These are reflections that I wrote two years ago. In 10 days, I’m off to Ireland again with a group and so this seems a good time to finish this post. This will be a special trip as there are many friends included in the group. I’m really looking forward to sharing this place that is so special to me.
Ireland is where my roots are. It is where I feel the most at home, surrounded by familiar voices and memories that extend back to my early childhood. I sit here alone, outside the back door at Ballyculhane, the house where my mother was born, in brilliant sunshine – shocking really, as the normally unsettled weather has been replaced by weeks of glorious sun and warmth – basking in fond childhood memories. As I look around this yard where my mother’s family has been farming for 7 generations, I am swept into a different time – one when there was a henhouse full of chickens and eggs that needed to be collected daily; one where you learned quickly that the Bull’s Paddock was a place to be avoided at all costs; one where 4 enormous, salmon-coloured pigs were kept in at night and let out every morning. I watched in wonder as they trotted, with no guidance whatsoever, into their field to begin their daily enterprise of poking and digging in the ground for whatever delicacies lay buried under the soft soil. I always wanted to try riding one out – they were as big as a small pony!
The pump, long rusted now, stands as a monument to a different era, but once it produced all the water needed for the kitchen, house and yard, pumped by hands small and large until it rewarded the exertion with a cool, crystal-clear stream of water.
Just outside the back door there was a walled flower garden, called “Aunt Cis’s Garden” for the maiden aunt who planted and lovingly tended it until her untimely death. As a child I played hide and seek among the blooming giant hydrangeas, roses and fuchsia. Paths meandered throughout the garden which wasn’t large, but to my tiny four-year-old feet, it seemed a glorious playground affording hours of fun. There were stone walls to climb, stiles to cross, streams to ford, fruit to pick – an endless array of activity from morning until night.
Inside, the thatch cottage was tiny by American standards but was a fine house for its day. It had 6 rooms and at one point housed nearly 15 people. The fireplace was large and served for both heat and cooking. The stone floor in the kitchen area doubled as a dance floor when the large table and benches were pushed back. On one wall stood a huge “press” – a massive (at least to my childish eyes) piece of furniture that held dishes, glasses, cutlery, tableware and myriad unseen treasures.
I can still see my grandfather whom I unfortunately barely knew, sitting at the table eating his breakfast, served up to him by my grandmother before he went out to milk the cows. They were the only old people I had ever known and I was very wary of them. It is sad to me now that my most vivid memories of them fluctuated between awe and fear.
Milking the cows was an experience. Not the modern day mechanical wonder of a sanitized milking parlor overseen by government or European Union health boards, but rather a bucket and a stool, milking each beast by hand. It took 15 minutes to milk a cow and there were 4 people to milk 50 cows. Twice a day. Every day. The milk was then placed in large milk cans and taken a mile or so in a pony and cart to the local creamery where it was deposited and processed. Each day there was a bucket or two kept back for the use in the house. Neither pasteurized nor homogenized, just fresh, pure milk. And the butter was made from the cream.
We kids never missed the trip to the creamery, because it was up at “The Line”, where the shops were. That meant that after the milk had been delivered there might be an ice cream or a bag of sweets to be had. So as the pony and cart left the yard it was our job to close the gate. Then we ran up behind the cart, hopped on and sat, laughing, giggling and dangling our feet off the back as the pony ambled on.
During the summer, Ballyculhane was a beehive of activity. Hay was saved while there was sun. The weather, which is always a topic of conversation, became a major event. There were tractors with blades attached to cut the hay, but after field drying, the men saved it by hand into reeks – dome-shaped mounds the height of two men. This was long, tedious work and often undertaken in fields far away from the house. So it became the job of the children (and often the visitors) to take tea to the men in the fields in the evening.
Tea was made in the house and put into thermoses or large pots or kettles. Sugar and milk were added as well. Freshly-made white or brown bread, smeared with rich butter and jam was packed in baskets and the children were commissioned to take it all down to whichever field the men were working. Mostly we walked, although the odd time, if the field was a distance, we went in the car. But the process was the same.
As the “yankee cousin, home for holidays”, this was never a chore for me, but rather an adventure.
Today there are more than 100 cows. There are calves and there is machinery to do the work that it took men and women so long to do by hand. Although saving hay is still a major event for farmers, tractors and bailers and big machinery complete it now. The pigs and chickens are long gone and their former homes remain as shadows of the past.
But still the sturdy and elegant thatch house stands as it has for over 400 years, overlooking Ballyculhane with its castle ruins nearly unidentifiable under a blanket of deep green moss and ivy.
The people change, the way of life changes, but the land endures adding each generations’ memories to its history.