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The Milk House: To the hills, young woman

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 11 June 2021

My partner and I spent the first few months of the pandemic at my family’s farm in upstate New York. As far as places to wait out the apocalypse, it served us well.

There was plenty of space and things to be done, and daily life there wasn’t entirely different than it had been in the months before that. Nonetheless, due to visa reasons, we had to move back to Ireland – the country with the overall strictest lockdown policies.

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For much of the next year, we couldn’t go more than a mile-and-a-half from our house, which was nearly a moot point anyway: There was nowhere to go. The only shops open were grocery stores, and we were not allowed to meet with any other households. I think all of us on the island grew a little strange and unsettled, longing for the freedom to go anywhere or do anything. To simply sleep in a different bed someday was nearly a guilty fantasy.

One of the sacrifices inherent to dairy farming is being tied to a specific spot, making it hard to get away in the summer like other people. However, there were once places in the world where that wasn’t always the case. Up to the 1800s in most places, and the mid-20th century in the West, Irish dairy farmers moved their cattle upland in the summer months to graze, a practice they called “booleying.” Naturally, someone from the farming family had to go with them.

From the Irish word “buaile,” which roughly translates to “milking place in summer pasturage,” booleying was necessary to ensure that the cattle had enough fodder to last the year. Being a small island, arable land was limited, as were the means to work it. More significantly, many of the farmers would be tenants who had to pay rent to the English landowning class and had to make the most from the land they were able to afford. Upland ground would often be a mix of rocks and bog, making it untillable, but it could be grazed. It allowed the family to plant hay or some other crop on the better land near their farms in the summer months.

Beef and other livestock only required someone to make the climb every few days and count the herd. However, because booleying was based on dairying, groups of people had to relocate into the mountains to be able to milk the cattle every day and churn it into butter, an important source of income for the family. According to Eugene Costello, a scholar who studied the practice of booleying, these people often stayed in groups of two to five and slept in small huts on the hillside. Most of these booley workers were young, unmarried women.

The freedoms of women have been limited throughout the majority of human civilization. This, perhaps, holds especially true for a nation like Ireland that was embedded with strong Catholic mores. Nonetheless, booleying offered some of these young females a sort of temporary reprieve from societal expectations and restrictions. For three months of the year, they were at a remove from their local communities and generally with other young people of a similar age and experience.

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It allowed them to act and behave as they wanted, without the watchful eyes of their neighbors or male supervisors. They learned songs from each other, and some of them even brought musical instruments to play. According to Costello, there are written accounts of married women fondly remembering the sovereignties they enjoyed while booleying in their youth.

Booleying isn’t the only instance of women finding liberation in acts of agriculture. Historians confirmed that the early settlers of Iceland took with them some of the best-looking women from the Celtic regions of Ireland and Scotland. These women had to take care of the livestock and crops while their Viking husbands went off to fight. When these men returned, they found that their wives refused to give up control of these farms.

Even today, dairy farming in Iceland is considered to be a female occupation. However, while in Iceland the participation of women in agriculture started the long history of gender equality the nation is celebrated for, the young women in the booleys had to return to their villages in September to eventually be married off and reinserted into a male-dominated society.

When restrictions were finally lifted enough that we were allowed to travel within the county, my partner and I rented a car and headed farther west on the island. We entered Connemara, a place where the old traditions were kept longer and not far from the last recorded booley in the 1940s. We climbed a small mountain in the area, passing old foundations that blended inconspicuously into the bog grass and local stone. I cannot confirm if they were used by someone who once tended cattle up there, although I couldn’t find any other explanation. For us, we were simply happy just to be able to see something different. However, looking down at the nearest villages below us and the cars that slowly passed through them, one can easily imagine what it meant for others in the past to be up there, away from the expectations that waited below.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis.

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