It must surely be a record that a new tractor purchased in 1973 has worked every year since, has the original tyres, and never got a puncture even once in all of 35 years. Martin Kelly of Ballinacor, Newbridge, purchased his first and only tractor, a Zetor, from Brogan’s of Ballymoe in the spring of 1973. He has used the tractor to cut hay, bring home turf, spread fertiliser, and do a hundred other jobs over this long period of time and while the tyres are “bald enough,” as Martin put it, he never had to remove a tyre since the day he got it. Martin intends to have his tractor on show at the vintage rally in Mountbellew, which will take place this Saturday and Sunday.
Martin Kelly is a great man to recall events and happenings in his native Newbridge over 60 years ago. Martin told me he paid £650 for the new tractor in 1973. “I was afraid to buy a second hand one as I knew very little about a tractor,” he said. It is strange and yet very familiar that the small things we do as we make our journey through life can bring enormous changes afterwards. Martin Kelly heard that night courses were being organised at the vocational school in Mountbellew in the early ‘50s and, as he put it himself, “I wasn’t able to turn my hand to much but I desperately needed to build a new house”. It is worth mentioning that Martin continued to attend the night classes and he had the height of praise for the metalwork teacher, a young man from Tuam by the name of Tom Murphy, later to become an international playwright and known throughout the world.
It must be remembered that the condition of many houses in rural Ireland then wasn’t much better than old cow houses. There really wasn’t any money to build them, and because the financial return from the small farms was so meagre the banks wouldn’t even look at such people for loan purposes.
But back to Martin and night classes. What he saw when he attended ‘the Tech’, as it was called in 1950, really pleased him. Martin saw that if he really picked up the tips in carpentry and building, it could be possible to actually build a house using blood, sweat, and tears, and it eventually worked. Martin paints a graphic picture of the trouble and the back-breaking drudgery he had to endure for two long years. “I got the sand delivered by the late John Hogan of Laught, I cut the trees in Killyan Wood, put them up on the horse’s cart, and then delivered them to Queeney’s sawmill in Ballyforan to get the rafters cut. I then saw how blocks were made and with the help of a few neighbours I made the blocks myself. I well remember digging out the foundation with a spade, a pickaxe, and a shovel. There was no such thing as a JCB then and I never heard the term “raft” until about 20 years ago. What a relief when we eventually took up residence in 1954. It appeared to me to be like a mansion then and in the circumstances it was a near miracle,” he said. Martin said that he was ever grateful to his sister in Australia who regularly sent on small but vital cheques; without her support it would have taken a few more years. This was a mirror image of what happened to most families at that time where the small but regular cheques sent from the UK, America, and even as far away as Australia really kept the home fires burning.
Let it be said that many more people built their own houses in the dreary 1950s when the country was gripped in abject poverty and I well remember my own late father in law, Jack Keating, doing likewise and reared a family at the same time. Most new houses built at that time didn’t have a bathroom, nor did they have electricity. To that generation of people I take off my cap and salute them. No generation had it so difficult. However there was an always lighter side to all the misery. The rambling houses were doing a roaring trade, there wasn’t a townland that didn’t boast one if not two houses where neighbours congregated every night for a chat, a gossip, a smoke, and if they were really really lucky they might be able to hear the news on Radio Éireann as it was then called.
The rambling house in our village was at Tommy Morrissey’s, a man not exactly known for a work ethic but who had much wider interests than most of his neighbours. Tommy picked up bits of information about new building techniques in England which he read about in the papers. When my father in law started building his house the sole topic of conversation was how difficult such an undertaking would be and also the length of time it was likely to take. Most said that it would take well over two years to build, but Tommy informed the gathering one night that he heard about a new ‘thing’ that would see the two side walls erected on Monday, the gable walls on Tuesday, the roof on Wednesday, doors and windows on Thursday, the floors on Friday, and that the family would move in the following week. Everybody believed Tommy had taken the wrong tablets that day, that he was really in fantasy land but in hindsight he had probably heard of prefabricated buildings which no one else even dreamed of at that stage. And of course not many years later such prefabricated houses were erected inside a few days. A new generation of young people who will not live in anything less than a mansion and who are most likely to have no more than two children will never understand the drudgery that it took to build a new house.
Back then these houses were only one third the size of most new houses today, without a bathroom or ESB and usually housed a family of eight to 10 people. However a new house to the people then was probably a greater achievement than a new house is to anybody nowadays despite the terrible cost of housing. By the way Martin Kelly’s house when completed 54 years ago cost him just over £600, or €720. Very small money in today’s terms, I hear you say, but the gathering of that sort of money in 1954 consisted of selling a few cattle, a few pigs, a few loads of dry turf ,and of course a few turkeys at Christmas time.
“Believe me it was tough, in fact it was ‘cat’ but we got through it,” said Martin with a smile.
The Mountbellew Vintage Rally will take place in Mountbellew on Saturday and Sunday. Free attractions in the Square on Saturday night include pig racing and a display of Showman steam engines, the massive machines used to pull amusements around the country to fairs in times gone by.
The main vintage show will take place on Sunday, and Jonathan Regan and his hard-working team will make sure everybody has a great day out.