By michaelfewer, Aug 31 2018 02:22PM

In the 1901 census, there were seven houses in the townsland of Ballyvoreen, about five miles from Waterford. Six were stone-built, one had a slate roof and the rest had thatch. In the Hayes farmhouse beside the Douglas Stream, forty-six year old Walter and thirty-six year old Mary had three daughters and four sons living with them at the time, the eldest child being a daughter, Katie, who was 16. Walter had been in the Royal Irish Constabulary, but seems to have taken early retirement, and described himself as a police pensioner. By 1911 Mary has had two more boys, Thomas and Michael.

As the twentieth century unfolded, one son, Martin, came into the ownership of a good farm on the Dunmore Road, probably by marriage. Another one of the sons, Tom, eventually inherited the Ballyvoreen farm, and by the 1950s was living there with his sister, Mary Ellen, or as we knew her, Molly. All the other sons emigrated, to the US, I believe, in the 1930s.

Although the scale of the Hayes holding in 1901 might have meant, in political terms, that Hayes was a local ‘strong farmer’, the farm was not particularly large, maybe forty acres at most. It was a typical holding of the period in that it was a ‘mixed’ farm, in the full meaning of the term. The Hayes had cattle to provide milk, hens for eggs, and they also kept pigs. Rather than a tractor, they had one horse for general purpose use, for carting and for ploughing, and they would have had some fields under wheat or barley. In those days a good crop of wheat might amount to more than one and a half tons per acre. The by-product of straw was built into hay-stacks in the haggard and used for animal bedding. The cattle had fields of grass to graze, and their diet would have been augmented with chopped mangolds, grown on the farm, together with hay and possibly some linseed cake, the only feedstuff that was actually bought in. Potatoes and a range of vegetables were grown in a field just across the road from the farmhouse. They kept beehives at the back of the house for the production of honey. Milk was taken in churns by horse and cart to the creamery, although some of the milk was kept back and made into butter in the little dairy beside the house: I well remember not liking what we called ‘country butter, because it was so salty.

The Hayes family in the late 1920s: from left to right, Walter Hayes, Mary Hayes, Mary Ellen Hayes, my mother, Anastasia Hayes and Thomas Hayes.

The butter was made using a wooden churn of a design that goes back centuries, oak staves bound together with iron straps. In the photograph below of the Hayes family taken in front of the house about 1926, my ten-year-old mother is standing at such a churn grasping the churn staff. They also made cream, and these products were sold in shops in Waterford. The eggs were taken to town also for sale, by Mary Hayes, by pony and trap.

Labour costs were low, and at harvest time a meithil of local labourers and farmers would be available for the work to be done. In a time when there was little artificial fertilizer available other than lime derived from guano, fields would have been fertilized ‘in house’: all the farmyard manure from the cattle, pigs, hens and horse was used. With no artificial fertilizer and no pesticides being used on the farm, and careful crop rotation practiced, disease would have been largely absent in livestock and crops. No vets were needed, either: farmers in those days were well-experienced in looking after their livestock.

Hayes Farmstead up until 1980

The farm practices that had been carried on by Walter Hayes at the end of the nineteenth century were still being carried on by his son Tom, when in the early 1950s I, as a child, was introduced to the farm, and they were continued until at least the 1960s. The Hayes farmyard was a magical wonderland to me. The silky smooth golden straw of the haggard haystacks made perfect slides; it was the first time I had climbed anything, and so high up from the ground, and I remember I did it with nervous trepidation. The haystacks also gave us hiding places: we children could make ourselves invisible by burrowing into them. At the end of the haggard was the Douglas Stream, a little brook that provided the cattle with water. We children fished with nets for pinkeens there, and I was so excited to slosh them into a large jam jar and watch them swimming around and around.

On one side of the triangular yard was a shed that housed the cows, and also a henhouse and a small piggery. What a marvellous thing it was to be shown how to find the eggs the hens had laid, tucked into the warm, clean straw of their nesting boxes, and to walk among the hens as they pecked their way around the yard, and the haggard. I don’t ever remember the pigs being smelly: in the photo below showing my brother Tom and I watching the piglets feeding it is clear that the straw is fresh and clean. The cowshed was another matter; when they were herded into the shed and corralled into their wooden head restrainers, the cows could at any moment raise their tails and emit a stream of steaming liquid dung.

My brother Tom and I watching the bonnives feeding in the piggery in about 1950

A cow could also give a sudden kick backwards, or slap one’s face with her not-too-clean tail, and I learned to never stand behind one. Here I was shown by Tom Hayes how to milk a cow. It was a strange sensation, grasping the thick teat in my hand and manipulating it to produce a strong stream of warm milk that rang the galvanised bucket. I suppose Tom Hayes had about six or eight cows that had to be milked twice a day, so they were kept in a nearby field.

On the second side of the yard was the barn, which had a timber floored loft, the planks worn shiny smooth from many years polishing by sacks of grain. It may well be that, before threshing machines came into use, wheat and barley were threshed manually, with flails, on the ground floor of the barn. Attached to the end of the barn was the stable, where the farm horse was housed. To me as a child he was massive, a monster animal, and when I was put up on the broadness of his back my legs were stretched out like I was doing the splits.

On the third side of the yard was the farmhouse with its golden thatch projecting out over its white-washed walls, fringed along the front with a flower bed full of rose bushes. The walls were whitewashed every year, adding yet another waterproof layer to the walls and making the house look beautiful. It had the typical layout of The farmhouse had stone floors, and most of the cooking was done on the open fire, in pots and on a skillet. We children were fascinated by the Pearce-made cast-iron bellows that stood beside the open fire, and I can remember being very embarrassed when I turned it too fast and the drive strap fell off.

The Hayes farmhouse in 1979

On the left side of the house was a lean-to shed that was used as the farm dairy. Tom Hayes continued the old ways up until his death in the 1980s. When I bought an acre field from him in 1978 to build a cottage, as a matter of course, he laid all the hedges before he handed over the land. It was the only time I experienced the parlour of the house: Tom Hayes insisted on closing the deal with a glass of whiskey there. It was redolent of the Victorian era with button upholstered chairs, sepia family photographs and china souveniers of outings and travels.

A meithil at work on the Hayes farm c 1960 threshing corn using a threshing machine operated by a tractor engine

Even up until the nineteen-nineties one could wander far and wide through the fields of Ballyvoreen and neighbouring Kilcop; there were no barbed wire or electric fences at the time. My children were able to fully experience the freedom of the countryside as they spent much of our summer holidays wandering the neighbourhood. Pheasants nested in the grass in our field, and there were occasional glimpses of hares and foxes. At night moths would flutter around our lighted windows, and in the mornings we could indentify as many as a dozen different species of moth using a much-thumbed book of insects, including the exotic garden tiger and the poplar hawk. Long-eared bats and pippistrelles were plentiful at night. On clear late August nights the whole family would lie out on foam mattresses to gaze at the brilliant Milky Way, marvel at the shooting stars and try to identify as many constellations as possible. On two such occasions we were rewarded by fleeting glimpses of pale and silent barn owls flitting swiftly overhead. It was two miles down the road to Woodstown, and it was safe for us to walk to the wonderful beach there and back.

Alas, all has changed. The Hayes farmhouse has been rebuilt as a modern house. Since we built our cottage eleven houses have gone up in the area around us, each one bigger than the last. Apart from the house sites, barbed wire fences make progress through the fields, as of old, impossible. The traffic, and the increased speed of cars on the road has made walking to Woodstown a thing of the past. We have not seen a hare in twenty years, and all the foxes seem to have emigrated to the city. Moths are rare now, although there are still bats about, there are very few. Although the constellations and the Milky Way have not changed, the lights from expanding city have reduced the brilliance of the stars, and the night sky is alive with astonishing numbers of satellites.