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Cormac MacConnell - The West's Awake
The Garden of Life
November 19, 2008
The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
HE’S a fierce old Limerick man, afraid of nothing that walks or flies or swims or lives underground, only slightly fearful of God Almighty, expecting to meet Him soon. He will be 90 in the middle of the coming January.
He said to me lately, “I’d say I’ll be gone before the end of February. It was a month I never liked, the ground dead, old people dying like flies. This will be my last winter.
“I’ve nearly lost the legs and I have trouble with the old kidneys, and they tell me I had a bit of a stroke last spring. It was the first year that I didn’t get out into the garden. I planted nothing. When you get there it is not long after that they plant yourself.”
He lives with one of the three sons who all farm in the parish. He gets on well with the daughter-in-law. He had been a great help around the house until last year and the stroke, and he had the best garden maybe in Co. Limerick.
Not many flowers except a profusion of roses in every corner, but every vegetable under the sun, gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes, two pear trees and eight or nine apple trees through all the range, from big bitter Bramleys for cooking to big red sweet eating apples. The best tree is one that he grafted himself.
He was always keen on grafting apples and roses. I saw him doing it once with a cutting he got from an old dead orchard somewhere near Listowel.
He grafted the cutting inside a quarter hour after returning from Kerry in the family car. It came back with them in a one pound jam jar filled with moist peat. He handled it like it was pure gold.
I’d called to see him because he used call me often to a radio show I used do at night, his wild old voice softened by the telephone line, always fascinating about what you could generally call earth things. We talked together in the garden as he grafted.
The cutting had a long slanting cut at the base, still green and kinda moist. He whistled as he worked.
He was grafting it to an old tree with a lichened trunk that had stopped producing good fruit for nearly a decade, he said. He made a matching slanting cut on a twig of the host tree, delicate as a tailor cutting a priest’s waistcoat. Then he put the two new surfaces together and wound black thread around the joint as tightly precisely as a master piper binds a new reed, or an angler ties a new fly.
Now and again he’d grunt with satisfaction. When the binding was finished he had some grey clay, glistening wet, in a metal bucket. He plastered the joint with a thick coating of the clay hands moving wetly like a cook baking bread.
Maybe he used nearly two pounds of the clay altogether until finally the new cutting was like a twig emerging from raw earth. He stood back from it and he said, “It will take or it won’t take, but I’d say it will do all right.” (I asked him about that graft when we last talked. It did take and the tree is now one of his best).
In the garden back then, before going back inside, I complimented him on his roses. He gestured with his clayed hand at the ridges of vegetables and potatoes.
“Flour before flowers” is what he said.
After he got the small stroke last year he refused to let them call the ambulance but said he’d go in to the hospital with Joe and Annie. He was almost recovered from the setback when they arrived at the hospital in Limerick.
Annie told me that when they eventually saw a doctor the doctor looked at the old man and said, “ Well, how are you?” And the old man said back at once, “You know I think I’d need a doctor to tell me that.”
They kept him in for two days for tests and gave him tablets to take when he went home. He asked Annie to drive him back to the doctor a fortnight later.
He told the doctor that he was taking the tablets and they were “destroying my gut” and doing no good. He asked for changed medication, got it, and the new tablets worked well enough.
I asked him about that when we were talking lately and he said, “When you have to go anywhere near a doctor or a hospital the thing you must never do is keep your tongue in your pocket. You have to stand up for yourself.”
Keeping your tongue in your pocket! I think he has a marvelous way of talking.
It’s two years now since he was last at the Seed Savers in Scariff down the road from me. That’s his favorite place in Ireland.
Every time he came on to me on the radio show he advised people to go and visit the Irish Seed Savers. They have a wide brief in preserving old seeds and species, with a particular expertise about apples and those are his passion.
He’ll say to everybody, “Go to the Seed Savers and you can leave with a young apple tree from any county in Ireland. If you are a Leitrim man or a Kildare man it’s all the same to them. They have them all. It’s the Garden of Eden they have in Scariff.”
I think he gave them some old varieties himself back when that special group started off. They are special all right.
I followed his advice and went there and was impressed. I remember especially that there were glittering old CDs hanging over the young apple trees to protect them from the birds. When the breezes blew the whole hillside shimmered with sidelights, and there was not a crow or magpie within miles.
“The bees are dyin’ nowadays and sure that’s the end of the world,” is what he said to me the other evening down the line.
“The bees are scarce already and getting scarcer, and I don’t know why the governments of the world are not in a bigger panic over that than over bloody Wall Street. I think the real little black Irish bee is nearly gone altogether with this disease they have, killing them wholesale.
“Without bees the gardens of the world will die and there will be starvation then and a lot of people going into the ground before their time maybe not so long after myself either.” And he could be right about that too. He normally is.
He says that he will die in his sleep like his father and his grandfather and all his breeding. He’s not afraid at all about that.
“The only sore thing about a February funeral is that the most of them take two or three with them as well as the ould lad in the box,” he said.
“Old people that were friends of yours and that are not fit to go outdoors make the effort to go to your funeral in the cold and rain and catch the chill that puts them down in jig time. Mark my words.”
And sure I have done that.
Footnote: To short circuit the inevitable queries the Irish Seed Savers website is
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