It is only when you visit foreign countries that you realise country life and living knows no boundaries. Last week I spent a few days travelling through Morocco in North West Africa. It was when I journeyed into the High Atlas mountains on the road to Marrakech and later to Essequire that I saw the similarities between rural life in Morocco today and what I have read of Irish rural life of another century. A region that got only three days rainfull last year is dry and barren but up in the hills can be seen small tilled areas with stalks of wheat standing starkly proud of its neighbour, each clearly defined in its own ground. As I journeyed inland I could see up to five or six men working in a field of not more than two acres, one using a reaping hook while others pulled the wheat stalks with their hands. In another small patch of ground torn from the rocks the solitary ploughman is tilling the soil using a wooden plough pulled by two donkeys.
Elsewhere on the road I see farm animals grazing on the untilled land which while untilled is regarded as commonage. Small herds of goat and sheep never more than perhaps 15 or so and occasionally two or three cows are constantly herded from sunrise to sunset by the children, the women or the old men. The animals scavenge among the rocks and sparse vegetation for anything edible while the patient herd sits almost motionless to protect the animals against wolves and to ensure that a neighbour's small strip of wheat or barley is not plundered. Later in the afternoon the womenfolk and the children are to be seen out in the cornfields weeding out the corn poppy and other weeds which are carefully gathered and brought home at the end of the day. The weeds and grasses culled from the cornfields form the stable diet of the animals, especially the donkeys and mules.
Donkeys can be seen untroubled by passing cars or buses walking on the road edge with their minders sitting side saddle, although there is no saddle, their two heels beating a rhythmic beat on the underbelly of the animals. On the road to Marrakech I passed through small market villages where the Moroccans come each week on market day to sell their farm produce. Many of the small shops which line the single street of each village are open only on that market day. To here the small farmer will travel with his produce carried in baskets on either side of the donkey, much like the Connemara man who up to a few years ago used the same mode of transport to bring home turf from the bog. The donkeys having been unburdened of their loads are put in a large walled area alongside the market place to patiently await their master's return. In one small village there were more than 600 donkeys to be seen standing motionless in the hot sun.
A Moroccan market is a glittering array of everything that man and nature can produce. One can almost visualise the market of Athy in the last century as the large baskets laden with eggs stand side by side with vegetables and other root crops. Bargaining goes on all day and as every tourist to Morocco has learned to his cost bargaining or more properly haggling is the life blood of the average Moroccan.
The colourful scenes of the Moroccan market and Moroccan rural life gave a hint of what life was like in rural Ireland in the last century. The wider community coming together on market day bring life and vibrancy to the otherwise quiet town or village. The market square takes on a buzz and a life which will not be recaptured for another week. The merchants are busy as the men and women from the outlying districts stock up with shop goods, having earlier disposed of their own produce, either in the market or to the same merchant in whose shop they now stand. The village or town market was once as equally important to the commercial and social life of rural Ireland. It was here that the town and country met, here on the days before mass media communication news was passed around. Above all market day was a day to buy and sell, the link in the chain of local economic life which had lasted for hundreds of years. In Morocco today the market is still important in the lives of the rural communities. In that respect it differs from Ireland.
Country life in Morocco mirrors in so many ways life in rural Ireland in the early part of the 19th century. The small holdings of the Irish of that day gave little opportunity for other than subsistence living. The cow and the pig were reared on the scraps and edible weeds of the day and sold in time to pay the rent. The children of the Irish cottagers, like their Moroccan counterparts today, herded their few animals during the day. The older members of the extended family gave a hand in herding or butter making. The harshness of life was tempered by the knowledge that everybody shared the same burdens, everyone lived in communities where to be poor was a pledge of honour, especially when one fulfilled his or her obligations to ones extended family.