Some of my happiest memories date from when I was a young boy growing up on a small farm in Ireland. Despite the fact that we did not have much, certainly little that would today be considered necessities, my childhood was a happy one. We had no indoor toilet or bathroom, and no heating, apart from a fire in the kitchen and on special occasions, one in the living room. During most of the year, the bedrooms were ice-cold and we took a rubber hot-water bottle to bed to fight off the chill. We had no car and no television. Our situation in that era was like that of most country people in Ireland.
‘Dinner’ was the main meal of the day, and we sat down to eat at one o’clock precisely, to the chimes of Big Ben and the one o’clock news. The light meal in the evening was known as ‘tea’, and in our house, that was at 18:00 precisely, to chimes of Big Ben and the six o’clock news. Six years of military precision left their mark on my father.
By 19:30 my mother ordered me off to bed, but I could read until she came back to switch off the light. As I got older, the lights-out time was slowly extended.
From the time when I could read, books were my passion; those who know me today would say that I have not much changed, at least in so far as books are concerned. And when the lights went out, I fantasied about being a great explorer, a brave knight, a detective or whatever the hero of my current book did. I was a dreamer. I was able to borrow books from the library in Coleraine, and I read all the books on the little library shelf of my primary school. I would have been a rare month when I did not read at least one book.
In the summer time, on a tranquil evening after ‘tea’, I used to love to go down to the piggeries and the fields behind the house. I was alone there; the workers had gone home, my father usually to his bowling club, and my mother pottering around in her garden. Sometimes I would climb up onto the roofs of the piggeries, armed with a rock, and try to hit one of the multitude of rats that were scampering around; the farm was always infested with rats; it was impossible to eradicate them. It also proved impossible for me to hit them. By the time I stood up to throw, they had disappeared like a flash.
At other times, I would go down to the stream that flowed past the old flax dam, at the end of the pig run, and race two or three empty shoe polish cans and see which would be first to the tunnel under Carnalridge Primary school, where I would retrieve them. The flax dam was silted up and filled with reeds and some stunted willow trees grew on the banks. In springtime, frogs laid their spawn in the pools of water, and one year I put some spawn in a large jar and watched them hatch and grow into little frogs.
In the pig run, I once found a beautiful orchid. I took the flower and pressed it for my collection. My grandmother taught me how to do it, by pressing it between some heavy books that she had. I never did again see an orchid in the pig run, or anywhere else on the farm. Perhaps one of my father’s pigs ate it. The pig run was always pitted, like a WWI battle field. The pigs loved to tear up the soil looking for roots and would wallow in the hollows.
On the south side of the piggeries, there was the midden heap and the area around it was quite marshy and the grass was left to grow long. Every year a corn crake nested in that grass and every early morning and evening one could hear its ‘craeking’ call. They were a migratory bird, but I had never seen one. One evening I went into the long grass to find the corn crake and see what it looked like. I must have almost stepped on it, for it burst out of the grass just in front of me and flapped away. I felt very guilty after that, and hoped that it would come back, for I loved its call. I never did see a cuckoo either, although at times I could hear them all around us.
Today, the farm has long gone, hedgerows have been torn up, the farm buildings have been demolished; all that is left are my vivid childhood memories.