Mike blames it on the tractor. He should know. He’s had one for close on sixty years. Before that he had horses. In the early days, the horses did everything. Take turf for example. When Mike was young, he would accompany a horse and cart down to a bog outside Newport. The man cut and dried the turf. The horse carted it home. ‘Two carts of turf would be drawn every day,’ says Mike, ‘and brought home, ten miles each way or forty miles a day if you like.’ It was the same with mowing the fields. ‘The whole parish was cut with the horses!’
But however fond you might be of the horses, they just can’t do as much work as a tractor. ‘The tractor made work awful easy.’ That was the deduction of the farmers of County Mayo when the first tractors arrived after the Second World War. And when ‘the hydraulics came’ in the 1950s, blacksmiths began to hang up their horseshoes forever.
A bachelor farmer of eighty years age, Mike lives with his sister Eileen in a 1950s house on a secluded chunk of seaweed splattered coastline midway between Westport and Newport. The house is accessed by a wonderful wending road, the heaving frothy Atlantic tide on one side, jaunty hedges of yellow gorse on the other. Directly opposite his home is a large shellfish factory where they catch some of the mussels, winkles, clams and oysters that might go on to whet a Dubliner’s palette.
This is where Mike grew up. Or rather, he grew up in the big corrugated barn next door. The barn, as it is now, was formerly a thatched family home. Mike tells me a tale of a priest hidden there in Penal Times. ‘The man of the house was blind. After a few days, the priest asked, “Would you like to get your sight back?” The man said, “I would but I’m blind for life.” The priest put on this shawl, started reading and sent the men out to a horse that was in that field there. But as the man got to the horse, it fell down dead and he got his sight back and never was blind after. That’s a fact.’
Mike was the second of three boys and a girl born to a cattle farmer and his wife, a postmaster’s daughter from near Ballinrobe. In the beginning, the Burkes were a minority in the Kilmeena parish. ‘They were all Geraghtys,’ he explains. ‘Every house and everyone in it – except my grandfather’s family, the Burkes. But the Geraghtys are nearly all gone now.’ With no children of his own, the Burkes of Kilmeena will also pass on in the coming years.
Mike is heading out to Castlebar to call in on his one surviving brother.
At its peak, Mike’s eighty-acre farm consisted of a hundred head of sheep and eighty of cattle. He still keeps some dry cattle out on the island of Inishbee; the herd come to and from the mainland by raft twice a year. For many years, he also acted as a sort of livestock agent for some of his neighbouring landowners, escorting their cattle to the mart in Newport – or ‘Baile’ as he calls it. He swears that he never once had need for a vet. ‘I always had the right stuff to do the injections myself,’ he says. ‘I suppose I was gifted that way.’
Mike feels life in modern Mayo is infinitely better than the world he knew as a young man. In those times, most people had to emigrate. Sometimes to America; often to England. In the 1950s, a number of his mother’s kinsmen, the Walsh family, upped sticks and made their way ‘up the country’ to the short-grass meadows of South Kildare.
Farming has become a secondary career, says Mike. During the week, you may try and earn a few bob by other means. He cites a neighbour who keeps a flock of sheep but builds garage doors for a living. A vet from Monaghan who I met since told me that, come Saturday morning, he is inundated with calls from part-time farmers who have only just got around to looking at their animals.
Mike is sceptical about the actual need for people to farm anymore. ‘In the old days, wages were very low and everyone grew their own stuff – potatoes, carrots, parsnips, wheat, everything. The people had cattle and needed the corn to feed them. But now that’s all done away with. It’s as cheap to buy everything in Westport than it is to get a man in on a tractor to plough and rotavate and drill and roll. The only reason you’d grow your own is because it tastes better!’
If he does have a regret, it is that the sense of community has gone out of the world. In his youth, all young women and men would assemble in the fields after they were cut to put the hay up in ricks. ‘They had to build them such a way that there was no holes on the side or the water would get in and it’d rot.’ He says the advent of the corrugated shed put an end to the rick-making. ‘Well, you could put the hay in the shed at your leisure before then,’ he says with glum logic.