A lesson on hard work.
To the left of our house in Urker was a wilderness covered with boulders, and thorny gorse bushes. It was no more than a quarter acre, but to me, at seven years old it looked like a vast, forbidding jungle. It was around that time that my father was stricken with a severe bout of insanity. He decided one night, to become a farmer.
"Anyone with an ounce of common sense could do that," he snorted.
In 1950 he brought me and my mother from Kilmallock, County Limerick to his hometown of Crossmaglen, County Armagh for the first time. He had rented a cottage in Annamar, a small farming community, about two miles outside the town. There he would have observed his neighbors tilling and sowing their land with the greatest of ease. I believe that was where he got his inspiration and I hold those neighbors solely responsible for the nightmare I went through that spring and summer of 1956. I was duly recruited and drilled into becoming a not so merry ploughboy. Armed with a pick, shovel and an old spade that he borrowed from a friend, we both at that moment became farmers and began to till the soil.
"It's all about drainage, drainage is the key."
He took his coat off and hung it on a branch of the Holly tree that stood by the side of the house, then, after taking a long drink of water, handed me the bottle. He walked all around the garden then taking long, slow strides, stopping every now and then to look back toward the stream. I followed in his footsteps and had to run to keep up with him, sometimes tripping and falling over a twisted root or a jutting rock.
"What are we doing this for?”
“We’re taking the measurements. We need to know where to put the drains.”
Occasionally, neighbors would stop by to observe the goings on and to offer tidbits of wisdom. I recall one in particular who stood and watched for a half hour as we toiled, then after tapping his pipe on the heel of his boot, offered an opinion to my father.
"Mal, you must be mad. You're wasting your time, nothing will grow there. There are too many rocks. If I was you I wouldn’t bother with all that digging and hard work. You would be better off if you bought your vegetables from the grocer like I do. Save yourself a lot of sweat, not to mention the blisters."
“Ahh… is that yourself James?” said my father, then in a low voice muttered under his breath, “Fukkin’ gobshite.”
My father had also perfected the age old art of muttering, meaning he could say things under his breath that could only be heard if you were standing very close to him.
“Well James, time will tell and anyway, it keeps me out of the pub.”
James, who visited the local pub every day, visibly reddened and shuffled from one foot to the other. It was well known that his wife was not pleased with James’ daily excursions and could often be heard berating him loudly. As his composure recovered, James went on to give numerous other reasons as to why it was impossible to do what we were attempting. My father let him have his say and when he had finished, he said simply,
"As I said James, time will tell."
With that James turned on his heel and walked, unsteadily, off up the road.
We watched him for a while, then resumed our labors.
"That was one of the naysayers. You will meet plenty of them in your lifetime. Always let them have their say, then redouble your efforts."
He hated naysayers with a passion and explained that they will give you a hundred reasons as to why something can't be done, but never one positive reason as to how it could. This encounter only spurred my father on. Talk about slash and burn! It was as if he was possessed. He laid into the gorse bushes like a Crusader re-taking Jerusalem, and by the end of that first day we had a bonfire ten feet high that any *Orangeman* worth his salt would have paid good British pounds for, on the eve of the twelfth of July.
I often thought years later that selling gorse bushes to Orangemen as fuel for their bonfires would be a great way to earn a few pounds. It might be better than scouring the streets for empties, as I did later on. When the heat from the bonfire died down, we started on the boulders and rocks and soon we had a stack of rocks and stones that any Norman invader bent on castle building, would have died for. It was then that I first heard him utter the dreaded word, trenching.
Trenching is the ancient art of draining any area prone to holding water because of poor soil quality. This is where the pick and shovel were utilized and dad and I set about digging the first trench. "Pick," he ordered and as I was in the role of quartermaster that day, I handed him the pick. He rolled up his sleeves, spat on his hands and with a stand back boy, command, commenced to assault the earth with a fervor equaled only in later years, when groups of hardy souls dug their way out of many British prison camps. He started at the far end of the garden, for that's how he now envisioned it, and dug a trench two feet wide and a foot and a half deep all the way to the stream that ran along the roadside, a distance of one hundred feet or so. Over the course of the next two weeks we dug two more identical trenches. It was at that moment in time I was given my first glimpse of the connection with the ancients.
"I'm going to show you how your ancestors did this. We need two types of flat stones."
He then proceeded to instruct me in how to select from the rock pile the two types. The narrow ones were the standing stones and the wider ones would be the cap stones. After a week of sorting and shifting, we had our beginning inventory. We then lined the sides of each trench with the narrower standing stones, filled the bottoms with gravel and smaller stones to a depth of a foot or so and then laid the wider cap stones on top, creating a tunnel effect. The whole area we topped off with a mixture of sharp sand, peat from the bog a distance behind the house, cow dung donated by a neighbor from his farmyard and a load of horse manure and straw donated by another neighbor, a celebrated horse breeder. The land was now ready for planting.
It was only years later that I realized he had built his trenches using the exact same construction principles the ancients used in building their megaliths. How did he know? It must be in the genes! In fact, what we had created were miniature replicas of the passage graves and court cairns, that still dot the landscape all over Ireland. Beginning that summer and right up until the day we left Urker, each year we had bumper crops of potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions, turnips, peas, leeks, scallions and every herb known to man. Along one side of the garden were numerous gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes. On the opposite side we had a forest of rhubarb plants. On another side he planted a variety of flowers and shrubs that would put any botanical garden to shame. Coupled with the eggs my mother's hens laid daily, and the trout and salmon my father caught in the local river, we were a poor but well fed and very happy family.
He called me one evening, later that first summer, to the garden.
"Bring these up to James's house," he said, as he handed me a large box of assorted vegetables, fruits and a bunch of mixed flowers.
"Tell him I sent you."
Then, almost as an aside he said to me with a wink,
"This is how you handle the naysayers."
*note One of the last battles fought in Ireland between two Kings took place on July 12, 1690. It happened on the banks of the river Boyne, near the town of Drogheda. The catholic King James was defeated by the protestant King William, of the House of Orange. Ever since then, the protestant population, fondly called Orangemen, burn large bonfires, and anything catholic, in celebration of that glorious event every July 12th.
From: "Don't Die with Regrets: Ireland and the Lessons my Father Taught Me."
For Sale at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0615975860
Also for Sale:
The Journey: A Nomad Reflects.