Dr. Eamonn Slater, Department of Sociology, Maynooth University, County Kildare, Ireland.
Number of Words: 1650
Estimated Reading Time: ~8-10 minutes
In this article, I want to outline the crucial role that the administrative device of the collop played in the Rundale system of farming. Although it was essentially a measurement of agricultural productivity, it was unique in the way it assessed ecological output and allowed that output to be communally shared among the residents of a Rundale clachan. And in this latter respect, it provides us with an invaluable insight into not only the inner workings of this communal system of production but also into how production from ‘commons’ lands can be assessed ecologically. Accordingly, by comparing the collop method of measurement with the imperial system of spatial measurement – acreage – we can begin to understand how the ‘acre’ system was an imposition onto the local ecosystems while the collop emerged organically from the naturally occurring ecological soil base. Finally, I unfold how the acre unit system was used to impose a rent on the Rundale lands, while the collop was used to proportion that rent among the members of the commune.
In the following quotation, Gibbs locates the significance of the collop as a measurement of land among the native Irish and how it was integrated under the newly introduced rental system in the seventeenth century:
“Four men of the village, he (Sir Henry Piers) says, called Heads of Quarter, obtained the lease of a farm consisting of arable and grazing land, and then took in a number of others as co-partners. The farm was valued according to the number of cows for which there was grazing ground, the grazing of a cow being called a collop. Each partner paid rent in proportion to the number of collops he held; but their cattle fed in common. The arable land was divided into as many portions as there were collops, and each had as many portions as he held collops. The land was re-divided every two years, and in such a manner that it consisted of various qualities of good, of middling, and of bad, in different parts of the field. The four adjusted the collops, and the shares of the arable land among the other partners; they collected the rents, and paid the landlord.”
What is interesting about Gibbs’ succinct synopsis of the concept of the collop is how he suggests that it originated from the grazing activities of cattle but later was applied to tillage land as ‘the arable land was divided into as many portions as there were collops, and each had as many portions as he held collops’. These tillage portions were subsequently known as tillage collops. This article is an attempt to develop these insights of Gibbs and to suggest that the collop was the essential organizational apparatus that was crucial to maintaining communal aspects of the Rundale system. And like the Rundale system itself, the collop evolved through time and took on a number of diverse forms. But all of these forms of collops that were instrumental in maintaining productive communality had also to operate under a rental system. In this relationship, they functioned as a means of proportioning the rent payments among the communal members of the Rundale system. And in doing so, the collop became the pivotal point where the rental system of landlordism attempted to subsume the customary relationships of the communal form of production. Gibbs’ account in the above quotation thus begins to explicate how the collop is crucial in our attempt to understand not only the inner workings of this particular system of agricultural production but also how the Rundale members organized their payment of the rent.
Integrating the Rundale System as a Townland Within the Landed Estate Framework
The setting up of a leasehold agreement de nova was rarely done on land that was not already populated by the native Irish. The Plantations of the seventeenth century and the colonial strategy of clearing the Irish natives from the land and replacing them with British tenants was an abject failure except for the Ulster Plantation. As a consequence, the commoners of the dismantled tribal system had to be readmitted back onto the land – not as tribal members but as rent-paying tenants. This process of re-admittance was in fact a legal fiction as the native Irish never actually left their ancestral lands but legally they became tenants of a newly established land-owning Anglo-Irish elite. The consequence of this legal imposition is that the native Irish were now required to pay a monied rent but their traditional customary practices of production continued although they were now formally part of the newly established landed estate. It is within these landed estate property restrictions that booleying and its specific form of valuation – the collop emerged within the Rundale system of farming. Thus the synthesis of these formal legal strictures associated with the colonial
landed estate and the informal customary practices of the Rundale system of farming was a dynamic process that was continually evolving.
The Livestock Collop as a Measurement of Pasture Productivity
The livestock collop was essentially a measure of the productivity of the pasture in terms of the number of cattle that it could sustain over the grazing period. It was not a measure of the spatial extent of the land. The productivity of the pasture was ecologically determined by the fertility of the soil and the vegetative growth that it could support. The collop was thus an ecological measure of the land’s productivity.
The Tillage Collop within and beyond the Infield
The tillage collop was an extension of the livestock collop into the arable infield. It was a response to the demographic pressures on the land and the need to produce cereal crops. The tillage collop was a measure of the productivity of the infield in terms of the number of families that it could sustain. It was not a measure of the spatial extent of the infield. The productivity of the infield was ecologically determined by the fertility of the soil and the vegetative growth that it could support. The tillage collop was thus an ecological measure of the land’s productivity.
The Colliding ‘Worlds’ of the Rented Acre and the Communal Collop
The rented acre was the spatial measure of the land that was used in the official transactions of the landed estate. The Rundale residents, however, calculated their holdings in terms of collops. The rent for the townland was fixed as a whole but the distribution of that rent among the residents was managed through the collop system. The collop was thus the measure of the land that reflected the blend of the imposed legal structures of the landed estate and the customary communal practices of the Rundale system.
In conclusion, the collop system was an ingenious method of integrating ecological understanding with communal living. It stands in stark contrast to the imposed acreage system. It represents a historical synthesis of environmental stewardship and social organization that has much to teach us about contemporary ecological and communal endeavors.
Buchanan stated that:
Their land lay mainly within a single townland, a territorial unit whose mean size for the country is about 325 acres. If the townland was large, it was sometimes divided among several Rundale groups, each holding its land in lots separate from the other (Buchanan 1973: 586)
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FAQ for “The Collops of the Rundale”
What is a ‘collop’ in the context of Irish history?
A collop refers to an old Irish unit of measurement used in the Rundale system to allocate communal land based on the number of cattle a family owned.
What was the Rundale system?
The Rundale system was a form of communal farming practiced in Ireland, where land was divided into strips and allocated to families based on their needs and resources, particularly the number of cattle they could graze.
How did the collop system affect agricultural productivity?
The collop system was designed to ensure equitable distribution of land and resources. It allowed for a sustainable approach to farming by matching the land allocated to the productive capacity of the livestock a family owned.
What is the historical significance of the Rundale system?
The Rundale system is significant as it represents a communal approach to land management and agriculture, contrasting with the individualistic methods introduced during the English colonization.
How did the Rundale system change over time?
The Rundale system gradually declined with the introduction of more individualistic farming practices and the enclosure movement, which redistributed land in larger, more consolidated plots.
Can I download the original source material on the Rundale system?
Yes, the original source PDF discussing the Rundale system in detail is available for print and download on the website.
Is there a connection between the Rundale system and ecological sustainability?
Yes, the Rundale system’s communal land management is often cited as an early form of ecological stewardship, as it required a deep understanding of the land’s capacity and sustainable farming practices.
What can we learn from the Rundale system today?
The Rundale system offers lessons in communal living, shared resources, and sustainable agriculture, which can inform current discussions on environmental stewardship and community organization.
Are there any remaining examples of the Rundale system in Ireland today?
While the Rundale system is no longer in practice, some landscape patterns and communal grazing practices have persisted in parts of Ireland, reflecting its historical influence.
How does the Rundale system compare to modern farming practices?
The Rundale system’s communal approach contrasts sharply with modern, industrialized farming practices, emphasizing the importance of community and sustainability over efficiency and profit.