This week marks the 20 year anniversary of my grandad Pat McCullough’s death. It is hard to forget that autumn in 1999. We were still trying to save the last of the onions, even though that crop should be out of the field and tucked up in a shed by the end of August if everything is going to plan.
However, nothing was going to plan with a late crop of seed that struggled to reach maturity playing havoc with a harvester as it got bogged down in wet conditions that were worsened by the small forest of weeds that had multiplied even as the growing came to an end.
I was stationed on the intake line, charged with keeping the crop flowing along the conveyors and wrestling out the clumps of pulverised thistles and buttercup before they clogged up the system.
I had just finished a degree in agriculture and was home full-time on the farm for the first time in my life.
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Autumn was always a busy time at home with fresh calved heifers being drafted for the annual auction, along with the harvest of cereals and onions.
I remember being slightly terrified of the vista of spending the rest of my days wrestling with wet onions, cranky cows and scraping dung off collecting yards.
Up to then my farming career had always been neatly curtailed by school and college terms. I togged out for milking and foddering at the weekends, Christmas and Easter, while summer time was dominated by the two jobs where I learned how to drive tractors – topping paddocks and collecting square bales. And let’s not forget the scorching heat of building those small squares under the galvanized tin roof of the hay shed.
Endless as some of those tasks appeared at the time, at least there was the security of school recommencing every September.
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That line is the tell-tale. What ‘real’ farmer ever preferred school to what I perceived as the monotony of the farm tasks?
‘Real’ farmers counted down the hours each day until the bell went and it was time to rush home to put on the wellies and get stuck in.
The only time I pulled on the wellies during school-term was to help Grandad feed the calves during the depths of winter, when darkness shrouded every task. I loved whisking in the sweet smelling milk replacer into the warm water with my freezing hands.
Years later when I was visiting Grandad for the last time in hospital during that autumn of 1999 I was a ball of emotions.
I can remember being left alone holding his huge shovel-like hand while he slumbered in a semi comatose state.
By then I well understood the scale of Pat’s farming achievements. When he moved to east Meath in the 1940s, the bank manager in Drogheda refused him a loan for that ‘run-down farm’.
But he cobbled together the money and had the whole place paid off after a few short years of bumper harvests during the post-war years of strong prices.
Farmers I’d meet at pedigree sales and shows would nod approvingly when they clocked the likeness in me to my grandad, invariably reminding me that ‘Pat was a great man for the stock’.
By the time my dad started farming in the 1960s, additional property had been added, sheds had multiplied and one of the first pedigree Friesian herds in the area was well established.
I was the only one of my three siblings to show an interest in the farm, and so I knew the mantle of the farming enterprise that both my grandad and father had worked all their lives to build up would be passing to me.
I remember muttering a promise to my dying grandad that I would keep the farm going, but in hindsight I see that I was desperately trying to convince myself that it was the right thing for me to do.
Of course at the time I was having my head turned with some work on RTÉ’s farming programmes.
Given the choice between standing at a conveyer for eight hours a day or touring around the country with a microphone chatting about my favourite subject, it was always going to be the latter.
Twenty years on I’m still having my head turned by media work. But the farm is also going strong too.
In what is now a classic form of Irish farming, I mix off-farm work with an earnest attempt to make the most out of the farming asset that has been passed down the line.
And I’ve realised that there’s far more to my farming career than standing at conveyors, stacking bales and scraping dung.
Would grandad approve? Who knows. I can only be grateful for all the opportunities he opened up for those lucky enough to follow in his wake.
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