herald

Monday 23 April 2018

Matchmakers, drunks and other secret tales of life in the country...

Go back just one generation and you'll find that most of us, even dublin dwellers, have some country in our souls

I USED to think that matchmaking was a device for plots in John B Keane plays or musicals such as Fiddler On The Roof. That was until I started to delve into my own family history while writing my book, The Lie of the Land.

Lo and behold, I soon found out that I am the produce of not one, not two, but three made matches, or arranged marriages, myself.

My father was 48 when he wed my mother, who was 37 – their siblings decided they would be better together as a couple than spending their lives as single entities.

My granny on my father's side was in love at 18 but married at 19 to a man she didn't know. Her parents decided that the person with the land was better than the young boy next door. Her good fortune was the fact that she grew to truly love her husband.

However, my grandmother on the maternal side might be the one who felt most short-changed in these arranged marriage stakes. She lived with her sister in a "cosy farm" of 50 acres and was an ideal catch.

My grandfather, though, came with "a curse" and a secret – he was a rip-roaring alcoholic from the time he graduated to long trousers. To counteract this, and to save their own farm from being drunk into oblivion, his two brothers decided to become his guardsmen after putting him on the wagon.

The deal was one or other would follow him wherever he went for six months to ensure he didn't take a drink.

Confession

If he went to confession, a brother was within earshot to hear his penance; if he went to a football match, there was a brotherly presence marking him so that he didn't slip into old ways at the nearest pub.

Six months without drink for the first time since he was a teenager, my grandfather was approaching 30 and felt ready for marriage.

The brothers looked around the district and some four or five miles away – a long distance in the Ireland of a century ago – they pinpointed my grandmother, and her farm.

The deal was done, whereby my grandfather was given a field of nine acres by his brothers and a sum of money in total buyout from their own holding. My granny, who lived alone except for her spinster sister, was delighted to have a man, other than a workman, about the house.

And there was general bliss around the place until the first Fair Day when he went off to sell some heifers in the local town – and didn't come back for two weeks.

By then he had drunk most of the proceeds of the sales and was still the worse for wear as the shocked women tried to wean him off his addiction by racing nightly to the town to secretly buy a dozen stout and two naggins of whiskey.

This continued, until up to a month later his cravings reduced and he boarded the wagon again – until the next time.

Unfortunately, there was always a next time. By all accounts, he fought "the curse" with every sinew of his mortal being, but it ended up getting the better of him.

My mother, the eldest of his three girls, lived in fear of the dreaded "liquor", and when she was battling cancer within 15 years of marrying, her dying wish was that neither my brother nor I would ever take a drink.

My grandfather's life had been the one less spoken of during my youth, because in the Ireland of the time, his antics would have brought shame on him and his family.

Ironically, when my father was young he lost his own father to a horse-riding accident, and I remember him telling me that Jim Dillon, my mother's father, was the straightest man he had ever met.

My father, at 14, became the man around the farm, and it was the so-called drunken neighbour who gave him the best advice as well as any help he could.

Harrowing

I started out to write The Lie of the Land to show that life growing up on a farm had a grim truth attached to it. Rearing pet lambs or a baby piglet was great for a child, but then the butcher arrived a few months later to take it away. That brought its own harrowing life lesson that farming is as much about death as living.

It was the living and the dying with humans that finally gripped my pen as I delved back through the working and social history of my family.

Neighbours falling out over land, fighting the Black and Tans and family feuds over money are all interwoven in my ancestral history, just like similar stories are in every household in the country.

One of the more surprising things to emerge since launching the book is the number of first-generation Dubs who have empathised with these stories. Many spent holidays down in their mother or father's birthplaces and came to appreciate the eccentricities often found in farm and rural life.

It's true, all we need to do is flick back a generation and virtually every one of us has clay under our nails.

The Lie of the Land: Stories from the Heartland of Ireland, by PJ Cunningham, is published by Ballpoint Press, and is priced €14.99.

Promoted articles

Entertainment News