Around the Farm Gate by various authors
Historically, the vast majority of people in Ireland have lived in a rural setting. So if you’re an Irish-American, it means that the person or persons in your family’s past who emigrated from Ireland to America – be it during the Great Hunger or at any other time before or since – probably came from a small family farm.
When I go home, for example, I go to a small farm just south of Ballinasloe in County Galway, and a small house and collection of fields with cattle and sheep where my family, the Colohans, has lived for generations.
It is, to me, the most beautiful place on earth, and it is this place that reappeared, again and again, in my mind’s eye as I read this book, a collection of stories of farm life from years and decades past by 50 unknown or, at least, largely unknown authors from around the country.
The stories are of births and deaths, the passing of seasons, friends and relatives remembered, the joys and lessons of childhood, seasons marked and legends and stories retold, and if the writing is sometimes not great – and it’s not; most of these folks are not professional writers – it is not contradictory to say that the stories they tell often are.
A collaborative project of three organizations – RTE Radio 1, the Irish Farmers Journal and Ballpoint Press – Gate has a quiet, gentle resonance for anyone who wants to better understand – or, if you grew up on an Irish farm any time in the past, say, 100 years, better remember – a life of close families, good hard work, small communities, a reliance on and respect paid to the old ways, and simple pleasures. The people here are isolated from the wider world – world wars and major world events hardly ever intrude on these stories – but they have their families and their communities and their sense of place and pride drawn closely to them, and we see, quite often, that this is enough to live happily and with a sense of fulfillment. More than enough. And while they live in the familiar and the everyday, their stories are no less resonant and at times quietly luminous for doing so.
And no matter where the stories are set – County Kerry or County Clare or wherever – they remind me of the Irish place that me and mine are from, the familiar old abandoned ruin that housed my ancestors in the 1800s, the quiet fields that have changed little since before 1900, the sounds of the animals at night, the gentle eyes and easy gait of the cattle as they are moved from one field to another, the smell of turf in the kitchen, the narrow country roads.
If you are an Irish-American, you are the people in these stories. And they are you. And while the world around all of us changes and becomes colder and more angry and brutal, we have, all of us, these quiet fields, these reminders of home and hearth, these small moments of recognition, when we can see, in our own hearts, the people that came before us.