Cashel, County Galway
Farmer & Seaweed
Born circa 1959
(Photo: James Fennell)
‘I was working at a sugar factory in England, d’ya see? They had me on the spinners and that’s how I grew the whiskers. Have you ever seen sixteen ton of white sugar on the floor? It’s a sight for the eyes to behold. A man from Lettermullen once said to me that we should buy it all and bring it back for the poitín. When you’re on the spinners, the steam rises up. The heat and the steam. It comes down a shoot and into the mixer. T’is very hot, boiling. And that’s what makes the whiskers grow. T’was the same with the Wolfe Tones and Luke Kelly. It’s the sugar that did it.’
When James Ridge tells you something like this, you are inclined to believe him. It’s something about the way he sets his head to one side and focuses his intense eyes upon your own. Besides which, in terms of where his whiskers came from, boiling sugar fumes seems like a perfectly credible origin.
James was born and raised in this area where his parents Martin and Kathleen Ridge ran a bed and breakfast. Martin was ‘a very tidy man, always out with the sweeping brush’. By day he worked as a ganger for Galway County Council. He was also involved with the Local Defence Force during the ‘Emergency’ years - ‘a bit of marching and practice’ – while an uncle served in North Africa in the desert campaign.
James has always had one eye on army life. Several of his childhood friends joined the Irish Army. The memories of some elicit a loud envious shudder from his lips, others warrant a long, approving growl. ‘They were like the Wild Geese of long ago. They went out to Cyprus and the Congo and all over the world’.
James, a fluent Irish speaker, makes his living from small-scale fishing and farming, as well as gathering turf and harvesting seaweed. ‘Ah sure but I’m not too busy now,’ he says, grimacing at the sky. ‘I’m only working on a few bits of seaweed and there isn’t much in the way of fish anywhere now.’ His handsome visage has also secured him the occasional role as a model for the photographer Perry Ogden.
We say goodbye on the steps of his home where the television is tuned into the afternoon’s horseracing. ‘Anthony McCoy is in the saddle today,’ he advises, with a particularly powerful wink. ‘McCoy’s a good jockey, as tough a man as you get. All bone and muscle. Pat Eddery was good too but, oh Cripes, McCoy’s good.’
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