It’s really hip, in recent times, to be into the countryside and nature and all that birdy/treey/greeny sort of thing. Everyone has become an expert on such matters.
Yet, for all of that, I think the true countrymen are disappearing and the new self-styled experts are all black boots and no breakfast.
But I was privileged to grow up amongst real countrymen, old retainers like Nicky Carr, who was a herdsman, and retired in 1982. Men who were in tune with nature, the weather and folklore.
They delighted in country pursuits such as hunting foxes with gun and hound, and trapping grey crows in the church wood lest they prey upon newborn lambs. Rather than lay poison, they dug out the rats for terriers to flitter.
Rabbits were controlled with the snare and shot, and added to a bagful of ferrets – whichever way, they ended up in the pot. Likewise, pigeon breast was tasty game and they were kept in control by shooting on a stormy evening.
Foretelling the weather
These countrymen watched the unfolding of the seasons, with the first buds of spring, the hedgehog’s tentative break from hibernation and the antics of the March hare.
As spring gave way to summer, an opinion would be offered on what weather was to come. Not bothered with Met Éireann, this was based on observing the nesting of the crows, the flowering of the whitethorn and the ash before the oak.
Without sophisticated technology, old boys who knew from observation that every month curses a good February, as it has this year.
A white frost came with the warning of rain by evening, and a red sky at night was Nicky’s delight. The claim to hearing the first cuckoo call in Baskinagh was keenly contested over bottles of stout and a fistful of cards.
In the June evenings, they heard the mating call of the corncrake in the Fans’ boggy meadows and birds would be known by their crake – more than that, their grandfathers would be known.
Pheasant nests would be watched and guarded like a miser’s hoard and woe betide the fox that preyed on them. Magpies were trapped and despatched.
The cattle lying in the summer fields in front of his cottage were Carr’s weather barometer. If their arses were to Ballivor, be warned. A porter bottle full of Epsom salts down the bullock’s neck treated most things.
Foul in a lame animal was cured by turning the sod. His Barber penknife was used for paring everything, from a ewe’s hoof to his lunchtime cheese.
And there were the old stories passed down the generations. The destitute congregating from far and wide in the hill field around a famine pot where hot gruel was being dished out. The fairies dancing in the moonlight around the unmarked burial ground (Gortnacoille) for those whom food came too late.
And the on-the-run IRA man, surprised by the Tans shaving at dawn by the pool in Tubber and shot.
Such were the ways and lore of these true countrymen. Men who knew the call of a lone vixen fox in the still night air and watched the pine marten return to erradicate the grey squirrel.
Men who knew where to find an oak for cleft posts, the drover’s ash plant, hazel for nuts, crab apples for jam and red-berried holly for Christmas. And rosehips to make you itch.
But they are not all old and long-gone countrymen, and one of their number was of my generation. Nicky Potterton – not closely related, but we have a common ancestor – was just 57 years old when he recently succumbed to illness.
He loved a Sunday morning hunt with his dogs and his friend and mentor, his dad. A family man, sportsman and true countryman, may he rest in peace.