John Arnold: I ploughed a lonely furrow in circle of life, at one with nature

Good ploughing is an art, so says John Arnold in his weekly column
John Arnold: I ploughed a lonely furrow in circle of life, at one with nature

WHEN THE HORSE WAS KING: Competitors in the Cork County Ploughing Championships at Bandon, Co. Cork, in 1947

YOU know there is something very special in seeing a field being ploughed, harrowed and a crop set in the soil.

To be honest, I was never any good at ploughing, even when I was young. I cannot remember a time when we hadn’t a tractor here on our farm, though I also remember our very last working horse. I must have been seven or eight when Dolly left.

One morning, and we going up the boreen on our way to school, I got a last glance of Dolly. She was tied to one of the pillars in the empty hay-shed — must have around this time of year. When we came home that evening she was gone.

I think we were told that she was gone to another farm somewhere, but I heard whispers about the ‘horse factory’ and it didn’t sound like a retirement home for old equines!

Paddy Geary that worked for us since the 1940’ was one of the generation of farm labourers who grew up following the horse, yet he managed to learn how to work the tractor. The Monaghan farmer and poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote;

I turn the lea-green down

Gaily now,

And paint the meadow brown

With my plough

God knows, ‘twasn’t for the want of trying that I failed to become a ploughman. When I started farming we had a blue Fordson Major tractor and Paddy was great with it. Changing from the horse to the tractor in the late 1950s didn’t bother him, and in fairness he tried his best to pass on knowledge of agricultural practises like ploughing to me.

“You’d break iron,” he said to me over in the Well Field one autumn day after I had strained the plough by leaving it go too deep into the ground! I was worse than useless at jobs like ploughing — what I’d call ploughing was like a sow rooting and tearing and I could never get the knack of it at all.

In the 1970s, we still grew barley, oats and potatoes as well as beet so ploughing was a vital and needed skill, but unfortunately I’d break the melt of anyone trying to teach me. Gradually, we gave up the spuds and tillage and I parked the plough in the haggard in the mid-1980s, and there it still remains, an antique now.

Good ploughing is an art and any time I attend the Ploughing All Ireland I marvel at the competitors and the way they turn the sods so evenly and leave their plots of morning green brown by afternoon.

Nowadays, when we need ploughing done, we get in contractors and Dermot and Martin are pure experts at the job. There is nothing nicer than watching skilled people doing a great job.

Well, I can remember the last time our Orchard field was ploughed and I’d say ‘twas around 1968. It’s a field of just less than four acres and that time we used grow about two acres of potatoes each year and we had them in half the field that year.

Way back in the 1800s, this field was an apple orchard, hence the name Orchard field. It’s the warmest and cosiest field on the farm. It’s not only that it’s south-facing, but it’s so sheltered. Rectangular in shape, the Orchard field has massive ash trees on each of its four boundary fences. I presume these were planted with a purpose around 150 years ago to give shelter and protection to the apple trees.

The Orchard field has the Boiler House field to the west, the Glen to the south, the Well field to the east, and the Little Iron gate field to the north. In frozen, snowy midwinter, you could be perished anywhere else on our farm, but over in the Orchard field ‘twould be like a different world, several degrees above any other spot. Of a warm, sunny day, sure it’s nearly tropical.

I dream with silvery gull

And brazen crow

A thing that is beautiful

I may know

So the time came to reseed the Orchard field. We had a few small cattle out there for the winter where they grew fine hairy coats and moved around the field on different nights, depending on the prevailing winds. The grass was poor and a lot of weeds and nettles were appearing, so a new crop of grass seeds needed to be planted in order to yield good feeding for the animals into the future.

So, last Saturday week it was ploughed — it rained heavy that night which helped break down and soften the soil. After a few days then, it was harrowed into a fine seed-bed.

Ordinarily, all these tasks are run of the mill for experienced contractors but the Orchard field wasn’t so simple! Anywhere you have old, tall ash trees you will have massive roots. The old people used say that whatever height the tree was, then the roots would be the same length underground! How right they were.

I found roots 40ft out from the different ditches in the field. The plough ripped most of them but I had to cut a share of them. Anyway, lime was then applied and we were ready to set the new seeds.

So-called ‘progressive, modern’ farming has seen a trend towards just one or two varieties of high-yielding grasses — great for production but a disaster for bees, birds and biodiversity in general. So, last Friday we planted a mixture of grass seeds including red and white clover and many ‘old’ types of grass. When the seeds were sat there was one more operation. I attached the century-old iron roller to my tractor and spent hours in the Orchard field. Over and back, up and down, criss cross and back again, until the surface was flat enough to play a hurling match.

This was once a horse-drawn roller purchased in conjunction with Paddy Barry of Ballyda over 100 years ago. It was ‘adapted’ to the tractor maybe 50 years ago. You know when one is completing an age-old, ageless task like reseeding old pasture, you’d be conscious of those who tilled this same soil before me. Just below is the Glen:

‘Thro’ Garryantaggart rugged glen one closing August day

A poor blind man with faltering step treads slowly on his way

That farmhouse yonder he must gain ere fades the evening light

For there he’ll find a welcome sure, and shelter for the night

Ah yes, just a field away from the ancient Holy Well which gives the name to the village and parish. Truly there’s history in these fields and valleys. So I finished the rolling and the sun shone down and turned the dark brown surface to a lighter shade of whitish-grey.

In the Boiler House field, I got off the tractor and went back to close the gate. Yes truly — and still I gazed and still the wonder grew — the miracle of nature.

I can do no more now save leave it to God and nature and, please them both, the brown will turn green as the new grass comes to the fore once more. As I turned to walk away, Kavanagh came to my mind once more; Tranquillity walks with me

And no care,

O, the quiet ecstasy

Like a prayer.

The rain has come, the sun too ‘A wet and windy May fills the barns with grain and hay’and so the Orchard field starts a new cycle in its life, in the life and times of our farm.

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