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U3A Writing: Alec's Cow

...“First of all”, he said, “I’m telling you now that you’re not to mention anything about what I’m going to tell you to anybody outside this house.” Then he added that endearingly Irish and quite contradictory saying, “No matter what you say, say nothing.”...

Alan McConnell tells of mysterious goings-on in rural Ireland.

Alan vividly recreates the delights and mysteries of an idyllic boyhood. Settle down and enjoy a long, luxurious read.

It was during the school summer holidays and the day began quietly enough. After breakfast we attended to the milking. In those days this was quite time consuming as it had to done by hand. My father and Peter, the young lad who was known as “the servant boy”, did most of this work with sometimes my quite haphazard assistance. I must confess that milking was not to my taste but then what farming chore was? I was definitely not cut out for the farming life. My father realized this and was quite good about placing me last on the jobs-about-the yard rota. As he frequently remarked, “Any young fellow who polishes his boots before setting out with the plough horses is not going to get very far in the farming line.” This saying was often quoted among my numerous relatives on our Sunday afternoon get-togethers and never failed to garner its share of merriment.

Those Sunday afternoons! Now, they were the highlight of our week in those innocent days, both for the grownups and us children. Having so many relatives getting together and coming from all arts and parts of three or four town lands the gossip just had to be heard to be believed. It really got going at teatime when everyone was seated around the large kitchen table. By everyone I really mean the adults. We six young ‘uns, myself, my sister Laura and four cousins, ranging in age from six to fourteen were banished to the table in a little pantry-like room off the kitchen where our family ate our meals on all other occasions barring Sunday tea and any other noteworthy occasions which might arise from time to time. An abiding memory of this little room is a cartoon picture on one of the walls depicting an uproariously laughing face with the caption below stating, “I don’t know why I’m happy, I only know I am.”

Our exile from the main group did not preclude us hearing the banter and gossip emanating from the kitchen. Now and again, however, the voices dropped to a very low pitch and we knew then that something was being discussed that was not deemed worthy for our innocent ears to take in. That was the signal for every ear at our table to strain to its best effect but usually to no avail. The few words we might pick up tended to leave us in a state of puzzlement much more acute than if we had heard nothing at all.

The other memory of those Sunday afternoons was my Aunt Anabel’s fruitcake. This was a cake for which she was deservedly famous in the area and as one of my uncles remarked, “Sure you’d go a long way to get one anywhere near as good.” Since she didn’t live terribly far from us I had occasion to sample her baking frequently. To this day the taste of that cake remains with me.

Another favourite diversion on these occasions was reading the teacups which at one time was a very popular pastime for both urban and rural dwellers. When everyone had eaten to their satisfaction my Aunt Sophia would be called upon to do the honours by way of the teacups. One by one the cups would be turned upside down, rotated on the saucer once or twice and handed to Sophia. She would make great play of studying the configuration of the tealeaves and then solemnly pronouncing her findings. Inevitably these were hopeful – “I see money coming your way,” or “Someone is coming to visit from faraway” and so on. The fact that most of her predictions never came to anything didn’t seem to deter the same people eagerly putting forward their teacups on the next occasion when Sophia was officiating. I don’t think that her patrons put very much store by her forecasts but they seemed to enjoy the solemn and knowing way in which she made her pronouncements. Alas, you never hear of teacup reading nowadays. I suppose tea bags put paid to that diversion, not to mention that species of person in the popular press who professes to know what is coming one’s way week by week, all depending upon your Zodiac sign of course.

The subject of tea bags reminds me of something Hughie Breslin said recently, namely that he was convinced that the contents of tea bags were the sweepings of the tea warehouses floors and that this was just another clever ruse on behalf of the tea importers to cash in on their waste products. So he sticks to the old fashioned loose tea. When I was growing up Hughie in his young day was a familiar figure around our farm in the busy times of the year when he supplemented our work force, normally consisting of my father and Peter. Now in his pensionable phase of life he is a familiar presence in Rose’s pub of an evening, hobnobbing with his cronies of similar vintage.

While we’re on the subject of tea, Alec Boyce’s wife produced the strongest brew I ever came across. As the old saying goes, you could have trotted a mouse on its surface.

Mentioning Alec reminds me that I started off intending to tell you of how the death of his cow affected a particular day in our life but I seem to have wandered somewhat from my original intention. Having, set out with that purpose in mind it would be remiss of me to leave you on tenterhooks so to speak.

As I have related, to say the least of it my father did not place great store by my services about the farm so on the morning in question I was detailed to carry a message from my mother to Aunt Anabel. This was a chore that I welcomed as I reckoned I could kill most of the morning on this assignment and in so doing escape a less appealing task at home and there was always the possibility of a mid morning slice of the famous cake and, perhaps, if my aunt was her accustomed cheerful, giving self, a silver sixpence all to myself to spend on sweeties in Cassidy’s shop on the way home. In those days sixpence was real money and half of that sum would supply sufficient enough toffees, bulls eyes or liquorice comfits to name but three of my favourites and still leave three pence for another occasion. Normally Laura would have been entrusted with the task but she happened to be absent from home by virtue of accompanying our cousin Beth on a visit to our Uncle Albert and family in the city.

So it was with a light heart and my mind filled with thoughts of confectionary delights that I wheeled my bicycle from the turf shed and prepared to set forth. However, before I could put foot to pedal I heard a sound familiar for miles around and beheld Alec Boyce’s ancient Ford truck emerging from our lane and rattling to a stop at our back door.

Alec emerged from the vehicle with the shouted query directed at me, “Is your Da about, Willie?”

“Aye, you’ll get him in the byre clearing up after the milking,” I replied and set off down the lane having observed Alec setting off purposefully in the direction of the byre. I mounted my bicycle and headed down the lane in the direction of the road. Coalie, the younger of our two sheepdogs followed me as far as the end of the lane where he stopped, sat on his haunches and watched me continue on my way. Now and again a stranger to our house might enquire as to how we had arrived at the name Coalie as his coat contained more white than black. However, the explanation was simple. The name was simply a disruption of “ collie” that being the breed in which he rejoiced.

I found my Aunt Anabel up to her elbows in flour on her baking board on the big table in the kitchen. I could see that a soda scone was in the making. On a side table a large current scone was cooling on its tray, a sight to set the taste buds churning.

“Well young cub and what are you about today”, was my aunt’s greeting. “You’ve just missed your Uncle George and Robert. They’re away with Mable to Walker’s bull, so I hope you’re not looking for either of them.”

I should hasten to explain here that Mable was one of Uncle George’s cows!

My eye strayed again to the current scone as I answered. “No. It’s yourself that my message is for. Mother told me to tell you that she had a letter to say that Aunt Mary is coming from America next month for a holiday. She only got the letter late yesterday evening or she would have told you sooner. The postman left it at Meehans’ by mistake and Francie didn’t get round to delivering it until late.”

“Aye that’s Francie all right”, was my aunt’s rejoinder. “Thon boy will be late for his own funeral. I was just thinking the other day when Aunt Mary would appear. The last we heard was that she was coming over sometime this year. I hope she makes it before the weather gets too cold. September’s always a good month here. I suppose she’ll make her headquarters here seeing that we’ve got a spare room. Anyway, she’s not much bother and she hasn’t picked up some of the fancy habits a lot of these Americans have

Mary was aunt to both my mother and Anabel and, therefore, my great aunt. She had left home for America in 1910 at the age of seventeen and had returned home at quite frequent intervals over the years. This was quite uncommon for Irish exiles in those days. Indeed many of them never returned to the oul sod and except for the occasional letter they passed from the ken of their nearest and dearest back home.

Mary was an exception to this rule. She had never married and seemed to have done very well for herself in the land of opportunity and at the time of which I write she was worth considerably more than the few shilling in her possession when she emigrated. Indeed, I remember unkind comments from some neighbours to the effect that our warm hospitality to her on her visits had a lot to do with expectations of riches to come when Mary eventually went to her great reward. Now, I have no evidence that thoughts such as these had any currency in our family. Great aunt Mary was genuinely loved for who she was and, anyway, since at this time she was hale and hearty in her mid fifties and if she inherited her mother’s longevity it looked as if anyone with expectations was going to have a long wait.

While she was talking Anabel finished shaping the soda scone and leaving it on the baking board, went over to the fireplace, took the lid off the open pot oven and sprinkled in a small handful of flour. Then she retrieved the scone, popped it into the oven and replaced the lid. Next she took some glowing turf coals from the fire and placed them on the lid of the oven. To this day it’s a mystery to me how in those days the farm wives produced such appetizing and wholesome meals using this fairly primitive form of cooking. If we had to go back to those days I’m afraid that a lot of us would starve!

My aunt’s next words were addressed to me as she bent over the pot oven. “Now, Willie take you the two buckets from the back room and get me a couple of go’s of water and fill up the two crocks. And then maybe you’d go and bring me in an armful of rhubarb. I might as well bake a couple of tarts now that I’m in a good way of going and have the board out. Mind where you put your feet now; your Uncle George put a few graipfulls of manure through the rhubarb bed the other day.”

I fetched two enamel pails from the little pantry that served as cool storage for milk and the water needed for cooking and drinking. This was also the room where the butter churning was carried out and the large wooden churn standing in one corner bore witness to this activity.

An outer door in the pantry led into the yard and it was but a few minutes work to fill both pails from the pump located convenient to this door. It took two go’s to fill the two large crocks standing on a low shelf and after replacing the lid on each. I set off for the vegetable plot situated behind the house where I made some inroads into Uncle George’s abundant rhubarb crop, at the same taking to heart my aunt’s warning about the manure. Not everyone knows that manure is a great thing for making the rhubarb grow. Perhaps it’s just as well as it might just affect the popularity of the pies made from that particular plant.

Returning to the house with my arms laden with rhubarb stalks I was greeted by the sight of my aunt spooning tea into the small teapot she used when only two or three cups were needed. This completed she went to the fireplace and pulled out the crane sufficiently to allow her to tip up the large black kettle hanging thereon and pour boiling water into the teapot.

Her next words were as music to my ears. “Sit over at the table, Willie, and I’ll cut you a slice of this current scone. It should be cooled enough by now.” I needed no urging to fall in with her wishes. Next to her famous cake I adored her current bread, especially as now, fresh from the baking.

After two slices of the current scone and another forby to keep it company. I rose from the table to be on my way. On my way out Anabel, true to form, handed me sixpence. “Take this and buy yourself something at the shop and tell your mother that I’ll have everything prepared for Aunt Mary. Just be sure and tell me in plenty of time when she’s expected.”

Once outside I retrieved my bike and headed off for Cassidy’s shop, which happened to be in the opposite direction to that which I should have taken to get home.

At the crossroads adjacent to the shop I saw my friend Jim Gilbey coming walking from the opposite direction. He hailed, me “Well, Willie, where are you headed?” “I’m for the shop,” I answered. “What about yourself?”

“I’m headed the same way. My ma sent me to the shop for a jelly this mornin’ and I brought one of them crystallized ones instead of the other kind, so she sent me back to get it changed and I’ve had to walk the whole mile and a half because my da is away to the fishin’ with our bicycle. Boys but aren’t you the lucky boy has your own bike.”

A few minutes later we were in the shop and the kindly Dick Cassidy readily took back the jelly and replaced it with the kind favoured by Jim’s mother.

Jim’s business transacted I got down to the important task of selecting my sweets. He being one of my best friends I allowed him to have his say as to part of the choice. He chose bulls eyes as being long lasting and I went for liquorice laces, one of my favourites. I was careful to not exceed my limit of three pence as there was no knowing when I’d have money in my pocket again and it was always useful to have a few pence about one when visiting the shop.

Jim and I left the shop in time to see my Uncle George and cousin Robert coming towards us on their return journey with Mabel. Robert was leading her by means of a halter. She ambled along looking rather subdued. I’m sure it was a different story when they were on the outward journey. Then George and Robert would have had a job keeping up with her!

Jim and I parted at the crossroads and I accompanied Uncle George and Robert back as far as their laneway when I mounted my bicycle and returned home. There I found my mother in our little garden behind the house busily picking blackcurrants from one of the four bushes of that species which we kept to satisfy my father’s great love for blackcurrant jam.

“You’re just in time, Willie to give me a hand with plucking these bushes. I want to have them stripped before the birds get to them. There’ll be no end of bother from your father if the birds deprive him of his jam.”

I rather reluctantly fell to the plucking. It’s not a job I was fond of for those berries make awkward picking. As there was a particularly good crop that year and I could see a good part of my time being spent at this labour for once started it had to be finished in one operation. At least it wasn’t as bad as picking gooseberries. At one time we had a few of those bushes and they were the very devil to work with being so jaggy. The fingers really took a lot of punishment with that class of fruit. I rejoiced the day my father grubbed those bushes out to make way for a couple of apple trees. The apple trees bore testament to my father’s other great love, apple tarts!

“Your father and Peter went away with Alec Boyce just after you left for your Aunt Anabel’s and they’re not back yet. Alec seemed to be a state of excitement about something. There must be some bother with some of his cattle and he wants your father to have a look at them. I don’t know why he had to take Peter with him because I had a few jobs about the yard I wanted done and was expecting Peter to attend to them.”

The words were hardly out of her mouth when we heard the rattle of Alec’s old Ford and a few seconds more saw it driving into our yard. Alec remained in the driving seat. We noticed that Peter was not with them. My father alighted and made straight away made for the shed where he kept various small farm implements and other tools. He entered and almost immediately emerged again, carrying the bag in which he kept his butchering knives. This action was greeted by puzzled looks from both my mother and myself. Although my father had been a butcher in his younger day he had given up the trade before I was born in order to take over the running of our farm after his father died. So the sudden emergence of the tools of his old trade gave us some pause for thought.

Before we had more time for speculation in the matter my father said, “Throw your bike in the back of the truck, Willie, Peter will need it to come back to do the milking.” To my mother he said, “I’ll be away for a while helping Alec so expect me when you see me.”

Without further explanation he threw his bag in the back of the truck beside the bicycle that I had in the meantime hoisted aboard. The truck took off and was soon lost to sight.

“Well,” said my mother, “I wonder what all that was about. Alec’s up to something you can be sure but what your father is going to do with those knives is something I don’t know. Although he keeps them clean and sharp he hasn’t used them for a long time. Maybe when Peter returns he’ll tell us something but I very much doubt if we’ll get anything out of him for he’s very close mouthed, especially if your father and Alec have warned him to say nothing. Anyway, thinking won’t get these blackcurrants picked and I have plenty of other things to do to and it’ll be no time ‘til it’s time to make the dinner.”

So saying she fell to picking again and I joined her in her endeavours without giving the recent scene another thought. My main thought was to finish with the blackcurrants and be free to devote my attention to some more attractive pursuit.

Happily, another hour or so saw the picking completed and my mother with a sigh of satisfaction handed me one of the two well filled pails while she took the other and we made our way back to the house and the little pantry off the kitchen where the fruit was deposited for the time being. I had a shrewd suspicion that I would be called upon the following day to help with the tedious task of topping and tailing prior to the blackcurrants final journey in the jam making process.

My father arrived home just as my mother was commencing preparations for the evening meal. As well as his bag of knives he carried a covered pail that he deposited in the pantry. He had been preceded by Peter who had carried out the milking and associated chores while studiously avoiding my mother’s probing questions, merely saying, “Sure the boss told me to come on here after Mrs. Boyce had made a sup of tay. He said that he and Alec had a job to do in that big shed behind the house.”

My mother was on eggs to hear what Alec and he had been up to. She knew that something out of the ordinary had taken place but she also knew that my father would not divulge any information until he was good and ready.

As it happened she didn’t have long to wait to have her curiosity satisfied because when my father emerged from the pantry he said to me, “Tell Peter to come into the house before he goes home. I’ve got something to tell you all.” As you can imagine this statement really got us going and I made no bones about rushing out in search of Peter. I found him returning on the back lane after herding the cows back to their field after milking. He smiled when I gave him the message and said, “I knew there was something up by the way that pair of boys were carrying on at Alec’s house.”

I returned to the house and joined my father and mother in the kitchen. My father said nothing, continuing to sit up by the fire reading the weekly paper in which he seemed to find something of interest every evening. My mother sat at the end of the table with her arms resting on its top and her hands clasped together. Her face wore an expression of patience. She made no attempt to quiz my father as to the reason for this unusual gathering at a time when we would normally be sitting round the dinner table exchanging the small items of news each of us had accumulated during the day.

I took my seat on a long wooden settle underneath the only window and tried to concentrate on a book my mother had picked up for me from the monthly visit of the traveling library.

The traveling library! Forget about the large bus-like vehicles which fulfill that function today. In those days our reading matter was conveyed in a small car, an Austin 7 I think. The books being contained on a bookcase installed where the back seat would normally be found. As you can imagine the number of books carried would not be great and the same can be said concerning the range of literature. There were two categories of story, romance and action. On one occasion my city cousin staying with us for a spell during the summer asked for a volume dealing with Irish Lace making. Miss Probus, for that was the librarian’s name allowed her face to express a brief look of surprise before she answered, “No, my dear, I’m afraid I don’t carry anything so esoteric. There has never been much call for anything relating to that subject around these parts.” On that occasion my cousin had to content herself with a tale by Barbara Cartland who was at that timewell established in the field of purple prose. On this occasion I was happy to accept a copy of Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage.”

I must add that when Miss Probus had departed we made a great spang to get hold of our old copy of Nuttall’s Dictionary to ascertain just what the word “esoteric” meant! May being older than me and, as they used to say, a good scholar was able to carry the word in her head until the dictionary revealed its meaning.

Anyway, to get back to my father’s news, there we were in a fine state of anticipation awaiting Peter’s arrival which wasn’t long because his state of expectancy was just as keenly honed as was ours.

Peter entered and sat down at the opposite end of the table from my mother, removed his cap and sat it on one knee. No sooner was he seated than my father laid aside his newspaper and turned his chair slightly so as to be facing the rest of us.

“First of all”, he said, “I’m telling you now that you’re not to mention anything about what I’m going to tell you to anybody outside this house.” Then he added that endearingly Irish and quite contradictory saying, “No matter what you say, say nothing.”

There is no doubt but that he had grabbed our attention by these remarks.

He continued, getting down to the meaty, pardon the pun, part of his tale, “One of Alec Boyce’s cows broke her leg in a rabbit hole this morning. That’s why he came for me to examine the leg just to make sure that nothing could be done for the poor baste. As soon as I saw it I knew there was nothing for it but to put the poor thing out of its misery. I used Alec’s humane killer to do the job. Alec wasn’t sure what to do then. If he got the boys from the abattoir to take it away he’d get next to nothing for the animal.. So he asked my advice about butchering the carcass and parceling out the meat round the townland. He said the friends and neighbours might as well benefit from his misfortune. The meat would be good enough as the cow hadn’t died as the result of disease.

“Well, I didn’t know what to say for a minute or two. Alec’s not the kind to give anything away for nothing. After thinking about it while Alec fidgeted about watching me, I mentioned that the health boys at the county council might not allow that sort of thing. A cow was different from a pig when it came to the regulations for slaughtering. Well, he said he wasn’t a bit worried about them fellows. By the time they heard about what he had done the evidence would have disappeared because the meat would have to be disposed of speedily as it wouldn’t keep too long in this weather. Anything not disposed of in the pot would be buried and beyond examination by any interfering body from the council.

“The long and the short of it is that the cow has been butchered and divided ready for distribution. I have your share, Peter, in that pail in the pantry and you can take it with you now. But, remember, you know nothing if anybody asks you. Once you take the beef you’re in the thing just as much as Alec or me.”

Without a word Peter made his way to the pantry armed with a couple of sheets from the previous week’s paper, handed to him by my mother. My father followed to oversee the division of this unexpected bounty. My mother and I sat silent for a few minutes, considering this rather startling disclosure before my mother said, “Trust Alec to think of a thing like this but at least there’s a lot of poor folk who don’t see meat too often will get the benefit and like he said by the time any busybodies get to hear of it they’ll not be able to prove anything no matter how much they think they know.”

I was inclined to agree with my mother’s summing up. In those days before refrigeration had been heard of in our neck of the woods no one would have kept meat sitting around too long especially in the summer days that were in it at that time.

And so it was. Everyone knew and nobody knew. About a week or ten days later the polis in the shape of Garda Sullivan riding his sit-up-and beg bicycle arrived at several houses and made perfunctory enquiries that of course rendered up no “useful information” at all. Anyway, wasn’t it widely rumoured that the good Garda himself had had a discreet share of Alec’s generosity and who was he to trouble an otherwise law abiding populace with, to his mind, trifling questions regarding the alleged disposal of a few pounds of beef. It was even rumoured that those saintly pillars of our community Canon Munroe and his bridge partner, Father McLaughlin had enjoyed a good cut or two but since nobody knew anything how were we ever to be sure?!

After a month or so the episode of the illegal beef faded from memory and with the ending of the school holidays I had other more pressing things upon my mind and my mother and aunt Annabel turned their attention to Aunt Mary’s impending visit.

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