Elizabeth Frances Bobbett: 1899-1971
Pioneering Farming Activist

By Catherine Shaw

An excerpt from the book Changing Times - Changing Lives. IFA Farm Women in Wicklow 1981 - 2006, which documents the experience and work of the Wicklow IFA Farm Families Committee.

The landmark conference for women in agriculture held in Dublin on 13 October 2003 entitled ‘Fast forward - Driving the agenda for women in agriculture’ was an historic occasion. Up to 600 farm women from all over Ireland attended. Listening to farm women voicing their concerns, fears and hopes for the future of farming, I wondered just what Elizabeth Frances Bobbett would made of that gathering.

‘Miss Bobbett’ as she was always referred to in Wicklow farming circles was an outstanding woman in irish agriculture from the early 1930s up to the late 1960s.

Born in ‘Hansfield’, Clonsilla, Co. Dublin in 1899, Miss Bobbett’s father was a farmer and a Justice of the Peace. Her mother was a member of the beverage family and a descendant of Charles Teeling, a 1798 patriot. She had two brothers, Patrick and William. Her father farmed extensively in Clonsilla and he owned a 200 acre farm in Co. Wicklow. The land at ‘Hansfield’ was sold following the death of her father. Miss Bobbett and her mother moved to Springfield Farm, Kilbride, Co. Wicklow in 1926.

By the early 1930s the farm was heavily in debt and farming was in a desperate state . Rates were a huge burden on farmers at this time and agricultural prices continued to drop significantly into the 1930s. Her difficulty in paying rates led to a court appearance in 1933 and she was very aware that many other farmers found themselves in similar circumstances. She became convinced that Irish farmers needed an organisation capable of representing all agricultural interests at national level.

Miss Bobbett worked to unite farmers and in 1937 the Irish Farmers’ federation was formed. She was to remain as General Secretary for many years. She saw that party politics had caused the downfall of previous farming organisations and ensured that the IFF was non-political, non-sectarian. This group was registered as a trade union in 1937. The IFF looked for a minimum price for agricultural produce, access to long term loans, a moratorium on land annuities and a complete de-rating of all agricultural land. Miss Bobbett toured the country organising branches and speaking at public meetings. A tiny, dynamic woman showing social leadership was unique in those times. The IFF was branded as anti-nationalist by the Minister for Agriculture, James Ryan TD. Gardaí were sent to observe farmers’ meetings in the 1930s and one ‘official’ observer noted in 1937 about Miss Bobbett that ‘this lady is heavily in debt’.

During the Economic War (1937-38) when farmers refused to pay rates, their livestock was seized by the government . The livestock was auctioned, in some cases under cover of machine guns mounted on army lorries. The seized cattle were branded by shaving the letters ‘LAA’ (Land Annuities Association). No farmer would bid against the owner at the auction and livestock was often bought back at a nominal price. At Marsh’s yard in Cork, one young farmer was shot dead. These were tough times. IN April 1939 the Irish farmers’ federation called a one-day commodity strike. For the first time in its history , not a beast was offered for sale at Dublin Cattle Market that day.

A protest to the Dáil was led by Miss Bobbett mounted on a white horse. The bishop of Killaloe, Dr. Michael Fogarty called her ‘Joan of Ark’. Later in 1939, in a second commodity strike, the Minister for Agriculture used the Offenses Against the state act, 1939, to stop newspapers publishing details of the strike. However, Miss Bobbett continued to write articles for booklets including Farming in Ireland, and she was always to the fore in getting publicity for the plight of farmers.

Miss Bobbett stood unsuccessfully for the Dáil in 1943 as an independent candidate and she was an independent member of Wicklow County Council form 1950 to 1955. She was a founder member of the National Farmers’ Association (NFA), Barndarrig Branch in 1955, now the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) and in 1964 she served as President of Wicklow IFA County Executive.

Miss Bobbett was again supporting farmers in the 1960s when, at the age of 67, she led the combined Wexford and Wicklow farmers march from The Beehive as far as Ashford mounted on a white horse, as she had done in 1939. She was also very involved with milk producers in the county, retiring in 1968 as secretary of East Wicklow Milk Producers Association.

She will be remembered for her vision, courage and determination over this thirty year period. These qualities contributed to the establishment of the IFA, a farming organisation representing all sections of agriculture, non-political, non-sectarian and with authority to negotiate with the state on behalf of Irish farmers.

Miss Bobbett died on 1 June 1971 and is buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. To quote from Dr. Peter Moser and Dr. Tony Varley’s article ‘Elizabeth F. Bobbett: Irelands’ Forgotten Pioneering Farming Activist’:

If many of her contemporaries could not appreciate her great gifts and qualities, then at least history should give this remarkable woman credit for what she stood for and what she achieved.