Michael Harding: I judge a farmer’s character by how he treats his cattle

My late neighbour, Johnny, treated his livestock like pets

Apart from the beloved, the only person I see regularly is the postman. He stops the van on the side of the road and comes to the window with letters. Each day is divided into two parts; the time before he comes, and the time after he has gone.

Before he comes we have something to look forward to, and when he is gone we know there will be no more surprises until the next day.

A few words exchanged with the postman can be the most refreshing moment of the day, even if like last week the conversation is sad.

“Did you hear about Johnny?” The postman wanted to know.


“Yes,” I said, “may he rest in peace.”

My neighbour had died the previous day in the loving care of his family, some of whom lived close by. Through the winter he had regular visitors including his professional carer. But nonetheless he was elderly and he lived alone and like many single farmers in remote areas, he was severely isolated in the winter lockdown.

'Are you all right?' I shouted from the car window. He laughed and said he was perfectly fine, although he was well over 70 at that stage

“He was a tough man,” I said to the postman.

“Oh a fierce hard worker,” he agreed.

I remember meeting him on a freezing winter’s day some years ago, pushing a wheelbarrow of hay towards where cattle had gathered in clouds of their own steamy breath, waiting for him.

He was so exhausted that he sat down to rest in the wheelbarrow for a moment. I was shocked to see him thus reclined, with his coat open and flecks of snow lightly falling on his open shirt.

“Are you all right?” I shouted from the car window. He laughed and said he was perfectly fine; although he was well over 70 at that stage.

He often went to the Gala shop for dinner. On one occasion he ordered vegetable soup but when it arrived he looked with horror at the bowl of green liquid.

“I’m not eating that,” he declared to the waitress.

“Try it,” she said, “I won’t charge you, if you don’t like it.”

So he dipped a spoon in the soup with some reluctance and then suddenly a smile dawned on his countenance like the morning sun rising above the mountain.

“Well God bless you,” he said to the waitress, as if she had saved his life.

I can always tell a farmer’s character by the way he treats his cattle; and Johnny treated his animals like pets; they were tame in a way that is unusual in farm animals nowadays. I was walking along the road one day when I heard him whispering affectionately into the ear of a goat that he wanted to milk. He was bent to his task like a child with a lovable pet.

'They're all gone now,' Johnny said, wistfully. 'I'll probably be the last man left standing in the west'

And then of course he had a dog. A little red terrier called Misty that would often come across the fields to our house and frighten the cat. I never worried because Misty only stared at the cat as if to say hello. And he was never more than five minutes on the patio before his owner’s voice could be heard in the wind, like an enraged parent calling a wandering child. Misty would freeze, cock his ear, and then scamper back across the field.

But Johnny’s strength couldn’t go on forever. The goats were the first to go, and he was sad about them. And then the cattle went. And finally when Misty died there were no more replacements, so it was only himself and the cat staring out the window at the fields where he had laboured, and to which he brought a strange musicality and lightness. That’s another thing I’ve often noticed about farmers; their personalities resonate in the land; a friendly farmer makes for friendly fields.

Over 20 years ago I sat on a ditch one day with Johnny and we got talking about rural life in the old days, when he was a boy, and when there might have been 20 men sitting on that same ditch, exchanging cigarettes and news of war or peace, or about the price of cattle.

“But they’re all gone now,” Johnny said, wistfully. “I’ll probably be the last man left standing in the west.”

I thought he was going to say more, but he didn’t. He manoeuvred himself nimbly across the ditch and walked away into his fields; because like a lot of elderly farmers who have seen their world transformed, and ended up on the margins of a new Ireland, he felt things deeply but said very little.