This is a series of writings inspired by my ancestors, their families and their imagined lives – Stan McWilliams.
Easter 1966 is a full and eventful week at Larkfield. Today is Easter Tuesday and there’s a cattle fair in Manorhamilton. Uncle Cecil is selling two in-calf heifers, Ivor and I are walking them the three miles or so into town. Neighbouring farmers have gathered their cattle and together we will make our way along the main road to the fair. Hopefully our two will sell and we won’t have to walk them home again in the late afternoon. We’re up early to a big bowl of porridge cooked the night before, eggs and homemade bread. We should get a dinner in the town after the cattle are settled near the old castle. It’s a day I look forward to since I was first taken by my Granda, Richard Davis (1889 – 1961) when I was about nine or ten.
The town will be taken over by animals, buyers and farmers, children and street vendors, the normally quiet town turning to apparent chaos for the day. There’s a sense of excitement as groups of cattle and sheep with their drovers converge on the town and head for their preferred stand, the earliest getting the prime locations. Farmers and young lads with sticks and dogs roam through the crowded dung-covered streets. Cattle and sheep dung and piss where they stand; the cattle settle easily and chew the cud under the watchful eyes of young lads, like us. Sheep, particularly lambs are often tied together at the neck by a loose rope or put in makeshift pens, they will make a dash for freedom at the first chance. Occasionally some of the more skittish cattle take off to shouts and whoops with their minders in chase. Small calves lie in straw bedded carts with horses tethered, asses and carts are parked apparently at random. A few bulls with rings in their noses are led and tied to a pier or something similar. Householders unlucky enough to have cattle or sheep standing outside their houses must endure the day and will, by late afternoon be washing the dung off their walls and footpaths.
Farmers selling stock want to get a good idea of the day’s prices and will wander through the fair keeping their eyes and ears open; buyers look over stock at close range, judging their strengths and noting which ones to come back to later. Some buyers are local but there are large dealers buying for the fattening trade in the east of the country – their presence is welcomed as it tends to drive up prices, but they have their tricks and are carefully watched. Here and there deals are being made, a small group gathers around the two men – I can’t remember seeing any women selling cattle or sheep at fairs – and often a deal maker emerges from the crowd; he’s something of showman and will use his charms to help make a deal.
“Don’t be spoilin our day now! Ye’re not going to let a few pounds come between ye?” He’ll say with some authority.
“Make him a bid, wont ye?”
“Gwan now, split the difference!”
He may draw their hands to together in encouragement to deal. Hands will be spat on and slapped to strike the deal, the lucks penny often settled in a local bar. The crowd will melt away and move on, the two left to work out their arrangements and terms. From another group a man strides away to shouts of
“Come back will ye! He’ll dale, he’ll dale!” but he raises his hand and walks on, he’s had enough.
As the day wears on most deals are done. Young minders are left to the stock while farmers go to settle up their deals and the lucks penny; gradually cattle and sheep are moved from their stand for the walk home or taken to a lorry for transport and the streets empty. For some it’s a day out and a chance to do some business, maybe to have a dinner in The Central Hotel or one of the other houses that serve up hearty dinners for the hungry, or meet friends for a drink in one of the many pubs; a welcome change to long days of solitary hard work. The odd one will lose the run of himself or tempers will fray over some minor disagreement. The town will start its clean up.
After breakfast the two heifers that have been in the byre overnight are taken out into the yard. We can see and hear the others and their cattle coming down the hill past Clancy’s lane, a short distance away. We drive our two flighty heifers down to the road, covering their run into the open field. When they join the others theyshould quickly settle down or maybe the whole lot will take off at speed and give us a good run.
There’s Bob Collins on his bike, Patrick Hugh McMorrow and Padraig Fitzpatrick with their six cattle. They stop briefly at the end of the lane for us to join them but keep the cattle moving forward. Cecil will turn back when we are on our way and after the milking is done will take the van to town.
We take up the rear, those at the front watch out for gates, gaps, and any place the cattle might turn off into. The day is cloudy and cool, and we are dressed for the walk with jackets and wellington boots and carrying a stout stick.
We walk some fifty yards when just ahead of the group I see a lorry coming around the first bend, McKay’s Corner two hundred yards away, it’s not slowing. Everything happens so fast, just ahead of the cattle a man is thrown into the ditch by the lorry, I can hear men shout and scream; the lorry weaves through the cattle and down the road towards us. Ivor and I are at the side of the road with one of Cecil’s heifers, she has turned across the road, her tail toward us, we can almost touch her; she’s a roan shorthorn, she turns her head towards the oncoming truck. The men continue to shout and roar, towards us now, we don’t hear them; in an instant the heifer is swept before us in the blur of the speeding truck. I feel the rush of air from the lorry, feel my heart thumping, I’m rooted to the spot at the verge of the road, aware of Ivor to my left, beside me. I see the heifer rolled under the truck and tossed out behind it a short distance away; she comes to rest in the middle of the road; dirt, hair and debris settle around her. In the silence that falls we catch the acrid smell of burnt hair and skin. Cecil runs towards us as we watch the dying animal. He shakes us, looks into our eyes. The lorry has come to a stop just beyond the gate of the farm.
From the house on the hill Granny in her dark apron comes rushing across the field; hearing the commotion she is panicked by what she imagines has happened. I see Uncle Cecil’s other heifer lying on the road among the remaining cattle and further along a group bent over the injured man at the road side. A car has stopped beside them, it’s door open. There’s a stile across the stream at the road and we are ushered across it, up the field and back to the house. I see nothing else of the carnage.
There are no fatalities other than the two cattle; Patrick Hugh McMorrow is in hospital for some months and has suffered life changing injuries. The lorry brakes failed; it was carrying a load of potatoes from Donegal travelling to Carrick-on-Shannon. A few days later the bodies of the cattle are removed in a Burnhouse lorry.
Thanks to my brother Ivor and Padraig Fitzpatrick for sharing their memory of this incident and filling in my blank spots.