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Con Houlihan: The wandering wits who laboured to live

One of my favourite poets, Edward Thomas, had a great ambition that he never realised: he planned to write a long poem about the life of the English farm labourer -- but in vain.

He made several attempts and left us some memorable passages but they are only fragments and so the essence of the English farm labourer's life is almost unknown. There is one piece of poetry, only two lines, which gives us an intuition of that world. It occurs in George Crabbe:

Roused in rage and muttering in the morn

He mends the broken hedge with icy thorn

I, too, meant to write about the life of that forgotten species in a kind of prose poem but found it impossible. The Irish farm labourer is now almost extinct. They were a great breed but the work they did was never appreciated and will not be appreciated now.

The Irish farm labourer was almost a slave. He signed on for 11 months and if he broke that contract, he would find it hard to get another job. His counterpart across the narrow seas could be imprisoned if he broke his contract. And so, few ever did. There was another kind of Irish farm labourer who wasn't contracted: he was a kind of freelance. He tended to follow the work around. He usually had land of his own but not enough to keep him. He was called a spalpeen.


Those from my part of the country went to North Cork and East Limerick and Tipperary for the spring. They might come back for a while to see after their own bit of land and then move again for the harvest. They were especially skilled men and very hardy. A spalpeen could mow half an Irish acre of hay in a day. And if you ever moan about the care needed for your lawn, you should think of what a half an acre is.

Spalpeens were also in great demand in late October: that was the time for digging out the potatoes. Many spalpeens brought their own spade with them, especially in the days when the train made travel fairly easy. You never heard of a spalpeen bringing a scythe with him and that was hardly surprising. If you went into a carriage with a scythe, you might see a rush of people getting out at the next stop.

The most famous of all the spalpeens lived in an age when the train was hardly even a dream. He was Owen Roe O'Sullivan who was a native of that country where Kerry hasn't quite ended and where Cork hasn't yet begun. He was learned in several languages including Latin and Greek, which he taught for a while in later life. He spent a term in the British Navy and was involved in at least one engagement under Admiral Rodney. He wrote a poem called Rodney's Glory and this proved that he was almost as fluent in English as he was in his native Irish.

All kinds of stories are told about him, most of which are only makey-ups. Seemingly, he was a great wit and once when a farmer's wife asked him how he would like his egg boiled, he said: "With another." He was also supposed to be a great lover and a great drinker but in this field you can always divide by two and by two again. He came to a sorry end. He had written a satire about a landlord. One evening at a fair in Killarney he was beaten up by some of the landlord's workers. He managed to get home to his little house near Rathmore but he died after a few days. He was 36. His reputation is still strong in the Irish countryside, especially along the Cork and Kerry border.

The spalpeens were more than great workers: they were often known as airy men or gallows men who would make a joke on the scaffold. Many of them were keen on music and song and they brought ballads from one district to another. They became nearly extinct with the coming of the mowing machine. That was roughly about 1900. If they still got work at mowing, it would be in places so hilly or so rough that the mowing machine couldn't work there.

There was a great rush to England in the early 19th century when work began on a new kind of waterway. They were called the Navigational Canals -- thus came the word navvy. Those canals were made with the spade and the pick and the shovel. This was long before the bulldozer and the mechanical digger. Many of the navvies were Irish. In fact you hardly ever hear of an English navvy or a Welsh navvy or a Scots navvy. The word seems to be reserved for the Irish.


There was a reason for this: the people in the other three countries were slow to leave home. The Irish have long been wanderers. They were in England as far back as the 16th century. William Shakespeare had scraps of Irish that he picked up in London and the definition of the word "hooligan" is very interesting. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that it derives from the name of an Irish family called Houlihan who terrorised East London in the 18th century.

When most of the work on the canals was done, there was a further abundance of jobs in making the railways. This, too, was work for the pick and the spade and the shovel. We are told that the Irish and the Chinese were the world's best with these implements. Incidentally, the Union Pacific Railway that joined America from East and West was built by a workforce of Chinese coming from one end and Irish and Italians coming from the other.

The Italians used to boast that they were the best diggers in the world but the Irish said that they could do as much work in one day as the Italians could in two. The Italians had a comeback for this in a saying that became part of folklore: "Paddy he no good. He drink whiskey all night. He sleep under bush all day." Nevertheless, life went on. And the Pony Express -- or rather the Iron Horse -- got through.

Fogra: Congratulations to Siofra Cleirigh Buttner on her great performance at the National Cross Country Championships. Fogra a do: Congratulations from the heart and the mind go to a lovely girl, Katie Walsh, who brought home two winners in style at Cheltenham.