Standing by the sheep-sheds of the north Wicklow farmyard where he has worked for most of his life, ‘Red Tom’ has entertained a lot of people with his ranting in the course of his eighty-four years. His mouth is on standby at all times, ready to break into a sardonic laugh or a merry curse or an essay of unprintable opinions. The mischievous smile that he sports when he is finished provides the perfect antidote to his wrath.
Today, the subjects of Red Tom’s ranting are: (a) the government; (b) modern sheep-breeding techniques; and (c) the more target-specific notion of two young lads trying to cajole him into posing for a book. ‘Vanishing Ireland?’ he queries. ‘Well, my lad’s vanishing and I’m getting smaller alright. Next week it‘ll be gone. Sure they’ll save a fortune on my coffin.’
Tom was the sixth of nine children. ‘There was no television in them years,’ he explains. His father had a small farm near Bray Head. Tom was a young boy when he helped his first ewe give birth to a lamb. He has been a shepherd and farmhand all his life, principally for the Kilruddery estate.
But it could all have been very different, he says. In 1939, young Tom and his sister received an invitation from their mother’s brother, David Radcliffe, to go and live with him on his sheep farm in Australia. ‘He had 20,000 acres,’ says Tom. ‘But he had no family so he wanted somebody to take it on.’ Tom’s mother had sent Mr Radcliffe a photograph of the two children ‘in our confirmation rig and he took a liking to us even though he had more nephews than what we were’. The chosen heirs were all set to travel to Australia in 1938 when their parents called the trip off. ‘We can’t let you go,’ they said sadly, ‘or we’ll never see you again.’ And then the war broke out and the deal was off. But Tom was secretly delighted. He remains convinced that if he had gone out to Australia, the Japanese would have captured him.
Tom has never drunk or gambled. ‘My brother lived to be ninety-four. And you could say he built the lounge in Lenehans up above in Bray with all the money he spent on the drink.’ Tom’s main vice was smoking. ‘I’m only after giving up inside the last forty years.’ At his peak, he got through a hundred Sweet Afton a day. ‘I’d get them for nothing,’ he says. ‘I was working for the Passionates that owns Mount Argus. There was one lad called Father Michael and, be janey mac, every time he saw me going by, he’d say, “Here, hold on,” and throw me three boxes with twenty packs in each.’
Tom never married. ‘I hadn’t got time with the scrambling.’ In his twenties, Tom went everywhere on a BSA motorbike. ‘We took to the old laneways, every which one we could find, and we’d see what was going on up there.’ One opportunity to secure a bride came a cropper when he crashed his bike into the Bray Town Hall, while ‘coming home one night at 11 o’clock, my little girlfriend on my back’. There ‘wasn’t a scratch on her’ but she moved on anyhow.
Red Tom has known Henry Chapman a long time. That said, its only been twenty years since Henry sold his forty-eight-acre farm and took up work as the Kilruddery gamekeeper. As chance would have it, Henry already had several decades of experience in the feeding habits and flight patterns of the pheasant. His father had been a keen shot and bred horses for show-jumping. Henry has an inkling that his forbears were well-to-do folk. Perhaps he is a kinsman of Sir Thomas Chapman of County Westmeath, who was himself the father to Lawrence of Arabia.
Henry was fifty years old when he took a wife but, content as he is, he is not sure he could recommend becoming a father so late in life. He was automatically at least fifty years older than his children and the age gap has been a complication at times.
At length, the two men head on. Henry makes his way up the Sugar Loaf to look on the pheasants; he will stay there until after dark. With his Madeira felt hat tucked over his ears, Tom is headed for home, to the new house with the new bathroom in it. For all the banter between them, Henry has great respect for Tom after the latter single-handedly re-roofed old Mrs Chapman’s house while Henry was away. But life was like that in the old times, says Tom. ‘One time you’d whistle and a lad’d hop in over a ditch to help you. Now nobody will do nothing for nothing.’