Soon all I’ll have left are the memories

It was the American polymath Benjamin Franklin who said “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes”. Temptation was to add Dublin winning All Irelands to that little ensemble, but gut instinct is that there may be light at the end of the tunnel in that regard. As Captain Mainwaring once said in Dad’s Army ‘Very small light, very dark tunnel, but it’s there’.

Anyway, in the context of what follows here the proposed addition to the old saying was a digression. No, it wasn’t a dig at the Dubs either. Regardless of what happens in the replay against Kerry, they must be acknowledged as the greatest group to have ever played the old game collectively. The chasm remains and it’s up to the chasing pack to breach it.

My reason for mentioning the above was thus: becoming emotionally – and hopefully physically at some stage – invested in Meath’s pursuance of bridging the aforementioned gap always has been and will be one of the facets of life that combine to keep these wheels turning.

Previously on these pages, the concept of four walls was given an airing. In the instance at that time, it referred, mostly, to those who had been called to the great beyond in the last few years and, in one indescribably special case, how a certain very special someone had blessedly been guided into my life at a time when it was never needed more.

If one was to look at things, or maybe more pointedly, activities, that keep this ship sailing they’d be fairly familiar to many regulars here also – sport, farming, reading (though in terms of books not enough) and listening to music (absolutely not enough for far too long now). It felt too much stating the obvious to include writing!

Now, the following is not meant in any disrespect to anyone and the hope would be that there will be an understanding of what’s meant, but, for all that I’ve been befallen by grief and often incalculable sadness at the passing of too many of those held near and dear in recent years, it was never within the family circle.

Until now. Well, that’s not entirely true. Dad buried two brothers and his only sister in the space of 21 months when I was ten. The thing is, that was so long ago that while obviously it was utterly traumatic at the time, the passage of the aforementioned commodity has helped me deal with them in my own way.

Most recently, however, I gained a truly heart-breaking understanding of what so many known to me have gone through over the years. Mam’s brother, Seamus, or Jem as he’ll always be to us, met a truly devastating end with cancer.

Believe me, there is no way to describe seeing a loved one slowly fade away before your eyes (admittedly in my case there was a conscious decision made not to see him that way) knowing there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. And, trust me also, you might think you’d know what it’s like but you haven’t an iota. Not by a long shot. I thought I’d some idea but was several lighthouses out.

Mam had six brothers. I can’t tell you how strange and gut wrenching it is to be writing that in the past tense. Jem’s passing is the first break in the family chain on that side. The vile thing claimed him in six weeks. Six bloody weeks. Just think about that. Considering the amount of ill health and setbacks he battled for the whole of his 73 years, it was as difficult to quantify as it was harrowing to think of him whittling away so quickly.

It probably won’t come as much shock to anybody that yours truly sought sanctuary in the fields when things were near the end. Perhaps it was fate that he should slip away during harvest time. What it also did, though, was add another layer of poignance to things. For reasons which to most wouldn’t be obvious.

A few acres were devoted here not all that long ago to the whirlwind of emotions prompted by the realisation that this was most likely the final year the harvest would be observed in certain parts of the locality. Now to open up a bit. Nothing wholly unusual there but this case will be different to anything previous.

Connections between the Clarke family and ours well predated my airlifting onto this planet. They have been a constant presence in my life. Yes, much of that was down, in my time at least, to Paul working with them for many years. True, too, that developments close to home in more recent times have, I think/hope, ensured that the bonds will always be maintained.

Yet, being out at the harvest this year, there was the unmistakable feel of the end of an era. Indeed, after one outing, a text was received which more or less confirmed as such. Kleenex did a good trade that night. You see, it was more than Paul working with them or farming going on at home. Much more.

When Paul was with them, more often than not he’d drive one of the tractors home when his day’s work was done. Upon which I would, admittedly, create blue murder to be put up into the conveyance. And red murder when it came to getting out again. To the point where, one night, all the lights were turned off in the house in an effort to convince me they were all in bed. Still wasn’t on for budging. Yes Pat, I did figure out how to start them too, and did on a ‘few’ occasions!

It all, really, revolved around the hay here at home and the harvest where Millfarm is now – ‘Up the lane’ as it was to me for years. When I was a kid, mother, father, sisters, anybody, could and would be pestered to bring me in the manual wheelchair, up past Barney Reilly’s field and ‘The Acre’, up to the Railway Fields to watch the combine or the baler or the straw being loaded or whatever was going on.

Hay making time was even more of an adventure. Or maybe battle would’ve been the appropriate adjective here. You see, when I was a youngster I used to be absolutely persecuted with hay fever. Still am to a point, but, mercifully, nothing on the same scale. No matter how bad it was, though, nothing or nobody could keep me from being out watching the goings on.

You know, it’s ironic, the first year I had a powered wheelchair was the last year there was hay at the back of the house and the final harvest season in which Millfarm was worked agriculturally in its original layout. All that came flooding back recently when the reality of what was unfolding – in terms of finality – really walloped.

Not only relating to what’s already been outlined either. Thoughts were rekindled of the old Deutz tractors parking up outside our gate with loads of straw (mostly square bales – remember them?) while the extended summer crew went off for sustenance. Exactly what type will not be speculated upon here!

Moving swiftly on, there was a vintage Massey Ferguson 165 – complete with canvas ‘cab’ – that seemed to have its own reserved parking spot, where the entrance to Hamilton Hall is now. Especially if certain regiments of the seasonal reinforcements happened to be its pilot.

At this juncture, it should be pointed out that viewing farming activity, back in the day in particular, was never confined to latching onto the Clarkes. Though there the heart will always go first. Jem’s passing got me thinking of a year my harvest viewing schedule went horridly awry.

Imagine my consternation seeing the combine swing up the lane just as we were heading off to Galway and Clare on holidays for a week! Dad still recalls my insistence that we pull in to watch hay being square baled in Spanish Point in the Banner County by way of getting my ‘fix’. There’s vivid clarity, too, of Pat wondering had I ‘retired’ from farming when these wheels failed to appear in their beloved spot!

Naturally, remedial action had to be instigated. Watching Larry Hogarty and Seamus Maguire at the hay in ‘Fr Rispin’s Field’ – where St Peter’s College now resides – or cutting hedges was always on the annual viewing schedule anyway, but took on extra significance that farming term.

The combine drought still had to be sated however. Which is why a certain recollection has been poignantly raw in recent weeks. That of Jem bringing me down to see Pat Reidy – a native of Leixlip like himself – and the late Richard Walsh cutting wheat for Denis Feighery in what is now Larchfield.

General wisdom seems to be that change amounts to progress. This corner will never fully understand. Herein lies a heart-breaking fear that shortly there’ll no farming around these parts at all. That soon all I’ll have are the memories. It was readily confessed to a combine driver not so long ago that tears were shed pulling out of a certain place a few weeks back. Farming in that spot has been such a huge part of my life for so long.

In conclusion, one is driven to recall a segment from the Waiting For Houlihan documentary produced in tribute to Con, Ireland’s greatest wordsmith. On arrival in his native Kerry “In the belly of a metal bird”, he observed:

“Of course, all of this for me now is in the past except there is no past for it is all around me”. He then recited a quote from the Greek poet Cavafe which will stay with me as long as there’s a pulse:

“In those streets and fields where you grew up, there you will always live, and there you will die”. Those were the days, I hoped they’d never end.

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