‘Well? What do you think of this country?’ asks Baby Rudden, chucking some turf into the Smith & Wellstead stove. Baby has not travelled a great deal in her life. In fact, she says, ‘the furthest I got was to the cattle byre at the back of the shed, and maybe out in the hayfield the odd time’. It’s hard to escape with all the animals, she explains, although, in truth, she did make a few ‘long journeys’ to Dublin in 2006 when her late brother John was taken ill.
The country to which Baby refers is a silent labyrinth of grassy hills, winding lakes and lonely trees, two miles east of the Cavan village of Redhills. She has farmed this land all her life and now lives alone. The remoteness of the farmstead is made all the more poignant when she explains that, in her childhood, the area was replete with stone cottages, forty or more, and the laughter of children. ‘They’re all dead and gone out of the houses now’, she says.
Most of the cottages she knew have vanished into this difficult, scratchy earth, but there are still some scattered about, their grey, wet, crumbling walls inching ever downwards.
One of the few houses still operating is the farm where her father Benny Rudden was born. It stands just across the valley in Callowhill. It was thatched in Baby’s youth but has been modernized by relatives in recent times.
Baby’s great-grandfather Mathew Rudden was born in about 1820 and settled at Callowhill with his wife Rose Reilly during the time of the Great Famine. Their son Matthew, known as Matha, married another Rose, a Miss Smith from nearby Kivvy, and took on the farm. (*) Their son Bernard was Baby’s father Benny.
In the spring of 1921, Benny Rudden inherited the farm at Drumcor and built the cottage where his daughter now lives. He made it with ‘sand, stones and materials he dug from the land here’.
Ireland was a rapidly changing country at that time. On 28 June 1921, the nearby mansion at Redhills, home to the White-Venables family but latterly requisitioned as a British army barracks, was burned to the ground. Four years later, Dáil Éireann ratified the report of the Boundary Commission which located the border between the new Free State and Northern Ireland less than 3 miles from the Rudden farmstead.
Within a few years of moving to Drumcor, Benny was a married man. Born in the house in 1923, Bridget – or Baby – was the eldest of his four children. Her only sister Alice was born in 1925 but was destined to succumb to meningitis aged 19, just weeks after her marriage. Meningitis also killed Baby’s brother, Little Matt, in 1946, when he was just 17. That left Baby and her youngest brother, John, who was born in 1931. ‘He was the pet’, says Baby.
Photographs of Baby’s family adorn the walls of her kitchen, scattered between the Scottish stove, a portrait of Jesus and a dresser filled with dusty plates and cups. She shares the room with two dogs. Darst is a faithful old timer who used to ride up on the tractor with her brother John. Spot is a lively youngster inherited from a deceased neighbour.
Baby Rudden’s farm is all about animals. In the past two years, she has tarred the dirt track avenue and replaced a series of old corrugated huts with a handsome 14,000 square foot shed. The new shed houses her 30-strong herd of beefy, muscular cattle, healthy sucklers, with golden-red Limousin and docile Herefords in the ascendance. One day they will make their way to the marts of Cavan, Ballybay and the Saturday market just across the border in a field in Co Fermanagh. Baby knows each cow intimately and takes time to bottle-feed an orphaned calf during our tour. The shed makes life much easier for her but she finds the doors hard to close. ‘I need to eat more Weetabix’, deduces the 86-year-old.
The cattle have plenty of company. Adjacent to Baby’s house is a small line of scraggly damson trees, where with two peaceable she-goats munch grass. (‘She’s Kitty and she’s Kitty too’, says Baby). Three muddy ducks, two drakes, a goose, a proud rooster and a seemingly tame flock of pigeons promenade along the white-washed walls. A cheeky Robin has set up home on one of the cottage windowsills. The goose is destined for the Christmas table but the others are there for the eggs. Her guinea fowl were lately decimated by a wicked fox but her chickens are securely compounded between an oil tanker and two dilapidated vehicles set upon a grassy knoll above the house, a VW Caravelle and a Renault Trafic.
Elsewhere in this vaguely mud-swept terrain, old agricultural machinery rusts between the ditches, silage bails and the blossoming gorse (known as ‘whin’ in these parts). A legacy of her late brother is to be found on the rear lights stapled to the trees. He used to hang empty Castrol GTX cans along a clothes line between the trees. When asked for the purpose of this display, he cryptically replied: ‘Every man should have something that no other man has’.
To get to their school in Killoughter, the young Ruddens had to make their bare-footed way across fields and bogs on a journey that ‘would take near an hour’. ‘There were no buses then’, says Baby. ‘We knew no different because we were all hard up’. In wet weather, their father sometimes walked with them. ‘He used to beat the water off the ferns on the rocks so we’d not get our feet wet’. There was a good roaring fire at school to dry off. ‘We had to gather whins [gorse] off the rocks to get the fire going’.
The 100 or more pupils also brought their own lump of turf with them to school. ‘Your children could be back to doing that yet’, she says with a merry cackle as news of further economic downturn ekes out of her wireless. The teacher was a rough drunkard while the priest was seemingly inclined to cure his whiskey hangover by welting children across the bottom with a knotty blackthorn stick. When John once refused to go to school for fear of a further beating, the Garda gave him a court summons.
Baby Rudden left school at the age of 12 and went to help her parents on the farm. She never married but instead devoted her life to the farm. Her parents died ‘in the one year’ in the 1970s. She and John ran the farm ever after, without fuss or complication. One of the most exciting events of the 1990s was when Hollywood came to Redhills to film not one but two movies – ‘The Playboys’ and ‘The Run of the Country’. ‘They tarred the boy in the cattle shed on top of the hill’, says Baby of the latter film. Over 1,300 people turned up on the first day of filming, to see what was going on, but were swiftly dispersed for insurance reasons. The movie crew were apparently given ‘a great feed’ during the three months of filming, while local lads employed as extras were frequently to be seen glugging whiskey from the neck and hiding the bottles behind their backs the moment the wives showed up.
Baby Rudden is a remarkable woman, completely at ease with herself. In a previous generation, she would almost certainly have smoked a pipe. She speaks with a strong accent that softens with familiarity. She has lived through considerable hardships and yet retains a wonderful warmth, encapsulated in her shy smile. Modern times are certainly no worse than the past. She likes to read and watches the news on TV. She does not believe in ghosts, but has a keen interest in the goings on of everyone in the parish, and is intrigued by the particular burial arrangements for the recently departed. She loves having people over to visit, to sit around on chairs and talk the talk, then head on home when time suits. Her kitchen was full of ‘six or seven’ only a few nights before, a spontaneous gathering. ‘There’s nobody wants anyone in the house now”, she observes. ‘They won’t let you in!’ Baby is also something of a local hero when it comes to food, famous for the beef soup with vegetables and potatoes she gives to the men who help work her land, making hay and silage.
Perhaps Baby’s most useful asset is her canny business sense for you simply will not pull the wool over this woman’s eyes. And that, for the cousin who is one day set to inherit Drumcor, is a considerable blessing.
Bridget ‘Baby’ Rudden passed away ‘in the loving care’ of the staff of Oakview Nursing Home, Belturbet, Co. Cavan, on 30 October 2015. She was buried at St. Bridget’s Church Killoughter, Redhills, on Sunday 1 November, following a terrific eulogy by Fr Jason Murphy.
* There may be some kinship here to the Johnny Ruden murder case, click here for more.
WIth thanks to Philomena Daly, John Kelly, Jason Murphy, Fintan McPhillips, Jo Patton, Paddy Donoghue, Johnny Madden, Fred Madden, Alice Forde, Bill Reilly, John Joe Rudden and all at the Oakview Nursing Home, Belturbet.
Jeff Bilby’s Connection
In July 2018, I was contacted by Jeff Bilby of Kingston, New Hampshire whose great-great-grandmother Bridget Rudden married John Reilly and lived in Brockly townland, just outside of Redhills. They had 9 children between about 1869 and 1889 who grew up in the area; many are buried in Killoughter. John Reilly lived to be 104, dying in those hills in 1940 so, as Jeff puts it, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if he bumped into Baby Rudden in the fields, as he was a farmer.’ John and Bridget are thought to be buried, with other family members, in the burial grounds by St. Brigit’a Roman Catholic Church. Another of the Reillys married into the family of John and Teresa Carroll from Newtownbutler who also raised nine children in the area; one of their grandsons was a Bishop in Dublin from the 1960’s through to the 80’s, while one of the Carroll girls married a Reilly after they immigrated to Lowell, Massachusetts, which is where Jeff fits in.