Big thank you from

Bittersweet memories of another world

by The Rambler 26/01/01

SINCE I wrote about potato baskets recently I have come to realise just how much of my boyhood memories are enshrined in them.

From my earliest days, until I left the farm as a young man, potato baskets were in daily use.

Just before I left, I acquired an old banger of a motor bike and dismantled the engine.

It was into an old potato basket, lined with sacking, that I put all the pieces in case I lost some on the workshop floor.

In the event I had a few over when I thought I had it correctly re-assembled! But I was 'mis-using' potato baskets long before that.

My mother used an over-size wicker basket as a clothes' basket. (She had no nylons or dainty lingerie to snag.) I recall being chivvied as a toddler for climbing into a basket, and using it as snake, with my legs dangling over the end of it.

My father was adept at balancing a full potato basket on his hip, and pouring the contents into the narrow mouth of a potato sack, without spillage.

Many a time I had to carry the hurricane lamp for him on a winter's evening as he carried turnips to the pulper and pushed an empty potato basket below the machine with his toe to collect the pulp for the cows.

The potato baskets were indispensable when the apples were ripe.

A cushion of clean cum straw (not hay, which breeds mites) had to he used for the soft Kemp apples.

The hardy Brambley seedlings just got the bare basket. But anyone who is familiar with the rich aroma of the Kemp will realise why they got kid glove treatment Once we laid them singly on the floor of the attic, their sweet presence was unmistakable.

Even the worn-out basket which had shed its bottom was not without use.

At home one was regularly used to protect some 'clockin' hen as she sat on her eggs in the corner of the outhouse.

Mind you, my father didn't let the bottom rot out of many baskets. He had special wooden pegs which he used as scalpels to clean all the soil off them, and the new or nearly-new ones were carefully scraped and washed clean before they were stored away.

Only the older ones were allowed to be used for add jobs.

Two scenes in particular have been vividly recalled. by the recent sight of a basket.

Its newness reminded true of the thrill of my father unloading a bale of newly bought ones from the horse-drawn van.

They came In a bale, like a stack of hats for a hatter's shelf, mid-green in colour with the distinctive odour of freshly-cut osiers. Each a thing of beauty contrasting with the earthy environment of the farmyard.

When the bale was opened, I remember as a small boy being allowed to use an upturned one as a stool. We weren't allowed to sit on an old one - for obvious reasons. The bottom would have caved in; with age they became very brittle. That was the advantage of new baskets. They were virtually indestructible. Mind you, we didn't get some every year. 

A second scene is set at the far end of the sand field on my father 's farm.

Two bay horses attached to a potato-digger stand docilely in mid-field. Another horse, a 20-year-old black one called Paddy, is grazing at the ditch back. wearing cart harness.

Three cares are spaced our; one at the middle and one at either end of the potato plot. A drill has just been scattered, and the bright blue Aran Victory crop glistens in the thin rays of October sunshine.

It is evening and there is a trace of frost, which sharpens every sound . so much so that the steam train, pulling and protesting as it ascends Beckett's Hill, and chortling with glee as it runs downhill beyond it, towards Lurgan, sounds as if it were in the near field, whereas it is nearly a mile away.

The pungent small of freshly-spread soil and potato stalks is very invigorating.

There are six members of the family working in pairs. each pair with a basket, gathering the harvest - my older brothers and my father.

I am too young to be useful. but allowed to help my Dad. Soon he interrupts picking the potatoes to fetch Paddy to draw home a loaded cart.

When he sets off I plod along behind, swinging on the tram of the cart. A loud grind from the wheels tells me that we are out on the road. My father has the reins tied to the forebar, for Paddy needs no driver.

The aroma of Clarke's perfect plug tobacco floats back to me from my father's pipe. Perhaps it was the gathering frost which caused me to notice it that time in particular. for I was well used to it.

On the way back, I get a ride in the empty cart and I am even allowed to drive. Paddy doesn't need to be told that there is a rookie on the flight-deck. He just plods on, regardless of which rein I pull. He knows what he has to do - an achievement which was to came in very useful, very soon.

I had no means of foreseeing then that within one week I was destined to make a vastly different trip, behind another jet black horse, but with a very, different equipage.

On this occasion there was to be no grind of iron-shod wheel on stone; no clink of trace-chain on shaft. All would be silent except for the sound of the horse's hooves as the rubber-tyred carriage purred along; instead of the wind in my hair there was to be the stuffy polish-laden atmosphere of a closed cab.

At journey's end I was to savour once more the odour of freshly-turned soil. but instead of the cheerful nimble of potatoes raging into a cart, there was to be the macabre rattle of sod and pebbles on a bare coffin-lid.

My father had gathered his last harvest.

But at least his faithful steed Paddy, had the satisfaction of bringing him home safely in the trap, when the hand which held the reins had lost its grip.

That was the sure grip that I had depended on for so long

Always it had been mine which had faltered, not his, as be chanted 'One. two. three - up!' while we swung a basket full of potatoes onto the cart., heeled up on its trams in the potato patch.

Ulster Star