Straddling history

Jan 30th, 2008 | By | Category: Ireland

On a bitterly cold January day, I called at an old people’s home in Co Down. An elderly bachelor farmer from the parish, in his late 80s, had finally accepted that he was no longer able to cope by himself and had agreed to go to the home because it was barely more than a mile from his land. I was glad to be calling at the home and not at his cottage on such a day, the cottage had few comforts and was rarely warm.

“Are you well, Jack?”


“It’s comfortable here, isn’t it?”


“Your neighbour’s minding your cottage?”


“It’s very cold today, Jack. What about the pipes in your cottage?”

“What pipes?”

“The water pipes, Jack. Will they be safe enough in the cold?”

“I have no water pipes”.

“What do you mean, Jack? Where did you get water if you have no pipes?”

“From the pump down the yard”.

This was a long conversation by Jack’s standards. I pushed my luck.

“Jack, where did you go to school?” I knew the answer, but wanted to get him to talk.

“The National School”.

“Aye. Did you walk there?”

“I did. Across the fields each morning. I took the cattle out to the fields on the way to school”.

“It would have been cold on days like this”.

“It was”.

“Were you wrapped up well?”

“I had no shoes. Shoes were for Sundays”.

“Hard life, Jack”.


Jack did not spend long in the home. He died in the early 1990s. There may still be a few like Jack in rural parts of Ireland, living in Dublin has cut off that line to the past, but if there are, they are very few. Jack was a bridge to a different age.

My friend Les, with whom I grew up in a small village, talked yesterday of he and I being born at a good time: old enough to remember the former times and young enough to avoid the austere times and to enjoy the present time. I am glad to be old enough to have known Jack, (and when I tell people I knew a man who walked to school barefoot through the fields, they think I am even older). When the history of the times comes to be written, will there be a place for Jack, and those like him, in the accounts of the 1990s or does it become confusing when people don’t fit into boxes?

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  1. Ian, my father often talked about walking across the fields to school in bare feet. He came from Co. Clare and was born in 1911. The cows had to be looked after before they set out.

  2. Ian I hope someone does write down Jack and the older generations memories, People of our generation may be able to relate to some of the memories, and it may not mean anything to later generations but it is part of our history. I tell my lads that they are lucky to have a light to come on at the flick of a switch , 35 years ago I went to bed in the dark as my Mother wouldn’t let me take an oil lamp upstairs!!!!

  3. Grannymar, how many are there left to remember such things? There seemed a point in the past thirty years where we suddenly moved from the past to the present. Les’s description of the oil lamp was how things had been for a century or more (and he and I are only 18 days apart in our ages). History seems to progress in sudden leaps rather than in smooth movements.

  4. Wonderful yarn Ian. I’m about to embark on some volunteer work with elderly people and am trying so hard to chronicle my own family’s history but it’s very difficult. We emigrated when I was 11 so had no opportunity to probe them for such stories. I know my father’s family lived in industrial England in a baker’s shop and my Grandad was blinded by a bomb blast in the Blitz and he did have shoes but they were leather and wooden clogs . . I have them here . . .I imagine my Welsh relatives on my mother’s side may well have been barefoot farmers or miners . . . DH Lawrence did a pretty good job of the miners plight in Sons and Daughters.

  5. Baino,

    Lawrence was a bit before my time. I thought “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” was very good.

    If you didn’t keep changing email addresses, I wouldn’t have to keep approving your comments!

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