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JJ Hackett (1937-2017) – Poet & Harness Maker – Ballinakill, Moate, County Westmeath

Photo: James Fennell.

There is no doubting that JJ Hackett is one of the more unusual farmers in the parish. He quotes Wordsworth while stoking the Stanley stove. [1] He has a pet crow who can recognise strangers. He is a fan of the philosopher Edmund Burke and he knows plenty about the Abbé Edgeworth from Longford who blessed King Louis XVI as he awaited his execution. He sometimes takes people on walkabout lecture tours at Clonmacnois and knows the tale of Dervogilla and Dermot MacMurrough inside out.

He’s also written his own memoirs, ‘Days Gone By’, for which he is justly acclaimed across the county. His tales are thoughtful but upbeat and give considerable insight into the rough ride he’s had along the way.

‘I was born with a deformity,’ he says. ‘My right hip was out and it’s still out. Nurse Brophy, the midwife, didn’t realise. There’s a poem about her. ‘Here comes Nurse Brophy on her new Raleigh bike, out by Mount Temple and home by the Pike’. I didn’t walk until I was seven years of age, simply for the reason that I couldn’t walk. And to this day I do tire easily, especially walking behind a funeral. But I can still ride a bicycle and I have ridden one from here to Tullamore, Mullingar, Athlone, to Cork twice and to Dublin City twice.’

‘When I could walk, I came out of that, and I went to school in 1944. I went to the nuns first, the Convent of Mercy in Moate. Then I went to Master Cox’s national school. I had a very good teacher, Master Liam Cox, a qualified professional historian who died at 93 years. He had great time for me at school for the short time I was there.’

The Hacketts were a Norman Irish family who ‘came into Galway’, only to be ‘pushed off by the de Burghs’ to Hacketstown, Co. Carlow. When the Reformation came, they refused to conformed and remained Catholic. It is not known when or why his ancestors came to Westmeath but the house where JJ lives was built for his great-great-great-grandfather.

‘This house was built for him in 1742, for Hackett. I can show you the original roof inside. It was a long, low, thatched house. We renovated it in 1966 and galvanised a lot of the roof. When people built those houses, they got furze [gorse] from the bogs, big flat furze, and out them over the rafters. Then they gathered layers and layers of heather and that was a foundation to put on the thatch. A good thatch should last for ten years. Gradually they kept thatching but when we got to it, the thatch was two foot deep. We left on small layer of it. But the blackbirds are divils for coming in and digging holes it for the worms. I often seen rain coming in during a thunderstorm and we’d have buckets catching the rain. The house was old. So, you’d have to put on another stroke of straw to offset the rain. The rafters got old and began to decay after 200 years so finally we got some money together and got it galvanized. It was only £95 for the tin. I was sorry to see the thatch go. I had a bit of nostalgia attached to it alright. But it had to go because of the rain, rain, rain. The walls are okay. They’re three foot thick. Lime and sand and stone. And they’re there for hundreds of years’. The kitchen floor was made of kelp and blue clay, brought in wet from the fields and tapped in with a shovel. ‘In later years we got in the concrete’.

JJ recounts a tale of his father returning home from Moate with a crystal radio set under his arm on the eve of the 1932 Eucharsitic Congree. With an aerial hanging off the clothesline and an earth plugged into the ground, his father was able to tune into Count John McCormack singing the Pan Angelicus ‘the very same as if he was on a telephone.’ By JJ’s time, they had progressed to a Pye, a wet and dry battery radio which they charged up in Moate; young JJ never missed listening in to the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake Draw. Photo: James Fennell.

JJ’s house stands at the centre of a sixteen-acre farm upon Ballinakill Hill, out on its own, about three miles south of Moate. It’s a drumlin-like landscape, accessible by rattling up an avenue of potholes. ‘You’re in the very central plain of Ireland,’ says JJ. ‘We’re only eight miles from the Shannon Valley and 150 yards from the Bog of Allen.’ [2]

JJ’s grandfather James J Hackett was the schoolteacher in the nearby village of Horseleap for which he was paid 24 shillings a month. James also owned some surveying chains, 22 yards long, which enabled him to measure acres, roods and perches for the letting of land to tenants. JJ still has the chains which have not been used since 1907.

James Hackett was heir to the family farmstead on Ballinakill and by 1901 he was living on the property with his elderly bachelor uncle Thomas.

‘The oldest man that lived here was Thomas Hackett who was born in 1830 and my father knew him. He lived to be over 80 years of age and when he died there was a great big wake. The clock behind you came here that time. The works in that are all timber! It’s workable but I don’t understand it like my father did. He used to oil it with a goose feather. The older people had that.’

In 1908, James was stricken with diabetes and died at the age of 52. His twelve-year-old son Daniel became heir apparent and inherited the farm when old Thomas died seven years later. [3] Daniel served his time with the local IRA during the War of Independence and then settled down to run his small farm.

Daniel had a mechanical mind that enabled him to fix clocks and bicycles for everyone in the neighbourhood. He was also a skilled cobbler, both making and mending boots and shoes. ‘At that time rural Ireland was full of people with leather boots who needed a handy man to fix them once or twice a year.’

‘And he was a great man at castrating calves and pigs’ says JJ proudly. ‘I held many a pig for him. He’d make an incision on the testicle with a knife, pour on the paraffin, take out the testicle and tie it up tight with hemp to stop the bleeding. It was painless. You hardly heard a squeal.’

In 1936, Daniel married Margaret Bradley, a neighbour’s daughter, fourteen years his junior.  JJ, the eldest of their nine children, was born in 1937, the year Ireland voted in favour of de Valera’s Constitution. [4]

‘And I’m living here ever since,’ he says with a flourish. ‘The old time customs were just fizzling out when I came along but my late father told me a lot about them. They were a different breed in them times. There’s an air of arrogance with people today. You get it in shops and in pubs. I call it a lack of education. They’re very well educated in one way but not in their manners. Life is very short. There is no use going around with a face that’s grim and sour, dim and dour. Civility costs nothing!’

‘Sometimes you’ll get it in the church. “Step out of my way please.” With all due respect to the younger generation, I see elderly people going into the church and maybe wanting a seat and a young person wouldn’t stand up for them. With us long ago, you were commandeered by your parents to do that. Not today!’

In 1944, JJ went to school at the Convent of Mercy in Moate, after which he went to Master Cox’s national school. However, calamity struck in early 1949, the very same dark winter’s night that his younger sister Margaret was born.

‘I only got four and a half years of school. I was coming twelve year old when I had a very bad accident and that’s why I use a walking stick. In 1949, I got hurt by a big tree. In the hard harsh winter of 1949 there was a midwife come to deliver my younger sister Margaret – she’s alive still in Moate – they were all home deliveries that time. That night, we were cutting timber for firewood in the month of March. We weren’t long home from school but a tree fell on top of me. It broke the collar-bone, the cranium and it done the right knee. I was put in a wheelbarrow and taken to Mullingar Hospital, broken up. I never went back to school. I was in hospital for about a year and ten months and I couldn’t walk for about two years.’

[Some years later, I was contacted by Lucia O’Reilly, who had met JJ in 2008. She wrote: ‘I do distinctly remember the story of the tree falling on him..he said it was a fairy tree, a “lone tree” he called it … and that he was climbing it and it took its revenge by toppling and falling on him!’]

By the close of 1950, JJ was able to move about for the first time since the accident. ‘I was still very feeble in the leg but I could ride a bicycle, a small girls bicycle!’ A few months after JJ left hospital, Daniel secured his son an apprenticeship as a harness maker with a saddlery and upholstery business in Moate. ‘I was the apprentice there for a long time. In the beginning there was six of us, then four.’

JJ was an apprentice to three men, none of whom could speak or hear, and one of them had only one eye. ‘I learned all the signs. They taught me how to make collars. They showed me how to cut patterns. I done a lot of the stitching work. Do you want to see some of the tools?’ photo: James Fennell

His co-workers were an unusual trio whom JJ refers to as ‘the three deaf mutes.’ Tom Fitzpatrick was a Kilkenny man with red hair and horn-rimmed glasses.  John Fitzpatrick, no relation, was a fiery man from Galway. John Casey was from Limerick. None of them could speak or hear. ‘They were the elite of harness makers,’ he continues. ‘They specialized in turning the rims of a collar and they were absolute professionals. What they lost in hearing and lack of speech, they had in other ways, in other instincts. They’re all dead this forty or fifty years now. Reqiescat in pace.’

John Casey was operating with a single eye.

‘I learned a big lesson from him,’ says JJ. ‘We used to make mattresses and do upholstery. John Casey lost his left eye with a needle when he was making them and he taught me to keep the face turned away. He wore a pair of blackish glasses, white on one side. And yet he could turn a collar for a horse, a mule, a donkey or a jennet.’

The silence of the workshop appealed to JJ. He mastered sign language and was rewarded when the trio taught him everything they knew about stitching, cutting collars and making patterns. ‘I focused completely on what I was doing, and the day flew. I was a good worker but I had one fault. I was slow. I’d have to do the job right. There was no such thing as ‘get it done and get it out’.’ [5]

The leather they worked with came from the tannery in Dungarvan. ‘It arrived up on the railway into Moate and I’d go down with a pony and cart to collect it, laps and laps of leather. And harness stuff. Curled horse’s hair for the mattresses. It was mane or tail of horse which was gathered up and washed and boiled in a pot until it got fuzzy. Or sometimes it was a red fibre, a by-product of flax … it came in a big red square bail. That was an awful job to break that up!’

JJ and his colleagues also made beds for the Mercy Convent in Moate where the Sisters seemed new beds for the orphanage. ‘The nuns had mattresses continually on order. In the 1950s there was a community of 750 at the Mercy convent in Moate and every week without fail there was two or three beds to be made for them. As they say, “Must Do is a Great Master.”’

‘One day my boss went off to a meeting in Dublin and he left me in charge at the door if people came to get harnesses done. I remember a travelling woman on the roads. She was about 65 with a young boy about 19. He was bent in the back and had a straight jacket that was ripped open. ‘Lord bless us and save us, my poor son’s back is broken and his jacket ripped,’ says she. Says I, ‘of course I’ll stitch it’ and I did it for them. She gave me two shillings! That was rare. Ned Cunningham never took money from the travellers when they got stuff done. Or he’d never take money from a nurse or a priest.’

By 1956, ‘the deaf mutes were gone old’ and had returned ‘to the places they came from.’ Within a few years, all three were dead. Meanwhile, JJ returned to his father’s farm and set up as a saddler. ‘I was getting better, you see. I was nearly able to walk.’

From the 1960s to the 1990s, JJ Hackett sat at home, making and restoring saddles. The tools of his trade are still close at hand – the thimble, the compass, the leather samples. ‘The best leather is the back hide of a bullock,’ he advises. ‘But most saddles are half rubber these days.’ The house was a hive of industry, with his father cobbling and another man ‘making tubs and buckets, wooden spoons and wooden churns.’ After their father’s death in 1975, JJ’s younger brother Michael took over the running of the farm, sallying out in a 1962 vintage Massey 35X, which he bought in 1987 and which remains his absolute pride and joy quarter of a century later

Michael is a bachelor and a diabetic like their grandfather. He reads his books ‘when the nights get real long’ and finds them a very interesting way to ‘pass a couple of hours’. He likes wildlife programmes and ‘Nationwide’. ‘We never miss it’. An affable man, he sits up in the tractor and points at the turf supply. ‘That’s this years cutting.’ He indicates the bog, 200 metres away, ‘handy for the supply.’

Meanwhile, JJ looked after his aged mother, whose last nine years were spent contending with Parkinson’s. JJ allows that his chances of finding a wife were consequently reduced. ‘I never became involved in the nuptial circles,’ he says. ‘I’m at the terminal point now – the point of no return! Like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, I have crossed the bar! Evening and sunset, all is one.’

JJ and his brother Michael. Photo: James Fennell.

Poetry sometimes comes to him when he is planting potatoes, ‘the fruits of the earth’ as Paddy Kavanagh called them. JJ met Kavanagh in Dublin a few times in the 1960s, the pair of them sinking pints amidst the academics and the newspapermen who frequented McDaid’s of Harry Street. ‘Such a dive I had never entered! Very uncouth looking with the paper falling off the walls but that’s the way they wanted it. It was all intellectual conversation interspersed with an odd swear word or two. Kavanagh took a liking to me. O Stony grey soil. But there was one man in Dublin he didn’t like and that was Brendan Behan. Behan called him a gutter-snipe from Monaghan.’

‘It was my childhood aspiration to be a schoolteacher. My dad had that hope too but it wasn’t to be, because of the accident. But it was also the economics of the time. In 1949 when the Carmelite college secondary school opened, it was twelve pound per year to send a child to it and my late father wasn’t able to get that money.’

JJ’s father was a renowned storyteller in the locality. ‘He never touched a drink but he’d sit down all day talking over tea.’ JJ opens a door to reveal a room stuffed with books and plucks one at random, a dishevelled copy of ‘The Colleen Bawn’, which once belonged to his grandfather.

‘All my life I had an interest in writing. I could write at four years of age.’

He performs monologues and recitations too, as well as stage-work, often for charity. His favourite poets include Canadian poet Robert Service (‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’, ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’), Walter Scott (‘The Stag Hunt’), Wordsworth, Burns, Longfellow.

JJ and Michael live today in the house of their ancestors with two sheepdogs, Jack and Jill. There’s the occasional drink (‘Oh be God I do though! Uisge beath if I can get it). The odd cigarette An outing to church. (‘I go to Mass nearly every morning.’)

Sheltered beneath an ancient lime tree, their home is well poised above the boggy meadows, with corrugated sheds and stables spilling left and right. The Hacketts have a plentiful supply of turf from the nearby bog. ‘There used to be hundreds of hares out there’, says JJ. ‘But there’s only about a half dozen left now.’ He concedes that a bloodthirsty lurcher he once owned helped reduce the population, but cites insecticides as the greater villain. ‘I still have the thrush and the blackbird and an immense multitude of starlings, and crows of course, but the insecticides got rid of all the lovely little yellowhammers and willie-wagtail birds you used to see in the hedges years ago.’

‘The canines have been here with us down through all the years, some very good, some wicked and very bad. I had a lurcher a few years ago who killed hares by the new time which I didn’t like. I didn’t like him killing hares. He killed forty or more and they haven’t recovered since. I’d eat a hare once every two week between September and March. There’s only about a half dozen hares left out there now. In general they’ve gone scarce all over the country. I think it’s insecticides, the same as got rid of all the lovely little yellowhammers and willie-wagtail birds you used to see in the hedges years ago. I still have the thrush and the blackbird and an immense multitude of starlings, and crows of course. I have Red Admirals and dragonfly out here, and yellow butterflies. We have plenty of white butterfly here. They’re after spreading the maggot eggs through the cabbage becoming caterpillar. They’re the grey squirrel of the butterfly world.’

The farmstead was originally a long, low thatched cottage with three-foot thick walls made of lime, sand and stone. The kitchen floor was kelp, made with blue clay brought in wet from the fields and tapped in with a shovel. Beneath the thatch, JJ’s forbears spread furze [gorse] from the bogs upon the rafters, providing insulation and a foundation for the straw. ‘My father was a very good thatcher. A lot of the older generation were. They had to be – necessity is the mother of invention. They had to keep their house thatched’.

Every decade or so, they would add a new layer of straw so that the thatch was two-foot thick by the time JJ decided to renovate the house in 1966. They poured concrete on the kitchen floor and galvanised the roof. ‘I was sorry to see the thatch go,’ says JJ. ‘But it had to go because of the rain. The blackbirds were divils for coming in and digging holes in the thatch for the worms. I often seen rain coming in during a thunderstorm and we’d have buckets catching the drops.’

 

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James J Hackett passed away on 14 September 2017. We had visited him again a year previously with a Dublin-based filmmaker, who recorded an interview which, I hope, will one day be made available for viewing.

 

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Acknowledgments

 

With thanks to John Hamrock (Moate Historical Society), Yvonne Lane (Moate Museum and Historical Society) and Gearoid O’Brien.

 

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Footnotes

 

[1] 55 years ago they changed the original hearth stone with an old black three-hook crane for a big old style Stanley 9 range. ‘It was bought in Tullamore for forty five pounds fifty five years ago and its still going well, although the brickwork is worn and she’s beginning to smoulder. It’s one of the greatest type of ovens that ever came out. We’ll get this winter out of it’.

[2] ‘The nearby Big House estate is Castledaly, which Colonel O’Dell got off Daly’s. It’s an upmarket hotel now. In Ballinakill there was Humphreys of Ballyhasson [sic] House. He owned all the land around here – every inch – we paid rent to him in my fathers’ time. After the Wyndham Act, the land was divided up and gradually people got back what had been confiscated hundreds of years ago. Hall House above, the Wakefield’s, and the Clibborns. They were Quakers and got the linen mills going in Moate. The Beddingtons lived across the bog. Sheila Beddington was a poet and married Paddy Wingfield, Viscount Powerscourt. They had a huge house in Bellair there, across the bog. He was an uncle to Fergie, the Princess who married Prince Andrew.’

[3] Daniel Patrick Hackett, JJ’s father, was born four miles from Moate in County Offaly on 17th March 1896, and christened Daniel Patrick Hackett on account of the day. From the 1911 census, it looks like great uncle Thomas died before Daniel hit 15. See JJ’s book for the full story.

[4] ‘My mother was Margaret Bradley from the same townland of Ballinakill as his father. She was born 10th May 1910. She was 14 years younger than my father.’ JJ’s siblings were all alive as of October 2010, scattered between Cork, Ferbane, Moate, Tubber, Castle Daly and Esker. One brother gardens in Moate.

[5] ‘I liked it. Silent days. Nobody talking. You gesticulated. A-W-A-L. if you wanted an ‘all’ [sic]; hammer was ‘HR’. They were born that way. They were gentlemen but they highly strung. They could lip read. The one word they didn’t like was ‘dummy’. They were okay with ‘deaf mute’ but if you said ‘dummy’, they would hit you. They were stone deaf as well. St. Joseph’s in Cabra in Dublin was a home for the deaf and dumb and still is. One day a farming fellow came thundering in. ‘Are the dummies working today?’ he says like that. ‘Have the dummies finished my stitching?’ John Fitzpatrick was very fiery. I will admit this man had alcohol in him. He stood up and knocked a tooth out of the man’s mouth. He read the word ‘dummy’ on his lips.’