An elderly man I barely knew died in the wee small hours of this morning. But I lament him, and mark the quenching of another light in the window of a dwindling community.
Martin was 93 and had lived his robust life on a small farm in a rural townland whose name would resonate little beyond its own hinterland.
But it would mean the world to those foddering and foraging on these few square miles of low hills and scraggy enough fields, and it was a world Martin peacefully lived in and, thankfully, peacefully departed those few hours ago.
He had lived his plain enough bachelor farmer’s life in Trieneragh, Duagh, Co Kerry, having long ago thwarted the one serious opportunity to leave that came his way.
And was never heard to regret his indecision.
Sunday dinner in his nephew’s adjacent family house was as close to a break as Martin would get from his year-round farming endeavours.
And that same nephew, Brendan, and his wife and three sons, and Martin’s widowed sister-in-law Hilda — Brendan’s mum — who brought him his dinner every day, also formed a vital social grounding and conduit.
Not that Martin would not have considered Trieneragh and his low-lying acres to be in any way exotic.
Like many farmers, Martin was not one to gild his utterances, especially with people he barely know, but I remember one time asking him about his farm, and him peering out over it from under his trademark tweed flat cap before wryly noting: “’Tis easy wet it.”
There was a twinkle in an eye well used to subtly weighing up people, and I was struck by the beautiful economy and poetic wisdom of his pithy observation.
Martin was no Patrick Kavanagh or Seamus Heaney, great men to set an earthy vignette to word music, but he knew his nature, his farm, and his people.
The same nephew Brendan is married to one of my sisters-in-law.
So I would know Martin to say hello to, and had maybe four decent conversations with him in the 20 years I knew him.
One I particularly enjoyed was when we found ourselves talking about radio reporter Paddy O’Gorman, best known for his street vox pops in Dublin city’s less salubrious quarters.
RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster, repeats the day’s radio shows during the night, and Martin, who as well as reading the local Kerryman newspaper from front page to back, was interested in the bigger world too, and it transpired, was an unlikely fan of O’Gorman’s.
He was fascinated by O’Gorman’s interviews with and reports on “the tough crowd above in Dublin” as Martin described them.
Like I say, I did not know Martin well but what strikes me now is what his passing represents.
I remember in my arrogant youth thinking how boring small town people must be, especially the ones who never left the place where they were born.
Now, of course, I know that some people who have travelled the world have learned little, while others who never lived a mile beyond a cowpat from where they came into the world can see, as William Blake put it, “a world in a grain of sand,/And heaven in a wild flower”.
I think it’s something to do with being able to truly live in the moment, aware of one’s surroundings and appreciating them, indeed feeling connected to place in a visceral way. As rooted there as any tree or shrub.
Connected in a way that one takes in season, sound and sight so that they never cease to fascinate and reveal.
Not that these people would stop to think of it all like that.
I read a marvellous piece by writer Michael Harding in the Irish Times a while back called “The lights go out on another solitary country life”.
It’s so worth reading in full but I when I think of Martin now, and what his passing means not just to his family, but to the community he lived on the outskirts of but was a part of, I think of the neighbouring bachelor farmer whose passing Harding’s piece was lamenting:
“A quiet man who never married but was good to the mother and was cherished by nephews and nieces and lived in a cosy house in the quiet hills above Lough Allen,”
I thought “pure Martin” as Harding noted how “Like many rural men, he wasn’t given to overexcitement. He’d raise one finger from the steering wheel to salute me. If I whispered my enthusiasm for the good weather as we passed, he might agree, but he would cautiously add: “Will it last?”
And then this killer observation: “When a farmer dies in the countryside there is a strange emptiness in the fields. They grow ragged with rushes, and without paint, the galvanised sheds turn to rust, although nothing rusted on my neighbour’s land”.
Harding and his neighbour rarely spoke but the writer felt he knew him, and his activities formed such a part of his daily life:
“The summer sky is full of sound, from the exquisitely booming bittern to the call of the curlew, but there was no sound as delicious as my neighbour’s tractor in a field of grass as he sat steering and twisting his head to watch the rake toss the mown grass into perfect lines behind him, and later the thump of hay bales being piled into the red galvanised shed”.
And now this man was gone, leaving behind his lovingly tended acres and taking with him a lifetime’s gathered knowledge of soil, lore, and peculiarities of weather.
This quiet man “who walked deeply on the earth and loved its colours” was no more and Harding signed off on his exquisite piece with these words:
“The house where there was always a light in the window at Christmas will be dark this year. Those who live in the hills above Lough Allen have lost another solitary man. But all across the west of Ireland it is the same – one by one, the lights go out”.
Rest in Peace, Martin.
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