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Noel Robinson – Farmer of Coole, County Westmeath

Noel Robinson and Sally. Photo: James Fennell

Born in 1939, Westmeath farmer Noel Robinson reflects on mixed marriages, emigration, rabbit-hunting, holy wells, and the challenges for farmers in the 21st century. From the Vanishing Ireland archives.

 

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‘They’re headed for the Hill of Maol’, says Noel Robinson, watching the drakes’ in flight. Ducks have to fly backwards over Maol (‘the bald hill’), he explains, ‘to keep the dust from going into their eyes’.

At least that’s what the late Tommy Riggs told him. Tommy was an old man who lived up the road, says Noel. [1] He knew all there was to know about these parts and could bring you ‘back to the day he was born’.

‘People don’t take enough heed of the old people,’ says Noel, who was born in Coole, County Westmeath,  in1939. ‘Then they die and you lose what they know.’ Take Tommy, for instance. He made a fortune out of rabbits during the Second World War, gathering them up on a horse and cart and dispatching them to the butchers of ration-ravaged England. In 1950, which was the last year Tommy dealt in rabbits, he recorded a staggering 64,000 rabbits on his books. Most were caught in snares and traps. Some were pounced on by ferrets hidden at the mouth of the burrows. You had to be careful with ferrets though, counsels Noel. ‘Sometimes they’d go down and kill the rabbit and eat it and fall asleep. Then you were left without ferret or rabbit’. Snares and ferrets may have been ‘rather cruel’, he concedes, but ‘at that time, the money was unreal’. Rabbits made five shillings a head. And five rabbits was the equivalent of a farm labourer’s weekly wages. They also hunted a type of pigeon called woodquest, which made £4-6.

Noel was never a big man for poaching. He was too busy running the farm. It’s been in the family for more generations than anyone can remember. Some years ago, Noel’s younger sister was rooting around in Mullen’s Auction House in Oldcastle when she came upon a book entitled ‘On An Irish Jaunting-Car through Donegal and Connemara’. The book was written in 1902 by Samuel G. Bayne, a Donegal-born gold and oil tycoon, but the words etched in pen opposite the title page were of somewhat greater interest:

‘J. Robinson is my name, Ireland is my nation,
Carne is my dwelling house and Christ is my salvation.
When I am dead and in my grave and all my bones are rotten,
This little book will tell my name when I am quite forgotten’.

J. Robinson was Noel’s grandfather, James. The Robinsons started out as tenants of the Pakenham family of Pakenham Hall, now Tullynally Castle. By 1874, Noel’s great-grandfather had amassed nearly 100 acres. That year, he built the stone farmhouse where Noel’s son now lives.

The house where Noel now lives was built by his father John Robinson in 1958, although the gate outside dates to 1825. While the rest of the family moved into this new abode, Noel stayed on his own in the old 1874 house for a while.

John Robinson had moved to America as a young man. In 1927, while gallivanting around Buffalo, New York, John was informed that his father had died back in Ireland. His brother George attempted to run the farm but was too laid-back for the job. [2] Before long, John was reading a letter from his mother, urging him to come home and take the reins. So he did.

The Robinsons were Church of Ireland men. In 1938, John married Margaret Doherty, a Catholic from nearby Williamstown. Noel says the mixed marriage caused ‘holy desolation’ in both the Protestant and Catholic communities. John was obliged to sign papers vowing that his children would be raised as Catholics. Things have moved on a good deal since, says Noel. Not so long ago the priest went around the houses urging his flock not to attend a mixed wedding in the locality. ‘And, of course, we all went in force and on time’, says Noel. ‘That’s enough of that bullshite’.

On January 3rd 1953, the children of Ireland went back to school. Noel, who turned fourteen that same day, did not join them. Instead, he went to help his ailing father on the farm. John Robinson was ‘a big strong man,’ says Noel. ‘Six foot one and a physique to go with it.’ But during the early 1950s, ‘he got crippled with arthritis and ran into all sorts of hardship – diabetes and a stroke and, in the heel of the hunt, the whole system just caved in’.

Noel Robinson. Photo: James Fennell

By this time, John was running a second farm of 411 acres which he inherited from his uncle, Willy, in 1951. [3] However, as news of John’s poor health spread, the Land Commission swooped down with a compulsory purchase order. The 411 acres became £15,000 in Land Bonds. ‘That would have been good enough, if you got the money, but it ended up the land bonds weren’t worth the paper they were written on.’

Noel points to a field across the road where he used to play amid a forest of chestnut, beech, and larch trees as a boy. In the 1960s, the Land Commission bulldozed and chopped the whole lot,’ he says, eyes narrowing. ‘I never cut a tree off this farm. I let a heap of them fall but I never cut them’.

In 1961, twenty-two-year-old Noel went to see his father in a hospital in Dublin and learned that he was to inherit the farm, ‘lock, stock and barrel’. John died aged 66 on the 26th November 1966 and, as Noel says, he’s been ‘stuck with it since’. ‘Not that I made such a good job of it but I still have it.’

Noel’s farm forms a square of good pastureland to the rear of the farmyard. ‘This is about the only farm around here that has been continuously worked by the one family all along’, says Noel. Most of his neighbours have sold up or rented their land out. His cattle are ‘a sort of a mix’ of a breed, he says. ‘I have my own bull running around and there could be any sort in it’. He brings them to market locally or to the factory in Ballyjamesduff. There is also a flock of forty ewes and lambs, spread across a grassy meadow beside his house. Sheltered beneath a band of trees, a large pond provides a popular retreat for wild ducks.

In a nearby field at Turbotstown there is a holy well. A survey of Ireland in the 1940s estimated that there were upwards of 3,000 sacred wells on this island. That’s far more than any other country in the world. There is something defiantly, anciently Otherworld about holy wells. When you look into their still waters, you are at one with the brides who came here seeking good fortune, the cripples and lepers who sought a cure, the philosophers fishing for the salmon of knowledge. The Turbotstown well is a very small affair, known as a ‘rose well’. A bucket of water would empty it. And yet it has never dried up. A whitethorn bush stands guard alongside it. When Noel was young, the bush was covered in ribbons, or clooties, tied on by those who came to pray. ‘But I think the only ribbons on it now are the ones I put there’, says Noel. ‘I believe in those things because why else should there be a well out there in the middle of nowhere. There is seemingly no spring in it, but there’s always water in it’.

Noel believes the well was favoured by people with lumps or cists on their necks. ‘A man is supposed to lift the water out in a bottle for a woman and vice versa. When you lift the water, you’re supposed to cut a bit of a garment off and hang it on the tree. I don’t know why that is done, but that is evidently what they’ve always done.’

The future for Noel’s farm is ‘hard to predict’. Noel and his wife Sheila were married early on a Sunday morning in September 1979. They have two sons, George and James, but he believes farming is of limited appeal to either of them.[4]

Holding such a deep-rooted passion for the farm, Noel’s greatest is that it will be sold to someone else and that he will be prohibited from walking across the land. ‘After seventy years, that’s what I would be afraid of. I always have that at the back of my mind’.

In the meantime, he walks the farm every day, with trusty Sally by his side, clad in corduroys, blue jacket and one of his trademark hats. ‘When you’re 70 years of age, it’s time to be retiring’, he says. There are plenty of grandchildren to keep him busy. He heads to the pub in Coole ‘most evenings and I take a couple of half ones and go home’. He’s not willing to risk drink-driving. ‘If you have the misfortune to go over the limit, you have to ring someone up and get them to collect you’. His only regret is smoking – forty John Players a day at his peak. He quit in 1989. ‘I’m on inhalers all the time since but sure you have to live with it’.

 

Other stories from the Vanishing Ireland series are available to read here.

 

ENDNOTES

 

[1] Tommy Riggs ‘died on 1st December 1986 and he was 85 when he died’. (Noel has an uncanny memory for dates).

[2] When George’s body was found in a well on a neighbouring farm one morning, his family feared suicide. But the doctor assured them that George, a heavy smoker since an early age, had a heart ‘like a lump of soap’ and it simply gave out on him.

[3] Willy Robinson was one of four brothers. His younger brother Stephen farmed at Ballynagll, just beside Gallstown, while another brother James was Noel’s grandfather. Another brother George Robertson was in the real estate business in New York and ended up being either pushed or jumping out of a window. When Stephen died, he left Ballynagll to his bachelor son Percy Robinson. The house was Robinson for several generations. When Percy died, in a home in Dun Laoghaire, that farm passed to the Land Commission but is now, I believe, home to friends of mine. Some of the furniture in Noel’s house came from Willy’s farmhouse.

[4] In 2009, George was driving a lorry for Johnny Owens the concrete man, while James worked as a bookmaker with Bruce’s of Mullingar.