‘Choosing’ potatoes and spats over hens: a peek into our past

As he dips into his personal archive, JOHN ARNOLD reflects on the changes in our society
‘Choosing’ potatoes and spats over hens: a peek into our past

Tommy Walsh working at his forge at Bluebell, Bartlemy with his mother lending a hand.

BACK in the 1970s, Dublin-born singer Peggy Dell launched an album called Among My Souvenirs — the title being taken from a song of the same name that was a hit for Connie Francis in 1959.

Over the last nine months, I’ve spent an awful lot of time among my own souvenirs. The opening lines of the melancholy song are;

There’s nothing left for me

of days that used to be

Well, maybe that’s the way Connie and Peggy felt, but certainly not in my case! Since the first covid lockdown last March, I’ve spent hundreds of hours outside in the ‘Poultry House’ built back in 1933 by my father and a cousin of his from Castletownroche, Gus Batterberry.

Used for decades for rearing chickens, turkeys and broilers, it underwent substantial transformation in the 1960s when Mam started growing potatoes in a big way. The Poultry house became the ‘choosing’ house.

When the Kerr’s Pinks, Golden Wonders and British Queens were harvested each autumn, they were stored out in the fields in pits. A narrow trench maybe 2ft wide and up to 20ft long was dug in the field where the potatoes had been picked. It was lined with copious amounts of straw.

Then the spuds were piled high into this pit — built up in a shape like a battenberg cake. They were covered with more straw and then the whole pit was covered with clay patted down the sides so the rainwater ran off. The ‘crust’ of straw and earth kept them safe from frost.

Mam used to supply potatoes to shops in Fermoy and Cork as well as local sales. All during the winter, as required, they were bagged from thee pits and brought into the haggard and down to the choosing house.

Many’s the day, and often well into the night, Mam spent here choosing the spuds. ‘Choosing’ was an art in itself, damaged or decaying potatoes were put to one side to feed pigs. Then she had to choose the potatoes by size — extra large ones went for chips, average to middling size were for sale, ‘table potatoes’, and the smallish ones were kept for use as seed for the next years’ crop. There was lot of work in potatoes but they educated the five of us.

Times moved on and we no longer grew potatoes in a commercial way. The galvanised roof put up in the 1930s lasted over 70 years but then, rusty and leaking, the Poultry House became kinda redundant, used only to store plastic bags and old buckets.

About ten years ago, its renaissance came about when I needed extra space to store all the ‘stuff’ I had been accumulating for over 40 years. The roof was replaced, the walls dry-lined, rewired and new roof lights fitted. The walls were shelved and I moved out much of my GAA programme collection, books, letters and various other boxes.

My intention then was just to use it as a kind of study or retreat for reading and research. The problem, of course, was that I kept bringing more and more boxes and bags out there. So much so that by Christmas, 2019, one could barely get inside the door.

So when the cursed Covid came, I took on a project for myself to try and bring some order to what I had gathered, got, kept and bought over half a century.

The Poultry house was just one of three locations — a huge mount of material still remains under the stairs while I have most of what was upstairs in the attic brought down the ancient wooden stairs and sorted.

As I’m boxing, filing and putting materials into folders, I am entering every item on the computer, thus compiling a Master Index — so far this Index is totalling 41 pages!

Among my souvenirs, I’ve found my stamp and coin collections — I think I gave up both hobbies in 1969! I suppose newspaper cuttings can be nowadays checked on various archives but looking at the pages dealing with the deaths of JFK and Robert Kennedy are very special. Luckily enough, over the years I got many other newspapers from the late Billy Barry and Ned Daly going back to the 1920s.

I have found things I never knew I had and discovered so much material gathered 40 years ago — much of it I presumed I’d lost or discarded!

People often say to me, ‘God, John. you’ve a great memory’ — nothing could be further from the truth but over the years I developed a habit of writing down whatever I heard from older people. I came across a few pages dated December 21, 1982, nearly four decades ago. On that evening I visited Mrs Kate Barry of Kill St Anne, Castlelyons. Her parents, James Barry and Hannah Dilworth, had married in Glanworth in 1884, her father was born during the Famine Year of 1843. Kate was a Barry herself, from Hightown, Bartlemy, and married Tom Barry in Castlelyons.

She recalled in the years of her youth going across the fields to Monanig National School where her teacher was Larry Flynn. That school was built in the 1830s. She said one time the Bishop came to visit the school and asked Master Flynn, ‘Where are the facilities?’, and the reply came quickly, ‘My Lord, anywhere at all’.

Flynn left for America in a hurry and taught in the USA for many years — he left his wife, a native of Glenville, behind. Years later he sent a gold watch back to a family in Bartlemy.

When she was in National School, not a word of Irish was taught — we were still in ‘the Empire’ back then. As a child she remembered Spillane’s had a small sweet shop in Bartlemy village. “Woods’ shop was very small at that time — you could reach everything from one spot.” She recalled the hey-day of Bartlemy Fairs with huge crowds on both days, the 4th and 19th of September, with the School closed on both days.

“We always got plums at the fair,” she told me, and she said people were always tying rags on the trees near the Holy Well.

She said her father (he died in 1914) spoke of hearing about men working on the Famine relief Road in Bartlemy during the famine, the New Line- hungry men breaking stones for a few pence a day — some died by the roadside.

Also in the 1980s, Mary Browne nee Desmond, spoke to me of her youth. She was born in 1896, eldest of the seven children of Michael Desmond, a shoemaker, and his wife Ellen Donoghue. “My father had a big lamp in the corner so could work away at night.”

They lived next door to Cahill’s and she recalled her mother and Mrs Cahill had an argument over hens! “Mrs Cahill said that when my mother was ‘calling in’ the hens one night, she called in some of Cahill’s hens also.”

She had an uncle, Con Desmond, who went to America. “We never wore shoes going to school.”

In the 1970s, I got my hands on a copy of an old National School Roll Book dating back to the 1880s. Several of the names in it were ‘strange’ to me so I asked Paddy Barry, son of Tailor Barry, about these ‘strangers’.

“Thomas Parker, the Parkers, lived where Roches Forge was afterwards; David Gleeson lived in Hightown; the Currans, well, one was a blacksmith who served his time with Tom Walsh; Mike O’Connell, Rathaneague, well, he lived at the turn of the road before Sullivans, a very smart man — he was a son of Foxy Johnny Connell.”

Ah yes, surely the light of other days, small snippets of lore and information preserved for future generations.

All these bits and pieces are not hugely important or valuable but help to paint a picture of what life was like long, long ago.

Things’ll be getting busy on the farm from now on so archiving wont get as much time. Nevertheless, I’d say ‘twill be a while before we get going to football or hurling games so I’ll have some spare time — yes, every cloud has a silver lining.

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more