-We will never see the likes of this great generation again.
In the sunshine of a late Autumn afternoon, an elderly man wearing a hat and contentedly puffing bluish-white smoke from his pipe, was about to start the climb up Ballinaha Hill to his home in Tircullen, in the parish of Kilwatermoy in the West Waterford Deise. The orange farm cart and donkey were laden down with bags of blue cross ration, recently procured from Mick Beecher in Barrack Street, Tallow. That man was my grandfather, Tom Nicholson, or Tom Nickley as he was known to everybody far and wide. I would like to recount and share some stories and anecdotes with you now in an effort to bring his memory back to life again, if only for a short while!
In the writing of this article I had to interrogate my ageing memory to go back over fifty years, and surprisingly I seem to remember a great deal, which means he was a very important man in the early stages of my life. Whenever my mind dwells on him, I see the orange cart and Neddy the donkey. There were a few donkeys, but he named them all Neddy - for pure convenience and typical of the man!
I can remember accompanying him down to Ned O’Connell’s forge in Janeville, and after Ned had retired to Paddy Russell in Sapperton and later in Tallow. The iron wheel bands needed replacing now and then, and it was fascinating for me, as a young boy, to watch Ned and Paddy at work as they heated, flattened and bent the iron to fit over the wooden wheels. It was a lovely place to be on a frosty morning as the mighty heat from the constantly bellowing fire permeated a great distance across the yard.
Tom worked for many years as a member of the outdoor staff on Waterford County Council, and now and then we would encounter his former friends and colleagues, men like Harry Willis, Joe Prendergast and Willie French. No matter how busy he was, he always had time for a chat and a laugh as they gathered around the small open fire they had constructed, and poured fine strong tea from the Billycan into the mugs. People had a bit more time in those days to stop and stare.
I remember one night listening to Tom and my Dad discussing how they were going to get up during the night to listen to the fight on the radio. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but I asked them to wake me up anyway – which they did. There we were on a dark night at about 3am, drinking tea and eating toast, and listening to the epic boxing match between Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and Sonny Liston, which was coming to us live from the USA. They were both rooting for Cassius Clay, so I did the same, and it gave me a great love for boxing which I still have to this present day. I’m not sure if I went to school or not the next day, I probably did but yawned a great deal during proceedings!
He wasn’t a big man, but he was strong, tough and wiry, and worked very hard until his mid seventies. He took great pride in fattening and selling pigs, and he was a little miffed at John Parker, our local newspaper reporter, one time for mentioning in The Donavan Leader that he had achieved a record price for a batch of pigs at the mart. He was getting the pension at the time and wanted to keep his head below the radar in relation to extra streams of revenue!
He was also busy with the potatoes and vegetables and had a big selection on the go at any given time. This is part of another era and conjures up images of, rising to the potato drills, the big barrel of bluestone mix to prevent the blight, which was replaced by the yellowish looking dithane in the latter years. Shaking the spuds out of the stalks and digging a trench in the ground, this was covered over with straw and clay to ward off the severe winter frosts. When he was setting the potatoes, he wore a canvas bag called a ‘máilin’, from which he took the seed potatoes. He also cut the seed potatoes in two and dipped the wet side in lime.
In days gone by, especially in country areas, the vegetable garden was a necessity. The wages were generally low and it helped the household budget along enormously. If the family provider happened to lose their job, at least the family could continue to eat in the interim. These gardens have rapidly disappeared over time as people became more affluent, had less time on their hands, and as the large stores and supermarkets started to spread their commercial web across the landscape. He used a scythe to cut the hay, and built up haystacks with plastic bags on top, held into position with rocks on a rope to keep the rainwater out.
He regularly brought me to Ballyhamlet wood with him to cut timber, and only manual tools were used including axes, wedges and a bow-saw. I was there to help him, but I was probably more of a hindrance to his progress, and asked too many questions. We would often take a break to eat the sandwiches my mother has prepared, and drank cold tea from a bottle that now had newspaper where once there was a cork. In the outdoors, there was an almost copper taste from this cold tea and a wonderful taste that I have never experienced since. After the tea, he would cut the plug tobacco with his penknife and go through the long ritual of scraping, filling and smoking his pipe. A wondrous smell of pipe tobacco, tempered with the smell of the timber, would then fill the air and emanate around us as we relaxed in the beautiful sylvan surroundings.
As a nineteen year old, along with his brother Ned, Tom enlisted in The Munster Fusiliers in 1915 to fight the war to end all wars. Many went for adventure and also because of John Redmond’s promise that Home Rule would be granted in Ireland if they would give Britain a bit of a ‘dig out’ on this occasion. The Munster Fusiliers became part of Kitchener’s 10th (Irish) Division, they were the first of the Irish divisions to see action, and were also the most travelled. They saw their first action in the Dardanelles where a huge amount of soldiers were slaughtered by machine gun fire from the Turkish Army. Those that survived, including Tom and Ned, saw more action in Salonika (Greece), Egypt, Palestine and finally to liberate Jerusalem.
They were eventually sent to France on The Western Front, where Tom was wounded and sent home on leave. While at home in Killenagh, he reflected on the events of 1916 and the execution of the leaders. He made a decision to desert and never went back. He had to go into hiding around the woods in Kilwatermoy and Headborough for over a year, gratefully assisted by the kindness of the local people. Like many of the men who survived, he didn’t talk much about his time in the war.
What slaughter and horrors he must have witnessed on the battlefields of the Eastern Front. One day, while he was washing, he showed me the scars from the bullet entrance and exit wounds in his lower abdomen. He also told me that he was made a corporal, but lost his stripes one night when his commanding officer observed that Tom had allowed his men to take off their boots in the trench. Even though the war toughened him up, he also had a soft side, and I saw him crying by the fire the night my younger brother Tom-Joe was rushed to Ardkeen Hospital with ruptured appendicitis.
After Vatican Two was sanctioned in 1965, Fr. Harry O’Brien continued with the 8am Mass in Tallow through Latin. In order to attend this, Tom would wake me up about 6am and we would go down to the shed in the darkness to harness Neddy to the trap. The trap was used instead of the orange cart for social occasions like this. To provide light for the journey, candles were inserted into two lamps on either side of the trap. I was yawning and hungry as we set off, but it was a really lovely experience to have the road all to ourselves at this time of the morning. He always had a bar of dairy milk chocolate to give me for the journey and to keep me from complaining!
He was never a big drinker, and would hardly ever touch a drop from one end of the year to the other. However, there was a ritual that he strictly observed, and that was to walk to Tallow for a few drinks on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. He normally couldn’t take much drink and wouldn’t be gone for too long. On this particular Christmas Eve that I have fond memories of, he met me on the road wearing his new suit and reminded me to make the feed for the pigs that evening.
Having only been gone for about three hours, he was driven back home in a car, staggering and the worst for wear. Against the better judgement of my parents, nothing would persuade him but to make the mixture and feed the pigs himself. He staggered out of the house into the piggery yard, still in the good suit. I was asked to go after him, just in case things would go pear shaped – which they did. I helped him to put the ration and the skimmed milk into the big container, and he insisted that he would now go and mix this up with the brush handle.
I could almost see the pigs looking out the piggery gate in amazement and horror at what was about to happen! He began to stir the mixture with the brush handle, then he went into a ferocious speed wobble, went around the container twice at full speed with the brush handle , and then was thrown about ten feet onto his back in the yard like a stone coming out of a catapult! As this was happening, the partially mixed blue cross ration and skimmed milk was heading towards the piggery over the hard ground like the Ganges delta. Dad then managed to put him to bed and he slept the sleep of sleeps all the way to Christmas morning!
As you can see I spent an amount of time with him when I was young. He was a wonderful, generous man and he made a great impression on me. I wish we could do all these things again, and this time I would take more of an interest. But, unfortunately, we cannot roll the film of life for a second time. I will finish with a paraphrase from John Parker, who penned a lovely obituary tribute to him when he died on 5th January 1975 – ‘A strictly honest and upright man, who was held in high esteem by all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance’.