When I think back over my childhood in terms of farming, it’s my dad who features in most of my memories. Even though I wasn’t the kind of kid who lived for farming (I lived for books to be honest), I spent a lot of time with him – because he was a farmer.
Lots of dads spend more time now with kids than they used to, it’s often dads that bring the children to activities, they bath them, they read them stories, dads tend to be much more hands on than fathers of the past. However, in farming, it’s often the mum who brings the children to activities and sometimes farm kids can end up feeling that their dad doesn’t do as much with them as in other families.
Is that really the case though? Maybe because of new health and safety regulations, kids aren’t getting to spend as much time with their dads. For example, in Ireland now, children under 7 are not allowed to travel on a tractor, even if on a passenger seat.
When I look back, I spent a lot of time with my dad. Yes, I had to go out on the farm to do so but just as I divide my time now between farming and writing/reading, I was the very same back then.
Whenever Mum announced that she had to go to town, there was always an immediate clamour of “Dad, what are you and Tommy doing today?” It was bad enough having to go to town for essential purchases like shoes and clothes but I hated having to go grocery shopping or to the bank, and trailing after mum on the high street where she seemed to know everyone and stopped continuously for conversations. (My children tell me I seem to know everyone too and as I’d say I have at most one conversation per town visit, I’d say my memories are deceiving me too) but if there was anything the men were doing where we could tag along, we much preferred that.
We had two tractors. The Massey Ferguson was a disaster as far as children was concerned as it didn’t have a passenger seat, and the mudguards were very narrow with very little floor space to stand. The Zetor was great: there was a passenger seat for my younger brother, the wide mudguard behind for my younger sister and I sat on the other mudguard (beside the open door – back then, doors were considered unnecessary as why would you want to waste your time open and closing a door when getting on and off let alone the natural air conditioning.
More often than not then, we spent the afternoon on the Zetor tractor spreading fertiliser or dung or slurry. I remember them as a nice lazy afternoons but I’m sure we said “I’m bored” on a few occasions too.
I often went herding with Dad. It was a 2 mile drive over to the out farm and then a walk around the fields counting and checking the cattle. Not that I did that much walking – apparently I used to run in front of him and put my arms up to be carried. One of my earliest memories is of my dad stopping to chat to an old man who was pushing his bike laden with bags of groceries. I was slightly scared of him, dressed totally in black, although he tried to allay my fears by giving me a 10p to buy a bar of chocolate.
When I was young, the milk had to be transported to our local creamery, a mile away. We had a milk tanker on wheels, it wasn’t made of steel but of toughened white plastic so every morning, the tractor was reversed up to it, and either my dad or our workman would trundle down the avenue. Once we got to the creamery, there was always a queue. Thinking back, it was so time-consuming compared to the ten minutes it takes for the milk collector now but it meant that farmers could have a daily chat with neighbours. If the queue was long, we were sent up to the local shop to get a few sweets. I presume we were getting impatient and tetchy and it was a way to distract us.
One summer I developed a fascination for mud pies. There was a load of sandy gravel between the house and the yard and I patiently mixed it with water before packing the muddy mixture into old plastic containers, waiting for them to dry before turning them out and serving up slices of mudpies in an “afternoon tea” setting to imaginary friends. My dad noticed I seemed to be spending a long time collecting water in my little sand bucket so brought me with him up the yard while we looked for a suitable container, filled it with water and carried it down for me.
I loved hearing stories of things my dad got up to when he was young and he often told us stories at bedtime. This was one of my favourites. As was typical of the time, he was born into a large family of 9 children. One day his parents along with many other relatives were away attending a funeral. Knowing that many relatives would be returning to the house afterwards, he and his brother decided to play a prank. They went into the downstairs (and only) toilet, locked the door and climbed out the window. When everyone returned, there was a queue for the toilet with people eventually wondering who on earth was in there. They eventually summoned all the children to do a headcount and the boys had to admit what they’d done and climb back in the window. It always made me laugh to think of all these large ladies crossing their legs.
Learning How To Help Others
There’s been some coverage in the farming media lately of how farmers don’t have time to help each other anymore. Perhaps we don’t carry out “meitheal” (the return of labour e.g. exchanging a day’s help at threshing time) anymore but I think farmers still help each other out a lot.
Our workman had his own farm where he reared cattle. He used our machinery whenever he needed it. One evening, my dad was late in from milking and after eating his tea at 9pm said “it looks like rain, I think I’ll go and give Tommy a hand with those bales”. I knew by my mum’s reaction that she thought he needed a rest rather than more work as he’d had a busy week too. I went along with him and it was about 9:30 when we entered the hayfield scattered with many small square bales. Clouds were looming. Tommy and another man were stacking the bales (putting two side by side and building another 6 on top so the stacks stood 4 bales high) and then securing torn fertiliser bags in under the twines of the top bales to protect them somewhat against the rain. There wasn’t time for chat. Tommy looked over and gave my dad a nod and a smile. 90 minutes of work and we were finished before the rain started. There was time for a quick chat before heading home for bed. Farmers are often men of few words but I knew by Tommy’s nod that the help was hugely appreciated.
One of my favourite jobs during the summer was bringing in the straw with my dad. While he lifted bales onto the trailer with his pitchfork, I lifted and pushed the bales into position. Once the load was high enough, it was secured with two ropes and I’d clamber down the back, him pointing out toeholds to me. I was highly allergic to so many things on the farm but barley straw was one of the worst. One year, he sought out wheaten straw from a neighbour knowing I’d manage with it. I’d have been so disappointed not to be able to load straw.
Going to the mart or factory was a treat too. My parents weren’t the type to give us days off school too easily but I remember once having to go to the dentist for a filling. My mum dropped me off and afterwards, I walked up to the mart to meet my dad, and was perfectly happy watching calves being bought and sold, culminating our morning’s work with tea and a bun in the mart cafe.
I only have memories of one visit to the cattle factory: of seeing the huge cattle outside and then going in to see the carcasses. Men dressed in white coats with white hats, wielding sharp implements. I was fascinated watching two men skinning the carcase, the knives removing it so easily.
Back then, we had numerous small houses for cattle and calves. It must have been so time-consuming cleaning them out. On Saturday afternoons, I remember trailing along behind him as he lifted a straw bale on his shoulders again and again and walked to one of the little cow houses to bed the yearlings or calves inside. Talk about being like a shadow but I was perfectly happy doing that through rain, hail and sunshine.
Feeding calves could be a bit fraught at times. Once you opened the door to one of the small sheds housing calves, you had to be quick or you’d be knocked over. There were usually 4 calves per house and 2 heads would dip down into each bucket to drink the milk. Our milking parlour was situated on an incline and one icy evening, my dad gave me two buckets half filled with milk and said “don’t spill those whatever you do”. They contained colostrum, that important first milk for calves. As I walked down from the parlour door, my feet gave way on the ice and I slammed down the buckets to stop the milk spilling, saving my coccyx from pain in the process but smashing the back of my head off the concrete. I had a headache afterwards but hardly a drop of milk was spilt.
My dad was a keen cyclist, just for fun although he often went on 20 mile sponsored cycles when racing bikes became popular. The five of us often went for a cycle on Sunday afternoons. I think we were viewed as a bit eccentric around here as back then, cycling was a means of transport and people cycled to get somewhere. The photographs are funny when you compare them to what cyclists wear nowadays. Wearing farming clothes all week, he dressed up on a Sunday and therefore went cycling in good trousers and a sports jacket: similar to those old photographs of men wearing suits at the beach.
Although he didn’t get that much time to read books, he read the newspaper every day. On Sundays, after church, he’d drive the five miles to Castlecomer to get the Sunday papers and we’d get our comics. I started with Twinkle and then moved onto Bunty and Jackie. While my mum put the finishing touches to the dinner, we’d be engrossed in our reading.
My article on “Why Farmers Make The Best Dads” has been published in Farmland magazine.
One of the best things of having a farmer for a dad was that he was always around. Farmers can get bad press for working long hours and my dad certainly did that but he was always either in the milking parlour, a field or the yard. It was always just a case of going for a walk before I’d find him.
I inherited a lot of his traits really: stubbornness, impatience, the tendency to be a bit slapdash if I don’t have the patience, but I also inherited a love and appreciation of the land and of the cows. Our difference was that his favourite fields were those with the best grass whereas I prefer the hilly fields with their magnificent views. They never fail to make me feel on top of the world.
Just to let you know, especially if you’ve been meaning to get my books but never got around to it, they are available now on the website with FREE SHIPPING WORLDWIDE so if you’d like a fun farming read or know someone who would, in the words of Mrs Doyle, go on go on go on 🙂