Evolution, by its very nature, leaves extinct species in its wake. The evolution of farm machinery has left the breed farm labourer all but extinct. The old time farm worker did an honest weeks work for a modest wage. He often lived in a cottage that went with the job, and if he had an industrious wife she might keep her family in vegetables from their cottage acre. The boss’s wife might supply, in season, more exotic produce, tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries, from her greenhouse or garden,
This was all part of a symbiotic relationship; an alliance of mutual loyalty between the farmer and the retainer. It would also include the farm family ferrying the worker, his wife or children to town to an appointment with the doctor or dentist, and helping with any family emergency that might arise.
Paddy, when I came to know him was in his eighties and retired from his life’s work as a farm labourer. He had an impish sense of humour that hadn’t diminished with age. He spoke quietly and slowly and you had to be alert not to miss some of his gems. He had been through the First World War, but like many an old soldier, referred to it only by humorous anecdote, and he was a passionate supporter of the ‘Lilywhites,’ the Kildare County football team.
The boss’s son, who had come home to farm, had been recently married. The young couple were in the home place until the new bungalow down the road for his father and mother was finished. Excluded from any major role in the kitchen, while her mother-in-law was still there, the new wife showed willing to apply her energies to any task, either in the house or on the farm.
Not long after they arrived home from their honeymoon, her husband asked her if she would be good enough to help with a family ritual: to run Paddy into the village three miles away, for his Saturday night in the pub. She was delighted to be useful and when Paddy arrived into the yard, the new Missus put him into the car and off to the village. The young woman, sensitive to Paddy’s honoured position with the family, made polite conversation to which he responded with his usual good humour. When they arrived at the pub as he stood out of the car, his chauffeuse said:
‘Paddy, how will you get home?’ And with a look of total incredulity at her innocence he replied:
‘For God’s sake, woman, how did I get home from Salonica?’
On a fine day Paddy used to wander down to the farm to keep an eye on things. He wasn’t backward about manning a gap when cattle were being moved, or turning his hand to a light job that he could still manage.
One spring I happened to call when the last bales of straw in one of the sheds were about to be used. Now for those unfamiliar with farming it may be necessary to explain that over the winter, rats live in the comfort of the pile of straw bales kept for bedding cattle. Each time a bale is taken, rats that are disturbed retreat further into the pile that is left, so that it is certain when the last bales are moved rats will run for cover.
On this occasion there were five or six of us, including Paddy, down the shed armed with forks, shovels and sundry other weapons to confront the rats. With the wisdom of experience and knowing that rats in flight will make for a wall and run along it to escape, Paddy positioned himself towards one side of the shed. As one of the men gingerly removed another bale, a rat made for the wall.
‘There you go, Paddy,’ he shouted. Paddy saw it coming and didn’t move. Then as the rat came closer, calm as you like, he took a step to his right and with his boot squashed the rat dead against the wall. There was great applause.
‘Great man Paddy,’ said the young boss, and Paddy, unabashed, replied:
‘They’ll be asking me to kick for the county next.’