John Corbett with a selection of memories of April in the countryside
Our parents generally expected mild weather in April after the first week. The beginning of the month used to be called ‘The Old Cows’ Days’ meaning that delicate animals that survived the winter mightn’t live through the harsh period that often came at that time. But it would have surprised us rustics if the cold weather continued. On account of this it was felt that it would be safe to cut turf because severe frost rarely occurred after mid-month – a sure sign that summer wasn’t too far away.
It was one of the busiest periods on the land. We usually planted an acre of potatoes and this was enough to feed ourselves and our stock. ‘Kerr’s Pinks’ were the most popular variety but as the summer approached; many people opted for ‘Golden Wonders’ instead, which were more edible at this time of year.
In recent years ‘Roosters’ is the favourite in our house. In the past ‘Aran Banners’ were fed to animals. ‘Pinks’ and ‘Banners’ were also exported by those that sowed potatoes for sale.
Cottage gardens were tilled earlier than the main ones. Potatoes were planted in ridges three to four foot wide and generous supplies of dung were applied at planting time. In the case of the main crop, narrow channels called drills were opened using horse and plough and the tubers were placed about a foot apart. Most of them would have been divided into slits beforehand although small ones could be planted whole. The important thing was to ensure that each tuber contained an ‘eye’ which enabled it to reproduce new ones.
Seed potatoes were brought to the garden in a cart and bagfuls would be placed at different locations around the field so that the sowers wouldn’t have to travel too far for fresh supplies. Some used buckets to carry the seed to the drills but a special apron called a práiscín was the most popular choice in our village.
Spreading the slits involved plenty of back-breaking work but we didn’t complain because we knew that it wouldn’t do us any good. It was an essential part of our world and we realised that the sooner it was done, the better it would be for all concerned.
As I mentioned in a previous article, planting was a task in which all members of the family took part. Children were kept from school fairly often for this kind of work. Teachers would smile when a pupil replied, ‘I was wanton at home,’ when he or she had to give a reason for being absent. We or our classmates weren’t aware of the meaning of the word ‘wanton.’
One of my father’s classmates caused a giggle once when asked why he didn’t turn up the previous day. ‘I had to go to the bull with Henry,’ was his explanation.
Parents had to be careful to ensure that their offspring weren’t absent from school for too long because attendance officers and gardaí kept a close watch on things and families that stayed home for lengthy durations risked a court appearance and prosecution.
Although we were told that parents were the primary educators of their children, it was the State that enforced attendance at primary level. By law students were obliged to attend school until they were fourteen years of age. The majority opted out of the system when they reached this point but it was common enough to find some pupils, especially boys, going to school for a time after that. This happened mainly in winter.
The month produced Oliver Goldsmith, one of the great Irish writers, born on the 4th. of April 1730. He studied medicine but didn’t take out his degree in that subject even though he insisted that he actually was a doctor. He is quoted as saying,
‘I do not practise; I make it a rule to prescribe only for my friends.’
A friend of his named Beauclerk responded, ‘Pray, dear Doctor, alter your rule and prescribe only for your enemies.’
It was no wonder then that his career as physician didn’t last very long and he turned his attention to writing. Success was slow in coming but eventually he became famous and produced three outstanding pieces in poetry, prose, and drama.
His best known works are ‘The Vicar of Wakefield, ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ and the unforgettable and oft quoted ‘Deserted Village.’ The latter was said to be inspired by the village of Lissoy in Co. Longford.
April 1st. was a time for pranks. Generally, they were harmless but of course some of them could be embarrassing. Sending novices in search of ‘glass hammers,’ ‘round squares’ and ‘skyhooks’ were common occurrences in the building sector.
One victim was sent to the local store and told to order ‘a ‘recumbent posture’ and a few pounds of ‘bird seed.’ I heard of a student that was convinced by his pals that he would receive a year’s supply of ham from a certain bank, if he opened an account with them. Invitations to non-existing parties also featured in the repertoire of student pranks on April 1st.
One of the nastiest tricks that I came across took place several years ago. At the time The Irish Hospital Sweepstake draws were a big attraction and someone sent a telegram to a farmer that he had won First Prize (£50,000.) The recipient of the telegram became very excited. He had been ploughing when he got the news. He didn’t take time to tie up his team of horses. He rushed home to tell his wife and friends about it and one can only imagine how terribly disappointed he must have been when he learned the truth.
Fortunately, jokes of this type were rare in our parish. The only other one that I know of concerned a man that wanted to buy concrete stakes. Normally these were quite expensive but one con-man that was employed by a certain landlord told the would-be buyer that his employer was selling some of his at a low price.
He said that the employer didn’t want the public to know about the stakes so the best time to collect them was late at night. He also told the man to bring plenty of straw to prevent the stakes making too much noise.
The buyer did as he was told and arrived at the spot with his horse and cart. The con-man helped to load the stakes and sat at the back of the cart when the job was done. They were travelling through fields mostly and as they moved along, the con-man kept dropping the stakes along the way. All of them had been removed from the cart by the time the buyer reached home.
It must have been a very unpleasant surprise for him when he found out that his purchases had vanished and that only the straw remained.
I was surprised to hear that April Fools’ Day was celebrated on April 2nd in parts of Scotland. It seems that the people in Orkney felt that tricks should only be played in the afternoon.
In addition to the usual selection of tricks, folk there used to attach pigs’ tails and other embarrassing items to the backs of unsuspecting individuals and this was the reason that it was called ‘Tailing Day.’
In our school days, those that wanted to extend the period of playing pranks were reminded,
‘April Fool’s Day is past and gone
And you’re the only fool that carries it on.
St. Brynach’s Day was on April 7th. A cross in his memory can be seen at Newport Dyfed in Wales and it was said that it was on this the cuckoo first landed on when it arrived in Britain. In mid-century it would be almost impossible not to hear its singing, but it’s heard less often in our district at present.
The Pope who gave us our modern calendar, Gregory XIII, died on April 10th. 1585. He was noted for his militant attitude towards those that he regarded as heretics and he organised a Te Deum to celebrate the slaughter of Huguenots during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
One of his outstanding achievements was the construction of the beautiful fountains in the Piazza del Pantheon and the Piazza del Popolo.
An old pagan festival used to take place near the island of Eigg in Scotland on April 15th. In ancient times worshippers used to walk three times in an anti-clockwise direction at St. Catherine’s Well. This became Christianised later when attendees took part in a candlelit procession and Mass was celebrated there.
The Sunday nearest to the 16th. is an important day in Scottish history because it was at this time of year that the Battle of Culloden took place, which resulted in the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army by the Duke of Cumberland in 1746.
The situation was different in 1314 when the Scottish army inflicted a major defeat on the English at Bannockburn.
Heroes like William Wallace and Robert Bruce are still fondly remembered in their native land.
DANCING AND LEISURE ACTIVITIES
There was a noticeable increase in outdoor games such as hurling and football as the month advanced although they intended to be impromptu. Official matches, properly lined pitches, or dressing-rooms simply did not exist in our neighbourhood. Jerseys and sporting gear were very rare too.
When Easter arrived there was a selection of dances from which one could choose. Castleblakeney hosted one of the first carnivals in this region. That was in the early 50’s. It was a huge success and local businessman, Eddie Gilmore, is credited with being the organiser.
In addition to dancing, there were swing-boats chair-o’-planes and dodgems. (We called the latter ‘Bumpers.’) As well as these, ice-cream from Donoghue’s Shop was available in the carnival grounds and if all that weren’t enough, one could sing along to the music that could be heard all over the village, which came through a selection of loud speakers. ‘Mocking Bird Hill’ and ‘Music, Music, Music’ are the songs that come to mind.
The prologue to all of this was a parade headed by Knockcrockery Brass Band from Co. Roscommon. The Parade Marshal was the late Mattie Giblin from Caltra, one of heaviest men in this part of the county.
Needless to say, even though Castleblakeney hosted one of the first carnivals, it wasn’t the only one. Ballygar had its own and I think that this one has continued right up to the present day. Nearly every parish in this area has had one at some stage.
Present day dancers can hardly appreciate the amount of work it took to host one of these. When the wooden floor had been installed and the canvas marquee had been erected, volunteers had to man the mineral bars, cloakrooms, and admission points.
A group had to patrol the perimeters each night to ensure that unpaid customers didn’t enter. One of the features of that time was when patrons and their partners were exiting early, they would sell their passes at a reduced rate or donate them free of charge to those in search of a bargain. This often occurred too in the case of dance halls.
Another difference is that people travel by cars or by coach at present, whereas most of us came by bicycle or on very rare occasions, we teamed up with friends to hire transport when a special band or artist was performing a long distance from home.
Health and safety weren’t big issues then. Few if any of the cars that we used had safety belts and passenger numbers usually exceeded the amount that was recommended by the manufacturers. On the other hand some of the car owners tried to ensure that huge numbers didn’t emerge from their vehicles when the gardaí were around.
I suppose an example of the spirit of recklessness that prevailed among us when we set out for Seapoint Ballroom in Galway city with seven more of our companions plus the driver, all packed into a Ford Prefect car. Thankfully no mishaps occurred along the way.
Is it any wonder that our offspring ignore our words of wisdom when they hear of such exploits? ÷