Agriculture has been central to the survival of the rural economy throughout Ireland's history. Various factors combined to reduce the holdings of land to the subsistence level that pertained throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, small-holdings were marked by people's necessity to be as self-sufficient as their means allowed.
Both men and women contributed to the operation of the small farm. The men built their dwellings, but women helped with the important tasks of ploughing the land, growing and saving crops, saving turf and tending the farm animals. Women maintained the constant supply of the kitchen garden's supply of vegetables, kept poultry to assist with the family finances, wove and sewed cloth to provide clothes and cooked the meals for the family and farm animals. Families tended to intermarry in small communities and the close relationship of the families fostered an interest in the communal welfare. Meitheals, or groups of able-bodied men and women, combined to help the less well-off, particularly destitute widows, with the necessary seasonal farm work.