My father, a man of the land, would be appalled by my sloth.
As a young lad, I never shirked from shaking out silage. I kept at it despite the blisters. I valiantly tried to keep up as my father dug out the turf. But it was those stillborn calves and lambs and other misfortunes that I found almost soul destroying. Back then, I realised, a life on the land wasn’t for me.
I left that life a long time ago. I now live in rural Tasmania, on a dense steep bush block, but there’s not enough cleared land to warrant any farm animals. I know I should be outside tackling the bracken that’s taking over the bottom paddock. But it’s raining again, and no doubt, it’d be greasy underfoot. So, sitting by the fire is my preferred option in this sort of weather.
Crows and pigeons used to ravage our ripening barley. They’d always arrive en masse, well ahead of Johnny Coyle’s combine harvester. Of course they drove my father to despair. But letting loose with his double-barrelled shotgun – when he could get within range – only ever delivered the most temporary of interruptions to their raucous plundering. The price of livestock could be fickle, and of course Irish summers being Irish summers, meant saving the hay and turf was often a fraught affair.
As kids, we were happy enough, but our efforts at learning were overshadowed by our national school teacher’s savage use of his ashplant. His tyranny induced a sense of dread as the long summer holidays drew to an end.
How my mother kept everything going year after year, I still don’t know. There were simply too many of us. Much has been written about Irish mothers but ours was truly remarkable. And yet, despite our enduring impoverishment, my father always gave generously to the church dues which were read out at the lectern to a suddenly attentive congregation.
My father, if he was around now, would mostly likely be appalled by my daytime sloth. A plate of porridge would see him through the day. He wasn’t bothered by driving rain or frost. He hardly ever wore an overcoat. A farmer for almost all of his life, he’d never cut corners or opt for the easier option. Perhaps he even embraced and expected hardship.
I remember, even on Christmas day one year, in the biting cold, him out tricking around with a strand of old barbed wire in the haggard. He didn’t need to be out there. Or perhaps he did, for his own reasons. I suspect he was merely killing time until the Christmas dinner was ready to be served up.
He’d spent almost a decade in Australia, working all over the state of Victoria as a labourer, after he and my mother failed to return to their families from a day out to the Spring Show in Dublin. Only the scantest personal details of that period of their lives have ever emerged. From London, they’d travelled to Melbourne where they’d remain until an unexpected offer to inherit a farm from a bachelor uncle brought them back to Ireland again.
By the time they returned, they had six children; and another four would be born in Ireland. We stayed for a while in a derelict farmhouse that belonged to a relative, in Abbeylara. Even though it was the late 60s, the house, close to the end of a boreen, had no electricity and we had to fetch fresh water from a stream on the far side of a meadow which abutted the haggard.
It must’ve seemed like a backward step after their time in Australia. But they were amongst their own people again and that would’ve meant something. As a five-year-old, I wasn’t fussed about the primitive conditions. I was more interested in hunting down butterflies and netting the pinkeens that were darting about in the stream.
There was a settle bed in the living room that I shared with some of my brothers. I remember drifting off as late night murmured conversations of adults filled the room. Long shadows from the light of the Tilley lamp added to the ambience. And of course, there was that distinct smell of the turf fire and outside, the whitewashed walls that seemed to sparkle whenever the sun shone after rain.
Eventually, when my mother’s uncle found a nursing home that would do, we moved to the farm near Finea. Later we learned that some of our new neighbours were put out by our arrival. They’d hoped that the Land Commission would carve up the farm. Good farm land in Ireland has always been highly regarded.
It’s a little surreal now, looking back and thinking about those times; that whitewashed house without electricity and no running water, and all those brothers and sisters vying for their share of attention and affection. Even that unchecked violence of an otherwise well-intentioned schoolmaster seems almost unbelievable. And, of course, my father’s life-long appetite for hard work, that only ever did little more than keep food on the table.
It’s as if it’s an era that belongs to someone else’s life. Most of my siblings are now well scattered across three continents with our modest sized families. We may be privy to some of the details of each other’s lives but, truth be told, we scarcely know each other at all.