When I lived in a regular American suburb, we would be surprised to see a tractor rolling up our driveway, but here it’s a normal thing. Today, it was our neighbour’s farmhand carrying a giant round hay bale for us, a gift from our neighbour.
My neighbour – we’ll call him Liam – has raised cows down the road for 75 years, and whenever I drive, jog or bicycle down the canal road, we stop and chat. I mentioned to him my daughter does archery, and uses bales as targets; he had bales that had sprouted grass and were no good anymore. Thus, we get a free archery target sitting in our driveway, and this week we’ll roll it to some suitable location behind the house.
Liam also passes on news about all our neighbours – not idle or intrusive gossip, but information you’re thankful to have. He tells me that his farmhand’s trailer was robbed recently; they suspect a few shady local kids rumoured to use drugs. Ireland has far less crime than the USA – one-fourth the number of homicides, for example – but we still have drugs and petty theft, and every area has its share of ne’er-do-wells and troubled souls.
The difference is that in more traditional communities, everyone knows who they are, and you can’t get away with much. It’s not that there’s no privacy – not like living in an internet culture, where people’s browsing history and bathroom photographs can be displayed for everyone to see. Rather, most people out here keep to themselves, and don’t nose into each other’s lives – but what you do in public matters.
Everyone here knows the “boy racers” that drive too fast along narrow roads where children play, and some neighbours, I’m told, run to stretch spike-chains across the road when they hear the racers coming. Everyone knows to dogs are blind, and to slow down when they pass that stretch of road. If there's waste clogging up the canal or a bad smell coming from the mushroom factory, someone will complain; these things affect everyone, so everyone has a right to know.
Today I ran past my neighbour’s field --- we’ll call him Padraig – as he was picking his potatoes, and asked if he wanted help. He’s 86, and still sows and harvests his own crops by hand. He refused the help, but chatted amiably for a while.
Your potatoes look good, I said – ours got the blight.
“When did you plant them?” he asked.
I believe it was around St. Patrick’s Day, I said.
“You shouldn’t get the blight like that,” he said “We planted the same time, and we had a crop by July. Did you buy the seed?”
We chitted our potatoes, and then planted them from ones we bought, I said.
“Ah, those are bag potatoes,” he said. “Try certified seed next time, and if they don’t get the blight, use the eyes of those to make the next year’s crop. Do you have any sallies around?”
When I first got to Ireland, that sentence would have made no sense, but I knew he meant willow trees. Quite a few nearby, I said.
“You don’t want sallies too close to potatoes,” he said – “They encourage the blight. They attract the things from the air that cause the blight, and if potato fields are nearby, you’re more likely to get it.”
I haven’t looked into whether this has any scientific basis, but I like that people here carry that kind of local lore. We talked about the blackberries growing all along the hedgerows, distracting me from my morning jog, and he said they weren’t as tasty as last year’s, but were larger – he put it down to when the summer rains came. “That makes all the difference,” he said, and he might be right.
In fact, the hedgerows that line each field are positively sagging with berries of all kinds -- poisonous yew; lovely blackberries; the rose-hips that are so good for jam, and the sloes that grow on the blackthorn trees, so good for making into gin. We also see a profusion of haws on hawthorn trees and elderberries on the elders – the first is too bland to eat raw and the latter too tart, but both make a nice wine. Most years we’d be spending our spare time gathering them, but this year we’ve been busy with other things.
Right now, it’s merely cool and dry, a high wind is whistling across the bog, all our neighbours’ gardens swell with crops ready to be picked, and the leaves are changing rapidly. Everyone – people, animals, plants – seem to be in a hurry, doing their duty before the wheel turns and we plunge into the long and rainy darkness of the Irish winter.