‘It was him who started it’, says Eugene, pointing at his son, James. ‘I’d never even seen a pumpkin before. A turnip I had seen in my young days, but never a pumpkin’.
James is about to get into his car and return to Dublin where he works as a landscape gardener. His father stalls his departure. ‘1995 was the year Kerry won the All-Ireland’, he continues. ‘But it was also the year myself and James won the Pumpkin of the Year. And I tell you, there was more carry on about that pumpkin than there was over Kerry winning the Sam Maguire’.
When Eugene recalls that first sweet victory, his entire face crumples into a huge, contagious grin. He is a sprightly and restless fellow. It’s hard to believe he’s knocking on 80 years old. When approached from a distance, one can but marvel at the speed of his nod-wink greeting. Even though he is recovering from a rare dose of the flu, his speech is rapid, fluent and peppered with humour. It’s almost impossible to get a word in. When emphasising a point, his eyes latch on to yours and his entire chin tilts into his breast-plate.
Eugene was the second of eight children born into a farming family outside Granard, Co Longford. His father James was a popular man, much admired for his brute strength during the annual tug o’ war championships. ‘My old fellow was one of the strongest men in Ireland’, maintains Eugene. ‘Holy Jayzus, the big shoulders on him’.
From the farm, young Eugene and his siblings walked to school in Abbeylara, passing by the eerie ruins of the Cistercian abbey en route. They carried their own turf for the school fire. Eugene left school shortly before his 14th birthday and ‘landed back’ at home to help out on the farm. He earned two shillings a day picking spuds for the neighbours. One senses this busy soul was able to pick a fierce amount of spuds back when he was a teenager.
At the age of 18, Eugene scored a job with Bord na Mona, Ireland’s State-owned turf company, which was then in its infancy. He was based in the company’s factory at Abbeyshrule for the next 35 years, originally arriving at work on a bicycle because ‘nobody had a car back then and boy racers went about on their feet’. Much as he carried his own turf to school, he brought his own water as there wasn’t a tap in Abbeyshrule.
In 1975, Eugene was appointed supervisor and given charge of fifty employees. ‘That means I’d be telling you what to do instead of you telling me’, says he. In truth, his brief was considerable as it was during this time that Bord na Mona were upgrading their mechanised harvesting techniques along the extensive boglands of Longford, Westmeath and Offaly. Up until this point, most people used raw peat sods for the fire. Bord na Mona now offered briquettes of shredded peat, compressed into a virtually smokeless, slow-burning fuel that was easy to shift and easy to store. The company was also supplying peat to all the power stations of the Electricity Supply Board.
On a more personal level, Eugene was involved with the development of peat moss, a combination of peat and soil, which became popular with gardeners, particularly those with potted plants and greenhouses.
Perhaps it was Eugene’s intrinsic understanding of the power of peat that propelled the pumpkins of Camagh to victory in the 1995 National Pumpkin Championships. Certainly his wheelbarrow has carted a good deal of nutritious dark brown soil down to the greenhouse where his pumpkins grow. Beside the greenhouse lie eighteen drills of potatoes and vegetables, all for home consumption. But is within the poly-tunnel itself that the real beauties are born. Jack o’ Lanterns. Autumn Golds. Connecticut Fields. And Atlantic Giants, the present favourite for pumpkin contests. Eugene treats each pumpkin with a sharp, competitive eye. A founding father of the Virginia Pumpkin Festival in Co Cavan, he is a regular exhibitor across Ireland. In 2005 and 2006, he had a back-to-back victory in the National Championships, latterly with a whopper weighing 25 stone.
Today Eugene grows up to 500 pumpkins a year, primarily for the Halloween market, to rest upon gateposts and side-tables with candles burning bright within. Others are destined for pumpkin soup, some are sold to Fyffes and any remaining stock is chucked in to the cattle feed. Eugene says the crop is entirely weather dependent and some years are utterly hopeless.
The Brady farm, which he purchased in 1961, occupies some of the dryer land in this boggy neighbourhood. On still nights, you can hear the brown waters of the River Inny flowing beneath the nearby Camagh Bridge. The river forms the border between Westmeath and Longford. His son John now runs the farm, looking after the 45 cattle and a second, smaller farm over at Granard. There is no doubt that Eugene’s most peaceful moments are to be found when he is tending to his pumpkins, oblivious to the sound of barking dogs and boy racers motoring down those long, infinite bog roads.