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Rural Ireland's Passing

It was a way of life that remained unchanged for generations of small farmers and their families; a way of life that is fast becoming a memory. Novelist and farmer John McGahern hears the death cries and fears for the future. The farmers' protests outside meat factories were just one symptom of the slow demise of a very Irish existence, he writes in a specially commissioned, affectionate and provocative valediction to the past in rural Ireland

I saw the mass protests and pickets outside the meat plants as one of those convulsions that occur when something that has endured for long and was deeply embedded in the life is coming to an end and facing extinction. I believe the farmers had right if not the law on their side, and that they acted after long provocation and much manipulation. The meat business has always been a rough trade.

For most of a century Ireland remained largely outside change when wars and social revolution were changing the world. Here, revolution and independence served to reinforce an innately inward-looking conservatism. Mass emigration siphoned away the young, the potential source of disaffection and restlessness. The family farm stood at the heart of society, especially in public claims and utterances, though in practice it got little help and was often laughed at.

What were those farms like and what kind of lives did the people have? Not long ago I met an old man who had grown up on a farm beside where I live. He left for England in the l950s. He was tall and handsome, one of that generation who are all the more remarkable to look at because they are without consciousness of how they look, like people in early photographs.

I knew the house where he had grown up. It was by the water's edge. The thick round stone piers still remain at the entrance. The stone walls of the house and outhouses are intact, but the roofs have gone. A big ash tree has taken root in the middle of the livingroom, where food was boiled for fowl and animals, where they also did their own cooking and baking, played cards and chatted and said the Rosary. From the arrangement of the house and the outhouses and the small yard, it is easy to see what a charming place it must have been, sheltered by great oaks and ash on the edge of the lake. It was also a five-cow place, which meant that the family was relatively comfortable. Cherry and apple trees grow wild now in the small gardens close to the house, and hundreds of daffodils and narcissi around the house still greet the spring in a wilderness of crawling blackthorns.

He spoke movingly of the life had had known on this farm, without sentiment or nostalgia. ``We were never bored. That's for sure. There was too much to do. Everybody had to work.'' Their life was the life of crops and animals and bog and fowl. Animals, especially cattle, surrounded them. Not a day went by without handling them, and their presence affected every member of the family. Their closeness varied with the seasons; they all had names; some were pets. Before heading out to school the children brought in the cows, and in the evenings went for them again. A huge pot of steaming small potatoes was drained and emptied into a half barrel and pounded into a mash for hens. His sisters gathered the eggs. There was always a search in summer for the nests of hens laying wild. Every week there was churning, the buttermilk either drunk or fed to calves in a mash, the excess butter sold with the eggs.

This was the time of the travelling shop, which sold all kinds of household staples, from soap to thread, to tea and salt, and bought eggs and fowl and butter. The travelling shop and the forge were all a source of news and gossip as were the itinerant tinsmiths. They soldered leaking pots and buckets and sold gallons of shining tin. Flour was bought by the bag. Poor families washed the empty bags and made shirts and housedresses from the white sacking,

Every house kept pigs, and each year a pig was killed. The old man remembered it as a melancholy time. The children would have fed the pig. It was often a pet. The pigsticker would arrive in the morning, and from a bag take out his knives and cleavers. Sometimes after drinking tea in the kitchen he would sharpen the knives. From the pig-house the children could hear the protesting moans of the condemned animal, which was given neither food nor water the evening before. Portions of the ribs, the liver, and little cutlets called griscins - delicious when fried - were made into parcels and given to close neighbours. The favour was returned when they killed their own pig. Fresh pork was as prized a delicacy as wild mushrooms. The pig's bladder was often kept as a football.

In the Spring, whole fields were ploughed for potatoes and turnips and mangols and oats. Dropping the potato splits in to the ridges was bitter work in the March winds, and there was also the misery of coming from school on a freezing October evening and having to pick all the potatoes dug since morning, hands so blue with cold that they could hardly feel the handles of the buckets of potatoes they dragged to the pit. Nobody complained about the work because the need was so clear. With the animals they were all part of the same living enterprise.

As soon as the potatoes were set, everybody headed for the bog. For vital work the children were kept from school, no matter what the teachers said. There was the stripping of banks, the burning of sedge, the wheeling of heavy barrows out on the spread; and later the back-breaking scattering, the footing, clamping, the small donkeys sinking and struggling in the soft, treacherous passes of the bog as they took the turf out to the road to be carted home. Without it they would have no fire that winter. Like old hay in the shed, old turf was like old gold. The bog was a hungry place, but then the girls would come with sandwiches and bottles of sweetened tea. It was hard to wash the dried mud off hands and feet after a day on the bog; often they had to be washed again in fresh mud.

At that time of year they would all be in their bare feet. They went barefoot from May Day, when primroses were scattered on all the doorsteps, and they didn't put on boots or shoes again until October, other than to go to Mass. They were glad to be rid of them. There was trouble whenever a pair couldn't be resoled and strips of old bicycle tyres were used to protect the leather. To go barefoot was to go free and to kick these anxieties away.

The hay was the most loved work because it was clean and the meadows sweet-smelling, though it had its own anxieties in wet summers. The whole house gathered in the meadows with rakes and pitchforks. In good weather there was a great sense of fun and banter. It was the one work on the farm that men and women shared, and there was a great sense of happiness when the hay was won. Usually a whiskey or a poitin bottle and a dozen or two of stout were opened when neighbours gathered for the building of the rick. Pasternak wonderfully captures this time of year in the meadows:

At first light cart after cart
Rolls darkly through the fields.
The day gets out of bed
With hay in its hair.
And at noon the ricks are clouds,
The sky is blue, the earth
Has body and strength
Like vodka with aniseed.

The critical time of the year, then as now, was when the cattle were sold. They defined the family's relative wealth. They were the real old gold or the frail defences against the outside winds that blew. They paid the priest, the doctor, the rate collector, the shopkeeper, the gombeen man, the undertaker.

Sometimes a trusted buyer came and bought the cattle on the land. But mostly they were sold at the fair in town. In darkness they would set out with the excited cattle, carrying sticks and weak flashlamps, reaching the town at daybreak if they met with no accidents along the way. During the first miles the children had to run through the fields alongside the cattle to prevent them leaving the road.

`Tanglers' would meet them on the outskirts of the town, hoping to buy below the market price. A whole comical barrier of chairs and ladders and barrels would be set up along the street to try to prevent the small herds of cattle dirtying the doorsteps or shop fronts.

This could lead to confrontations with the townspeople throughout the day. There was the ceremony of buying, of going away insulted, being dragged back by third parties, the seller in turn becoming insulted, the slapping of hands, the splitting of differences, the crucial luck penny. The ritual must be ancient. I saw it recently in a market in Morocco exactly as I remembered it here in all its slow and volatile movements.

I have taken part in all the life the old man had described and could share its emotional truth and accuracy. It must have more or less remained that way for the best part of a hundred years. The great weakness of these places was that, while large families often worked the farm, it could only be handed on to one person, and for the others there was only the train to the nightboat then. In spite of the obvious hardship and the unpredictability of weather and prices, he thought it a rich and satisfying life if a living could be won, but didn't want to see his old house or fields on the shore of the lake and said he preferred to remember it as it was. I suspected there could have been trouble over the succession.

Since then everything has changed. Like fishing, it has become an industry. The machines have taken away the hardship and the uncertainty, but larger farms and fewer people are needed to justify their cost and efficiency. Nobody can make a living from the small farms anymore unless they have another job, or the wife has, or both have jobs. Young people do not want to have anything to do with these small farms.

There has been gross and short-sighted mismanagement. People have been given grants and encouraged to borrow to increase cattle numbers and to build slatted sheds on shallow lands unable to take slurry, with devastating effect on the lakes and rivers and even the fields. There are now so many official forms that it is almost necessary to be an accountant in order to run a small farm. I have heard the new cattle registry described as the Book of Kells. And the cattle prices tell their own story.

To move to the other party in the dispute, the results of the Beef Tribunal were more disturbing for what was obfuscated than for what was revealed. During the recent pickets it became known that some of the meat plants have built enormous cattle sheds and may no longer want farms other than as feeding units for those sheds, where cattle will have a life similar to battery hens and pigs.

The spring lake is dead alongside the deserted farm. Once people came to the lake for their buckets of spring water. It was teeming with pike and perch and eels, and there was a pass for otters. More than thirty houses drew water from the lake in a group water scheme. The lake might have been polluted anyhow, but the Agriculture Institute rented ten acres overlooking the lake. They drained and reseeded it at enormous expense, though the same experiment was proved useless years ago in Britain. Tons of nitrates were poured on the reseeded land and drained in to the lake. A green scum decorates the shore. The fish are dead. People in the water scheme have to boil their drinking water before use. This is but a microcosm of large parts of the rest of the country.

The ash tree growing in the middle of the livingroom may well have been a symbol before its time.