‘You see, a tractor could do the work of eight men,’ says Paddy Walsh. ‘So of course that changed everything.’ Not that Paddy minded. In the early days, when he first started on the farm at Gurteen le Poer, he might be out ploughing all day with ‘nothing to hold only the reins driving the horse’. Over rough terrain, on a warm day, with sweaty trousers rubbing constantly against the skin, that could get pretty sore after a while. ‘I saw men who could barely walk for a week after,’ he shivers.
Born in 1928, Paddy was raised on a farmstead in Derinlaur, a small village pitched on a hill above the River Suir in County Tipperary. Derinlaur’s history stretches back to a thirteenth-century Norman castle and featured strongly in the Desmond rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. Today, not many people have heard of the place, probably because it doesn’t exist anymore. It was effectively abandoned during the 1950s when most of its thatched cottages were knocked and ploughed under. The castle survived but the old village now consists of a few stubborn stonewalls and the occasional banjaxed cartwheels or twisted sheet of corrugated iron.
Amidst such sombre circumstances, it is surprising to find a farmstead where the solitary chimney pot still puffs with a degree of enthusiasm. This is the home of Paddy’s bachelor brothers, Johnny and Jimmy. Indeed, this is where all seven of the Walsh siblings were born and raised. Paddy was the firstborn, a bouncing boy who came to life in 1928. Over the next seven years, he was joined by five brothers and a sister before his mother suddenly dropped dead not long after her thirty-third birthday.
Although their mother died young, Paddy says their childhood was a happy one. The boys chased barn owls and hid in the massive fireplace of the old Norman banqueting hall. Their father was a cheerful soul, an old forester who drank a bottle of Guinness with dinner every evening. Sometimes, he would give his sons a quick shot when no one was looking. He kept sucklers, chickens and horses and grew a garden of carrots, potatoes and parsnips. Once or twice a year, he would host Mass at the farmstead with the congregation seated on long benches.
Music was another strong feature in those years. Every St Stephen’s Day, there would be a great gathering for the annual Wren. ‘Oh cripes,’ chuckles Paddy. ‘They’d be galloping about in masks and all dressed up, knocking on doors and dancing around. They’d dance from Kilsheelan to Kilcash and back again.’
In 1943, fourteen-year-old Paddy started work on Count de la Poer’s farm at Gurteen just outside Kilsheelan. ‘The steward was a man by name of Cummins. He knew my father and asked would I go down and look after the Countess’ horses. So my first job was exercising horses, riding them up and down the avenue.’ At the time, the de la Poer’s workforce consisted of thirty people – including fourteen farm labourers, five gardeners, four housemaids, a butler and a gamekeeper. The latter was a wonderful whiskery old Victorian gent from Wicklow, an expert in hatching pheasant chicks. He had them trained to come to his whistle ‘but when the shoot came on he’d make them all wild again’.
When not exercising horses, Paddy helped the other lads on the farm, ploughing, cutting, stacking, threshing, milking and such like. He grimaces at the memory of ‘sitting under a cow on a warm evening with all the sweat dripping … if the cow had tough tits, you could be there for an age’. Sometimes he would be obliged to ‘milk in the dark’. However, in the absence of electric lighting, Paddy reckons people’s visual senses were sharper then and he could fearlessly ‘cycle up and down the avenue in the pitch dark’.
Paddy stayed at Gurteen le Poer for over fifty years, retiring in 1994. The Royal Dublin Society awarded him a special service medal in 1991.
On 2 June 2005, he and his wife Kathleen celebrated their Golden Anniversary with a party that drew ‘substantial crowds’ from both sides of the Suir. The couple now live in the village of Kilsheelan with their dog Beckham. They have two children and three grandchildren.
Paddy’s younger brother Johnny also started work at the age of fourteen. ‘I was in forestry all my life,’ he says, stoking the fire in the family cottage where he lives. ‘Cutting timber, planting trees, shovelling manure. I gave a lot of time cutting timber with a chain saw.’ He points at a scar on his head and says ‘that was a close call’.
Johnny believes that the forester’s life has become much easier in recent decades but he is not convinced that his successors have a sufficient grasp of the need for conservation. ‘When I started, it was all cross cuts and handsaws. It took a long time to get anywhere – months. Then we’d have to haul the wood out with horses – it was slavery really. Now machines drive in and can cut up to a hundred tons a day and they can do it without thinking. And that is the trouble with it. They just do it without thinking.’
With thanks to Nicola Everard.