Monday, November 14, 2016

Milking the memories

We're not so far from the past, really. Only a conversation away.

I was talking with someone recently about Glasnevin in Dublin in the 1950s, when its edges still touched countryside. She recalled how milk was delivered then by a farmer from a churn on his cart, residents in the new houses coming out to have their jugs filled. No pasteurising. No bottles with silvered tops. No clatter of glass from a milk float. But there was a daily conversation with the farmer who had milked the cows himself.

Milk supply in Kilcullen wasn't as advanced then. We collected it in lidded tin cans with skinny wire handles that cut welts into our small children's hands by the time we brought them home from Tom Molloy's milking shed, where the Valley is now. I was ten, eleven, twelve. It was one of the daily chores, usually before teatime.

Cows have to be milked at regular times, so the milk was fresh at the same time every day. Still warm when it was poured from Mr Molloy's tall jugs into our cans. Which got heavier for us as we walked back up the hill, the footpath then including a series of steps. By the time we passed Lambe's the hill was flattening, and the trek became easier still as we went by Nolans butchers. Eventually home, beyond the pub, beyond the cottages, and past the green galvanised fence that hid part of our garden where every winter were stacked the logs that helped keep our family warm.

Those milk cans were badly designed. We brought wads of paper so we could fashion more comfortable handles. They were still hard, though we couldn't complain much because they were sold to everyone who used them by my grandfather's hardware store. There were other cans with comfortable wooden parts to the handles, but they were more expensive.

Earlier in the day we'd have watched Mr Molloy herding his cattle down to be milked, from the fields he had up near Nicholastown. Or maybe we wouldn't have, because it was just part of every day, not to be noticed unless, which never happened, that he didn't drive them through.

His routine impacted traffic too. Kilcullen then was on the main road south from Dublin to Carlow, to Kilkenny and, ultimately, to Waterford. Every vehicle going in either direction — cart, car, lorry, bus — had to take its pace from the daily cattle drive, if it happened to arrive in town at the same time. Overtaking the small herd if there was an opportunity, otherwise slowly following Mr Molloy and his beasts down or up the road as was appropriate to the time of the day. Steaming clumps dropped during the procession added another layer of texture to local life. And to the vehicles which slushed through them.

Cattle have to be fed through the winter, and that brought another, seasonal, colour to our child lives. The saving of the hay which Mr Molloy also produced on his land. We'd go to see him and hired workers cut it, spread it to dry, and later toss it into haystacks. It was quite something, watching sweating men with pitchforks lift the laying hay, and build it into a pile that grew to be what seemed perfectly rounded stacks. Producing regular lines of those stacks to make a harvest pattern in the field.

Sometimes we 'helped', lifting small armfuls, throwing them up, mostly not very successfully. And, when no adult was looking, we'd often climb up onto the stack to slide down again. Not doing any good for the hard toil of the real workers. We went home afterwards with bits of hay stuck through our jumpers, scratchy in our underwear, and dusty in our shoes and socks. God bless our mothers, long given up complaining.

For us boys — and a few girls too — the really good part came when it was time for those same stacks to be brought down to the hayshed at the back of Mr Molloy's milking shed. This was the time of the bogey. A flat horse-drawn cart without sides, the timber of the rear edge covered in nailed-down tin so that it wouldn't wear out. At the front, on each side, were long handles that worked the ratchets which pulled the wire that hauled up the stack. It was, though I didn't know it at the time, a lesson in engineering for which I would later learn the theory.

The big fun was getting a ride on the empty bogey as it went up the town to the field to collect its cargo of haycocks. The braver of us sat on the edges with our legs dangling. Children's legs, safe enough from contact with the road even when the cart swayed up and down.

On the downward trip there were always a couple of us sitting on the back, our shoulders in the stack, the others running behind as it was driven down the hill before swerving into the laneway to the milking shed. At that point there was nothing left for us to do except wait for the next trip.

That was, of course, just a small segment of the year's milk run. For the rest of it, we carried the cans. How well off were our equivalents in the Dublin outskirts. They had deliveries to their door, poured into what were probably blue and cream striped jugs, which were then brought directly to the kitchen table and covered in muslin to keep nosy winged creatures away.

Ask a youngster today where milk comes from, and they'll have the answer. The supermarket, in cardboard boxes with a plastic pourer.

Oh, what they've missed.