledge to inform such a difficult decision, and she also called out a general lack of communication on the ground.

Finally, the well-known agricultural journalist and farmer Darragh McCullough, reaffirmed the need for farmers to know exactly ‘what effect this will have on income’; whether it is re-wetting, replanting forests (which has a long lead in time for any return on investment), or in considering more radical changes of land usage, including emotive calls for the culling of the national herd. Specific funded policies and strategies urgently need to be worked out, at both EU and national Government level, to ensure a Just Transition for this climate emergency is managed effectively. Farmers must be fully compensated if they are to drive such radical changes around land use for the good of Ireland and the whole planet. At the heart of a Just Transition is the idea of a just wage. These sentiments were affirmed together with ongoing need for dialogue and transparency when NESC presented its findings on 30th June 2023 in its conference titled ‘Exploring Just Transition in Agriculture and Land Use’.

Telling the Story of Best Practice

The current conversation clear pulls against the grain of an idealised green idyllic island, especially as perceived from an outsider’s perspective. We rely heavily on marketing Ireland to tourists as a simple, green island. The reality is more contentious and greater levels of dialogue are required. Such discourse is further hampered because of a relatively small media industry capable of focusing specifically on broadcast or filmic output to help map out and catalogue these challenging environmental tensions, while at the same time foregrounding the demands and expectations for a Just Transition. We need to publicise robust models of best practice and ways of articulating this green sustainable story with regards to agriculture in particular. Ireland affords a useful test site for a burgeoning environmentally-focused media to speak to such debates, calling out the country’s ‘laggard’ status in facing up to the challenges of the climate crisis, specifically regarding the representation of farmers.[5] But this eco-media agenda appears to be at odds with the nostalgic, pro-social rural stories populating our screens, yet serving as a barometer of ever-changing ecological land ethics.

As affirmed by our most eminent climatologist and environmentalist John Sweeney, sitting astride ‘the main storm tracks of the North Atlantic, Ireland’s location has historically rendered it vulnerable to the vicissitudes of weather and climate’. Sweeney continues, by affirming how ‘Irish society was a greater hostage to climate than many other parts of Europe, where the Industrial Revolution has enabled the worst effects of the Little Ice Age to be mitigated… As Ireland modernised, new concerns such as urban flooding emerged, and new ways of managing climate risks were devised’.[6] However it appears that farming has not effectively managed such climate risk or insured against the ever changing weather patterns, as the industry strives for increasing financial return on investment of both time and resources.

The Environmental Movement in Ireland: From Literature to Film

The roots of contemporary Irish environmentalism can probably be traced back to Robert Lloyd Praeger’s seminal publication The Way that I Went,[7] which comprehensively described the flora and fauna across parts of the island. Perhaps even more notable was his establishment of the Irish equivalent of the National Trust – An Taisce – in 1948. Unfortunately, in the decades since then, the range of flora and fauna has radically reduced, in no small measure because of the growth of industrial modes of farming. Up to then, the Irish State had been economically determined and culturally defined as a rural and agricultural society. Such a long-term preoccupation, even fixation with the land, was augmented by a long and troubled history as a British colony, whereby sovereignty and ownership of the land was contested for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, the unique beauty of the land(scape) as a fixed and unchanging topography was affirmed by romantic nationalists like the globally celebrated poet William Butler Yeats, whose creative output served as a bulwark in the cultural and political struggle for national independence during the early decades of the twentieth century.

Consequently, the dominant myth visualised within Irish culture has remained a pastoral one, which foregrounds an almost Arcadian evocation of the happy swain close to nature, alongside the cyclical rhythms of the earth. This myth was certainly fostered and encouraged, according to various studies by cultural nationalists of the newly formed independent State from the 1920s onwards, most notably recalling Ireland’s long-time political leader and visionary Eamon de Valera and his whole-hearted endorsement of the primitive frugality visualised in Man of Aran.[8]

Robert Flaherty’s 1930s Man of Aran,[9] up to more contemporary representations in Jim Sheridan’s 1990 adaptation of J. B. Keane’s play The Field,[10] reflect the ever expanding cultural and economic power and importance of land ownership, coupled with the simultaneou ever-expanding but narrowing range of food production over the decades. Meanwhile Yi-fu Tuan’s notion of ‘topophilia’ and the idea that humans have culturally mediated affinities for certain types of landscape (cited in Buell 2001: 26) might also be foregrounded,[11] when trying to tease out tensions around environmental conflicts across a range of audio-visual texts. This most certainly underpins the potent representation of the rugged primitivism of Man of Aran, as against the pastoral farming beauty of The Field.[12]

More recent indigenous national films including, Pilgrim Hill (2013)[13] and An Cailín Ciúin (2022)[14] speak to contemporary re-imaginings of a farming past and present, where a greater articulation of the tenets of a Just Transition are brought into focus. Concerns around the big extractive rancher farmers and their unadulterated drive towards profit maximisation is echoed for instance in a throwaway comment by rewilding activist Eoghan Daltun – who gave a keynote speech at DCU’s Biodiversity conference (26th April 2023) – that the island is just one big industrial farm, with little consideration for biodiversity loss.

Historically of course, farmers are at the cutting edge of climate change. They are also engaged in addressing water pollution and biodiversity loss, and know well how our fragile eco-system remains prone to risk, especially through various forms of over-production. Nonetheless, farmers rightly seek to display a deep sense of place, communal solidarity and environmental stewardship, as displayed in seminal Irish classics such as the aforementioned Man of Aran (1934), The Field (1990), or The Quiet Man (1952).[15] More contemporary (albeit also historical) tales like Pilgrim Hill or An Cailín Ciúin can be further evaluated as echoing and reformulating such tropes of beautiful landscape, while representing and valorising primitive modes of production within the agricultural sector. At the same time, they continue to embrace deep nationalist values, while foregrounding postcolonial and even at times a pathological love of the land. Such tensions are well dramatized in An Cailín Ciúin. The Oscar-nominated Irish language film celebrates the lived experience of a quiet innocent country girl, who must cope with familial disharmony. The entire film is framed against a rural topography and embedded within contrasting cultures and environmental values embodied and represented by two very different small farming families. Such an intimate farming-based story affords a fruitful site to re-examine various contested forms of communal (eco-)identity, trauma and fractured habitats, alongside more sustainable modes of agricultural practice, within an erstwhile romanticised and idealist post-colonial touristic site.

 As a primal rural profession, agriculture on film most especially serves as a shorthand and measure of ever-changing ecological land ethics, as was argued in a close reading of Gerald Barret’s Pilgrim Hill. The film foregrounds a form of social and environmental dysfunctionality in contemporary agricultural practices, where most pointedly the pervasive threat and risk of having one’s whole livelihood wiped out by tuberculous (TB) remains challenging.[16] In the face of this threat, little financial or other supports are available outside of the immediate family. This is a real-life challenge for Irish farmers. Depicting this harsh reality can be particularly potent for helping outsiders to appreciate the complexities and the ongoing need for a Just Transition, especially with regard to monetary security, as well as maintaining equilibrium, cohesiveness, and resilience within a rural economy.

Theoretically, the significant problems that have been associated with Irish agriculture, particularly since its intensification in the post-war period, and with accession to the European Economic Community are well noted in the literature. But Pilgrim Hill can be seen to articulate a critical vision of a contemporary small farmer’s life in crisis and the tensions of rural life more generally and more viscerally. Within such an important film there is an over-riding sense of decline, even a sense of an elegy for the precarious livelihood of the small farmer. Such creative filmic investigations help to challenge and critique the pervasive rhetoric of the controversial Food Harvest 2020: A Vision for Irish Agriculture and Fisheries policy, produced by the Irish Department of Agriculture,[17] in association with powerful agribusiness interests, which embraced an aggressively pro-growth strategy by committing to adding up to 50 per cent to the national herd.

None of this is in harmony with the struggle to meet our climate targets. But drawing out how and why farmers might chafe at simplistic slogans issued by primarily urban-based environmentalists – in the face of the reality of heavy-indebtedness, low prices “at the gate”, and other critical economic challenges – is something that film is uniquely placed to help.


Tragedy of the Commons: Post-colonial Evocations of Land in Ireland

Aldo Leopold’s famous ‘land ethic’ rests upon a single unifying premise: ‘that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts’.[18] His vision served to enlarge the boundaries of community to include soils, water, plants, animals and so forth. Especially since his ‘rediscovery’ in the 1960s, Leopold’s thesis has become a central tenet of environmental thinking and the symbiotic relationship he proposes between humans and nature has remained the dominant orthodoxy of much ecological thinking. Such a simple notion helps create a more sustained and long-term beneficial environmental ethic of place that in turn might holistically connect individuals and their communities, drawing upon such long-lasting symbiotic relationships.

Meanwhile the hegemonic orthodoxy of mainstream (neoliberal) economics and monetary growth culture considers nature primarily as a resource that essentially contributes to human value, which in turn is evident across most mainstream cinema. The alternative recuperative notion of a land ethic is most clearly manifested in the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, which serves towards coalescing environmental film analysis and occurs when individual stewards of the land (farmers), sharing a resource held in common, appear to only act in their own short-term, self-interest, and thereby progressively degrade the collective resource of their land holdings.

This tension is evoked and played out against an evolving representation of famers as benevolent stewards of the land, as against despoilers of the land – as witnessed in Man of Aran, The Quiet Man and The Field. Meanwhile, the more complex debate unfolding regarding land – including bogland and forestry – is in measuring how such ‘natural capital’ can contribute by functioning more effectively as a carbon sink and how this process can be measured against the increasing carbon output in the atmosphere.[19] This includes the more potent methane emanating from the expontential growth of ruminants, especially in the dairy herd, which needs to be controlled into the future, as Ireland strives to meet its EU carbon targets.

Ethical and more sustainable environmental agricultural methods are needed to help counter this dilemma around ever increasing carbon emissions. These include a massive growth in organic farming and the application of the principles of co-existing with, rather than dominating natural systems, alongside sustaining or building natural soil fertilizers. It also entails minimising various forms of pollution and minimising the use of non-renewable resources, while always ensuring the ethical treatment of animals. All the while, this ethical and Just Transition model incorporates the ultimate manifestation of close identification and engagement with place. These ideals are echoed most pointedly in E.O. Wilson’s theory of ‘biophilia’,[20] which insinuates that because humans evolved from nature, we still carry a part of nature in our hearts and this is where humans feel their relationship with and responsibilities to the land, through the complexity of human-land relations.

Yet, as Irish environmental scholar and political activist John Barry asserts, the majority of people in modern society ‘have no direct transformative experience of nature,’[21] having little direct connection with the land, except as some dramatic natural disaster. The arts and storytelling, including filmic evocation of such ecological and ethical debates, can depict and communicate these healthy farming methods and thus sow the seeds of an alternative approach. This would involve good stewardship towards green citizenship and securing a Just Transition – and the Just Wages it demands – while promoting awareness of our interdependence and co-dependence with our environment.


Concluding Remarks

As modern society becomes more and more detached from its rural roots, audiences need the stimulus of powerful tales to provide ‘creative imaginaries’ of all our duties and responsibility to nourish and protect both human and non-human ecologies. Such tales can be especially pertinent when framed and played out using the ongoing financial and environmental tensions embedded in the move to low-cost food production and agriculture generally. Such media can project the growing disconnect of human and non-human natures, which is symptomatic of capitalist and more recently neoliberal world-ecology. This can be appreciated through representations of the Irish farmers on film (specifically small farmers), as well as through a detailed understanding of and engagement with the material realities of contemporary modes of industrial modes of agriculture. As Minister Eamon Ryan has made clear, farmers can be the heroes in this struggle around land use management and climate justice.

 Appreciating the full potential of film and visual media generally to enhance or expand our perception and understanding of environmental issues and ecological interrelationships, demands both qualitative and quantitative analysis. In our recent edited volume Ireland and the Climate Crisis,[22] I went so far as to highlight the growth of small independent Irish ‘zombie’ movies, to allegorically address some of these tensions placed on the representations of farming in Ireland. Fears of impurity and disease are exacerbated by over-focusing on profit maximisation at all costs. Highlighting the horrors of zombie animals, much less the more pernicious dilemma of constantly increasing conspicuous consumption, remains at the centre of the zombie genre.[23] All the while acknowledging that the long term health and purity of our food systems are essential for human health and survival, never mind maintaining our “pure green” reputation and natural food branding. The relevance of this and the importance of high quality food production and consumption has been put into sharp relief by the likely zoonotic roots of the Covid-19 pandemic.[24] Global citizens cannot presume farming and food production can be produced ever more cheaply, without considering the very real environmental consequences. The climate crisis remains the existential crisis of our time and a wake-up call for farmers and all citizens to realise the primary importance of the rural eco-systems for our very survival. To secure this radical transformation, a Just Transition is necessary to re-align agricultural business, practices and consumer expectations into the future.

Global audiences as well as Irish citizens need to learn the real value of good quality food and agricultural output and not just embrace a ‘race to the bottom’, which in the long term is bad for all. The export model which Irish agriculture has adopted is always open to the vagaries of the international market and thus tends to generate inequalities. For a more sustainable future, not to mention a Just Transition, we need to re-purpose the industry, and support the long term sustainability of our farmers, as we simultaneously strive to meet our carbon budget. This demands that all stakeholders, including environmentalists, consumers, as well as the agri-food businesses, have to agree on an equitable and robust long-term strategy to help ensure a viable rural economy is supported and maintained. This process of transformation will be greatly assisted if politics and media move away from a confrontational populist model, with urban versus rural always put into conflict, or presenting the “environmental lobby” against “the farmer” – all of which are based on stark stereotypes that do not exist in reality and lead to entrenched positions rather than open and necessary dialogue. For an equitable Just Transition, we certainly need new ways of communicating the environmental challenge, without demonising and polarising farming and rural agents as against environmentalists and activists in the process.

As constantly highlighted, Ireland has to reverse the decades-long process of intensified agricultural policy which has encouraged farmers to grow their dairying and beef production sectors so as to become more commercial and ‘self-sustaining’. The threat of climate change in Ireland has focused on the farming industry as a major cause of excessive greenhouse gasses and like all commercial industries, it remains caught up in the irresolvable tensions between increasing overall outputs of food production and alternatively securing the land and our precious habitat for a more sustainable future.[25] As elsewhere, Ireland needs more reflexive ‘creative imaginaries’, which can help to show the way, as the country strives to promote a radical low carbon energy future and an equitable road map for a Just Transition.


[1] See several conferences and reports noted in this paper. A key element here will also be the need to compensate farmers for the consequences of extreme weather: Mairead Maguire, “Farmers Welcome Compensation for Unharvested Crops after ‘major Losses’ Due to Extreme Weather,” TheJournal.Ie, November 18, 2023, https://www.thejournal.ie/farmers-welcome-compensation-for-unharvested-crops-after-major-losses-due-to-extreme-weather-6219474-Nov2023/.
[2] See for instance Ciaran Mulvey’s recommendations in his progress report from April 2020: Kieran Mulvey, “Just Transition Progress Report” (Dublin: Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, April 2020). Further discussions of plans to scope an Educational Centre for Climate Change as part of a Just Transition, dovetails with the planned re-wetting of bogs and the growth of renewable energy in the region (See my draft ‘Midlands Report for a Climate Centre’).
[3] Faculty of Humanities & Social Science, “Politics of Division Will Not Help Us Address Climate Crisis – Minister Ryan,” Dublin City University, April 26, 2023, https://www.dcu.ie/humanities-and-social-sciences/news/2023/may/politics-division-will-not-help-us-address-climate.
[4] Harry McGee and Nathan Johns, “Climate Change Could Place Even Further Stress on Overstretched Land Use,” The Irish Times, May 25, 2023, https://www.irishtimes.com/environment/2023/05/25/climate-change-could-place-even-further-stress-on-overstretched-land-use/.
[5] Niall Sargent, “Taoiseach Tells EU He Is Not Proud of Ireland Role as Europe’s Climate ‘Laggard,’” Green News Ireland, January 18, 2018, https://greennews.ie/taoiseach-tells-eu-not-proud-ireland-climate-laggard-role/.
[6] John Sweeney, “Climate and Society in Modern Ireland: Past and Future Vulnerabilities,” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature 120C, no. 1 (2020): 391, https://doi.org/10.1353/ria.2020.0005.
[7] Robert Lloyd Praeger, The Way That I Went (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, & Co., 1937).
[8] See, for example: Patrick Brereton, “Farming on Irish Film: An Eclogical Reading,” in Ecosee: Image, Rhetoric, Nature, ed. Sidney I. Dobrin and Sean Morey (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2009), 185–202.
[9] Man of Aran (Gaumont-British, 1934).
[10] The Field (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1990).
[11] Cited in Lawrence Buell, Writing from and Endangered World: Literature, Culture and Environment in the US and Beyond (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 26.
[12] Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons, and John Hill, Cinema and Ireland (London: Routledge, 2014).
[13] Pilgrim Hill (Element Pictures, 2013).
[14] An Cailín Ciúin (Break Out Pictures, 2022).
[15] The Quiet Man (Republic Films, 1952).
[16] See: Sean Shanagher and Pat Brereton, “Pilgrim Hill: Alienated Farmers and Degraded Ecologies,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 31, no. 3 (2020): 75–93.
[17] Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, “Food Harvest 2020: A Vision for Irish Agri-Food and Fisheries” (Dublin: Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, 2010).
[18] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1947), 204.
[19] For a positive account, consider: Caroline Sullivan, “High Nature Value (HNV) Farmland: Getting Results from Farming for Biodiversity,” Working Notes 34, no. 86 (June 2020): 39–44.
[20] Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).
[21] John Barry, Rethinking Green Politics: Nature, Virtue and Progress (London: Sage, 1998), 257.
[22] David Robbins, Diarmuid Torney, and Patrick Brereton, eds., Ireland and the Climate Crisis (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
[23] See also: John Quiggin, Zombie Economics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
[24] Zi-Wei Ye et al., “Zoonotic Origins of Human Coronaviruses,” International Journal of Biological Sciences 16, no. 10 (2020): 1686–97, https://doi.org/10.7150/ijbs.45472.