Farming is hard work, but it’s also a life rich with characters and great anecdotes – and we would love to hear yours. To kick us off, HELEN MCGURK reflects on her rural upbringing and a pet sheep with a very sweet tooth!
One of my earliest memories is falling from a wobbly chair in our ‘working’ kitchen, as it was called, banging my head off the cold terrazzo tiles and swiftly passing out.
I must have been three or four at the time and I remember waking groggily from concussion to see a blurry vision of our local vet stooped over me, his cow dung-splattered hand taking my pulse.
He was still wearing his green vet’s apron and wellies, having just helped my late father with a tricky calf delivery, and I can recall him saying to my worried parents: ‘‘She’ll be grand, just make sure she doesn’t fall asleep. Any problems, give me a call.’’
It was the 1970s and living on a farm, it was normal in our house for the vet to double as a doctor.
In fact, I don’t think my father ever went to an actual doctor; if he had an ailment it was discussed with the vet. What treatment he received I never knew – perhaps he was dispensed with a drench or a squirt of purple spray (all farmers know the potency of purple spray).
I also remember the vet tending to me when I went over the handlebars of my clunky Chopper into a bed of nettles; on that occasion a handful of dock leaves and a packet of Pacers, was all the medicine required.
Despite the odd scrape, growing up on a farm was great fun; it was the fresh-air-and-pink cheeks childhood I dream of my own children having. It was full of space and freedom. And, as all children do, I took it entirely for granted.
It was an innocent childhood, where as a youngster I just merged with the surrounding mucky chaos. It was a time free from computers and technology, with a constant supply of mewling kittens to coo over and little lambs to feed, their tails jiggling in delight as they chugged milk from an old Lucozade bottle.
Back then the summers always seemed to be scorching hot, even though in reality they would have probably ‘foundered’ you, and there were plenty of characters to keep us entertained; like the neighbour who blessed his cows with holy water when they were calving, before muttering a mouthful of unprintable expletives if the newborn was a scrawny-looking creature.
And the old man who went years without a haircut, then decided it was time for a short, back and sides; the barber got quite a shock when he discovered a woollen flat cap under his matted mane.
My father had a dairy farm and grew a variety of crops including potatoes, hay, barley and corn. His favourite cow was called Georgina after a prim, God-fearing woman of indeterminate age who lived across the fields. Whether Georgina the Fresian heifer was an atheist or a devout believer, I’ll never know, but she was given the name and it stuck.
Georgina’s bovine predecessor was called Nancy, named after a softly spoken woman, with labradoodle hair who tootled up and down our road in a battered Mini and sucked on Murray Mints all day long until there wasn’t a tooth left in her head.
Then there were the horses, well, nags really, John, Tom and Nora – named after goodness only knows, and a succession of hard-done-by-looking Collie dogs always called Rover or Shep, and always fed kitchen scraps – pet food just wasn’t a thing.
I fondly remember all the pets I ever had; in particular, a black-faced Suffolk ewe, whom I called Curly and who, like all the others I had, went through a ‘baptism’ ceremony.
Curly had been given free rein of our farmyard and would often amble up to the kitchen for a biscuit.
She had an immensely sweet tooth and loved Digestives and Ginger Nuts. Custard Creams, she could take or leave.
Poor Curly probably died of Type 2 diabetes, although I was only ever told she had gone on holidays to visit her cousins in Co Tyrone, a flock of n’er-do- wells by all accounts!
For us, a holiday was a day trip to the Glenshane Pass (which my parents told me was Donegal, and for years I believed) for a picnic – a frugal repast which consisted of Salad Cream sandwiches, a French Fancy and a flask of stewed tea. But not knowing any different, I loved these excursions, as I did going to the bog, or the moss as we called it, to ‘foot turf’.
‘‘Sure, it’s like Butlins,’’ said my father, who had never been out of Ireland.
I loved piling the freshly cut turf into little mounds, ‘stooks’, to dry, then breaking for tea out of a bottle and a few sweaty ham sandwiches.
The summer months were bliss, when the fields were alive with tractors, mowing, turning and bailing as farmers literally made hay when the sun shone.
I can still conjure up the sweet smell of freshly cut hay, lugging the bales (in those days rectangular) into tower formations, feeling the scratch of it against sunburnt arms, which would later be slathered in Calomine lotion, or, if there was none, butter.
In those days health and safety didn’t seem to be a concern. Sun cream didn’t seem to exist and I remember sitting on the back of the baler as the emerging bale would push me out on to the stubbly mown ground; then riding precariously on top of a trailer piled high with swaying bales as they were taken from the field to a shed.
One year my father grew corn and had hired an antique thresher for the job. Duffy’s Circus might as well have come to our townland, as farmers from far and wide came to see the spectacle. It was the talk of the area for weeks.
But my favourite time of the year was the autumn when I would gather crab apples, damsons and blackberries from the hedgerows so my mother could make gloopy, super-sweet jam for the winter.
The only aspect of farming I hated was the annual torture of gathering ‘the praties’. It was cold, back-breaking work – and hazardous too, if some clown decided to lob a rotten Kerr’s Pink at your head, or put muck-caked worms down your polo neck.
And the winters could be tough. Our farmhouse, heated by one open fire until we got central heating sometime in the 1980s, was always freezing.
The only time a second fire was lit in the ‘good room’ was on very special occasions, when I could sit on an antimacasser-adorned sofa and drink in lungfuls of Mr Sheen-scented air, as the various ‘antiques’ were routinely polished to within an inch of their life.
Often I long to be back on the farm; to chat with the old boys whose trousers were always clabbered with cow dung and tied with baler twine; who endured harsh winters and long, long days, but retained an unbruisable wit. I miss the rituals of the farming year. I miss the pampered cattle and the fresh air. I miss the ease and the contentment.
I don’t ever miss gathering spuds!
TELL US YOUR YARNS AND WIN A STAY AT LUSTY BEG
We have teamed up with Lusty Beg Island Resort to give readers the chance to revitalise after a hectic festive season and check-in to the island resort for a two-night stay with a special seaweed bath treatment in the newly relaunched Island Spa.
One lucky reader will win a pair of tickets to enjoy a scrumptious dinner on one night in the Island Restaurant, breakfast on both mornings and a relaxing seaweed bath that can deeply detoxify, hydrate and nourish the skin, hair and body.
To be in with a chance to win, simply send us your own farming memories or anecdotes, in no more than 1,000 words.
Terms and conditions apply. Entrants must be over 18. Prize is as detailed.
No alternative will be offered and does not include beverages. Voucher must be used before June 1, 2019, excludes Christmas and Easter. Subject to availability.
Entries should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or post to Helen McGurk, Features Editor, News Letter, Metro Buildling, 6-9 Donegall Square South, Belfast, BT1 5JA.
A daytime contact telephone number is essential.
The closing date for entries is 5pm, December 14 – and the winning entry will be published in jpimedia titles.
To book your own getaway at the Island call 028 686 33300 or for further information go to www.lustybegisland.com.