My Granduncle lived a very regimental and ordered life, practically all of it in the industrial heart of England. It was a country where my young mind believed the trains ran on time and drivers never exceeded the speed limit. The Granduncle was in London first but then moved to Coventry where he had secured a job in the Standard Motor Company factory. A company that was standard, what more could a standard Irish migrant want. The factory later became the even larger Massey Ferguson plant, ‘Twenty Thousand people walked through those gates every day’ he’d boast. The uncle always simply called it Massey ‘Oh aye’ which suggested he hadn’t much time for the Ferguson half of the operation.
He came home every summer without fail, using up all his annual holidays. He brought us a bag of Humbug mints each which none of us liked. He smoked Players cigarettes, tip less and toxic and his long thin fingers were like stained amber with years of nicotine layers. The first cigarettes myself and my brother ever smoked were pilfered from his box. We would smoke them in the hay-shed; it seemed to us a logical place to smoke back then. Unfortunately this logic put paid to a career in the local Fire Service, something about ‘deficit in risk assessment and prevention’. During his holidays my father would bring the Uncle to town every Saturday night and occasional visits to our many relatives houses. My father would often be working on the farm until nine or ten o’clock at night and the Uncle couldn’t understand why Irish people only went to town at half past Ten, “some of them don’t even come in until after eleven’ he moaned. In the UK, he often reminded us, people would be going home at that time, they had to he said, ‘last bus goes at half ten’. Somehow I don’t think he ever missed that last bus of a Saturday night in Coventry.
I was always interested in history. After much prising, the Uncle might be encouraged to give up some titbits about life in London, particularly about the Blitz which he had lived through. He pronounced the word Bomb as Bum so we of course mischievously kept asking him about the Blitz just to hear him say Bum over and over; ‘Oh they pounded London with bums, all bloody night, those bums raining down, fires everywhere’. I never heard him say he was afraid but he must have been, a 20 year old lad thrust from a small farm in the North West of Ireland into this cauldron of fire and death. My Grandmother and another brother were with him at the time. My grandmother came back to Ireland and soon after she met my grandfather and married. The Uncle stayed on. He got work down near the South Coast ‘where they were sent’. I couldn’t understand that part of it, who sent them? Of course it was a well-kept secret what was happening but the Uncle told us he knew well they were getting ready to cross the Channel and invade France. No flies on him, he knew all about D-Day months before everyone else.
Back in London he recalled the V2 rockets landing; ‘if you heard it coming you were fine, it meant it had already passed you by’. I explained to him this was because the rocket was travelling faster than the speed of sound so it arrived at its target before you heard it. I told them that the speed of sound was 768 miles per hour; he informed me this couldn’t be as he had once seen a V2 flying in the sky and it wasn’t going that fast!
I like many young boys my age supported the great Liverpool team of the 70’s and 80’s. The Uncle had no time for them; he said that they scored a goal and then just kept the ball, passing it over and back to each other. I fancied that this was quite a clever way for a team to fill the Club’s trophy cabinet but he was having none of it. He liked Coventry City who at the time were a mid-table team in the First Division who occasionly survived a relegation dogfight.. I asked him if he ever went to games in Highfield Road; ‘Oh aye’. He told me later that the the last time he was at a game there were over 60,000 there. I couldn’t fathom this as at the time Coventry was averaging about 20,000 attendances per game. I remember checking the record books and discovered that there was over 50,000 at a match in 1967 when they beat Wolves to gain promotion. Was this the last game he was at?
My father visited him in 1985. My mother and he were over visiting our maternal Uncle who was gravely ill in London. My father got the train up to Coventry and the Uncle met him at the station. He asked my dad if he was hungry and the pair went in search of a renowned Cafe which the Uncle proclaimed served the best roast dinner in town. They walked around for nearly an hour, passing dozens of Asian and Chinese restaurants, before the Uncle gave up aghast; ‘it used to be around here somewhere’. It may have been 1967 when he last ate there, perhaps on the way to the big game. He lived in a small neat bedsit in a large building with dozens of other Irishmen of similar age. I remember my father was moved by it, surprised even, maybe he had expected that he had a nice mock-Tudor semi-d in the suburbs.
When he came home he liked the open fields, the cattle, making hay and silage pits but most of all he loved the turf bog. He would be on the bog by eight o’clock. He couldn’t understand how we young fellas only went down at ten. When we got there we often broke the tedium by having mud fights throwing buts of wet turf at each other. Sometimes we would abandon our posts and head off over to the high bank, jumping drains and bog holes, catching frogs, chatting with other people on the bog. But the Uncle would stick at it, back bent, a steady pace, slowly but relentlessly making his way down the plot of turf. He often chastised our father for not having control of us but my father only told us what he was saying about us. The day after these tell tales we would give him the silent treatment. My father liked to foot the turf once, making small footings but the uncle insisted on lifting them, turning them, this was only stage one of a laborious process. It became our summer penance. When this was done he went back to the beginning and made small footings of six to eight clods and then when that was done he would wait a few days before starting all over again and making them into bigger clamps. He would look with disdain at a neighbour whose turf were cut weeks and lain untouched, green grass growing high around and sometimes through them. The neighbour would then come down nonchalantly and make a start, work for fifteen minutes, chat, smoke and then head home. The Uncle couldn’t understand it. Yet I often remarked that the neighbour usually got his turf home as soon as we did. The summers of 1985 and ’86 were terrible in the bogs and in the meadows. The farm felt like a Gulag. The turf was the new sausage machine variety and they were impossible to work with. They just broke and crumbled in our hands and we all cursed them but none more so than the Uncle who lamented the old ways of slan and barrow.
In 1987 he retired from Massey (I don’t think he was that fond of Mr. Ferguson because he never seemed to mention him). He got a Gold watch from the company, just like thousands before him. I don’t know who instigated it but he packed his bags there and then and came home. Maybe he had always planned to come home. He had been away forty eight years but he still only had one home. The house he had grown up in was still standing and home to his older brother and his wife. They had married late in life, well past child bearing years. The house was pretty much as it had been in the 1930’s when the rest of the family took the Mail-boat to Holyhead. The Uncle adopted a superior tone when speaking about his elder brother who had never left home, but it seemed lost on him that this man never had to leave home, and it wasn’t as if his own decision was one of choice, the reality being that it was one of necessity. So when he came home he moved in with my Grandparents who lived up the lane from us. After leaving a life that was ordered and routine it must have been difficult for him to adjust. It showed in little things like when he smoked he seldom finished his cigarette. He usually butted it out halfway down. The habit was obviously borne out of the short ciggy breaks in the East Midlands factory where he had been incarcerated.
The rigidity and regimental nature of his working life was completely out of sync with the more laid back life in the rural west of Ireland. It wasn’t that people didn’t work hard, they often worked harder, it was just that they were not slaves to the clock. They didn’t clock in but they never clocked out. No 5 o’clock finish in the evenings, they would work to midnight if they had to or if felt like it. The only things exercising any control of their time were the seasons. To me it seemed a more natural way to live life. The homecoming year of 1987 was also a monumental year for Coventry FC. They won the FA Cup beating a highly fancied Spurs team at Wembley. The Uncle didn’t even watch the match and seemed indifferent when I told him the news. He did have interest in GAA and could recall cycling to games including a Junior All-Ireland Semi-Final in Breffni Park in the early 40’s. Leitrim were going well against Meath until the great Red Moran broke his leg. He also extolled the skill and strength of the larger than life, Jack Bohan, centre half back on the Leitrim team in 1927.
When we were younger we thought the Uncle had built every Massey Ferguson tractor that had ever ploughed a field. We had an old Ferguson Twenty and a 1968 MF 165. Surely he had built some part of these tractors. One Saturday morning my father asked the Uncle to hop up on the 165 to tow the Twenty (the last time there was a battery in the Twenty was when it left the Massey plant in the early 50’s). So the Uncle got up and let the clutch up too quickly and the engine conked out. He began fidgeting and it quickly became apparent that he didn’t know how to start a tractor. How could this be? How could a man that worked in a factory for over forty years, the place where hundreds of thousands of tractors were built, including the one he was now sitting on, not know how to drive one? My father wasn’t that surprised and he soon let us know that he had heard that the Uncle had worked all those years in the stores.
The name itself was weighted with danger, you’d never call a child or a family pet Dithane! The anti-fungal powder had replaced bluestone as the number one agent in fighting the dreaded potato blight. Now other than lifting turf, there was only one other job that got the Uncle animated, it was spraying the potatoes. My father would drop down a couple of barrels of water to the bog garden where we grew the spuds. The spraying paraphernalia was quite simple. A plastic knapsack, with a handle on one side and nozzled hose on the other, a plank of timber, a thick branch or brush handle, a jug and a pair of Granny’s old tights. The Uncle or my Granny would throw the tin of Dithane into the barrel of water and mix it with the branch. When the Uncle did it he invariably stood downwind for some reason? The contents of the barrel were now what Patrick Kavanagh called ‘the copper-poisoned ocean’. The plank of wood was placed across the barrel and then the knapsack on top. The lid was screwed off and the tights placed across the opening of the tank which was filled using an old plastic jug. When full I would reverse like a donkey into a cart, be strapped in and away I’d go down between the potato ridges, pumping the lever whilst arching the nozzle left and right spraying the stalks with this chemical mist, him thinking of the floury spuds on the table next year, me about the life cycle of ‘Phytophthora infestans’ that we were studying in Biology at school.
The Uncle didn’t trust me by this stage and he would watch my every move making sure I didn’t miss any stalks. He insisted I got in under the leaves as well as covering the top side. The trust was gone, too many times I had been found out by him, the stolen cigarettes, the little lies. One time my parents were away and we never checked the cattle. There were 45 cattle in one holding, 15 weanlings in one field and 30 cows and calves in another. ‘Did you check the cattle down in Lily’s?’ he asked ‘I did’ I said without flinching, ‘How many were there?’ ’15’ ‘Oh is that right well there was 30 cows and calves there this morning’. Other indiscretions such as skipping church on Sunday and then been asked who had said eleven o’clock Mass, ‘Fr. Corcoran’ says I, ‘Oh that’s strange because he also did Half ten in Gorvagh’. I was never going to amount to much, no interest in cattle or farming, just dossing, or staying in the house like a woman, reading books.
It had already been established that the Uncle, for a man who had spent his entire career in the auto-motive industry was not very mechanically minded. He was always breaking things, wrenches, spanners, vice-grips, vices, hacksaw blades, shovel handles, axe-handles, measuring tapes and my father’s patience. He could however fix a puncture on the High Nelly bike he had commandeered from my Grandmother. He was suited to manual labour and would toil all day at the same task unmarred by monotony. At silage time he would spend two days trimming the sides of the pit until you could almost hear the big clamp of freshly cut grass cry, ‘enough! enough!’ He would bend into a yard-scraper pushing slurry ahead of him until he got to the chute leading to the slurry tank, then back again repeating the process again and again. If there was a quick, easy, mechanical way of doing a task he would favour the slow, grinding, back breaking method. He did this well into his eighties but slowly and surely he had to relent, but, he wasn’t done fully, he became the obstinate overseer, watching everything that was done on the farm and passing judgement. Nobody was immune from his scrutiny. He commented on the time you got up in the morning to the time the light went off in your room at night. He had an indomitable spirit and great work ethic but his life did not have to be so hard, so dreary, and so weary. When he ended up in hospital after taking a fall off his bike the nurse gave him painkillers to take. He couldn’t swallow them, he didn’t know how. He had never taken a tablet in his life, he was Eighty two. He knocked in another few boundaries after that before he got bowled out.
Spraying the Potatoes
The barrels of blue potato-spray
Stood on a headland in July
Beside an orchard wall where roses
Were young girls hanging from the sky.
The flocks of green potato stalks
Were blossom spread for sudden flight,
The Kerr’s Pinks in frivelled blue,
The Arran Banners wearing white.
And over that potato-field
A lazy veil of woven sun,
Dandelions growing on headlands, showing
Their unloved hearts to everyone.
And I was there with a knapsack sprayer
On the barrel’s edge poised. A wasp was floating
Dead on a sunken briar leaf
Over a copper-poisoned ocean.
The axle-roll of a rut-locked cart
Broke the burnt stick of noon in two.
An old man came through a cornfield
Remembering his youth and some Ruth he knew.
He turned my way. ‘God further the work’.
He echoed an ancient farming prayer.
I thanked him. He eyed the potato drills.
He said: ‘You are bound to have good ones there’.
By Patrick Kavanagh
© estate Patrick Kavanagh