The hot, dry, foreign-feeling Summer of 2013 is over and Autumn is here with a vengeance, punishing us for our National display of grotesque flip-flops-and-socks-combos and naked sun-burnt beer-bellies this year. And don’t get me started about what the men were wearing!
In honour of the return of our grey, endless drizzle I have resurrected the piece of writing below, which won first place in a non-fiction contest on the theme of “Nature” at the online writing group of Belfast’s famous Blackstaff Press. You can check out the other winners at www.skypen.co.uk or www.blackstaffpress.com
Winning The Grass.
Throughout the 1970s I watched Northern Ireland’s blood-stained evening newsreel “Scene around Six”. I was raised on a litany of disasters.
After the news; the weather forecast. Northern Ireland sat isolated in a sea of blue, while the forecaster stuck simplistic symbols upon its odd rhomboid silhouette. There was no reference to the existence of Ireland’s twenty-six other counties. We floated upon the globe in glorious isolation.
Every July, with hundreds of nationalist families, we fled from Portadown to Donegal, just across the border in the Republic of Ireland. When our car crossed Lifford Bridge, leading from Tyrone to Donegal, we left Northern Ireland. From my perch on a cushion on the handbrake, I waved at the River Foyle, believing it to be the narrow isthmus of sea which, in my UTV-weather- forecast mind-set, separated the two islands of Northern Ireland and the “Free State”.
The sun does shine occasionally in Donegal but, I find, I have no fond memory of it. I remember the privation and the inconvenience. Our sopping shoes steamed each evening, beside a smoky turf fire, essential even in July. My feet were never dry, it seemed, from departure until eventual return home.
Donegal’s impoverished rural dwellers welcomed us with open arms. A successful letting-season meant the difference between surviving or shamefully requiring help from the charitable society of Saint Vincent de Paul. As we piled into the cold, damp, comfortless farmhouse, the farmer’s children peeped out from a caravan at the bottom of the yard- evicted- while we slept in their beds.
Each night our father removed the bedding from every bunk. He shook the sheets and thick blankets vigorously, sending their population of spiders spinning freewheel into summer’s dusk. Next day, the beds had been repopulated by a new arachnid community- the world’s first homing spiders.
On rare dry days we watched the haymakers at work. Tiny, stony triangles and trapezoids of land, too awkward for the smallest tractor-mower combo, the fields had been gouged with huge effort from the whinbush-polluted landscape, then enclosed with tottering dry-stone walls of beauty and surprising strength. Impromptu teams of neighbour men cut the tough, poor grass- sweeping great, practised arcs through the stalks- sharpening their scythes frequently on a whetstone. Women and children followed with pitchforks, tossing the grass, strewing it along hedges, walls and whinbushes, desperate for it to dry, before storm clouds came rolling back in from the Atlantic.
Finally, with luck, the dried hay was heaped into great ricks which stood, silhouetted like the beehive cells of ancient monasteries against the skyline, victorious testament to man’s determination to survive wherever callous Nature allows hope to blossom. The tiny fields would not have accommodated Constable’s “Haywain”; the labour involved as crippling as in the centuries before, when the artist first stroked oil onto pristine canvas.
In really wet years, the hay was grudgingly abandoned after all repeated efforts had come to naught. Then was a hard winter coming. I learned that in Donegal, one of the last strongholds of the Irish language, one does not casually speak of “making” hay. The term is ag baint an fhéir : “winning the grass”. Year after year I witnessed episodes in this epic battle, families wrestling their frugal subsistence from Ireland’s unforgiving elements.