Why farming and its rituals lie at the very core of this island's identity
At this harvest time of the year, I often long to visit an Irish farm just to experience the feeling of the land. Farming is an important element in Irish life, and I think it's something we should know about. And so my friend Martin Condon took me to his cousin's farm in the rolling countryside between Bandon and Clonakilty - land which has been in his family for many generations.
Farms are family endeavours - or, they're at their best when the family co-operates together. "A farmer needs to be married," says Christy Condon, who, with his pretty wife, Helen, runs this almost idyllic farm of about 150 acres. There have been bachelor farmers, but it's a struggle, and it's no coincidence that stories about bachelor farmers have focused on loneliness. Helen and Christy have six children, from aged 27 to 15, all, except for the eldest, Grace (presently in Sydney, Australia) involved in the farm and highly knowledgeable about farming technology. Their younger son, Emmet, spends his hobby time tinkering with the combine harvester. Their elder son, Michael, is off to agricultural college and keen to succeed his father, eventually.
Their three lively daughters, Katherine, Claire and Clionadh, know all there is to be known about working on a silage pit - and how perilous the methane gas can be. Agriculture can be a dangerous business nowadays, and there are constant reports of tragic accidents occurring with farming machinery. Falling into a silage pit is one of the worst hazards of all.
Yet to the outsider, the Dublin-born jackeen who knows little about the land or animal husbandry, this life seems like a painting from Constable or Poussin. In the fields, the cattle look so picturesque, dotting the landscape with cow-eyed serenity (this is a milk farm, which also produces beef). But each animal is electronically tagged these days. Milk is strictly tested and then monitored for temperature and lactose content in a great tank by a computerised system. A Government inspector can call at any unannounced moment and shut down a farmer's entire operation if everything isn't exactly as it should be.
Christy, a cheerful man in his fifties, doesn't complain about this. He doesn't even complain much about the milk prices, which have dropped so dramatically over the past year that Northern Irish farmers have been protesting by bringing cows into supermarkets. Yes, the farmers were getting 39 cent a litre last year, and only 27.5 cent this year, but that's because of over-supply on the world market. The Irish farmer thinks globally: the EU embargo on trade with Russia (because of the Ukrainian troubles) and the great fall of China are contributing factors. "We must just hope the market stabilises again." Most Irish milk goes into cheese and milk powder, by the way.
What upset Helen and Christy was the BSE scare (mad cow disease) in 1996, when they lost 187 cattle. "That was the saddest day," says Helen, "seeing them all taken off to be slaughtered." But it couldn't be helped. The priority was to keep the herd free from any suspicion of contamination. Helen and Christy are patriotically aware of the need to maintain the reputation of Irish beef and milk. Irish beef is the best in the world, and that must be defended and upheld.
The cows are Friesian, and they graze the fields until November, when they're brought inside. Most of them are pregnant just now, and they will calve in January or February. Out of 110 cows, you'd lose three or four calves from still-births and other complications. The CCTV has been a great help in monitoring cows in labour: previously a farmer had to check on a cow every hour through the night.
Clionadh Condon, who is only 17, is raising her own set of bullocks for her transition year project. She's very serious and professional in her care of these sleek creatures - they put you in mind of the phrase "silk of the kine".
Cattle lore is fascinating: the Friesian needs grass with a moderate amount of heat and a moderate amount of rain, which makes Irish grass ideal, usually. Grass in the south of England can sometimes be a little too tufty. In continental Europe, cows are kept indoors much more than in Ireland.
The French won't eat the meat of a cow unless she has had a calf - there is a subtle alteration in the taste - and cows suffer from a form of post-natal depression if a calf is lost through still-birth.
All milking is done by machines, and the milking shed looks awesomely hi-tech. But a farming family still needs to know how to milk by hand, in case of a power failure.
Hay is now only used for bedding. Animals are fed on home-grown wheat, barley and maize. And harvest-time is no longer what it was in times past. The communal ritual of "saving the harvest", as in John McGahern stories, is gone. Nowadays, big silage businesses manage the threshing and the hay. Yet harvest "thanksgiving" in September is observed in this part of west Cork, introduced by the Protestant farming traditions around Bandon, and there is a lot of activity with farmers' markets and country markets, rich with produce. And there's a grand community feeling about that, too.
Is a farming life a happy life? "Yes," says Helen, who's originally from Clonakilty. "If you're cut out for it. When the cows are calving and the spring crops start coming in, it's lovely: you think - this is the cycle of life starting all over again."