Paddy Gilbin (1912- 1995) was from Lisgorman and a close neighbour of my Uncle Cecil. They worked together on meitheals. Cecil’s older brother Reco was also a ploughman but by this time he had married Dorothy, nee McIlroy and was living Wood Hill, Bunnadden, Co Sligo. Easter time 1965 was my only experience of ploughing on the Davis farm. It was a dry spring and a late Easter. My brother Ivor and myself follow Cecil around the farm and on this occasion, we get a surprise.
It’s past ten o’clock on a late spring morning, the chill seeping away with the rising sun, as Paddy Giblin comes up the lane on a horse. We’ve heard him from a distance, the rhythmic clip-clop of a heavy trot, the ploughman with the second horse.
How ya men! He shouts loudly to one and all when he arrives in the yard.
Lock up yer lassies Davis, the randy ploughman’s about!
Now sliding heavily to the ground off the jute-bag-saddle, his boots crunch on the yard, his horse harnessed for the plough. He walks towards us with his peculiar lurching style, as the horses snicker at one another, familiar plough partners.
Easy Paddy there’s childer about! Do ye want a suppa tae before we start? Says Cecil.
Divil the hate, let’s keep movin while the sun shines.
He sees my Grandmother at the back door of the farmhouse.
Fine weather Mrs Davis. Great for the Easter. He says in a more subdued tone raising a hand. She salutes him and goes back inside.
Paddy is a grey, solid-built man in his fifties: a belt-and-braces man, a bachelor and renown bread-maker, a man with loud earthy humour, never stuck for a wise crack.
When the horses are harnessed to the Pierce plough, Paddy takes handles, Cecil the reins and the pair urge the horses forward to pull the plough over the top of the ground.
We head to a relatively flat field above the Long Acre, a few hundred yards away from the farmyard. An area of about an acre is marked out by a heavy scattering of dung. This land is unfamiliar to the plough, no deep friable soil here, a challenge for horses and men alike.
Paddy lines up the plough and with a shout of – Go an boys! – and a flick of the reins from Cecil the horses strain, hooves bite into the grass as the chains tighten and the plough jerks forward. It tears into the grass, pulled forward and deeper as the sod is turned skyward. Paddy wrestles with the plough to keep a line as the horses find a rhythm.
We need it deeper men! he shouts.
Boys! Lie down there on the bar!
He nods urgently indicating the draw bar.
We look at each other hesitantly. There is only one bar, directly behind the horses.
Comm an boys! Down on it! He shouts.
Cecil, alongside, laughs, and with little option, we move right and left to lie down on the moving plough, the horses back hooves no distance from us, the turned sod just below us, our legs and feet trailing.
Lane on it boys! Com an lane on it! He shouts urging the plough into tight earth, the horses driven harder.
Christ, Davis! Are ye feedin these bucks atall? There’s no mate on them.
We lie squeezed together on the narrow draw bar, not looking forward, hearing a metallic click as the hooves catch a stone, smelling the musty soil turned upwards.
Paddy guides the plough, stumbling as he struggles to keep it straight. Occasionally, too deep, the plough turns up a skin of blue daub. When we near the edge of the plot we get off and the plough is dragged around, lined up, and we plough another furrow, the coarse ridges closed behind us, ready for the seed.
Suddenly, Paddy lets out a shout.
Ger up! Ger up boys! He’s about to phish!
The plough stops, and we spring up and out of the way. Paddy’s horse arches his back and releases a jet of piss onto the grass where it pools in a foamy circle.
When he’s done Paddy nods to us.
Onto it again boys, if we want yer dinner! He says with a laugh.
And with a flick of the long reins the plough strains and cuts forward again, as a smell of beery horse piss wafts over us.
In the summer we will help Cecil mix a large barrel of blight spray, stirring in the liquid soda, watching the deep blue liquid swirl milky.
Cecil with the back-sprayer, floats in a sea of green, the mist settling in his wake, as he walks backwards up and down the ridges, while we, kneeling, weed two long row of turnips, little chat, thinking of a break, food and escape.