The Calf, a family history story of Northern Ireland

Jeremiah’s hand rested on the gate.  Was it the morning dew or sweat he felt on his palms?  He couldn’t see much.  He paused, listening to the rustle of cattle.  It was getting close to the time they would be liberated into the day, but the still dark confused them as did his presence.

With quiet exaggeration, he closed the latch, pushing cattle aside.  Even in the dim light he knew the outline of his yearling and slipped the rope over the bull’s thick neck .  He trusted that his familiar scent would prompt the bull to cooperate.

Back through the crush Jeremiah felt the cows and other yearlings part for him.  It was a hopeful sign considering his hammering heart, but he wasn’t safe yet.

He tried not to think about the disappointment of his mother and sisters.   John, his older brother, would understand and smooth things over.   He was the one everyone listened to.   Especially their father when he was on the stony path not knowing whether to forgive or to strap the children.

John explained their father like it meant sense to him, but for Jeremiah it didn’t ever make sense.  It was either the strap or not the strap.  John said their father was an uneasy survivor.  Their parents living through two wars, through the promise and then the terror of workhouses and reforms.  So-called reforms between Catholics and Protestants where all paid the price for the aristocratic and political rhetoric.

After fifty long years their grandparents had finally found peace, prosperity and community, but only briefly.  In 1845, the potato famine wiped out their income and their food supply.  Most of the family starved to death and it was only luck and the kindness of strangers that had kept their father Thomas, and his younger brother, William, alive.

By 1850, Thomas had developed a keen knack for raising cattle and for keeping the peace.  The local landlord, when she bothered to show up, came to reply upon him to quell arguments as cattle pastured unfettered in Armagh county.  After a time,  Thomas’ one bull, ten cows and a small plot of pasture became a thriving farm.   Thomas wasn’t greedy and as his herd prospered, so too did Ballyworkan benefit as a community.

A soft light now came from their small white-washed cottage.   Their mother would be starting the fire to make his father’s tea.  Porridge with butter would come soon after for the four sisters, for John and for him.  It was Friday, so his father would also be expecting an egg.   Fire, he said, to fuel the long walk ahead of them to Poynt Pass and onto Markethill,

but Jeremiah wouldn’t be going tomorrow.  He put his head down and willed hims

elf not to run, as if that might stop him from being spotted.   It was one day short of July and he was glad.  Any earlier and the roads would have been deeply rutted and mucky making his journey slow.  He was sure that if his father caught him now he’d lose his resolve.

He thought only briefly about his sisters, except for Jane.   The girls who shared a room were silly and would be too busy cheeping and grooming to notice his absence.  Jane he would miss.   She wasn’t yet bouncing about like his other sisters of marriageable age, who were more worried about boys and ribbons.  In the past he could always count on her to share the chores so there would be time to fish in the Cusher, watching the lazy current and thinking big thoughts about nothing.

The sun was rising now, casting a pink orange glow and making the mist rise from the ground.  Jeremiah’s heart was no longer hammering, but a steady leap, like the excitement he felt about his future.

The previous years replayed.  Jeremiah remembered being grateful for the penny tossed by his father to spend on toys or candy, but that time was past.  Replaced by the elation at standing beside his father and John at the previous fall market.  Boys were expected to drive the herd for the eight hours to Poynt Pass, but once the cattle were corralled the men took care of the negotiations.   He had stood among them for the first time.  Then his father had given him a calf saying it was his responsibility.  Jeremiah raised it with care watching his father and brother, not quite able to see, but anticipating with pride, his future as a cattleman.

He was almost at his destination knowing that his absence from the family home would now be obvious.  His father would file away his anger till just the right moment.  Jeremiah hated the waiting game.

John, however, always managed to deflect punishment, or rather what their father called “corrections.”   John whose head was cool and smart,  ready to take over the family farm, while Jeremiah slaved into the future, landless.

“He has no right to take it to market.”, he said.  “I raised it.  It’s my seed bull.  My future.”   His thoughts, however gruffly appearing in his head, were shadowed by doubt and the echo of this father’s laughter.   “No son.  It was experience you needed, not the bull.  It goes to market tomorrow with the rest.”, and the conversation was over just like that.

The sun had risen quicker than he remembered as if time was urging him forward.  He blinked stupidly in the light, the bull bumping his back with a tipped horn reminding him it was both their breakfast times.  Jeremiah hadn’t noticed passing the other cottages that lined the road of Harcourt’s Hill.  Had the neighbour’s seen him pass, he wondered.

A small house stood on the right, but he knew it would be empty.  He rounded the back to the shed with the chickens pecking and pigs rooting contentedly.  The sheep and cows already at pasture.  Another hand on the gate that he looked down to see with some surprise that it was a man’s hand.  Calloused and red rough.  A hand with experience.  His hand.

His uncle William raised his own in welcome, his eyes only half masking the merriment Jeremiah knew he was getting from seeing his nephew at his door step.   Jeremiah did not know how his uncle, as a bachelor, managed to work the farm alone.  More importantly, how he had afforded his own land.  Even with all these questions and naivety, Jeremiah was reassured that it was possible.

Jeremiah Pentland in front of his cottage in Ballyworkan, Portadown, Armagh County, Northern Ireland

Jeremiah Pentland in front of his cottage in Ballyworkan, Portadown, Armagh County, Northern Ireland

John said that their father lost his own childhood protecting Will from the harshness and responsibilities he’d endured.  “That’s why Dad seems so mixed”, John said, “His enjoyment of life put on hold to make sure William thrived, but then,” and John winked, “… Will turned out to be a little too mirthful”. They had both smiled remembering the practical jokes and the mouth harp Uncle Will constantly played.  They liked how it drove their father crazy.

Will and Jeremiah did not need to talk.   Conversation about Thomas was long questioned without an answer, his stoicism as set as Will’s humour.  They set about the day’s chores, his stomach rumbling with hunger and anxiety.   Yet, the sun set and there was no knock on the door and Will said he could stay on as long as he worked.

Out of character the next day’s promise was of summer sun, instead of rain.  The mood was light as they, with a day’s rations and a bedroll, left for market ~ the bull calf safely away in Will’s shed.  The cattle, a much smaller herd than Thomas’, walked on ahead beside the river with only the occasional correction to stay on track.  Jeremiah’s courage rose and fell in waves getting sharper as they neared the market.

He’d never noticed before, well, maybe he had and not acknowledged it, but his father was holding court.  Men leaning in on his words and the not so private exchange of flasks.  The rest of his family was still at home.  His sister’s would have preferred the social opportunity of the July 1st market, but his mother would only visit in September when the supply of goods bordered on extravagant.   Jeremiah felt a moment of family pride and then his father’s body changed direction, all the while smiling and slapping backs.

He tried to busy himself, but found his Uncle propelling him towards the court of Thomas.  “This is what you’re here for.  Isn’t it?”, Will questioned.  While Jeremiah’s desire drove one side, inexperience drove the other so that his body looked twisted as the two sets of brothers  greeted each other.   It seemed that everyone turned to watch as if the news of his defection had preceded like brush fire.

Thomas looked from Will to Jeremiah and then behind them.  No calf.   Jeremiah was trembling with the effort to control he knew not what.  Was it rage or fear?  Maybe the two were indistinguishable.

He forced his eyes up and saw his father with a rare small smile playing about his lips.   “Well, Jeremiah Pentland, ” his father said, “That was brass-neck thing you pulled.  I’m sure your Uncle will appreciate the extra hand on his farm.”  Some might have looked for the sarcasm in that remark, but for Jeremiah it only meant no strap ever again.  That would have been enough for him, but the lesson learned came from his father turning back to say, “It’s a fine bull son.” and with that he nodded to Will and turned back to the other cattlemen.

Author’s Notes:   The original family story related to me was that Jeremiah took a calf and walked down the road to his Uncle’s farm.  The facts are that our great-grandfather inherited land from his bachelor uncle William, while John, his older brother, inherited land from their father, Thomas.  Jeremiah married Dinah Morrow, whom he called his Treasure.  Of the eight children they raised, two sons migrated to Canada in the 1930’s.  Jeremiah’s farm was eventually purchased with glee by Tommy Flavel whose family also raised cattle in Ballyworkan and who sat at Jeremiah’s knee while he played the Mouth Harp.  Tommy, in his late seventies, hosted my cousin Evelyn, my sister and I on a walk through our ancestral lands which included, yep, cattle.  Except for that which is bog, next to the Brackagh Moss Nature Reserve, all the pasture land is slowly being urbanized by the City of Portadown.

Thanks to my cousins Evelyn Harper and Ivan Pentland for relaying the story of Jeremiah for me to embellish and share.

4 thoughts on “The Calf, a family history story of Northern Ireland

  1. I’m curious – is that really a picture of Jeremiah? He was my great-grandfather (and Evelyn Harper, nee Pentland, that you refer to was my aunt).

    • Yes Nigel, that really is a picture of Jeremiah! My story is fictional, but it’s based on an anecdote told to me by cousin Evan when I visited in 2002. I guess that makes us cousins also!

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