Kit Seery from Hilltown was born in 1921. He takes us on a tour through the year on a typical small farm as he was growing up.
July to December
Children generally came to school barefoot, even though the roads were not tarred. Not many pupils went on to secondary education after national school as we called it. For that you’d have to have money for a bicycle, for books and things like that. Some worked at home, others had to go away. The school holidays were only for the month of August even though families could have done with the children at home in July. Small farmers couldn’t afford to pay anyone so children worked hard. Animals were reared in the summer to sell at the beginning of winter. In the house, especially in winter, the last at night was the pigs’ pot. Sometimes it stayed there until the next morning. Pigs and hens were an important part of the family economy. Usually you’d feed two lots of three or four pigs in the year. In Oldcastle cattle were sold in the Fair Green which was not tarred at that time. The pig fair was on the third Thursday of the month the cattle were brought over to the railway yard where the Co-Op is now and sent by train to the North Wall in Dublin and from there shipped to Birkenhead or Scotland. On fair days there were usually two trains.
This was harvest time. Most of the cutting of corn was with the scythe. Making sheaves was backbreaking work. Stooks were made by propping three sheaves against three with two upside down on the head. After that they were brought to the haggard and stacks were made to be threshed later on. The new potatoes at this time were a great treat, especially with buttermilk. Sometimes the crop wouldn’t be too successful. A neighbour asked a man who was digging “How are the spuds Mickey?” “Ah” he said “they’re about as big as sloes but there’s small ones through them as well.” There was no such thing as a holiday in August; the bog was the closest thing to it. I remember when we were in school we used sometimes block the little river at Mick Reilly’s and paddle in it. Hunting for rabbits had to do with sport, but with making a living as well. If you got a couple of rabbits you were right for the weekend; there was a good price for them.
For entertainment people used play skittles and pitch-and-toss at Tubrid Bridge, Farrelly’s Cross, in Dungimmon and in other places around the parish. You mightn’t be going to the town with the few pennies you had. The first film I saw was The Great Waltz, the night the Castle Cinema opened in Oldcastle. But television did away with a lot of the simple self-made pastimes.
Children went back to school in September. In our school days we bought the books second-hand from those who went before us I had five or six books, history, geography and a Bible. There were just two Protestants in school when I was going, Harry Kiernan and Johnny Dunne who lived in the old house on Peter Smith’s farm. The corn was threshed in September or October. The potatoes were dug around this time as well. When we came home from school we used have to start picking and then making the pit. The best part was gathering up the dry stalks in the field to make a bonfire. Potatoes roasted in these fires had a great taste.
Generally the threshing was finished in October, or the mice would have everything gone. I think neighbours looked forward to threshing time when they all helped each other. Barney Flood, Johnny Coyle and Jimmy Reilly had threshing machines. The first one I remember was Barney Flood. He had a lorry and someone asked him what horsepower it was. “It’s forty” he said “but thirty five of them are dead.” The thresher would do one area at a time. John Joe McCormack from Corbally had a thresher and one time when he was working in an area he sent Andy McCormack who used work with him over to a local farmer to know if he wanted to thresh his stack. He said “I’m not coming back here once I leave.” You see, at that time you had to go the day before and bring the steam engine and then John Joe would come the following day with a horse pulling the thresher.
Anyway, Andy went into the yard and he met a man who used do a bit of work with the farmer. The two of them had just had a row about who would do some of the dirty jobs. Andy asked “Is NN (the farmer) around?” “He is” he said. He’s in there cleaning out the pig house. You’ll know him, he’s wearing a hat.” Labour relations were a bit tense. Halloween had the usual games. There were a lot of hazel woods around here at that time but they have nearly all been cleared away now. Gathering nuts was a great pastime for Sundays in October. Rates had to be paid in October.
I remember we used to do visits to the church on All Souls Day, 2 November. At that time there was a great belief in indulgences. We believed that if we visited the church on All Souls Day and prayed six Our Fathers, Hail Marys and a Gloria for one of the holy souls we would help them get to Heaven more quickly. We used try to free as many as we could. I used always wonder how some people could get through the prayers so quickly. November was a time when people paid more attention to other beliefs too – like fairies and ghosts. There were stories around here of people being taken away by fairies. Although I don’t have much belief in it I still wouldn’t interfere with a fairy fort. Another kind of thing was superstitions and curses. One of them was ‘burying the sheaf.’ If you wished ill on some person you buried a sheaf of corn. As it rotted away the health of the person you wanted to curse failed and they eventually died.” If churning was taking place in a house and a person came in that person should take a hand in the churning; otherwise they’d take the butter with them when they were leaving. In November there was plenty of cards especially Twenty-five and Fifteen. There used be a big crowd in this house. One man who used come had travelled a lot and knew a bit more than the rest and one night he was holding up proceedings with a long story about the musk rat in Canada. He had got as far as the campaign to reduce the numbers “They trapped, snared and shot him” he declared. One of the locals who had nearly enough enquired “And did they do all that with the one rat?” “My God, such ignorance” said the expert, packing up to leave – and finally the cards could begin. The stake at cards would be a penny apiece. The last big fair of the year would be November. It was important to get a good price for cattle.
Cattle were out all year; there were no slatted sheds at that time. Cows were brought in at night. People who bred turkeys would sell them coming up to Christmas. If the price was good they paid the bills. Some people killed a pig before Christmas and salted the bacon in boxes. In the days before Christmas we got holly from the bushes in the fields to decorate the house Even though there wasn’t much money parents used do their best for children for Christmas. Shops used give a Christmas box to their regular customers.
On Christmas night all the neighbours would have candles in the windows. There was no night Mass that time so we used walk in the dark on Christmas morning. The church had no electric light so we had Mass with oil lamps and candles. In our memory of those Christmas mornings there always seemed to be ice and frost. And soon it was time to begin all over again.