As soon as I finished my Leaving Cert, I placed an ad seeking farm work, in our local weekly newspaper, The Anglo-Celt. There was plenty to do on our family farm but by then, several of my younger brothers were old enough to help out and I was no longer needed. To my surprise and relief, I got one reply. And one morning, to the old man's wry bemusement, we were on our way to a farm in Leitrim.
In contrast to the old man’s scepticism about the merits of dairy farming in Leitrim, and John McGahern’s opening line in his Memoir, that that county’s soil is poor, some of this farm’s fields were surprisingly lush. The fifty Friesians were in good condition. There were also low-lying fields of rushes, and hilly stony areas where rabbits and ragwort were thriving.
But all through that summer, the cows would not be able to keep the grass down, and with such abundant feed, I had to be vigilant for any signs of mastitis.
From the outset, I was wondering why the farmer, a fit and healthy-looking man, was not milking his own cows. Ruddy-faced, tall, and well-built, he looked for all the world as if he was capable of tackling almost anything.
But unlike our old man, who rarely paused, despite his bad back, this man had no intention of getting his hands dirty. He was always skiving off in his Jeep, as if he had better options, elsewhere. Calling him arrogant is probably a little harsh, but he strutted around and bossed me about, and all the while, doing next to nothing.
I had not milked cows before. But I soon got the hang of it. There was something almost reassuring about seeing the frothing fresh milk passing through the glass cylinders. The whole apparatus hummed as the milk was sucked effortlessly from the udders and sent on its way into a steel tank. By today’s standards, the machine was a modest affair; I could only milk five cows at a time.
In the mornings, when I was done with the milking, and usually while I was still washing the sticky milk residue from my hands, the farmer would appear in the milking parlour. All smiles, he would be, as if he was the lord of the manor and I was his hireling. The gulf between us was stark.
Some days, the farmer would be gone for the best part of the day. What he was doing and who he was meeting was none of my business
He would always be smelling of what I imagined was aftershave, and in his polished leather boots and spotless moleskin trousers, he looked more like a well-to-do cattle dealer or a sales rep than a farmer in rural Leitrim. Whereas I was always famished and, no doubt, looking shabby after the morning’s milking.
Whistling tunelessly, and disregarding me, the farmer would hook up the portable stainless tank, that also contained the previous evening’s milk, to his Jeep. Off he would go to the creamery as if he was transporting the results of his hard work.
Watching his Jeep and trailer disappearing down the long driveway, it was as if he was spiriting away the spoils of my labour. But as the hireling, there was little I could do or say, so I kept my thoughts to myself.
Some days, the farmer would be gone for the best part of the day. What he was doing and who he was meeting was none of my business, though I couldn’t help wondering. But, for as long as he kept paying me, and his wife continued to place her cooking before me on the kitchen table, I would keep my head down and keep on following his curt instructions.
There was plenty to do on the farm. But on Sundays I just did the milking and saw to the pigs. Aside from walking the mile or so to Mass, I rarely left the place. I couldn’t drive and there were no bicycles.
In the evenings, while lying on my bed in my room, I read whatever was left lying around; magazines and old Sunday newspapers. At night, I listened to mainly country music on my transistor. Looking back now, it was a spartan existence. But at the time, I knew no better. And I knew my time in Leitrim would be over at the end of the summer.
The days and weeks edged past slowly. It barely rained that summer, and some days, especially in the afternoons, the time stalled, just like those forlorn weekends at boarding school. This tranquillity of rural Leitrim, where little ever happened, I told myself, would surely stand me in good stead for my days ahead in September.
My room had been added to the back of the bungalow. There was a plastic pink sink but no mirror and a single bed and a built-in wardrobe. The tiny rectangular window up near the ceiling looked out over the concreted back yard. It had opaque glass, and only diffuse light could enter the room.
There was no television, but I wasn’t bothered by my lack of material comfort and company. I was familiar with frugality. I had grown up used to going without and getting by with very little. This job was nothing more than a stepping-stone to my more noble endeavour, that would begin at the end of summer.
The farmer's wife, a softly spoken, shy woman, was pregnant. I seldom saw her outside. She came and went in her little Toyota
Most mornings the cows would be watching and waiting for me from under a large sycamore near the gate, at the entrance to the yard. The milking was tedious and repetitive work, but the cows were generally placid.
The occasional temperamental first-time milker was easily mollified by releasing a few pellets of feed from an overhead bin into its feeding trough. And any beast’s tendency to kick could be thwarted by an anti-kicker device – a short length of tubular steel with hooked U-shaped ends that was placed under the cow’s flank and its spine.
The farmer’s wife, a softly spoken, shy woman, was pregnant. I seldom saw her outside. She came and went in her little Toyota, seeing to the grocery shopping and other errands. She scurried everywhere as if she had no time to dawdle, as if she was reluctant to be seen outside. When I went in for my breakfast, we would chat politely, but with her young daughters always vying for her attention, she was usually distracted, and no doubt she had much to do.
She often spoke about the curse of alcohol and how she had ruined the lives of so many otherwise good men. Describing herself as also a believer, but ‘on the other side’, she was intrigued about my calling. She said that she and her husband were not fussed about going to church but she knew that some superior being simply had to exist.
After all, how could one explain how nature worked, and surely us humans had to have some afterlife when we died. I could never fully articulate the rationale for my belief and I always changed the subject to mask my discomfort.
After breakfast, I would head out to the large purpose-built outhouse where scores of tethered hungry sows would be waiting. This was my least favourite time of the day. Unlike the quiet cows, the pigs had no patience. When I would throw open the big iron door, I would be assailed by the humidity and the fetid odour, and the tremendous din as the beasts roared in anticipation of food. Their racket would only subside when the last pig was gorging on its feed. I would then check on the newly born litters, and remove any still born or crushed piglets.
Despite the farrowing crates, ostensibly designed to restrict the sow’s movements, accidents still happened. Sows would inadvertently squash some of their offspring. It was a terrible sight – a newly dead piglet that had otherwise been healthy and thriving until the very moment of its death.
The family’s oldest child, an eight-year-old boy, who was also tall for his age, developed an instant and enduring dislike of me. He was often left to his own devices, and he must have imagined he was the master of his own kingdom. Perhaps he regarded me as a threat or even a potential playmate. Or maybe he was simply bored.
He would often stalk me with his bow and arrow, and occasionally launch himself at me, wielding an ash plant or some such improvised weapon. His two younger sisters spent all their time indoors and they were too young to be any real company for him.
Soon, the weather would be the least of my worries. I would be on my way to a place where I imagined a more noble journey was about to begin
I left the farm at the end of August. On the afternoon the old man arrived to collect me, the little boy was nowhere to be seen but his mother seemed upset to see me go, and for that I was surprised and grateful.
The farmer arrived back from wherever he had been, and he parked the Jeep at an odd angle near the milking parlour. He threw open the door of the Jeep and he came towards me to where I was standing with his wife. She had been telling me that she would miss our chats at the breakfast table.
The farmer seemed unsteady on his feet. He thrust out his arm out towards me in an exaggerated gesture as if I was suddenly his best friend or his rival. His face was flushed. When he gripped my hand, I was sure I could smell alcohol on his breath. “You were dear bought,” he said in a low voice, staring me down as if he would brook no reply. “But I suppose we got there in the end, didn’t we?”
Stunned by his aggression, I didn’t say anything. I thought he wasn’t going to release his grip, but to my relief he did so abruptly. “Mind yourself now, with all them lads in the prayer house, won’t you?” he added, as if it was a warning. There was no mistaking his derision and scepticism. And then he was lurching away and heading for the bungalow, with his wife trailing after him.
I walked over to where the old man was sitting waiting and watching in our car. “What the devil was that fella saying?” he asked, impatiently, as I placed my bag into the back seat.
“Nothing much,” I said. “I think he had drink taken and he was just trying to be funny.”
The old man started the car and we drove down the long driveway towards the main road. He stared at the Friesians grazing in the deep grass on either side of the driveway, but he didn’t say anything. He was never one to admit he was wrong, and I knew he wasn’t about to start now. So, I sat back in my seat and looked straight ahead.
As we turned on to the main road, it started raining. The windscreen wipers were struggling to keep the windscreen clear. “Leitrim rain,” the old man muttered.
Soon, the weather would be the least of my worries. Soon, I would be on my way to a place where I imagined a loftier, more noble journey was surely about to begin. In my mind, I was almost already there.