Matilda McBride is a hunting shooting and fishing sort of a woman. That's part and parcel of being a sheep farmer born and reared in the Slieve Bloom Mountains. It's not clear how far back the McBride's relationship to the mountain farm stretches. She's the fourth generation for sure. Alas, she is probably the last too. For the modern generation, farming has lost whatever allure it might once have had.
As a young girl, she was at school in Kinitty. When she became a teenager, her parents sent her to boarding school in Dublin. 'Oh god that was cruel!' she says. 'But it toughened me up for the rest of my life.' School days wore on forever. After school, she took the proverbial bull by the horns and went to agricultural college in Gurteen in County Tipperary. The die had been cast. Stuff the city; she wanted to be a farmer. Her sister, Betty, had married another farmer and was living nearby. Her brother had got a job and moved south to Limerick. The family farm awaited her.
The Victorian house of her forbears is beautifully situated in a wild garden of rhododendrons, sprightly azaleas and, during our visit, swathes of daffodils. An incredible beech tree, planted long centuries ago, has embedded itself into an old stonewall. To the rear of the house is the farmyard where Matilda keeps a shaggy brown Hereford bullock, a nosy goose, a sleepy donkey, a friendly collie dog called Rex, a hat-trick of roosters and a harem of hens.
Not long ago, they had horses too. 'Like our father, Betty and I were very keen horsemen. We had point to points around and we'd hunt with the Ormonde Hounds. They hunt over this land and all around here. My father rode a horse up to the day before he died aged eighty-two. But all I have now is the donkey!' The workhorses, always so quiet and friendly, made way for modern machinery.
Matilda is eloquent, shy, cheerful, generous and fittingly wary. When James convinces her to sit for his camera, she says, 'You're a right twister! The last man who wanted a snap of me nearly got hit over the head with a three-legged stool.' Her kitchen is a remarkable room of faded wallpapers, mountainous newspapers, stacks of post and pots and the flotsam and jetsam of umpteen generations. A wonderful Stanley fireplace flickers against a wall. 'It's as old as myself,' she says, giving it an affectionate kick. ' I'm in my early seventies, but early is beginning to get late.'
Matilda says she does not feel particularly lonesome up in the mountains. 'Everyone up here's the same. You have so much to do, you don't have time to feel remote. I suppose it's colder up here but, when the snow comes, it doesn't like leaving us.' Besides which, she often finds herself in conversation with strangers. 'We get a lot of walkers here. And they're always getting lost. Still, you can't blame town people for wanting to go for a walk.'
Earlier that morning Matilda helped one of her eighty ewes deliver a lamb.
'There's a lot if ups and downs in farming,' she sighs. 'And it's
often more than I can keep up with. You could say it's getting harder by
the day - and by the hour too! But what else would I do only dig a hole
in jump in?!'