By Walter Lawler
I think when you have a background in History you tend to live in the past quite a bit. There are pros and cons to this. If the memories are generally good, shur what harm, it can be pleasant escapism, especially when the present has been like groundhog day since March 2020.. It beats worrying about the future too. I think people with an interest in history are ‘wired’ a little differently, linking together events of the past to form a type of synergy. Memory tends to be a strong attribute, though sometimes to the detriment of other more practical skills! I hope to outline events in my childhood growing up on a farm, in Laois, directly on the Carlow/Kilkenny border, in the 1980s. I know I’m biased but it’s a beautiful, scenic, hilly area. The last place in Leinster Gaelic was spoken as the vernacular, up to the early 1900s, by elderly people. Rath Cairn Gaeltacht in Meath was founded in 1935 when 41 families from Connemara were settled there.
Silage arrived with my early childhood and changed the way winter fodder was saved for cattle forever. In 1980 we made our first pit of silage. Still throughout the 1980s hay was a main part of winter feeding too. During the decade major changes took place in how it was made. In the early days the very old method of tramming or making cocks of hay was still prominent. To the uninitiated a tram or cock of hay is a mound of hay, about 7-8 feet tall, narrowing from base to top. (See pic below). Pitchforks were used to make it and it was physical work, particularly in warm weather. An implement behind a tractor called a ‘buck rake’ would gather heaps of hay together to make the task easier. That same implement would bring the trams from the field to sheds at home, or outdoor ricks of hay. The hay had to be pitched again into the sheds or ricks. A lot of manual labour with this method pre other forms of hay making and silage. When this was the sole form of haymaking the hay season could last from June to the beginning of October! I’ve great memories of foostering around with a small pitchfork trying to help tramming when I was 6 and 7. In 1985/1986 I was 9/10 and able to help a bit more. They were particularly poor summers. In 1985 I remember working in the fields in wet weather in late July and August and finally getting the hay made in September, which was a beautiful month. There was a great meitheal around hay making right up to the mid-1980s at home. I remember you’d have 5 or 6 neighbours, usually teenagers, working in the fields with you and it was great craic and the day passed quickly. It was common for a neighbour who had finished his work to give you a dig out for a few hours, both men and women.
In the early 1980s the square baler started to appear; this was revolutionary! 5 or 6 men, within a 6- or 7-mile radius, had one and they were in demand during fine summer days. If the weather was about to break it was often potluck whether you’d get your crop baled in time. The square bales were loaded onto a trailer with the ubiquitous pitchfork. The job of the 9 or 10-year-old was to place all the bales neatly in rows, in such a way that the load wouldn’t fall. Then the arguments started over who got up on top of the trailer, bringing the bales home, between myself, my brother and younger neighbours! Health and Safety was off the radar completely in those days! In the late 80s the round baler arrived around home. This really took the manual work out of hay making. The bales were 5×4, or 4×4 (feet) and could be brought in with a tractor and loader on the front, or also at the back of the tractor with a lift. More and more fodder was being made into silage now too, and wrapped silage (those black and pink coloured bales you’ll see dotted all over the countryside in summer today).
Tiny the Hare
In August 1984 dad came home from herding one Sunday with something wrapped in his jumper. He told us he found a little baby hare, a leveret, in the fields and it appeared his back leg was broken. He put a splint on the leg. We had a blue plastic half barrel and I put down a straw bed, a little food dish with lettuce and a saucer of milk in the barrel. We popped the little fella into it, he was trembling, I still remember the unique smell off him, it was unusual, but pleasant. His little coat was wiry, coarser than fur. Myself and my equally imaginative brother decided to call him Tiny. For two weeks Tiny thrived, he drank his milk and ate his lettuce, cabbage and anything that was put in front of him. It was the day John Treacy won silver in the marathon in LA, and between myself, 8, and older brother, 9, we decided Tiny wasn’t drinking his milk quickly enough. We had these old used mastitis cattle tubes around the farm. We decided we’d suck milk into them and inject them into the little hare’s tummy. It’s not hard to guess what happened next, between the two of us we smothered the little mite. It was the most I was ever upset by an animal dying. I ran in to mam and bawling told her Tiny was dead and that I loved Tiny! I often think what would have happened to him if he healed, would he stay around the farm, where we had a nice snoozy sheep dog who wouldn’t bother him. Or would he have gone back to the wild. My uncle domesticated a fox cub who stayed with him. Unfortunately, someone shot his pet fox when he was few years old. Who knows regarding ‘Tiny the Hare’.
During the 1980s myself and my brother were allowed stay up to watch Dallas, under the proviso that we closed our eyes at certain times, they usually involved JR! In one episode there was a rodeo and I was very impressed with Dusty Farlow and Ray Krebbs. We had 3-month calves in a shed and Joe (my brother) and I decided we’d give this rodeo a go. It was serious craic. We started timing ourselves, to try and beat one another’s records and we were getting braver about testing our prowess with the wilder calves. The parents had no knowledge of the shenanigans. At this stage we had ropes too and were practicing our lassoing technique! Again, I must stress PETA was in its infancy at the time. We thought the calves were enjoying themselves as much as we were. To cut a long story short a very hardy calf bucked me off at force and I hit the cement wall of the shed. My head got a good wallop and my left arm. Joe did what any good big brother would do under the circumstances.. he ran off at full speed, and not for help. Mam heard my groans and was wondering what we had been up to. I was slightly concussed and we went to A&E in Kilkenny. The medics didn’t seem to mind the bruising on my head, but an x ray showed a fairly typical child’s injury, a greenstick fracture of the left radius and ulna. Mam was concerned that I wouldn’t make the Abbeyleix June Bank Holiday Feis in 3 weeks’ time. Now that would have been tragic. We got a very stern talk from dad that evening. We never really left out cowboy days behind us. As teenagers into the 1990s, we would inject sick calves (scour, sore eyes, lame, high temperature etc) who were fairly strong, in the fields. We’d bring a rope, bottle of medicine and injector with us. One of us would lasso the animal, the other catch it and we’d inject there and then. In hindsight we were only making the calves wild and more difficult to handle as they grew. We eventually learnt this, as we became mature adults…in our 40s.
As alluded to earlier Irish Dancing was a prominent part of our lives in the 1980s, both figure and set dancing. Joe could dance and moved up the grades. I couldn’t. I gave it a lot of effort though, and judges, seeing this, tended to award me highly commended certificates. This was a status below the plaque and medal winners. Mam was so excited when I won my first highly commended cert that she framed it. I won so many of them that I could have wallpapered the sitting room at home with them. Now occasionally I won a few medals and one plaque, at a particularly quiet Feis, in Ballyragget. I had a nemesis in my age group, ‘The High Hopper’, as myself and Joe used call him. He was from Conahy, Kilkenny. He was big for his age and very athletic, when he did a reel or a jig he would nearly bounce out of orbit with each step. The chap defied the laws of gravity. When he came down from each bound, he was out of time as it took him so long to reach terra firma. But he looked so bloody impressive that he cleaned up on the dancing circuit. He also had a nicer costume than mine, a green velvet jacket and navy kilt. I had a navy velvet jacket but a hideous looking mustard colour kilt. It might have lost me a few marks too. In the half set I danced in Joe was very good and the two other girls, I benefitted from that, I could hide a little bit.
Home and its surroundings were between 300m and 336m above sea level. We were always prone to snowfall, even in mild winters, and particularly in the 1980s, when snowfall was far more frequent. We always were off school for a few weeks each year. I remember being off school as late as 2nd April 1987. I also remember snow on the ground on 14th May 1993. The most memorable events are January 1982 and January 1987. The night the January 1982 snow started I remember my dad coming in from the sheds saying, ‘it’s spitting snow outside’, a great phrase around home! In that fall the snow drifted up to the upstairs window of our old two storied house. I was 5 and not let out to play, I think mam and dad feared I’d get lost in a drift! We were home from school for 3 weeks that year. January 1987 was a serious one-week beast from the east. Monday January 12th is the coldest day I ever remember being out in, given I was 10, and not too much flesh on my bones, I’m sure I felt colder than the -7C max we recorded that day. My memories are of any liquid spilt from flasks and bottles freezing on the spot on the ground at lunchtime. During the day we spent a lot of time with my dad carrying kettles of boiling water around thawing water pipes to cattle sheds. Sometimes pipes were freezing almost as quickly as thawed. These snowy evenings were spent beside a roaring open fire, often playing cards, which seemed to have been a bit of a pastime back then. Games like 25 and whist were popular.
The Thunderstorms of 25/26 July 1985
On the night of 26/27 July 1985 most of Ireland witnessed exceptionally severe thunderstorm activity. The storms were a once in a century event. They caused a lot of destruction to crops as heavy hail fell in many places. There was also a lot of flooding and animals killed. Our part of Leinster was particularly severely hit. In Coan, 3 miles across the border in Kilkenny 29mm, of rain fell in one 30-minute period alone. The summer started off unsettled and after the thunderstorms the rest of July and August was a complete wash out. In later days most of the winter fodder would be saved by this stage, aided by more modern practices. However, in 1985 a lot of hay and silage had still to be saved at this late date. We had hay down at home from around 22nd July which was only saved by 10th September. The feed value in the small amount we brought home on that date was negligible. The thunderstorms that July night were Continental in intensity. I was 9 years old and never remember anything like them before or since. In the lead up to the event there were a couple of balmy days with no wind. We had visitors the afternoon of the 25th, some of my aunts and cousins. We went to see a mare and foal in one of the fields, Billy, the Irish Draught foal, was a cocky messer! He’d chase myself and my brother and try and bite us. He had a swagger about him. His mam, Kit, was a lovely placid animal. We had her on the farm for over 20 years. An aunt of mine, who shall remain nameless, was wearing a floral-patterned dress and she was a little like Hyacinth Bucket in her demeanour. She decided she’d go up to the foal and pet him. Billy grabbed her handbag from around her neck and ran off with it and threw it in a stream! All the younger cousins broke into laughter. Our visitors left for home and the thunderstorms kicked off around 9.30pm. Fork lightning, chain lightning, it was a spectacular show and went on all night and for some of the next day. Myself and my brother each had a calf born to our respective cow every year. You’d have your cow, calf, yearling animal and two-year-old. Joe had a particularly good yearling. We found him killed by the lightning on 26th. The poor animal wasn’t a pretty sight. Our electricity went early on the evening of the 25th and didn’t return for 3 days until Sunday evening 28th July. Laois were in both Leinster Senior finals that year, the hurlers lost to Offaly the Sunday before the thunder. The electricity came back just in time to watch the Sunday Game highlights of the football final the following Sunday, in which Laois lost to Dublin. Those few childhood days are very well etched in my memory. Here is the Met Eireann account of the exceptional event.
1980s TV Memories
Everyone has their own particular childhood tv memories, and I’m no different. We had RTE 1 and RTE 2 at home. If we hadn’t work to do outside on Saturdays, we might watch Anything Goes. A programme of mixed content for young people, it included an onscreen scrolling list of birthdays at the start. Mam would send in our names occasionally, and seeing your name, age, address in print on tv was seriously exciting for us back then. In the afternoon we had Sports Stadium, which showed a wide variety of sports. I particularly enjoyed the cycling, Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly were in their pomp and Kelly was featured winning the Spring Classics frequently. Sports like tennis, snooker, showjumping, handball and other minority sports were shown a lot more then than now on RTE. Most Saturdays a Division 1 English league football game was shown live. I watched the annual 5 Nations in Rugby since about 5. Mam was really into it, she had two first cousins who played rugby league professionally in the UK in the 1960s, I think it came from that. Dad wasn’t into sports except when a horse was involved, he was a huge fan of Eddie Macken. The Superstars, an all-round fitness show with stars from different disciplines, was huge in the late 1970s and early 1980, army gymnast and trampolinist, Gerry Loftus was my favourite competitor, he was amazing at chin ups and squats in particular. The winner went on to represent Ireland in the World Superstars.
Gerry Loftus in action from 1min 25sec on the clip below.
We also were allowed stay up for The Sunday Game highlights show in summer. GAA games were only shown live from All-Ireland semi final stage up until 1995. There were a few exceptions, the 100th Munster Hurling Final in 1989, Meath v Dublin football 3rd replay in 1991, Cork v Tipperary hurling in 1992, Clare v Cork football in 1993. Tournaments like the World Cup in football, the rugby World Cup and the Olympics were eagerly anticipated. We saw very little European soccer on RTE then. Bar the European Cup final, I remember watching the Heysel disaster unfold before Liverpool played Juventus in Brussels in 1985. We all sat down to watch Barry McGuigan beat Eusebio Pedrosa in June 1985, definitely a standout memory. We were also let (myself and Joe) watch McGuigan v Steve Cruz in Las Vegas until 3am in June 1986! The next day we had a half day at school as it was the last day before the summer holidays. Still mam and dad were lenient to a 10 and 11-year-old. There were Monday evening highlights of American football on RTE in the latter half of the 80s. I got into the sport through these. When I was 11 in January 1988, I was let stay up and watch the Superbowl on my own (my brother was in first year boarding school). The Denver Broncos with my favourite quarterback, John Elway, lost to the San Francisco 49ers.
Towards the mid-80s we were allowed stay up on a Saturday night to watch Dallas, it was huge in Ireland in the 1980s. I loved it! It seemed to be everything we weren’t in the mid-1980s! When Laois County Hall was renovated in the early 1980s a lot of people in the county were so taken by its magnificence that they called it Dallas!! I’m heading over to Dallas to pay my Motor Tax etc! Another favourite was North and South starring Patrick Swayze as Orry Main and Lesley-Anne Down as his love interest Madeleine, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. It had a beautiful theme song composed by Bill Conti. Conti also composed the theme song to another mini-series I enjoyed, “Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story” (1987), it was shown on RTE over 3 consecutive Saturdays in July 1989. The last episode of which had me almost in tears as Napoleon bids farewell to Josephine, for the last time, before he departs into exile on St. Elba. And of course Conti is famous for “Gonna Fly Now” the Rocky series theme song.
Another 2-part mini-series which lodged in my memory was Cyclone Tracy 1986. It was shown over two consecutive weeknights in mid-August 1988 on RTE. It was well done as the various storylines and characters were introduced as the cyclone approached on Christmas Eve 1974. The cyclone itself was epic tv and followed by the search for loved ones afterwards, in a city that was almost totally flattened. Another 2-part minis series that remains fresh in my mind today, just beyond the 80s, was one shown on RTE in mid-July 1990 on Jack the Ripper, with Michael Caine as Inspector Frederick Abberline. It’s one of the scariest programmes I’ve seen, I know I was only 14, but no horror movie ever had the least effect on me since. Fields of Fire was another popular series with characters Bluey, Kate, Dusty et al. It was shown on tv around 1988, the storylines were about cane cutters in Queensland just prior to and during World War Two. I watched other popular programmes in the 1980s too, both home produce and imports, Murphy’s Micro Quiz M, Glenroe, The Fall Guy, MacGyver, The Greatest American Hero, The Incredible Hulk, The A Team and so on. I enjoyed The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. It’s theme song, sung by Thom Pace, is iconic.
It’s nice to reminisce. A lot has changed in the past 30-40 years, you don’t have any choice in the matter but I’m glad my childhood occurred at the time it did. I suppose most people feel the same regardless of age. For me childhood seemed to end abruptly when I went to Boarding School in September 1988, it was a watershed, the innocent days were over.
‘Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.’ ~ ‘Those Were the Days’- Gene Raskin/Boris Fomin.