I get pleasure in recalling some happy memories of my childhood which was spent on a small farm in South Antrim, and a rehearsal of some of them, may assist some older readers to re-live their own experiences.
I can still see the myriad of tiny insects which infested the Italian rye grass seed which used to accumulate, up to a foot deep, in the threshing floor, each time the barn was emptied of sheaves. There were wee spiders, and middle-sized spiders, and the big black variety, floating around like jet-black raindrops on long, almost invisible legs.
Also big reddish brown cockroaches, three quarters of an inch long, and a smaller variety, with shiny black coats and heads like an overgrown blue-bottle. But most numerous of all, were tiny black insects about as thick as a fine knitting needle, shiny black, with a golden belt.
As we ploughed up the seed with our bare feet, we particularly dreaded the giant spiders. Those, we had been taught, could sting, but we always did our best to keep a step ahead of them!
Another memory is of my mother's fretting about the chickens suffering from the gape. When they were some weeks old, the little victims used to collapse on their hunkers, gasping for air, (or gaping)!
Mum's remedy was to go to the stable and fetch a few horse hairs from the bundle, which always reposed on a shelf behind the stalls. Taking one of these hairs, she used to deftly tie a noose on one end of it.
Then she picked up one of the gapers, held it's bill open with the forefinger of her left hand, and carefully inserted the looped end of the hair into the bird's wind-pipe. As she inserted it, she rotated it gently, then withdrew it slowly, bringing with it a catch of tiny, tiny, wriggling red worms
These were discarded, and the operation was repeated, until the loop emerged as clean as it went in! The operating instrument was then discarded, and a fresh-made duplicate was used to repeat the treatment, with every one of the infected birds.
She was a long experienced poultry breeder, so I presume the treatment worked -- otherwise she would not have bothered to practise it.
Fascinated, when we called on our way home from school, we used to watch Lizzie Mallon, our near neighbour, who was a washerwoman, feed her hens a drink of milk using the hole in the earthen floor of her kitchen door, when she left the half door ajar.
The hole in the floor was where the treadle of the loom had rested when there was one there. Only a few small dark-blue cylinders of cardboard remained, (i.e. bobbins) as relics of the days when the Mallons had all been hand loom weavers.
Other fond memories are of tip-toeing through the long grass in the meadow at the bottom of the back field, in June, to get at the wild strawberries which flourished on the ditch adjoining STARCH HILL. This had to be a clandestine expedition, (usually there were several of us) for we well knew that we were trampling down grass which was almost ripe and due to be mowed for hay.
My father cherished every blade of it. In his day, life was tough for the wee farmer. (The sight of a present day field with a wide, wasted, uncut margin around the perimeter is enough to make the small-holders of yesterday turn in their graves.)
Climbing up on the haughs of the old black horse, as he stood in his stall, and grasping his tail to reach the curry comb and brush which reposed in a little alcove in the wall above his rump! (The docile animal never flinched!).
Then using the curry comb and brush to groom his manure-stained hips, legs, and ribs, before letting him out for a drink at the tank near the barn door. He disliked rib-tickling, and used to turn his head round and dunt us with his open mouth.
Then there was the joy of turning the wheel of the mechanical horse clippers, as an older brother clipped the hair from the horses, trace-high, in the early spring, to keep them from sweating excessively as they pulled the wheeled-plough through the lea, day after day, for weeks at a time.
Sharing the excitement of CARLO, the old half-breed sheep dog, as the spade was inserted in the rabbit burrow along the ditch-back, at the head of the sand field, where he had hoked and barked for hours, and refused to come home for his feed. He never gave up, when he scented a rabbit, and short of lifting him bodily, there was no way of persuading him to give up and leave his prey alone.
Not that he often caught a rabbit! The average bunny was generally too agile for the old stager, and when it was dislodged, it almost escaped through the briar hedge before he could corner it! This didn't stop him from sitting on his rear end and barking for hours, till someone went to his aid, everytime he scented an animal in a burrow.
Then there was the thrill of stepping into Big Joe's kitchen, at his heels, on a Winter's evening and waiting for him to turn up the wick of the lighted oil lamp hanging on the jamb wall, for illumination! Gleefully watching him, from a safe distance, doing a war-dance on the floor, endeavouring to squash the maximum number of cockroaches, which carpeted the earthen floor, with his size-eleven boots!
In less time than it took him to stamp a dozen times, the creatures had vanished into crevices in the mud-walls of the cabin! Then Big Joe picked up the brush and shovel and swept a batch of corpses into the embers of the turf fire on the hearth, where they sizzled like bacon!
Watching wee Johnny Hughes, as ex-Harland & Wolfe Shipyard employee, who had moved to the COLANE for survival during the hungry years of unemployment in the late 20's, dancing a jig on the convex corrugated iron roof of a newly-erected hay shed, when he discovered that not one of all the helpers around him had a good enough head for heights to take him up a handful of nails.
Interwoven, is a recollection of seeing Johnny make an endless series of trips from a chair at the far end of the big farm kitchen, to the fireplace, each time he interrupted his own flow of yarns to expectorate (which was brave and often, since he chewed tobacco).
Always his aim was unerring, and the spittle landed squarely in the centre of the flowing fire where it sizzled for a split second, as it was consumed. In retrospect, I recall that each spittle was ejected like a pellet from an airgun!
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