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.
Part 1: January to June
I suppose you could say that one of the main activities of January was keeping yourself warm; there was no central heating. There were cattle to be fed, sheds to be cleaned out and cows to be milked; you didn’t buy milk in those days. It was a great time for going a ceilidhe to houses. The issues of the day would be discussed. I remember many a night where the ins and outs of the government’s £40 grant to replace thatch on the houses was discussed. There was a lot of talk but not much action. Tommy Reilly was a great man for chat. One story, I remember him telling about two neighbours in the next parish who weren’t on speaking terms. One night one of them got sick and the wife went to the other man to ask him if he would cycle to Collinstown to get the priest. At first he said ‘No” but then he got worried that he might die and went. He threw stones up at the window of the parochial house and the priest put his head out. “Do you think could he wait till morning?” he enquired. The other answered “Well I’m after delivering my message but I’d be afraid that if you wait till morning th’other fella will have him.” There would be plenty of ghost stories to put the fear of God in young lads.
The one February I remember well was 1933 when the big blizzard came. On the first day, the 24th Joe Fitzsimons and Ned Cullen – they were living in Greeve at that time – came up to meet the children from school. They could only get as far as the foot of the Castle Hill. Luckily a caravan of the Co Council steamroller driver was parked not far from where Briody’s factory is now. The driver brought the children down to Mrs. Boylan and she kept them. For six weeks I had to walk on six feet of snow to Ballinrink to fodder cattle. Sheep died in drifts but no cattle as far as I remember.
Years ago people had to plan ahead to have food for the months when nothing grew. You’d have potatoes from the pit. It was important to make a good pit. First a trench about two feet wide and a bit less than a foot deep was dug. The length depended on the amount of potatoes. The potatoes were then heaped up in a kind of triangle shape and a light covering of straw was put on them. Then all was covered with about a foot of clay. Most houses killed their own pig and salted the bacon. For vegetables there would be turnips; the cabbage would often be OK in the field in the winter. Apples would be stored and there would be jam from the summer fruit. You didn’t go to the shop for much. Around the end of February the ploughing began.
Oats and wheat were sown before St Patrick’s Day if possible. There were rules about rotation of crops. Oats would be sown one year and then potatoes in that plot the following year. The third year either oats or wheat would be sown again but this time with grass seed. It was back to grass the fourth year. Perennial ryegrass and clover was the usual mix. Oats was always sown first. It would usually be the end of April before the potatoes were set; or May in a wet year. Winter rates had to be paid in March.
I remember Jimmy Tighe coming over to me one day in March and asking me if I could give him a hand. “I have a few spuds to be dug” he said. We dug out beautiful clean healthy potatoes. Jimmy said “I got before the rest of them for once”
St Patrick’s Day wasn’t a big event in those times. In the 1950’s and 60’s the Ballinacree Fife and Drum Band used play after Mass. We took Lent very seriously. Friday really was a fast day. Many people took only black tea during the seven weeks. Because there wasn’t any dancing etc. in Lent it was a good time in some places to prepare plays and drama.
It was a time to clean the turf bank on the bog; if the weather was good we started to cut. My father used cut three banks of turf, one for ourselves, one to sell around the town, and one for Lady Nugent. I spent a lot of time on the bog. Easter usually fell in April. There was an Easter bonfire in Clontyduffy as far as I remember. Sometimes the guards would be around warning farmers to control ragwort and thistles. People would begin to move out a bit more after Easter. People that time thought nothing of long journeys on bicycles. I remember Jimmy McCormack riding to Bailieborough and back for a cure. Some of the local lads cycled to Croke Park in the summer.
If the spuds hadn’t been set in April the drills would be opened; it was all hands on deck for that. Dropping potatoes wasn’t a nice job because of the backbreaking work and the smell of the dung. Drills were closed with the plough. Later on what was called a ‘grubber’ was used to control the weeds. The sandy ground of Hilltown was good for growing cabbage plants. Several people grew them for sale, the Gammells, Kevins, Murphys, Mullallys; Paddy Hennessys, the fiddler, and a few more. Where did Paddy learn the fiddle? I don’t know but in the generation before him there were a lot of people around here who could play fiddles. May was the month for First Communions and Confirmation. I remember Paddy Reilly, Tommy Sheridan and Mickey Manley were in the same class in school. Fr. Carney came into the class and he asked the old catechism question ‘Did all the angels fall?’ The catechism answer was ‘No, several remained faithful.’ Mickey Manley was ready with his answer “No, seven of them held their hoult.’
On your First Communion day it was a big thing to get a penny. Confirmation was in Mountnugent every three years. We’d go in the horse and trap. One year the bishop died the morning of confirmation, so everyone had to go home again. But there were no hotel reservations to be cancelled in those days. Fried bread and an egg at home might be the big treat.
Haymaking began in late June. Hay was cut with a horse machine and then turned with a fork. Often we had to lap the hay. The important thing was to leave a little tunnel in the middle of the lap. A day or two after the cocks were made in the field they had to be ‘gubbed’ and re-headed. Turf cutting continued. People liked the bog; it was a combination of work and play; our version of Lanzarotte. I can still remember the great taste of the tea from the lake water. I remember one lad from the town who’d come with a group but all he’d do was the cooking. He’d drive everyone mad with the smell of rashers. The sound of the train horn from Ballywillan Station at a quarter to six was the signal to pack up for the day. Sometimes Chaplin Gilsenan from Mountnugent would stand on a high bank and make a great show of
blessing himself, maybe when it was only five o’clock – Angelus time, by
the way. Fellows would start hiding the tools and hurry home thinking they were late.
I used be paid fifteen shillings for a day if I worked for someone else. I remember a man I knew asked me to help him one Saturday. I worked from 10.00 to 7.00 in the evening. About six weeks later he asked me ‘What do I owe you?’ I said ‘They all give me 15s a day.” He said “OK that’ll be 7s 6d, you worked a good strong half day.” I’d hate to have worked what he’d call a full day.