The author’s mother posing on a mower in the late 1930s.
Tom Phelan’s latest book “We Were Rich and We Didn’t Know It: A Memoir of My Irish Boyhood,”— sections of which appeared originally in the Irish Echo – was published in March by Gallery Press. Newsday’s reviewer said: “Plain, honest, funny, occasionally sad and rich in material detail, this [is a] wonderful memoir,” while the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s called it “exceptional,” adding that “Phelan’s prose has an unpretentious beauty…With rich detail and sensitivity, ‘We Were Rich’ translates for us a rural world that has disappeared.” In this new piece, he recalls the important role the weather played in the life of a farming family in the Bog of Allen in the Irish Midlands.
By Tom Phelan
My father’s fifty-two acre farm in Mountmellick, County Laois, was divided into eighteen fields, each with its own name. Four of them were called after their former owners – Jer Dunne’s, Pillsworth’s, Neal’s, and Conroy’s. If I hadn’t seen the official records of their purchase, I might have speculated about how Dad’s grandfather John Phelan came to own them in the early 1850s. I have often suspected there were sly amalgamations of fields all over the Irish countryside when entire families were wiped out, or emigrated, during the Famine.
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As a boy working in Dad’s often wet and boggy fields, I often wished that my ancestors had traveled further before pitching their tents. If only they had struggled on for six more miles and passed the area known as Emo! The Gaelic name for Emo, “Ioma,” means “the edge of the plain.” Perhaps because of a sore foot or the want of a nail, my forebears had failed to reach Ireland’s fecund central area. And so was I born in the Bog of Allen and not on a southern sweep of Leinster’s loamy soil.
The Slieve Bloom Mountains to our west were the first obstacle encountered by the laden Atlantic clouds after their initial onslaught against Ireland’s west coast. As the clouds were pushed up by the mountains their contents cooled, condensed and fell. The land immediately east of the mountain, including our farm, was often soaked.
Dad’s fields were soft and spongy enough to hold rainwater and prevent it from flowing away into the surrounding drains. After prolonged downpours, several fine days were needed before horses and men and machinery could continue their plowing, sowing, or harvesting. Farming in our area was a constant opportunistic enterprise in which the farmers sallied forth between rainy days and worked furiously from early morning until dark.
The author’s father pictured in his farmyard c. 1970 with a pony and foal.
Since the dawning of the day I was deemed hardy enough to help in the desperate effort to take advantage of fine weather, I often returned from the fields coated in muck from my cap to the soles of my wellingtons. At the age of ten I was part of a group carrying scythed bundles of wheat out of ankle-deep water to tie them into sheaves on a small rise in the Horses’ Field. And I was on the team that planted sugar-beet seedlings in the holes Dad poked into the clay because the original seeds had rotted in their soggy drills. The relocated plants did not survive their uprooting.
When spring showers slapped against the slates of the house and flooded the half-tilled fields, I knew Dad would be wrapped in wrathful silence until the soil was dry enough to bear up the horses and farm implements. Even when the sun had been splitting the trees for a week, the knowledge that the weather would inevitably turn bad again attached a heavy anchor to my spirits.
What the saber-toothed tiger was to the caveman the weather was to us. The lurking threats on the far side of Slieve Bloom ruled our lives, not only because of the meteorological conditions but also because of the tense atmosphere they created in our house.
As Juno commanded Aeolus to loose the winds on Aeneas, I imagined God sending his roaring winds to test the faith of his subjects. I lay awake and prayed that the winter gales would not overturn the ricks of hay and straw in the haggard, or whip the slates off the cattle sheds. Dad often told us how Big Frank Dunne’s galvanized roof was lifted off his house and carried across three fields. Although that had happened twenty years before I was born, the story primed us to fear a similar fate whenever God released his baying winds down the slopes of Slieve Bloom like a pack of hounds on the trail of a stag. While listening to the wind-lashed autumn rain, I lay sleepless and afraid, begging God not to let it lodge the ripening wheat and barley and oats in the fields, nor allow the dry turf on the bog to be turned back into muck.
But God had other plans. The corn stalks were flattened to the ground and the sods of turf fell apart. I prayed for the strength to accept God’s will. I knew He always had a reason for doing what he did, but I sometimes wondered what the feck it was.
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