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Charge of the wheat brigade – A Meath farmer’s memories of the Crimean War

Frank McNally: An Irishman’s Diary

Europe’s bread basket – southern Russia and Ukraine – was cut off by the Crimean conflict

In a second-hand shop recently, I bought a copy of a remarkable book that passed me by when first published, in 2007. It’s called Strong Farmer: the Memoirs of Joe Ward. And the man in question was already dead a few years when it appeared. Which was perfectly reasonable of him, because he had been born in 1909 and did well to reach the 21st century, if only just.

But his vivid recollections of a long life had been recorded over many years by his daughter Chris. These included memories he had inherited from his own father, a man born in 1849. So among the subjects of the book, which Chris Ward co-wrote with Ciaran Buckley, is the Crimean War, or at least its effects on farming in Meath, recalled as if from yesterday.

The memoir is dominated by cattle-dealing, the Wards’ main business. In the 1850s, however, like most of their neighbours, they found themselves growing wheat. This involved ploughing the plains of Royal Meath, which as Alan Dukes writes in a preface, would in more recent times have been a “mortal sin”.  

But Europe’s bread basket – southern Russia and Ukraine – was cut off then by the Crimean conflict.

When word came from home that the corn was ripe, their instinct was to drop sickles immediately

Thus wheat prices here had rocketed, reaching “five pounds per barrel”, as Joe remembered, via his father. “I have no idea what that would be worth now,” he added. Whatever it was worth, it was enough to put vast swaths of Meath under tillage.

Of course farmers then had to reap what they had sown, and by hand. But there weren’t enough hands locally to do this: everyone else was growing wheat too.

So Joe’s father used write “to a man named O’Reilly up on the borders of Leitrim and Cavan”, naming the date - “we’ll say the fifteenth of September” – when the corn would be ready.  

On that day O’Reilly, a one-man personnel agency, juggling other similar requests and dates, would arrive with about 30 of his neighbours, on foot.

The Wards supplied food and bedding (in a barn, with “sufficient clean straw”).  

The reapers brought their own cook, however, and also always had “one of two musicians” to accompany evening sing-songs.

A drawback of the arrangement was that they themselves were small-holders, with their own crops, meagre but no less crucial. When word came from home that the corn was ripe, their instinct was to drop sickles immediately.

The Crimean War’s Meath front is otherwise forgotten now, but that general conflict lives on in English

“It wasn’t a matter of them looking for more money,” Joe recalled. It was just a farmer’s urgency to get home and save the harvest.

So one year, with 73 Meath acres still to cut, the workmen announced their intention to leave next day. But the Wards pleaded and the reapers relented, ordering early breakfast and attacking the remaining crop at dawn. In “a tremendous feat”, they finished by nightfall. 

Then, as the sun set, his father walked with them to the Dublin-Navan Road, where they said goodbye. And 130 years later, Joe preserved the moment, second-hand but in pristine condition: “As they went down the road they started to sing and he stood there for quite a while listening to the ring of their hobnail boots on the hard surface of the road and their singing in unison as they went away in the direction of Paceland and back home to County Leitrim.”

The Crimean War’s Meath front is otherwise forgotten now, but that general conflict lives on in English.

It gave us the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Thin Red Line. It also gave us fashion items: including the balaclava – this season’s version of which was modelled on the streets of Dublin the other night – the cardigan, and the raglan overcoat.

That last one was named for Lord Raglan, a hero of Waterloo who was still around (minus an arm) for the Battle of Balaclava, where his orders inspired the disastrous charge, and the Tennyson poem. 

But in Ireland, at least, Raglan is best known now for the Dublin road named after him, immortalised by a Patrick Kavanagh ballad.

And that ballad’s place in popular affection seems secure. Only this morning, a strange but moving new version dropped into my letter-box, on CD. 

It was recorded by Temple Bar’s Tradfest, with performers who have graced that festival over the years, including Paddy Casey, Eleanor McEvoy, Sibéal Ní Chasaide, and Sean O’Sé. It also has a haunting cameo by Phelim Drew, channelling his father, like Joe Ward.

The recording is not for sale, but a gift to the public. You can see and hear it at tradfest.ie