Life on the farm: ‘We spotted each other over the hedge and married on my 19th birthday’
Sent to work on the land at 15, Nell Scally still lives in the farmhouse that became her home
Nell Scally, at her home near Tullamore, Co Offaly, with some old farm equipment she used on the farm. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Nell Scally, at her home near Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Piece of bog oak at the farmhouse in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The original farmhouse near Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The old apple tree at Nell Scally’s farm Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Some old farm equipment – now decorative objects on the farm. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Nell Scally’s crochet. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
In a corner of Nell Scally’s farmyard in Co Offaly, there’s an apple tree that can barely stay upright with the abundance of shiny red apples on its burdened branches. Under its shadow lies an extensive collection of implements and ancient farm machinery which, when the then 15-year-old Nell first came to this place, were in daily use. That was in 1949, when she arrived at the farm in Ballyteague ready to roll up her sleeves and start work for the elderly owners who had no children. She still lives in the same house, aged 83.
“Imagine lifting that pot off the fire and it full of potatoes!” she says, pointing to a cauldron that could be off the stage set of a children’s fairy tale about witches. “When I came here first they did have a John Deere tractor, but there was a horse still in use at that stage. She was here for a good while.”
Nell had come to Ballyteague from Cornaher, just 11km away over the Co Westmeath border.
“We were farming there. I was from a big family, one of 11. The way it was at the time you came to work with a relation or some such. My older sister had been here. She got married. I got her job then.
“It wasn’t ideal when I think back on it. It wasn’t a wonderful life moving in with an elderly couple, but I didn’t really think about it. I got on with it and accepted it.”
Nell worked hard for the couple milking cows, feeding calves, churning to make butter, tending the flock of hens.
“I loved outdoor life. Of course they took advantage of that and I was inside and outside. It was very hands on. I was paid £2 a month and my board. It was a bigger amount of money than it would be now, but it didn’t go far. The nylons [stockings] were dear at the time.”
Nell admits to being a bit lonely at times.
“You didn’t know any different. I never went to dances really. I wasn’t at two in my life I suppose.”
Luckily, she says, she had a sister living a couple of miles away.
“She lived over a pub her husband managed, so I used to go up there on the bicycle the odd time and I suppose that’s where I got to know himself, coming back from the pub.”
“Himself,” was Donie Scally, who lived on the farm next door.
“He was related to the family I was working for. I suppose we spotted each other over the hedge. Hanging out the clothes. He was a few years older. We got on grand. We got married on September 28th, 1953, on my 19th birthday.”
Nell and Donie bought the house and farm from the elderly couple who moved to Tullamore.
“It was hectic. We had no electricity until November 1957 when the rural electrification came here. We had a good many years of going out to the pump and carrying the water in to wash children and all that. I had a child every year and in those times you didn’t know much, we didn’t have the magazines or whatever to tell you things. So I just got on with it. And I accepted the washboard and the nappies and that.
“It was one child after another – seven boys and five girls. I carried 14 babies to full term. Two died. One had fluid in the brain and the other died at birth. It was hard. You’d miss one the same as if you had no others.
“I had my youngest one, Vera, then, about a year after. That was a gruelling period because after losing two you’re terrified. But anyway, she was a dote. Her daughter, my granddaughter Maeve Minnock, is my best friend. Maeve does art because Granny does art. They live up near Enfield. ”
Life on the farm, with 12 children to rear, was hard work.
“I was a hardy strong woman. I was lighthearted I suppose. I had something on my side anyway. I never worried. We’d kill a pig the odd time. I reared broiler chickens for eating and ducks and turkeys. My husband would kill them. I’d pluck them and clean them.
“We always had a turkey for Christmas that we’d reared. You’d have to take the legs off to get them to fit in the oven. They’d be 23lbs [10.5kg]. You’d buy a shoulder of bacon and you always had the cabbage and carrots and turnips growing. It wasn’t that big a job. They all got porridge every morning. Some of them won’t eat it now, they say they had too much as children.
Donie and herself, says Nell, were a good team.
“I had him for 39 years. We were just about to celebrate our 40th anniversary when he died. It was in October 1992. I took my mother in then at Christmas and she died six months after him.
“I just had Vera at home by then. She was only 13 at the time, going to school. It was great I had her. I had to get up and make dinner and all that. Keep going. When Donie got sick, the eldest boy Richard came back to run the farm.”
Richard built a house on the land, where he and his wife and family live now.
“I moved into a granny flat here. Vera built on this bit for me.”
On a typical day Nell still likes to keep busy.
“I get up in the morning and I have my shower. Then I have my breakfast – my porridge is soaking from the night before. There’s not much gardening done out there now, but I read a bit and look at television. There’s a grand comfortable chair. That’s my corner. My feet are out there and the blanket is there and all. It’s grand.
“I did an awful lot of knitting and crafts and that before, but the hands are objecting to it now, they’re complaining. I did too much of it. Too much of everything I suppose. I get in the bit of turf. It’s good to have it there and it’s good for you to go out and do those things, bring it in and take out the ash.
“I usually go for two walks in the day. I walk about a mile each time. I go to an exercise class in Tullamore once a week. It’s grand like. Kind of for the elderly. Stretches and balance and all that type of thing. I go to town at least once a week – in to Tullamore.”
With all 12 of her children now married, Nell is also kept busy visiting them all.
“I have 28 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. I go at least once a week to my son up in Ballyconnell for a few hours. I go over to Vera now and again for a weekend and that’s great. I like going, but I don’t mind if I don’t go either. I have one in Australia and another in New Zealand. I’m going out to see her in December.”
It would be easy to assume that, after rearing so many children, Nell might be lonely in the empty house.
“Oh no, I’m happy in my own company. I’m contented and I’ve always been that way. I’m never lonesome.”
So what’s the secret to Nell’s contentment?
“It’s just me. it’s the way I am. I read a bit. I watch a bit of television. I like quizzes and Flog it on the BBC, Bargain Hunt and that sort of thing. I love being out. I have a gadget for picking up things and I wrap plasters around the end of it and I use it for picking the plums off the trees. So I pick my plums and my apples and blackberries. I have loads of blackberries in the freezer. I love them with stewed cooking apples. I love nature. Other people might be on edge, but not me. I just relax and take everything in my stride.”