|Illustration by Caty Bartholomew|
When I think of Christmas trees at times like this when the windows of every home are blinking brightly with them, the strongest image that lodges in my mind is standing on the main road into town past the long bulk of Cloughnasceilte along with Seamus O’Kelly of that townland, as serene and wise a man as ever I listened to.
This is only a few winters ago and Seamus and wife Annie are still as hale and hearty as trout in the mountain reaches of the Inny river, and I remember every word he said about the old times in Cloughnasceilte when he was growing up.
We were standing at the end of the short road leading down from their neat home to the main road. The sun was gilding the windows and there was a blue comma of smoke from the chimney. The car was parked at the front door because Annie was not going into town until later.
On either side of their single acre long, lean, green battalions of the pines and firs of the big state forest were appearing to carry out a pincer movement around the home. Thousands of gently whispering Christmas trees if you like. Seamus worked for over 40 years for the state-owned Forestry Commission and had helped to plant many of them as their family of three boys and two girls grew up in Cloughnasceilte.
Relaxed and pragmatic and happy as the day was long, he told me that there was no Christmas tree inside any house when he was a child. Holly on the inside windowsills, a big goose on the Christmas table and, always, a big candle burning in the welcoming window facing the road to town and the road, really, into the big wide world that lay beyond.
“There were seven families in Cloughnasceilte that time, four families of Maddens and three O’Kellys, all related one way or another, all farming the hard land and doing the best they could and doing it well enough. There were 36 children with me in the school that is in ruins now,” Seamus said.
“Our lads and lassies went away from here the same as all the rest — we educated them away from the land you see — and now Annie and myself are the last family living in Cloughnasceilte. When we are gone there will be nothing here but a state forest, and sure that is natural and you can’t complain. Everything changes as life goes on.”
Seamus told me there was a great range of skills in the townland when he was growing up. All the men were farmers, yes, but they also had what he called another string to their bow.
His namesake father was the parish thatcher, for example, and was always kept busy in that era of thatched rooves. One of the Maddens was noted as a builder of stone walls.
His mother was the parish dressmaker and the Singer sewing machine was whirring away in the kitchen every evening as she darned and turned and added years to the lives of old clothes and hand-me-downs. An uncle was a gifted joiner and handyman who was kept busy by the people in the town.
Maura Madden was a quack doctor who had mighty herbal cures and potions for every ailment under the sun. There were always folk calling to her door. She had a cure for ringworm especially, and this was common then among farmers handling stock.
Toto O’Kelly was known as a man you called upon if a cow was having difficulty calving. Frankie Madden, away over six feet tall was, as Seamus put it “a Padre Pio when it came to engines of tractors or vans.” He had only to lay hands on a dead engine and it came to life.
Every rural skill and craft necessary for survival was readily available in Cloughnasceilte.
Mick Madden was the man who came to your house to slaughter the fat pigs that fed families through the winter. There was no charge for any neighborly service of any kind.
Everybody helped out everybody else except Gabriel O’Kelly who was not to be trusted, was unable to handle his drink, was probably the one who thieved turf and pitted potatoes in the dead of night and was bad to his wife.
“But,” said Seamus, “is there not a bad apple in every barrel?”
Seamus himself was lucky enough to get a job in the Forestry Commission at a time when the government was encouraging forestry.
Over time, as children of the townland grew up and emigrated, at least as far away as Dublin, usually abroad like his own, in America and Australia the most of them, more and more of the families sold their farms to the Forestry Commission for good enough prices and lived out the rest of their lives amongst the advancing ranks and files of trees.
Seamus remembered when the thinnings from the forests were dumped but then, slowly, the people in the town and county, in the 1960s, began to look for them at this time every year to use as Christmas trees.
Nothing stays the same.
Some of their children and rising brood of grandchildren nearly always make it home to them during the summer. The grandchildren love playing then in the nearby forests.
Annie still maintains the old tradition of burning a real genuine wax Christmas candle in the front porch of the last home left now among all the Christmas trees of the old townland of Cloughnasceilte.
“We can’t complain. It does feel a bit lonesome sometimes when you think back but, in truth, we are as happy as Larry here and things are good and gentle,” Seamus said.