The coming of spring evokes memories of a bygone era

I suppose that somewhere in us all there is a bit of sentimentally, and that occasionally no matter what we pretend to be that bit of sentimentally comes to the fore. There are times, places and things that cause that to happen in the lives of all of us no matter what our profession, and as far as I am concerned springtime is one of those occasions.

Now as I look at the green shoots that are the containers of the golden ball that will soon burst from its green coated prison and become one of a ‘Host of Golden Daffodils’ I can sense the freshness in the air, see the white puffs that are the first signs of bloom on the plum trees and shrubs in the area.
Mention of St Brigid reminds me that February 1 was St Brigid’s Day, the first day of Spring. Brigid had been so much involved with land and animals that this marked the first day of the farming year. In olden times the farming family would ‘turn the sod’. This was an annual ritual and was accompanied by the reciting of certain prayers.

Traditionally ploughing did not start until that first sod was turned. Now times have changed and a lot of the ploughing is done long before the first of February.

Talking of ploughing, what must it have been like when land was tilled by the spade before the advent of the plough. Imagine starting to dig an acre of ground with a spade, that was the lot of the early farmer and it was said that a dozen strong men could turn an acre a day.

What a relief it must have been when the first primitive ploughs were introduced on the farm. It was a wooden plough and was hard to use over a long period, yet it was a big improvement on the spade. The type of plough used improved and then a Scotsman named James Small invented a plough which one man could operate on his own.

Up to this it had taken two men to do the ploughing, one to look after the horses and the other to guide the plough. The first all iron plough was made in 1800 and ploughs have been improving ever since. It is interesting to note that when ploughing for tillage, the most suitable length for a furrow was 220-250 yards, and it was from this that the word furlong (furrow in length) came from, remember eight furlongs in a mile. Then there was the rolling and harrowing.

When the ground had been rolled and harrowed the next job was the sowing of the seed. In the early times this was done by hand from an apron which the sower held up in front of him with one hand and scattered the grain as evenly as he could with the other.

Then came the sowing fiddle, a small machine which scattered the seed with the aid of a ‘bow’ like handle which was moved backwards and forwards rhythmically. Improvement came in this machine over the years until we have the modern machines of today.

The spring must surely be one of the busiest times on the farm for apart from the tilling of the land, the late lambs arriving and there was always the fear that foxes or worse still, marauding dogs, would attack the sheep and do untold damage. Perhaps one of the loveliest sights on a farm in the springtime is the sight of healthy young lambs playing in the fields, along with the blooming of the flowers and the sowing of the crops it reminds us that nature is awakening from her winter sleep and preparing for the sunny days of summer.

In those far off days and nights of pleasant memories nature played a big part. Spring in Ireland really starts in late February, slowly winter begins to relax its grip and the home-birds start to stake out their territories. It was soon after February that blackbirds and thrushes begin building their nests.
There is an old saying that the crows commence building their nests, or reparing old ones, on the first of March. By the end of March the first migrant birds begin to return, at least they did in my youthful years, the chiffchaffs from southern Europe and the willow warblers from Africa and other birds from other parts.

The first flowers are blooming as we near the end of the month, the daffodils burst forth in a blaze of gold while the snowdrops and primroses are exposing their beauty to the naked eye. The time passes quickly and the buds on the trees being to open and take the winter’s skeleton look off the branches. The bluebells and buttercups now come on the scene with a myriad of small wild flowers that decorate the hedgerows.

Somehow or other thinking about those days once again makes the sounds and smells of springtime fresh in my memory. There was a stretch of bog land beside the river Derry near Clonegal and I often think of the evenings that I stood and listened to the different calls on the evening air.

The call of the jacksnipe as he swept low over the bog at nightfall, hear the lonely call of the curlew, which according to the old folk, was a sure sign of rain, then in the late evening the call of the otter along the river bank (otters are now almost extinct in this part of the country) and at other times the sharp bark of a fox as he started off on his nightly hunting round.

Then another sound which is seldom heard now and comes a little later in the year, the ‘Creak-Creak’ of the Land Rail or corn-crake as she sits on her nest in the young meadow and makes the ‘creak-creak’ sound by rubbing her wings together. Now alas, most of those sounds have gone. Modern methods and machines have no time to wait for the corn-crake to hatch out her young. The snare and the trap have accounted for most of the otters. While the ‘Lamping’ and Mxyo have then their toll on the poor man’s soup supplier, the rabbit.

Sometimes I feel lonely for those sounds that were part of an evening in late spring or early summer, and then I start to think, so have most of the friends I knew.

I suppose that is no way to end a story that started about springtime and the rebirth of nature, but then we are knocking nature, only ourselves for doing away with it as we knew it. No longer are the meadows filled with wild life, no longer is the haymaking or the harvest social events in the country life, no longer have we the characters that we knew in every village.

(Think back on how many are gone from your area). How many ‘Rambling Houses’ are left in the villages and parishes of our area? But again we become melancholy, let us cheer up, another spring is here, let us enjoy it, and with the help of St Brigid many more along with it.

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist