When I was a lad

An early black’n’white photo – Gawd, but I was a handsome brute, even then!

I was born at a very early age, and began to grow up very shortly afterwards. I cannot comment with any certainty on this, as my memory of the event is sketchy, to say the least, so I only have my Mother’s word for it. Some of my less considerate associates, noting my present height of slightly less than five foot one, have suggested that I stopped growing up very shortly after that. This I can definitely say is a slanderous untruth, as it took me the best part of 20 years of copious spud consumption to even reach that altitude, although the same spuds have helped to render me almost as wide as I am long.

The Mammy in question was Annie Rooney, from Keady, and she was only about four foot ten herself.  My Da was ‘Red Jack’ Rafferty, from near Loughgall, who was no giant either, so this may explain why I never made the grade as a professional Basketball player. They met and married late in life, and she was thirty eight when I was born, in Tower Hill Hospital, Armagh, in nineteen forty seven.  I had one sister a year younger than me, who died at the age of 4, and another who is eight years younger. We lived in an old, very traditional ‘Irish Farmhouse’, at Drummondmore, a mile from Armagh, just off the Portadown Road.The dwelling house had a thatched roof, which leaked copiously in the rain, and a barn, stable, and byre, with tin roofs, which did not. Was this a hint of our relative importance in the great cosmic plan? There was a huge ‘Dutch Barn’ type hayshed in the ‘Haggard’, and a tiny corrugated tin ‘outside bog’ in the back yard. The walls of this were full of holes, and on a windy night it would ‘freeze your assets’ quicker than the PSNI Fraud Squad.

There was no electricity, and the water supply was from a clear spring well, at the ‘foot of the hill’ about three hundred yards from the house. The place was very isolated, behind the old railway line, and between two hills. The nearest house was about a quarter of a mile away, and there were no kids within half a mile. The only building you could actually see from our yard was the spire of the Grange Church, 3 miles away.

My Da worked in a plant nursery nearby, and used to milk the cow before going to work, and after he came home.  I was eager to help, of course, almost as soon as I could walk, and soon got job of holding the business end of the cow’s tail, to prevent Da getting a ‘green ear’ as she flicked it about. My getting a ‘green hand’ in the process was not seen to be important in the overall scheme of things. We later acquired a big roan Ayrshire heifer, which was soon named Rosie, after my baby sister. She would ‘kick the stars out of the sky’ when first approached with milking apparatus, but within a year, Da could whistle, and she would stand in the field until the job was done, without even having to bring her into the byre.

We used to plant a couple of acres of spuds, and one of my earliest memories is ‘dropping spuds’ from a bag-apron, aged about 4 or 5. Da ‘covered’ them using the horse and plough, and later ‘grubbed’ and ‘run them up’ the same way. The last couple of years spuds were planted we got a man in, with a ‘wee grey Fergie’ tractor, and a spud dropper, and I got my first ‘sitting down’ job, on the back of the machine, bunging one down the chute every time the bell went ‘ding’.  Digging them was equally laborious, using the same ‘Fergie’ tractor, and a ‘spinner’ on the back. A long line of ‘pirta baskets’, were distributed up the drill, with two workers to each. They all got stuck in, ‘scrabbin’ them out of the ground, as soon as the tractor passed their bit, going like blazes to finish their section before the tractor came round again, to get their back straightened for a few glorious seconds before starting again. A whack up the arse with the odd rotten spud could not be ruled out, as surreptitious ‘cloddin’ was the only amusement available, but earned a ‘gulder’, and maybe a thick ear, from Da, if caught in the act.

Myself and a school mate, Ollie Toal, who used to stay with us in the summer holidays, became the Gil Favour and Rowdy Yates of the Drummondmore area, being called upon when anyone wanted cattle moved from one place to another. Nobody would have considered hiring a cattle lorry to shift a few ‘bastes’ when there was a constantly recycled labour pool of 10-year old lads available, all for the price of a fish supper, or even less. The cattle were driven along the road, and a boy, armed with the traditional ‘ash-plant’, was detached to stand in every open gate or dodgy-looking gap until the ‘trail-herd’ passed, and then run past them to get ahead again for the next gap. The trick was to keep them ‘Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’, at a speed where they had time to see the obvious route – ie, where we directed them – but did not have time to examine the hedges too closely for weak points. If they got too excited, they might ‘stampede’, and break through anything, trampling hedges, gates, or even cowboys, underfoot, so a delicate balance had to be maintained, and well-trained ‘cow boys’ were very much in demand.

When I was 13 or so, we moved to Annacramp, on the Armagh-Loughgall Road, where we had such untold joys as electricity, and a sink with a water tap, and neighbours. Ma learned to roar insults at Mick McManus on the TV wrestling, instead of shouting at the hens or the goat for invading the hallway. We all worked at the apple peeling in the evenings, at Gordon Scott’s, next door – an educational experience equivalent to a biology A-level at the very least. When those women got talking, they seemed to forget that I existed. I worked in Scotts, and most of the other farms nearby, all through the summer holidays, making hay, building bales, digging spuds, picking apples, working at the threshing, etc Even though I have spent the last few years working with computers, I still remain very much a COUNTRY GLIPE at heart.

PS: for more of this rubbish, see the book – A Country Glipe!