John Arnold: There’s that special, indefinable trait that we love... rural wit

There is that special, indefinable trait known as wit, so says John Arnold in his weekly column
John Arnold: There’s that special, indefinable trait that we love... rural wit

LET THEM EAT VEAL: In many country areas farmers had no ‘meas’ on a pure white calf. Picture Stock

There I was eating the half past eight bus when my breakfast passed outside the door.’

That is a saying I oft heard attributed to a great character called Har who lived in Rathcormac long ago. The sayings people had were mighty in days of yore. Sometimes it might simply have been, as in that case, ‘putting the cart before the horse’ but then again a generation of people brought up in a pre-radio and pre-television age had a different outlook on life and thus a different way of expressing themselves.

Then there is that special, indefinable trait known as wit. When Ireland was emerging from the worst effects of the disastrous Economic War in the 1930’s it took the farming and agricultural industry a long time to get beef production back to what it had been in the previous decades. A big change came when the ability to store beef long-term by processing it in factories and then canning it was introduced. In places like Roscrea meat processing plants were established and from here the canned beef was exported all over Europe.

I always remember a teacher of mine explaining the meat eating habits of the Irish people in relation to beef: ‘We eat what we can and we can what we can’t’!, a simple summary of how to save surpluses.

There was an old man and his wife living on a farm near here in the 1940’s. They eventually sold the farm but were able to stay living on in the house with the new owners. That continued for a few years before the old lady got ill and couldn’t be cared for at home any more. A neighbour met her husband Pad on the road one day and enquired about his wife. “She’s gone, she’s gone with a week, gone for good”.

The neighbour enquired as to where she was gone “Oh gone to God’s home you know”, thinking the woman was dead the question came “Oh Pad what happened her at all, at all?”

“Yerra” answered Pad “she’s gone with a month to where Our Lord came from - you know the place, Nazareth”.

The lady in question had gone to the Nazareth Nursing Home in Mallow but Pad only thought of it in terms of ‘where God was from’!

There was a man in Rathcormac one time called Mick McCarthy. In his younger days he worked as a farm labourer doing small jobs around the farmyards for locals. Anywhere there was grub Mick would be there - thrashings, wakes, house weddings and ‘hauling homes’. One time he was told of the death of a certain lady living just outside the village. The Funeral Home concept was still half a century away so a death at home meant a wake at home. A wake usually meant lashings of food and drink.

Mick set off on foot to the wake-house but was more than surprised to meet the ‘corpse’ sweeping the kitchen floor! She still gave him the tay, though ‘twasn’t what he had been expecting.

Mick had a loud laugh and a descriptive manner of speech. On one occasion one of the ‘Nal’ O Briens, well known local butchers was killing a pig at Curtins in Greenhall. The practise back then was to stun the animal with a blow of a hammer on the head and then when the pig was unconscious they would be dispatched. Mick was watching the operation in the haggard. The butcher was killing the pig of a Saturday evening and had spent much of the day imbibing liquor which left him in a fairly unsteady state. Mick McCarthy later described in detail exactly what he saw.

“The first time he hit him on the head he hit him in the eye and the second time he hit him he didn’t hit him at all.”

Back in the 1920’s the September Horse Fairs in Bartlemy were going strong. The local National School closed on the Fair Days on September 4 and 19. The local Fair Days were a bit like Bank Holidays today especially for the rural communities in East and North Cork and West Waterford. Because our house and yard was only down the road from the village and the Fair Field a lot of relations would arrive at home in their horse and trap and walk up to the Fair. The horse were tied up in the haggard for the day munching away at the fine bench of well-saved hay in the shed. I’m told there could often be a dozen relations from Lisgoold, Castlelyons, Carrigtwohill Clonmult and Midleton - maybe seven or eight horses ‘parked’ in our yard for the duration of the Fair.

A story I heard was that one Fair day evening my grandfather came home from the equine transactions and heard all the cip of the reel coming from the house. In he went and there was an open house with a fine crowd enjoying lavish hospitality from my great grandmother, a fine grámhar woman. Says he: “Isn’t it bad enough having to give hay to yere horses without having to give civility to yere women as well?”

I suppose the poor man thought they’d be ate out of house and home - and another Fair Day in a fortnight!

I heard a story one time of a man who had worked for a farmer and was leaving to work in some other parish. Where he had been working he was always allowed grow a drills of potatoes and also he could have grazing far the few sheep he owned. On taking up new employment the farmer asked for ‘references’ which he got. His former employer wrote; “He’s a small man with an eye like a pig, he brings sheep and takes sheep and he takes more sheep than he brings, he comes when he wants and goes when he wants and is normally wanting when he’s going”!

In many country areas in the past farmers had no ‘meas’ on a pure white calf. Maybe ‘twas superstition or something like that or just a belief that white cattle would never thrive and get really fat.

Well often if a white calf was born on a farm what they’d do was feed the animal for maybe three or four months and then kill it for veal. On a particular farm I heard of they weren’t the best at breeding, feeding or fattening. The white animal was slaughtered and with no way to preserve the meat it was given to all the neighbours round and about. Well one man ate a feed of it for his supper. Later that night he didn’t feel great. He literally exploded internally and got three different kinds of diarrhoea! The second next day when he had got over it he made his way up to the farmhouse of the man who gave him the meat. “Tell me” says he “how long was the calf dead before ye killed him?”

I mentioned before the true story of a man in my parish who married four times and was widowed on each occasion. He remarked after the fourth funeral; “Between marrying ‘em and burying ‘em I hadn’t much out of ‘em”.

I recall a story of another man who was moving for work to a farm in North Cork from this area. Well the man taking him on again wanted references from the last farmer. I don’t want to give any names so we’ll call the workman William O Grady. The letter was opened: ‘To whom it concerns this is to confirm that for the last 12 William O Grady stayed here’! What’s that they say ?’ Whatever you say, say nothing at all.

When Irish eyes are smiling

Sure, ‘tis like the morn in Spring

In the lilt of Irish laughter

You can hear the angels sing

When Irish hearts are happy

All the world seems bright and gay And when Irish eyes are smiling

Sure, they steal your heart away

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