A country rector in the Church of Ireland in the 1970s, depending on the parish, might have lived in a fine eighteenth century rectory. A house with graciously proportioned Georgian rooms with high ceilings, fine marble mantelpieces, and large windows with shutters. The kitchen might still have been in the flag floored basement, but by the seventies in most cases the original basement kitchen had been abandoned and a modern one made on the ground floor.
Outside there would have been a stable yard with coach-house, tack room, stables, and beyond the yard a haggard with cow houses providing all the agricultural facilities for the rector to farm the parish land in order to contribute to his income. There would have been an orchard and a fine garden with an extensive lawn.
Such a house and grounds provided all the facilities needed for gracious living. However, when a rectory of this kind had been built the rector would almost certainly have had a private income, enough to keep two or three domestic staff and two, or maybe three, outside men to keep the grounds, tend the horses, milk the cow for the house and provide fruit, vegetables and fuel, and maintain the grounds in which the family could spend leisure time.
By the 1970s this formerly gracious house and grounds had almost certainly fallen into disrepair and even into dilapidation. On a meagre stipend recent rectory families would have been unable afford help inside or out. The house would probably have had no central heating making it cold, draughty and damp so that the larger rooms were unusable in winter. The outbuildings would have been badly in need of repair, and probably had become the depository for all the discarded rubbish of previous rectory families and the dump for rubbish of one kind or another from church and other buildings around the parish. The stable yard would almost certainly have been covered with grass and moss and the two hours or more cutting of the lawn every week during the summer would have become a torment to the rector.
Such a house was provided with the job on my appointment to a parish in the midlands in the early 1970s. With the help of the parish we set about making it comfortable. The parish did necessary repairs, installed heating on the ground floor, decorated some of the rooms and we were able to make the house as comfortable as possible.
Outside was another story: the ancient apple trees in the orchard, despite years of neglect, still bore good fruit of old varieties, but it was extremely difficult to harvest them because of the extensive banks of briars that covered the ground at their base. The paddock beyond the lawn was overgrown and cleared only once a year for the annual parish fete. The walks through the former pleasure garden were overgrown and impenetrable and ivy covered the walls and in places dislodged stones making them dangerous.
To have lived in such a house it would have been easy to become isolated from the village which was something my wife and I were determined would not happen. We wanted all and sundry to feel comfortable coming to the rectory. One little boy had no such inhibition.
One Monday, my day off, I was up on the high perimeter wall cutting ivy when I heard a little voice below me on the footpath.
I looked down to see a small boy aged six or seven looking up.
‘I’m fine how are you?’
‘What are you doin’?’
‘I’m cutting ivy.’
‘Why are you doin’ that?’
‘Because if I don’t it’ll damage the wall.’
There was a long silence. Then the boy said:
‘I drink stout you know.’
‘You don’t.’ I said, ‘You’re too young to drink stout.’
All the time I was working away, being careful not to fall off the wall.
I looked down again and the boy was gone.
Five minutes later I heard the little voice again.
I looked down and there he was, an open bottle of stout in his hand putting it to his mouth.’
‘Where did you get that?’ I asked.
‘Me Da keeps them under the sink.’
I thought for a while and for something to say I said:
‘Who’s your teacher at school?’.
‘Does she know you drink stout’?
‘She don’t, and if you tell her I’ll give you a kick on the arse.’