The TripFiction Book Club July/August ’19 reads ‘A Summer Reunion’ by Fanny Blake
Talking Location With… – author Lorna Sixsmith (County Laois, Ireland)
5th August 2018
#TalkingLocationWith… author Lorna Sixsmith, who takes her readers back to County Laois in SE Ireland in her memoir “Till The Cows Come Home“
Growing up on the farm, I used to act out Famous Five adventures. My dog was renamed Timmy on those occasions and as I had short dark hair, I pretended I was George. I climbed trees in the wood, spent hours in a dusty loft on rainy days imagined myself sleuthing as I went from field to field, and half a mile of twists and turns along the narrow lane at the rear of the farm seemed a long way to me then. When friends came, we assigned roles as we set off adventuring through the woods, seeking pirates and thieves and smugglers.
When it came to writing my memoir covering not just my childhood but the childhoods of three generations who have lived on this farm in this corner of Co. Laois, known to many as ‘Beyond Slievemargy’s Brow’, I knew the location would play a big part in the book. The yard, the fields, the nearby village, the individual buildings such as the stable and coachhouse, all had stories to tell.
Each field’s name was explained alongside a story of some occurrence in the past. Taylor’s field is named after the Taylor family who were tenants there in the early twentieth century. It gained notoriety when one family member was accused of murdering a neighbour and was hanged for his crime. Baker’s Hill is also named after a tenanting family. They were evicted by the previous owners in the 1880s. A granite pillar still stands in the hedgerow, marking the entrance from the winding country lane to the Baker’s cottage. Every time I spot that roughly chiselled pillar, I wonder what it bore witness to and what tales it could tell of the Baker family as they awaited ramblers (‘going rambling’ was the term given to visiting neighbours at night – to sing, tell stories or play cards), Massgoers walking to church, barefoot children making their way to school, donkey or horses towing carts filled with coal from the nearby coalmines, farmers bringing churns of milk to the local creamery. The lane was once a busy place. Now as I walk along it behind the ambling cows, I only hear the chirping of birds, the clopping of cows hooves and sometimes, the hum of a tractor in the distance.
The fields are where many adventures happened and so they play a large part in the memoir. They aren’t anonymous. Each one has a name and a history. Lynup’s Hill was named after Jimmy Lynam (Lynup) who lived in a cottage at the edge of the field, milked his six cows and kept cattle. That field was where I had my first fright from coming face to face with a bull that seemed insistent on maintaining eye contact and doing its best to intimidate me. Needless to say, I scarpered and the bull won that staring contest.
Many families lived on the Garrendenny Farm, some as owners, some as tenants, and are long gone but their memory lives on in the name of a field. Some people have buildings or statues named after them but isn’t a field where animals graze and bird sing a much nicer memorial?
The coalmines, located within five miles of the farm and there was also open cast mining on some of the farm fields, brought Sixsmiths to this area from Yorkshire. The first Sixsmith ancestor to come here was an engineer experienced in open cast mining. The proximity of the farm to the coalmines played a large part in its progress. Electricity came to this coalmining area with its huge rural population (the biggest rural population in all of Ireland) in 1949. My grandfather worked hard to ensure a supply was installed for the farm, he wanted it to make the job of milking cows easier and had plans for expansion. Today the coalmines are closed but a museum, river walks, boating, craft shops and a cafe serve to attract people to nearby Castlecomer and of course, provide employment.
The animals played an important part in the memoir too. Favourite cows and the lessons they taught humans were recalled; adventures with stubborn goats such as Becky who always got the better of me; pet sheep who kept escaping; hens that returned after I’d presumed the fox had made off with them. One thing became evident as I wrote about special or favourite cows. Just as our heritage will live on in the farm, in the sheds we have built, in the improvements we have made, in the flowers and trees we have planted, in the additional land we purchased, the cows heritage will live on too, through their daughters and granddaughters. Just as cows once ambled along the lane to return to the yard to be milked, their descendants will continue to do so.
Thank you so much to Lorna for a wonderful insight into rural life in this beautiful corner of Ireland. Do follow Lorna (the Irish Famerette) on Twitter, Facebook and via her website You can buy her memoir through the TripFiction Database
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