Jack Powell is the oldest practising vet in Ireland. His only rival was the late Ham Lambert, a vet who also managed to play both rugby and cricket for Ireland. ‘I’m still trying to earn a few quid’, laughs the ninety-five years old.
His understanding of the changing tides of 20th century Ireland is incisive. Perhaps it is the simple fact that he was alive for so much of it. Indeed, considering his grandfather, born in 1830, was a teenager during the Great Famine, Jack Pole seems to transcend all chronological barriers. ‘One of my grandfather’s duties in 1848 was when his father sent him down to Toomyvara with a horse and cart and a load of turnips. He tipped them up in the village square and people came and helped themselves. If you’ve a hole in your belly, a boiled turnip is probably better than nothing.’
Jack hails from a long line of farmers from village of Toomyvara in the northern foothills County Tipperary’s Silvermine Mountains. His great-nephew is the seventh generation born on the land. In 1932, he went to veterinary college and, aside from serving with the Canadian Air Force during World War Two, he has been practising since he graduated in 1936.
One of Jack’s earliest memories was of the Spanish Flu epidemic that struck Europe in early 1919 and which is alleged to have killed more people than World War One. ‘Our entire house was stricken with Flu. I was the youngest but I think I must have got some sort of immunity because I was always running around with hot drinks. We had no antibiotics. Nothing to treat the symptoms. My father carried on anyway. The farm had to go on. Cows had to be milked.’
Milking cows was a family affair. ‘My father started off with as many cows as he could milk and then according as the five of us came along there were a few more. I milked my first cow when I was five years of age. We finished up with twenty-five cows, three or four each. We’d all sit on out stools and milk by hand. We milked them before we went to school and again when we came back. The milk was taken to the creamery in Toomyvarra with a horse and dray cart.’
Meanwhile, the surrounding countryside erupted in a rebellion ‘which started in 1916 and went on until the foundation of the state in 1921’. Jack remembers his father giving refuge to four IRA men on the run. Over twenty years later, Jack met two of these fortuitous refugees. They remembered his father’s kindness ‘like it was yesterday’. But after independence came Civil War and, in Jack’s opinion, ‘we did far worse things to ourselves than the Black and Tans ever did’. His mother was constantly herding Jack and his siblings back into the house lest a stray bullet caught them. One day Mrs O’Meara who ran a hotel in Nenagh went out to see what all the shooting was about. ‘She was a rather buxom lady but either way a stray bullet got her and killed her.’
In time, hostilities ended and the Free State got a more secure footing. ‘I heard my father say that in his time practically every house in Nenagh had changed hands. So changes are on-going! But it is not long since the small farmer, once abundant in this area disappeared. That has changed the whole structure of rural Ireland.’ Their decline began with the Economic War in the 1930s when the British government slapped a tariff on all agricultural produce from Ireland. ‘Cattle, sheep, pigs – you couldn’t sell them. Top prime bullocks were sold for maybe 7 or 8 pound a head. Sheep and pigs would be sold for literally shillings. You couldn’t sell a calf but you could sell the skin for 10 shillings just to survive.’
In the hard times, a small farmer’s staunchest ally was his horse. ‘I qualified in 1936 and I went to England and practised there until 1947. That was the terrible winter when TB broke out. But even at that time, most of the work here was done by horses. Irish draughts – the foundation of the horses that made Ireland famous. They did everything. They went to church, mass and meeting. They went to the station with a load of coal. They went to the market with the pigs. They were athletic animals, not like the heavy Shires. They suited the country. But then Mr Ferguson brought in the grey tractor and whatever about the father, the son wanted to get the tractor. So the horses had to go.’ Jack Powell asserts that there is not a horse working within a fifty-mile radius of Toomvarra today.
‘We had no electric light, no television, no motor car. We walked to school, regardless of weather. We walked the cattle to the fair. And so of course the standard of living now is vastly superior to what it was fifty or sixty years ago. Everyone has 4 by 4s, faxes, telephones, all mod cons. Rural Ireland as I knew it has gone. I’m still part of it and I enjoy living in it. But small farmers have gone the same way small shopkeepers will disappear. Land that was bought for maybe £10 an acre now fetches £20,000 an acre. One has to accept that changes are inevitable.
‘And probably, materially, these changes are for the better. But in many other ways, we’re losers,’ says Jack, pointing at the television. ‘We went to the neighbours’ houses and we chatted and sang songs and played tricks and enjoyed ourselves. Now you hardly know your neighbours. Young people hardly know their neighbours. It’s not their fault. If we were the same age, we’d be the same. They’re the victim of a way of life. There isn’t the same social contact between farmers as there used to be. Nothing unites people like trouble. We shared everything in the country. If you killed a pig, you’d put it in a barrel, pickle it and hang it up. You brought pork to the neighbours and if they killed one, they reciprocated. There was very close contact and co-operation between farmers and neighbours. It’s not necessary now.’
Since Jack’s wife Sheila passed away in 2005, he lives alone with his hilariously excitable dog Trixie. He keeps busy by continuing to practise as a vet, keeping a close eye on the progress of his greyhounds and totting up the number of Volkswagens he’s had since 1952 when he owned the first Beetle in Nenagh – thirty-eight at the last count.
WIth thanks to Val Beamish.
Jack Powell, MRCVS, passed away at the Rivervale Nursing Home on February 6th 2015 in his 102nd year. He was buried in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Toomevara.