I’ve never been much of a traveller and in recent years I’ve been doing even less. Covid in one way has been a blessing – an excuse for me to go nowhere at all. So whatever came over me last weekend I decided to go (where in my terms is the far ends of the earth) to Ballinasloe.
I reached away back into the back of the scullery cupboard and ‘hand fishing’ I pulled out a bottle. A small bottle with my name on it – in my Uncle Stephen’s hand. A bottle of poitin he’d given me; it must have been there for forty years. I’ve never been a big poitin drinker preferring a pint of porter myself but Stephen managed poitin very well. He’d put a splash of it into his tea in the morning and rub it on his joints at night.
I’ve always had sheep on Loughin More. And in summer a pony. Always been on the mountain and never ever passed any remarks on ‘The Bauch.’ It’s a word I’ve said all my life; a word from the north of Scotland (I’m told) to describe a circular wall of stones. I don’t know what The Bauch is but I think I know what it’s not.
And then it dawned on me – this ewe for all her mothering instincts and supply of milk couldn’t cope. She simply couldn’t contend with two lambs. Well not at first! Because in a very short space of time, three or four in-and-out sessions and one overnight restraint, she was delighted with both lambs and went from the wee garden at the house to further pasture with the rest of the flock. Yes, I know! In a life time of working with sheep, of holding and wrestling and doing ‘the Divil and all’ when I couldn’t, in the end, get the ewe to take up with the lamb – but this time it worked; so Harrah!
We bought *six quarters, one each year, *clibs we broke-in and sold on. We often bought from Travellers. That was when Travellers travelled round the country in barrel caravans pulled by horses. Solid cobs they had often crossed with the best blood stock in Ireland. Who knew their ‘secret wiles,’ as they passed the stud farms on The Curragh of Kildare? We broke our horses (if broke is the word) very quietly and over time. The magic of the televisions ‘horse whisperers’ instant results is lost to me. ‘Do nothing sudden and do nothing rash.’ That was our mantra.
When I was ‘the young fella’ who took horses to the forge Issac Stoops asked me to get a set of shoes on ‘the foal.’ ‘The foal’ was twelve years old; a lovely black mare of 15 hands he had bred himself. Issac never took the mare out on the road so I gather it was to give her a bit of traction ploughing a very steep brae behind his house. It was at a time in our country when ploughmen took great pride in the uniformity of their potato drills. ‘Straight as a gun shot’ being a term. Issac however was not so disciplined. ‘Your drills are a bit crooked’ a neighbour commented. ‘Aw what odds; sure they’re only for the pigs’ Issac would reply.
The forge in Rostrevor was in a very old street known as “The Back Lane.” There to the side of its entrance was a circular flat granite stone with a hole in its centre for shoeing cart wheels. And to the side of that a mountain of broken ploughs and other horse implements infringing on the road. As a child I was told very solemnly that somewhere in the heart of it was a broken chariot belonging to Brian Boru. An archway between houses led to a small yard and then the forge itself – a truly medieval barn. A high space with slates that could do with being pointed and a floor paved with thick wooden sleepers and flagged stone.
Rostrevor is where ‘The Mountains of Mourne Sweep Down to the Sea’ and we here on the shores of Carlingford Lough had an abundance of wrack. Storms wash huge banks of seaweed up on the shore. In the past this was a valuable source of fertilizer for the land and when the wrack ‘was in’ entire townlands transported it up the valley with horses and carts. We used wrack in the alleys of drills when planting potatoes and we spread it on lea fields to give a flush of spring grass. It was noted that grazing cattle preferred the seaweed–treated sections to those heartened with farmyard manure. Perhaps it was the trace of salt that attracted the stock.