Irish Farmer’s Journal feature by Maurice Henry

Originally published in the Farm Home supplement, edited by Storm McNamee in in the Irish Farmer’s Journal, week-ending may 8th, 1976.

Poetry that springs from the heart of rural Ireland

During the Economic War when cattle weren’t worth their hides,
October stock I fed through snows the black March to whitethorn days, hawked to fairs traipsed the dry- bread roads,
My fodder gone I sold all a fraction paid a Tuesday

Night on Hibernia

Night on Hibernia

THIS verse will recall searing memories to many a farmer throughout Ireland. It may bring to mind, too, the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, which has so vividly preserved the joys, trials and tribulations of life in rural Ireland in the not too distant past.

But the writer of this poem is a young man from Co. Westmeath, son of a farmer who has done for his area in recent years what Patrick Kavanagh did for his native Co. Monaghan.

And very fitting it is, too, that the poet, John Ennis, now an English teacher in the Regional College in Waterford, was the 1975 winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award. His book will be published at the end of the month by The Gallery Press.

The joys and tears and hopes in the hearts of people are rarely recorded in the press, on radio or television. Beyond this week’s cattle prices and the latest Common Market farming news, there is the whol hidden pageant of life in rural Ireland. Goldsmith recorded it in ‘The Deserted Village’, Kavanagh in ‘The Great Hunger’ and other poems, and now John Ennis in our own day.

And we search of mushrooms in July
soft dusk approaching
flaking round us…

We crowed with delight
harvested the shy riot
luminous things
dew breathed on,
held them, our face
brittle with joy
shatter of alabaster
cool in our hands.

A high lone curlew
winged above us.

It was a twilight
of summer months,
sheet- lightening in the sky.

Proudly we walked home
shank- pierced
mushrooms dangling in either hand
down sinewy stalks.

We would eat
some salted on red coals
before the fire was earthed
for the night.

John Ennis, writing of his boyhood memories and of the life of his family and neighbours in Co. Westmeath, recalls the days when farmers still killed pigs at home and sold them in local towns and villages.

Before I was ten
All this was stopped
On Government orders.

State bodies would kill
Better. You bowed to
hygiene, humane
Killer.

Catch the cart horse.
Yoke him.
Fit on the cart’s three creels, tail- board,
For memory’s sake. My father.
pigs’ heads, hams, ribs, crubeens,
(Old succulent ladies in Patrick Street), hearts, shoulders,
Wrapped in starched paper shrouds,
Cabbage jogged off.
Double hemp
Sacking draped creels for rain,
Heat. I reminded him of a promise,
Pipe, plane, football, or soldiers.
All day he’d hawk produce, circle
Mullingar, stomach grannies pains, win new markets…
New born babies.

Yet with all the work he was in debt bad,
Forced to tip the hat to his bank smiling
Manager’s condescend jowls on chance Sunday
Greetings. I saw this, buried with shame on
Street to Gaelic matches.
He still fed pigs.

Captured here the days when small farmers were rooted in a life of continuous, grinding, semi- poverty which happily passing away rapidly with better markets, better farm management and above all more jobs in the industry which took large families off the heavily burdened small famers’ backs.

But the memories are still raw in the folk memory, the pride still wounded, the hurt not forgotten.

Was it for this, bow and scrape
The long winding hill drenching’s
Of Russellstown, Plodstown,
Saunders Bridge. Nights unfit for
Mongrels. Too many.
Tolling in his
Arthritis. For this, all the drudgery credit for the four winds…

Nowadays when we speak of preserving the family farm it is usually in terms of economics. But the reality and the true value of the family farm is that with it there is a continuity of the generations, a living memorial of the labours of our ancestors, and a present living and working togetherness under God’s heaven which has disappeared for the vast majority of Europeans and for 75 per cent of the Irish workforce.

The industrial revolution takes fathers from their families at dawn to factory floors which wives or children have never seen. Neither do they see any product completely made by their husbands’ hands. Old people are crowded out into homes for the aged. The generations are torn apart. Not only family but community life is completely altered.

Many a factory worker must long in vain for the old days.

To walk through a meadow
Saunter by a stream, sit out together after a summer energetic at hay.,
See corn ablaze in the hearths of hills,
Stack barley on a Sunday before rain
Grey- backed the spiked gold heads.

Rural life in the old days was uneventful and even monotonous by today’s standards. Very few exciting things happened apart from the odd wedding, inter-parish matches, the odd dance, so vividly recalled Patrick Kavanagh. But memory stores up the most unusual things which would never make the newspaper headlines, but as poets understand, thrill the child heart in all of us and linger on through all our days.

Extracts from John Ennis’ poem ‘Run Hare Run’ illustrate the excitement of such an incident:

Once when walked in the field of the mushrooms, you said:
‘Mowing a meadow here years ago
I cut off the back leg of a hare,
Chance, old one, he didn’t cry half- spirited, half- dragged his
Body across the mid- day swarthes,
A red barbed wire trail…

Run Hare Run yelled Tom Coyne,
Seated in the cool cherry- tree’s shade
Tears streaming his face, his limbs,
Stuck helpless with laughter;
Body collapsed across the cutter
Blade in his lap he had sharpened

And did he run! He snatch-
Grabbed new blood in his heart
Sprinted on three
Rickety legs far
Beyond his limit…

Slope stopped his run,
O’Hara’s ridger mearing
Even now his eyes,
Flash for me, bottomless
Wild, wild pits
Death- bite of his marks
My wrists. By the hind
Leg I caught him,
Chopped him clean
side of the neck,
End of misery.

Some of the things I remember about life in east Galway, where I grew up, was the number of old people I knew, the major event of each funeral was in the parish, the threat of the TB scourge then, the fact that we seemed to know when the old people were going to die.

Now, in Dublin death strikes sudden;y in the obituary columns. In those days, it seemed to come naturally, almost leisurely, like a summer sunset.

All this bit so much more and with heart- rending intensity I find in John Ennis’ ‘Wheel Chair Ride for Anchises’.

Linking him out from fire and kitchen we praised his age, half- carried him down the first concrete step.
Chaired through the road gate he saw the seven- year cypresses proud in their fluid yellow gold:

Pushed down by the grass verge, his wish. Forge- field dipped,
sprinkled with buttercups, random cowslips. Farm cows
grazed among white chippings
of daisies. Forge stood, dwarfed
by an elm, indexed in his memory.
Lilac bloomed too.
Smithy din, characters, piebalds crowded him.
I remember, I remember, I remember.

As neighbours motor to us, cycle, walk, greetings scythe him
to second childhood, parents went inside ten months. Yet
he, the eldest of nine, coped;
cut meadow breast to breast,
tied with grown men at thirteen.

He bids us leave him in the hall,
sits white, shaken by the road;
drinks a draught of hauled deep spring
Colour seeps back into him…

Life comes, goes on the tar, brakes;
part of a pattern, like a wheel chair.

Finally, in Reliquiae, at the end of the human cycle:

They will not remember you:
Shadow of the thundered elm,
Stretched in the long garden,
Apple trees you sowed, mossed with diamond years
Frialities of branch…

They are forgetting you as the wind forgets the hearth- smoke in
Subtle wafts…

Bills waived, blown after them into the grave;
Stables constructed out of a dream, lofts full
Of plenty, spring corn shaken in your day;
Shades of hedges levelled to extend
Acreage and tenant fields;

Pierce coulters weigh down a shield;
Old mowing machine lies under sods;
Sleans rust in a dairy corner;
Harness, britchen, collar, all tackling
The dogs of damp gnaw under roofs.

I thought black crowds alighting at the grave yard
Crows in hundreds on a wasteland of grey stubble,
You the husk of corn they had late circled for.

John Ennis’ first book is to be published at the end of this month.
it is good to know that once again, from the soil of rural Ireland:

Poetry blossoms
Excitingly
As the first flower of truth.

Those last lines are Patrick Kavanagh’s, and he would, I am sure, recommend John Ennis’ work to you, whom he regarded as his own people and for whom he wrote for so many years in this paper.

Words: Maurice Henry

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