John Arnold: Just 726 days to my pension... but I’m feeling young at heart

In his weekly column John Arnold reflects on this time of year, traditions missed due to Covid, but brighter times ahead
John Arnold: Just 726 days to my pension... but I’m feeling young at heart

Flower grower Brian Perrot and his niece Charlotte Keppel welcome their first daffodil crop of the year on their farm in Bandon.

Anois teacht an Earraigh, beidh an lá ag dul chun síneadh

Is tar éis na Féil Brighde, ardóigh mé mo sheol

Now with the coming of Spring, the day is beginning to stretch

And after the feast of St Brigid, I’ll rise up and go.

MAYBE ’tis because I was born just a week after St Bridgid’s Day, February 1, that I have a special grá for this time of year.

It was Raftery, the blind, travelling poet who wrote the immortal lines about the changing of the seasons.

In the countryside, we’re close to nature and the way it changes. This past week has been a bitterly cold few days with that bad-spirited east wind that’s good for ‘neither man or beast’.

Raftery’s words are the truth in so far as that undoubtedly there’s a good stretch in the evening. All along with the grey sky down on top of us, ’twas hardly noticeable, but for a few days this week, despite the Baltic conditions, daylight edged ever closer to the ringing of the evening Angelus bells in the Church built in the corner of our Chapel Field.

Ah, these are truly strange times. Whilst I did pick rushes to make the Bridgid’s crosses last week, I missed my annual visit to the Holy Well in Britway, dedicated to the saint called ‘Mary of the Gael’.

In observing the 5km travel limit, we are all doing our best to curb the spread of this cursed Covid virus and now at last there seems to be some light at the end of the vaccine tunnel.

I did miss my visit to the well in Britway though on the first day of the month. Britway is a small hamlet in the parish of Castlelyons. It’s a quiet place nowadays but once was a hive of activity. It had a busy forge, a national school, cemetery and once upon a time a Dramatic Society.

From the nearby townland of Kilcor, my mother, her two sisters and three brothers all attended the school here. I always think there’s something special and unique and even ‘mystical’ about the place of learning that one’s parents attended.

My father went to Bartlemy School, my mother to Britway. Myself, well I followed my father’s footsteps, and my own wife, like Mam, also got her schooling in Britway.

Mam was christened Mary and given Bridget as her second name — probably because of the ‘local’ saint.

The Britway Holy Well dedicated to St Bridgid and St Bartholomew’s Well on our farm have another interesting connection. The stonework around both was erected by the same mam — a stonemason named Garrett Heaphy.

He was born in the 1820s, before the Famine, and lived until 1896. Heaphy’s stonework has stood the test of time in both Britway and Bartlemy. Keeping livestock from fouling the water and providing a kind of circular enclosure was what was needed in both places.

Walking in procession then, the pilgrims to the Holy Wells did ‘the Rounds’. 

I also missed going to an ‘actual’ Mass on the Feast of St Blaise last week with the Blessing of Throats.

Hopefully, this time next year Covid will be just a fading bad memory and once more no restrictions will be in place to lessen our observance of time-honoured tradition. 

Still, Spring has officially arrived and once the snow passes we’ll have new growth. I always ponder on the opening lines of Anne Murray’s Snowbird at this time of seasonal change:

‘Beneath this snowy mantle cold and clean

The unborn grass lies waiting

For its coat to turn to green’.

And, of course, when I’m in such a lyrical mood the phrase ‘snowdrops and daffodils’ as sung by our own Dana is never far from my lips.

Well, do you know, last Monday morning, as I made a 4am journey from blanket street to the calving shed to check for an expected arrival, ‘twas fairly frosty and nippy.

Having clocked up another candle on the birthday cake, I am now only 726 days away from the pension.

They call it the Old Age Pension but in reality it’s the Age Old Pension for it begs the question — what is age? You’re as young as you feel and right now, to tell the truth, I’m feeling fairly adolescent but in a nice kind of a way!

The first calf of the year arrived on the scene this week and, just like the impending grass growth, such new beginnings always excite me. Maybe it’s the promise of lush grass or warm evenings or trees budding or flower blooming. All these things have come and gone since St Bridget was a girl on the Plains of Kildare and Bartholomew, a garsún traipsing around Galilee. What do they call ’em, the oldest yet newest things, ah yes:

And the seasons, they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return, we can only look

Behind, from where we came

And go round and round and round, in the circle game.

The great English writer, GK Chesterton, was a great man for the profound quotation. The one I like best is ‘Don’t ever take down a fence until you know why it was put up’ — what a nugget of genius is in that sentence.

Every action has a consequence and every thought a result.

I never knew a man called Tom Coleman, yet all around me every day I see his handiwork. Back when Garrett Heaphy was building walls around Holy Wells, Tom Coleman could have been building stone ditches on our farm.

Why are some stone-faced ditches straight as a dye and others curve and bend? I know not the answer to that conundrum. Did the generations before us know all about prevailing winds, shelter and shade? Did this knowledge come down the generations, handed down by fireside education?

Then again, sure, I don’t know how acorns fall from oak trees, seemingly dead and lifeless and then when spring comes they live again.

Maybe I shouldn’t be wondering so much about the why and the wherefore of things, but then I’ve a curious nature and the longer we live, the more we learn.

Just last week, I went over the Glen to look at the oak and ash trees we planted back in 1990. Some of the ash are fine specimens — we’ve got hurleys from some over the last five years. The oaks are ‘in their infancy’ but then they can grow for 300 years.

We planted 60 more oak saplings last year and hope to do the same this year. It’s said that a society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.

It’s not that it makes me feel great to be planting, but just as wells were tended to, ditches built and stories told, we must always be adding to our store.

We help nature and it repays us in full measure. Ah yes, it’s a wonderful world.

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