In the mid 1940s a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels about the English countryside of north-east Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire took Britain by storm. They were written by Flora Thompson, who graphically recalled her childhood, and the many characters in her young life, in Lark Rise (1939 ), Over to Candleford (1941 ), and Candleford Green (1943 ). She perfectly identified the period as a pivotal point in rural history; a time when the quiet, close-knit and peaceful rural culture, governed by the seasons, began a transformation. Agricultural mechanisation, better communications and urban expansion, turned a rural idyll into the homogeneity that we generally have today. The books inspired a recent TV series, and were immensely popular. It reminded a new generation what had been lost.
In the Irish countryside, during the same period, there was equal rapid change. Once the Land War and the redistribution of land had settled down, rural Ireland took on a rhythm of life uniquely its own. There were difficulties, of course, the so called Economic War with Britain, and the perennial misery of emigration. There was no running water or electricity. Yet among large families there was a routine of hard physical work, and a deep sense of neighbourliness. Children were raised on good food, the family rosary, school and the GAA; and occasional treats controlled and dispensed by a wonderful generation of mothers.
I am sure most of us are only two or three generations from the land. Here is a description of a day on the bog that many of us, even if we had not experienced it directly, will identify with the stories we have heard. They were common experiences throughout rural Ireland.
‘ I remember my father going to the bog to clean the turf bank. He would bring a spade, shovel, fork, sleán, and barrow on the ass’s cart. We, the helpers, would bring an old box continuing the kettle, tea, mugs, brown bread and duck eggs which were boiled over a fire in the bog. We also had a can of buttermilk, and a can of white water. This was spring water to which oatmeal was added. First my father would take the top off the bank and throw it in the bog-hole which was there since the previous year.’
‘Now all was ready to start cutting the turf on Friday. The slane was worked and sods of wet turf were thrown into the barrow or ass’s cart. We would then wheel the barrow or lead the old ass out a long way from the bank, and knock the big loads of sods to the ground.’
‘This continued all day with everyone helping and the sun burning our arms and faces. We would eat in the bog, and loved to be there, everyone being happy.’
‘ The snipe, the seagulls and the corncrake were all singing and flapping their wings. The cockoo would come with her song:
The cuckoo comes in April,
She sings her song in May,
In leafy June she changes her tune,
In July she flies away...
‘ We loved the yellow furze and we used pull a load of the lovely heather and bring it home to make a broom to clean the kitchen floor, and sweep the yard. The turf would be left there for 2 or 3 weeks until it was fit to turn, then all heads down, and backsides up, and each one with their own side to turn.’
These memories are taken from an outstanding collection of events, history and documents, but especially the voices of people talking about their own, and their families lives in the east-Galway town Killimor.* Ita and Teasie Hanney recall that as children, ‘all hands were on deck during the summer holidays ...Helping around the farm, milking cows, saving hay and corn, picking potatoes, spreading and footing turf.’
The arrival of the threshing machine to thresh the corn was a big occasion. ‘Neighbours are mobilised and are on standby. Old corn sacks are repaired with packing needle and string. The grain merchant is approached for a supply of sacks. Foodstuffs and liquid refreshments are obtained for the big day.’
The thrashing machine arrived in the haggard. It was monstrous in size. It was usually pulled by a steam engine. At the sound of the engine revving up, the neighbours arrived. ‘Its a noisy and a dangerous business. Boys are told to keep well back.’ While the giant machine races and thunders, the sheaves were forked in one end. At the other end the grain is caught in sacks, and tied off; while the clean straw is forked onto large cocks which are headed and plated in position with straw ropes, or súgáns. You would have needed a ladder to finish off the top.
It was hard, dusty work, and copious liquid refreshment is required. I remember, as a boy, watching the threshing in West Cork. As well as tea, lemonade, and milk, large enamel jugs of porter were rushed from O’Neils pub to eager waiting hands.
In the farms around Killimor, and everywhere else, young people waited with anticipation for the rats and mice. ‘They were hiding in the butt of the sacks. Once the sack had been shaken out in readiness for the new grain, they would emerge and would try and scamper away. ‘I have seen women and girls with hurleys, and an emigrant with his trousers tucked into his socks armed with a branch determined that none of these vermin should go free.’
Finally the job is complete. ‘The machine moves on to the next farmyard. The meitheal follows having been fed and watered.’
Someone makes sure that everyone is present and correct. ‘It has been known to happen that a ladder was removed and a person left on a cock of straw with no way of getting down!’
‘The boss is now happy. The grain is in his barn. His turf is in his shed. He is self-sufficient for the long winter ahead.’And in Cork I remember the farmer saying: “They only thing left now lads is to beat Kerry!”
Next week: Leaving Killimor
NOTES: *Killimor - Our parish and our people, published by Killimor and District Development Society, edited by Angela Geoghegan and Nuala McGann, on sale only through [email protected], or telephone 090-9676565. Hardback €35, paperback €25.