Buried Deep in my Heart
This coming of age story from Declan Henry captures life growing up on a farm in Derrykinlough, a rural village on the Sligo/Mayo border in the Irish Republic during the 1970s and early 1980s. This is an evocative account of an Irish childhood and tells of a now vanished world – settled, highly traditional and moulded at every point by Catholicism. It’s an account of self-discovery while encapsulating the hopes and ideals reminiscent of the time.
An extract from Buried Deep in my Heart
My father went to England every autumn for economic reasons to work in a sugar factory in Essex. Thus, he was usually away from September to early February. His annual absence had become part of our family life, and we were used to it. We were sad at his departure but excited when he returned. Father always ensured that affairs on the farm were in order before he left, including getting all the hay and turf home. All that remained was for my brothers and I to help mother run the farm whilst he was away, which mainly meant milking cows, feeding cattle and cleaning out barns. Selling and buying cattle was always done in spring, but my father always returned in time for this task. However, the calving season was mainly in wintertime, and it was at these times that I had to get my hands really dirty. No two births were ever the same. With difficult births, the cows went through immense pain, and plenty of assistance had to be given when big calves were involved. For this, a rope was tied around the front feet of the calf after the water bag had broken, and a strong piece of wood was then attached to the rope to assist with pulling the calf out as quickly as possible. As soon as the calf was born, I used to help clean and dry it off with some hay. It never ceased to amaze me how after the young calf was dried off and had rested a little, it would then rise to its feet. This always happened within minutes and was truly magical to watch.
My mother used to pack my father’s suitcase meticulously before he went to England, and she usually had an audience when carrying out this task, as I liked to watch what she was putting in. Everything put into the suitcase had been washed and meticulously ironed – so it didn’t matter that his work clothes were mixed in with his best finery. A quantity of razor blades, soap and shampoo intended to last him for a couple of months were also included. As a letter was the main means of correspondence in those days, she always included a blue Belvedere Bond notepad and envelopes to match. My mother and I exchanged letters with Father every week with our news, and to this day I vividly remember his address at the sugar factory in Essex.
Mr Patrick Henry, The Hostel, Felsted Sugar Factory, Dunmow, Essex, England.
In addition to writing to us, Father regularly posted us newspapers. This was a treat because we all loved reading in our house, and the newspapers he sent were different from the Irish ones with a wider variety of stories which weren’t normally available to us. Indeed, part of my literary diet growing up were Daily Mirror newspapers, which Father carefully rolled up and posted to us. There was nothing better than getting a taste for scandal from an early age. It was all very harmless, though mind-boggling at the time. In the midst of a staunch Catholic environment, reading about an adulterer was shocking! Questions like ‘How could they do such a thing?’ would often be exchanged in conversations. It wasn’t only reading about the sexual antics of people that was intriguing, other stories struck a cord as well.
For me, my Catholic upbringing encouraged a fascination with the afterlife and the supernatural. I was always asking what happened to people after they died. I really wanted to see a ghost, but I never did. Maybe it was just as well because I remember reading in one of the papers a really scary story about a haunted house. Furniture often moved around by itself in this house, noises were often heard in the middle of the night, and a misty, cold presence was sometimes felt in its rooms. Well, nothing moved in our house, wardrobes stayed firmly in their place at all times, and neither were there any strange sightings. I know because I did a daily check after reading this real-life ghost story. Furthermore, if the kitchen or sitting room were cold, it was usually the fault of one of my brothers or me for neglecting to fuel the fire whilst my mother was out working on the farm.
My father always brought us presents when he came home each spring. He hated cheap things because he believed that things that were cheap never lasted very long. I grew up listening to his philosophy that ‘the dearest is the cheapest in the long run’. One year he brought me a lovely Parker pen. I loved it, but my mother gave strict instructions that I shouldn’t take it to school for fear it would be lost or stolen.
The excitement of Father coming home was coupled one year by the arrival of a travelling show to our local area. I have realised over the years that individuals can be rather naïve during many stages in their lives, but none more so than the young and impressionable. It is when you are young that only true wonderment can be experienced. I remember feeling this sense of wonder when the travelling show came to a neighbouring village. The anticipation of what the shows were going to be like was immense. A marquee was erected in a field at the back of the church, but there was only a small entourage with just three or four caravans for the family-run business.
Shows were planned over the course of a week and were mainly scheduled for seven o’clock each evening. I remember entering the marquee on the first evening and being taken aback and fascinated by the lighting as we sat down on one of the rows of benches. The performance was an all-round show for all ages and consisted of a comedy act, magic tricks, singing, and even a trapeze artist. Then to finish things off at the end of what was a lovely and enjoyable evening there was a round of bingo with prizes to be won which consisted of a teddy bear, a crystal bowl or a box of biscuits. However, I wasn’t fortunate enough to win anything and envied those who did.
Each evening there was a horror movie shown at either ten or eleven o’clock, but this was too late for me to be allowed to attend. Padraic went to some of them, as he was the oldest. I remember my curiosity about these movies and would have loved to see the gore that I imagined. Padraic was questioned thoroughly the morning after each performance. He was asked questions like ‘What was it about?’ and ‘Who was in it?’ as well as ‘What did you see?’ I don’t think he was very interested in them because he could never really remember much about them, which I found rather infuriating at the time.
Ireland had begun to reap some benefits of being part of the European Market by this time. Nearly every household now had a car, there were better employment prospects, and women were entering the workforce in much larger numbers. More cars and more money meant that people were able to travel much longer distances in search of entertainment. As a result, people began to develop broader minds and more sophisticated tastes. The tourism industry saw an increase in the number of visitors coming to Ireland, alongside emigrants returning home on vacation, all of which generated ever more income. I missed the travelling show after it left, and it was never to return again. It was the last of its kind; society had changed. It was the end of an era and simplistic shows like these couldn’t survive the new economic boom.