John Corbett reflects on Octobers spent in the Irish countryside

By the time October arrived we would have been well settled back at school. Like most of our friends we enjoyed the daily trips on foot to and from Cloonkeenkerrill National School. It gave us time to converse together and engage in races and games, not forgetting the slagging slogans that were spewed out freely like:
‘Hay and oats for the Gortbrack Goats
And eggs and rashers for the Killuane dashers’.

One of our teachers, Mrs. Cogavin, used the same route as we did on her bicycle so we had to be on our best behaviour when she was in the vicinity. The other teacher, Miss Cloonan, only travelled a short distance from the school so we were ‘beyond her ken’ when we left the first stretch of road behind us.

I think we were reasonably well behaved. This may have to do with the limited opportunities for vandalism available at the time rather than any virtue on our part.
Pupils of a later vintage recounted episodes of taking pot shots at attachments on telegraph poles but this didn’t occur in our time because there weren’t any telephone lines near the Cloonkeenkerrill Road.

Cloonkeenkerrill, where our school was located, was quite interesting. It contained a ruined abbey dedicated to St. Kerrill, who was a contemporary of St. Patrick. Sometimes we would wander through the ruins in search of the body of the legendary bird that storytellers said was to be found in its precincts.
Local tradition had it that a bird would die there every Monday on account of a quarrel between two holy men, St. Kerrill from Cloonkeenkerrill and St. Connell from Kilconnell. Our searches for the bodies of the dead birds proved fruitless.
There were many other things that attracted our attention in the abbey ruins. We came across two vaults. One belongs to the Cunniffes from Attymany who continue to use it for the burial of family members. Then there was the large tomb belonging to the once wealthy Burke family of Gurteen Lodge.

There are no known relatives of theirs around, but, apparently, they were very popular in the last century and contributed to many worthy causes, such as the building of the local church and the construction of Walsh’s Forge in Cappalusk. They disappeared from the local scene and I’ve never found an accurate explanation for their disappearance.
We were intrigued by the story of a secret underground passage from the middle of the abbey that leads to an opening in a field a few hundred yards away. Its existence has been confirmed by one of Galway’s archaeological societies but it’s considered too dangerous to explore.

We had also heard about local man, Mike Ward, who was fencing close to the site. When he went to bore a hole for a stake, his crowbar disappeared into the ground and was never recovered. According to tradition the underground passage was an escape route for monks during periods of religious persecution. Tantalising tales about chalices and other valuables being hidden there, abound.

 Finally there is the spot known as Kerrill’s Bed on which most families place the coffins of their relatives before interment. No one knows how this custom began but some historians think that it originated when local inhabitants used to leave the bodies of loved ones at the door of the monastery to be buried by the monks.

It’s claimed that Kerrill built a small church there in the fifth century but when the lands came into the hands of the Third Order of St. Francis, they built a more elaborate structure near the original site. It functioned as a monastery until 1616 and at that time, it was where parishioners attended religious services. A new church was built closer to the village of Gurteen in 1796 and it became the place of worship for the faithful afterwards.

We found other interesting pursuits especially on the way home from school. We delighted in racing in the river and splashing one another with its clear waters.
However in October we were expected to help with potato harvesting and we were liable to be chastised if we were too late coming home from school.
‘Slengeing’ was the name that adults gave to such conduct and the word seems to have vanished completely from the current vocabulary. Derogatory terms such as ‘plike,’ ‘plexter’ and ‘levate’, seem to have faded from the linguistic arena also.

 Picking potatoes wasn’t one of our favourite chores. Mid-century harvesting was slow and tedious. It demanded a great deal of back bending. Two methods were used in the case of potatoes.

One was when a horse and plough was used to split the drills. Gatherers then came along with buckets to root out the tubers and carry them to the sacks, or pit, located in the field. The second method was to dig the crop with a spade and then fill them into a bucket or bag. We didn’t have a horse or plough so it was this last system we employed.
Later on potato diggers came on the scene. These had rotating wings, or blades, that ripped the drills and scattered the potatoes in such a way as they could be easily gathered. Plenty of help was needed when they were in operation because they rooted out the tubers much faster than the other modes.

An interesting account of the working of one of these is to be found in ‘The Potato Gatherers’ by Brian Friel. Critics claimed that the diggers caused more damage to the crop than digging or splitting the drills, but when they became available, people took to them and very few wanted to return to the old system.

The first ones to appear in our locality were tractor-drawn and belonged to agricultural contractors, rather than individual farmers.

The size of the crop varied. We had less than an acre, but in the case of those that sold them for export, it might amount to five or six acres. As with most farming tasks, the weather was an important factor. I can recall quite a few warm pleasant days in October when we were digging potatoes in Mounthazel. The ground was fairly high and we had a panoramic view of large chunks of counties Galway and Roscommon.

Incidentally, the best land in our district was located in Mounthazel. Needless to say we didn’t spend much time admiring the scenery or listening to the singing of the birds. It was important get the job done and to have the pit secured before the winter frost set in.
Making the pit was done in an eco friendly manner. The potatoes were covered with layers of straw before clay was placed on top of them. The clay for covering them came from the field in which they had grown and when it was heaped onto the pit, it left a channel all around that would absorb rain and prevent water getting into the potatoes.
In the case of large crops it was normal practice for neighbours to come together to harvest them and when all the work was finished, celebrations followed when the job was finished. They generally took the form of country house céilithe with copious amounts of food and drink being served to all in sundry.

October was the month when The Stations began. They were held twice a year. Mass was celebrated in one house in the village and the neighbours were invited to attend. The householder paid the main stipend to the priest and the visitors also gave financial contributions.
The host was responsible for collecting the vestments, chalice and other materials that were needed. These were heavy enough and a cart was generally used to transport them from place or place. Sometimes they were brought on the carrier of a bicycle but this was the exception rather than the rule.

Each attendee brought gifts of tea, sugar or cakes to augment the supply that the host provided. In most instances the Mass was celebrated in the kitchen and a makeshift altar was erected for the purpose.
If family numbers were scarce or if the person having the Stations was elderly or lived alone, neighbours would come along and help to tidy the house beforehand.

In ordinary circumstances the confessional seal is sacrosanct. No matter what an individual confesses it is meant to be kept secret and I’ve never heard of a situation where this didn’t happen. At the Stations it could present a bit of a problem.
In the ordinary confessional box there was a screen between priest and penitent, but not so at the Stations. It was the custom for the priest to hear the confessions of the attendees in an adjacent room, which we called the parlour.
I remember one amusing incident in a village close to us. The penitent in this case had a hearing problem with the result that she spoke in a louder manner than most. On the preceding Sunday, the priest had given a homily about loving one’s neighbour.
The lady began, “It’s easy for you to talk about loving your neighbour but you don’t have to live near Pat___________ . Nobody could put up with a blackguard like him and if you think….. etc.” Because of the loudness of her voice and of course it may be that the door wasn’t fully closed, the dialogue could be overheard by those present, including the said Pat, who became very angry at hearing the comments.
It took all the ingenuity and diplomacy of the householder to prevent him from going into the parlour and confronting the lady in question. I imagine the atmosphere would have been a little tense for the remainder of the evening after that incident.

After Mass when all envelopes had been accounted for, the meal was served. Very often the celebrant and a selection of seniors (mostly males) moved to the parlour for the first sit-down serving. Snacks were given out to those waiting in the kitchen and they would be treated to a sit-down meal later.
The Station Mass could be celebrated in the morning or in the evening. If it were in the morning, the get-together would be short, but if it were in the evening, long sessions were the order of the day.

In earlier times ours usually took place at night but, as our parents got older, they preferred the morning ones. Most of our callers preferred October Stations because there were no restrictions in the amount of eatables that could be consumed. Lenten restrictions meant that less food was devoured in spring.

Great excitement and a great deal of preparation preceded The Stations. Thatching was often done to ensure that there were no leaks. A ‘drop down’ would be regarded as a poor reflection on a householder.

Windows and doors were painted and liberal quantities of lime and water were used to whitewash the outer walls. Lots of flowers were prepared and a vessel containing holy water was placed where it could be easily accessed. A specially pruned feather was the normal means by which the water was sprinkled on the congregation.

Most of the clergymen that came to our Stations left early so those present felt free to shed their inhibitions as music and dancing began. Party pieces, solo items and special performances would continue until the early hours. All this was accompanied by lively conversations, cosy ‘confabs’, and liberal portions of food and drink.

The biennial gathering afforded seniors an opportunity to meet and review the local happenings. They would be given the most comfortable seats in the house and they and their views were treated with the utmost respect.

Stations continue to be a feature of life in some areas but are less prevalent than they were in former days.

October was an enjoyable month for us. In addition to home entertainment, concerts, plays, and travelling shows were coming to local venues and this was yet another reason for us to be on our best behaviour.

I wonder if electronic entertainment is capable of generating the same level of excitement as we experienced when we attended those live performances on stage that took place many decades ago?