An Irishman's Diary


IT CANNOT have been easy for my mother to settle into a small farm in the west of Ireland when she moved there from Glasgow in 1939 to marry my father. Having grown up in a big, industrialised city, she had no experience of farming, but I would say that she was a quick learner.

By the time I came along, the last of seven children, 15 years later, she was as native to the place as were the trees, grass, bog and rocks.

One of her acquired skills that used to fascinate me most as a child was teaching new-born calves how to drink from a bucket. In those days, milk was mostly sent to the creamery by farmers, so calves were not allowed to suckle from their mothers. This was the general practice on the small farms in the west of Ireland at the time, where the farmers were mostly full time, unlike today.

What had to be done was, when the cow was milked you put your hand into the bucket of milk and then got the new-born calves to suck your fingers. After doing this for a while, you guided their mouths downwards into the bucket and eventually they got the message and began to drink.

This could take a long or short time but you had to be patient – and patient my mother was. It is unlikely that, growing up in Glasgow, she would have done or witnessed much of the sort of thing that I have just described.

I regret that I did not talk to her more about that transition from urban Scotland to rural Ireland when I became an adult but, reminiscing a while back with an older sister and brother, the incident of the difficult cow was brought back to me.

This cow belonged to a family in the locality, of whose name I am not so sure now, and when the mother in the family (it must have been mostly the mothers that milked the cows) was no longer able to do the milking, her husband decided to sell the cow. My father decided to buy the animal and I am sure my mother did not thank him for that decision.

You see this particular cow would not let anyone else go near her except the lady of the family in question. When my mother tried to milk the newly acquired cow, she received several kicks for her pains and bucket and stool were kicked over.

My mother tried soothing the animal by stroking and singing to her and giving her tasty morsels to eat, but nothing worked. A black and blue leg from the kicks she received was all the poor woman had to show for her efforts. And an empty milk bucket, of course.

What was to be done? Would the cow have to be returned to the family from whom she was bought and, besides, would they be willing to take her back? Obviously, when they sold the cow, they were not to know of the animal’s deep commitment to the mother in that family.

My family was facing something of a dilemma. The new cow was needed, but could not be kept if she could not be milked. But could she be returned and her price recovered? I do not know who came up with the solution, but it was an ingenious one.

The coat that the woman used to wear when milking the cow was passed on to my mother who wore it when next she tried to milk the beast. And it worked a treat, because the cow placidly allowed my mother to place the bucket under her udder and to proceed with the job in hand.

I have no doubt that there were other and far greater difficulties my mother had to overcome when she married into that little farm in the west of Ireland as the conflagration of war began to engulf Europe and much of the world.

What a pity I did not learn more from her – when it was possible to do that learning – about the teething pains of that big transition in her life. Alas, for some years now it has been too late, as my mother passed away in 2003.

I took a great interest in history at school and pursued that interest into university and beyond. But it is only in recent years that I have realised the importance of social history with the growing trend among historians to research and reveal how much the lives or ordinary people can tell us about our past.

For more than 50 years my mother lived on that little farm and yet I, a so-called historian, still managed to miss the chance to learn more about a way of life that has passed forever.

And to learn how one who grew up in so urban an environment could be transplanted to so rural a setting and take root there “like a native flower”, to alter slightly Frank O’Connor’s great image from his powerful short story, Guests of the Nation.