I’m on a hill in the west of Ireland, looking out over tiny fields separated by stone walls. Here and there, a pile of rubble marks the place where a cottage once stood. Slowly I start to understand, this sad beautiful land was once intensely inhabited. I’m seeing the bones of an ancient rural civilisation, long since silenced.
I never imagined I could witness the living equivalent. Until I saw Maramures. From Dealul Stefanitei, the hilltop that marks its frontier with Bistrita Nasaud, a patchwork of fields, each a slightly different shade, as far as I could see, the greatest garden on earth, tended by hand.
In Ireland, we have ancient stone Celtic crosses, 1000 years old. But in Sapanta today Dimitru Pop Tincu is carving a wooden Celtic cross. And not for tourists. He’s doing it because someone in the village has died.
That’s a living tradition.
Men and women who learned what they do from parents and masters. They keep a flame alive.
I’ve had the honour of bringing people to visit this place, to see it inspire them. Two young Irish traditional musicians, their eyes widened when they realised that the first music was played not for people, but for animals. Pastoral music. “Please let us sleep on the hilltop with the shepherds above Barsana village. We’re barefoot in the hay. They play the pipes to keep the sheep together at night, and to soothe them when they are being milked. We never knew about this!” What a revelation for them to discover the essence of traditional culture: its functionality, its therapeutic value; a journey more fascinating than the search for technical excellence. And Moisei Monastery on the night of the Assumption, hundreds of pilgrims in the rain, dozens of them – all ages – on their hands and knees, crawling on all-fours, three times around the 300-year old wooden church.
That’s a living tradition.
But it’s a tradition in crisis.
In December 2008, I had dinner with a member of the Parliamentary Commission for Agriculture within the Chamber of Deputies: “There are 120.000 farmers in Romania. These are our interest. The 4 million peasant households? They are not our problem. If you want to know about them, talk to the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection.”
It seems such a cruel perspective, such a waste of knowledge. Like burning the bridges.
In the 1920’s, the peasant class was one of the richest in Europe. I’ve heard it said many sent their children to France for schooling. In 1930, there were 7.500 cooperative enterprises in Romania with 1.5 million shareholders, when the country’s total population was 10 million.
This thriving ancient culture received three knock-out blows: 1949, 1990 and 2007.
The Communists saw the peasants as arch enemies, labelled them “little capitalists”.
A couple of years ago, I asked an 80-year old “little capitalist”:
“How was it when the collectivization came?”
“One day”, he said “they came into my yard, and they took everything. They took the horse, the cow, all the animals. The cart, the plough, all our big and small tools. They took all our seeds and all our stores. They even took the small handmill that we used for grinding corn. They took everything to the collective farm. And from that day forward, if we didn’t want to starve, we had to work for them.”
“And how was it in 1990, when you got your land back?”
“In 1990!?” he said. “They gave me back my land. But they didn’t give me any tools to work it with. I had to start all over again from zero. Only this time I was 45 years older and no longer a young man.”
I’d heard about the forced collectivisation of 1949. But very little about the forced de-collectivisation of 1990 and its devastating impact on an already impoverished rural population. Millions of villagers catapulted back to the Iron Age, left to scratch out a living from 3 or 4 plots of land, kilometres apart, backbreaking work, no shade, a few hand tools, maybe a shared horse and cart.
And with EU entry in 2007, the small producers have been wiped out, bulldozed by the agro-industrial complex that stretches from Portugal to Greece. Potatoes picked in Germany (probably by Romanians), washed in Italy and trucked into Romania. It’s a closed shop because this complex enjoys a 50-year, EU-funded, headstart from every point of view you can think of: educational, ideological, financial, technological, logistical, commercial.
The Romanian small producer, he isn’t just at a disadvantage. He’s been put permanently out of livelihood, and forced out of his homeland. He’s become an economic refugee. What the Soviets started, the Europeans are finishing. And to top it off, as a result of this displacement, between 200.000 and 300.000 Romanian children are growing up without one or both of their parents at home, for some or all of their childhood.
Imagine the public outcry in Ireland if half the primary schoolchildren were without one or both parents for their entire education as a result of our participation in the Common Market.
We are witnessing – in the Romanian rural space – the greatest social injustice in recent European history.
And why should we care?
Well I’m sure there are a dozen solid social and economic reasons why we should all care. But what’s the most important reason for me after 21 years here?
These farmers and their forefathers have been holding Europe’s frontline for hundreds of years. And they’re not just Romanians. There are 400.000 Hungarian small farmers here, and until 1991 half a million German villagers as well. Together they kept the flag flying so that all other Europeans could prosper and sleep well. They’ve been Europe’s unpaid, silent peacekeepers for generations. To keep peace, they often had to go to war. They paid a merciless 45-year price under Communism, abandoned by the West to have their fingernails pulled in re-education programmes. And what do they get in return? Pizza delivery jobs in Scunthorpe and Channel 4 documentaries called “The Romanians are coming”.
There is a quiet cataclysm taking place in Romania, and its epicentre is in the village.
Pope John Paul II wasn’t the first person to call Romania “Gradina Maicii Domnului”, “the Garden of the Mother of Christ”. Well, if we want to have a garden, we’d do well to look after the gardeners.