|Illustration by Caty Bartholomew
He was a banjo player and a good one too, but that was not the reason at all why he was nicknamed Picker.
It went back far further than that to the late 1930s in a Dublin orphanage when Jamie and Annie from a hard Roscommon farm were driven by Jamie’s advancing rheumatism to take part in the then common enough practice of taking a boy out of the orphanage under what was called the Boarding Out system.
It was a pragmatic kind of adoption system dictated by the needs of the time and place and with no legal strings attached really. The orphan, for a year or two maybe, got some kind of home outside the Dublin orphanage, and the family got a young willing worker for the farm. That was the way it was.
“They picked me straight away,” is what the Picker told me years ago when we did an interview about the positives and negatives of the practice.
“There were about 30 lads in the big room in the orphanage, most of them bigger and stronger than me, but something nice happened and Annie came right up to me and put her hand on my head and said they would take me. It was just like that. I traveled down on the train to Roscommon with them the next morning, all excited about getting out of the place.
“I was nearly 14. I think they had to probably pay a few bob to the orphanage for me, but I don’t know that for sure to this day.”
At that time an orphan could be legally returned to the orphanage at the end of the year. That happened often.
They were called simply Boarded Outs and were a small part of the social fabric of the west and elsewhere. In the case of the Picker and Jamie and Annie, though, nearly like a small rural miracle, everything worked out perfectly.
They were good people who had married late in their lives because of aged parents on both sides to be looked after, and they had always wanted children of their own. Picker, right from the beginning, though a Dubliner, was their godsend. He was bright and merry and willing and so grateful to be part of a family. He had never known either his mother or his father.
After five years of happiness Jamie and Annie properly and legally adopted him. He became their son. There was a lot of love under that slated roof in Roscommon.
Long before that he had earned the nickname. The farm was destroyed by a scattering of rocks and small stones in the meadows and grazing. The orphan’s main job in the first two years was picking the stones and rocks out of the earth to make it more tillable. Apart from learning to drive cattle and sheep and hand milking the two cows, he was out on the farm picking stones from morning to night. That is where the nickname came from.
When the day was over though, unlike many Boarded Outs of the era, he was sleeping in the farmhouse, warm, loved, well fed and minded.
After they adopted him Jamie bought him a cheap banjo for his first ever Christmas present as a son. He had a gift for it, and soon they were showing off his skills to the neighbors.
“Sure I loved playing it. Picker by nature too. The music must have been in me from my own people. It came aisy.”
No biological son would have cared for the old couple towards the end better than the Boarded Out. Annie went at the butt end of one year, in her late eighties, and Jamie only survived her by less than a year.
There was a will and they made sure that Picker inherited the 52 acres and the homestead. There would have been no challenges from distant nephews anyway because he was well regarded inside the family circle.
It was he who was holding Annie’s right hand when she went to Heaven, even though there were womenfolk of her own blood and breeding in the house at the time.
Picker was just short of 30 when he inherited. He was seen locally as being a canny farmer, the same as Jamie before him.
“I had Catherine picked out for a wife from amongst all the girls in the parish long before I even talked to her first. She was lovely. I think I would not have got her either only she loved the music of the banjo and dancing sets,” Picker said.
“She married me anyway in the end and, fair play to the Dowds, there was no objection to me because I had started off as a Boarded Out, and nobody knew my breeding above in Dublin. They were mighty.
“It was an awful tragedy that Catherine died in the hospital after the third child was born. She was so young. It broke me in bits, but sure I had to keep going, the lads had to be fed and watered. But it was awful hard going.”
Picker raised his two daughters and one son as well as any housewife would. They still talk in the parish about how he could even bake good brown bread, never mind cooking their meals.
One of the daughters became a champion dancer, and he usually played for her at the concerts where she danced. They had a good country life and rearing, and the daughters joined the civil service in Dublin, and later married in Dublin, and the son, called Jamie of course, took over the farm and even became a contractor cutting silage for other local farmers.
Picker kept hale and hearty well into his early eighties and was a core member of every good music session locally down all his years.
The son Jamie told me at the funeral last week that his father stayed true to his nickname to the very end.” He told me he had picked the end of October to go because he had never liked the bitter winds of November.
“He picked which side of the plot would allow him to sleep closest to our mother and he even picked the lettering for the headstone. He told me to make sure that Picker was included in his name because that is what he was always.”