Thursday, July 27, 2000

'Gus Prendergast'

I first met the man from Mayo in the kitchen of my parents house in Offaly Street almost 30 years ago. He was visiting my mother, his one time neighbour from Cloonfad many years after she had arrived in Athy but soon after he himself had swapped his farm in Culnacleha, Claremorris for a more fertile holding in the heartland of South Kildare. Gus Prendergast who has not lost his Mayo accent had farmed for several frustrating years six divisions of land which made up his holding in County Mayo. It had been in the Prendergast family for four generations and like all land in the west of Ireland was not of the best quality. Fertilizer had little effect on the inhospitable Mayo fields while the heavy rainfall so typical of counties on the Western Seaboard created its own difficulties in the boggy fields which gave reluctant sustenance to grazing cattle.

In common with so many other in Mayo of the 40’s and 50’s, Gus’s brothers emigrated to England to work. His oldest brother John did so at thirteen years of age and lived abroad for seventy one years before passing away last year. His other brothers Pat and Tom also took the all too familiar route and when Gus’s time came, he travelled to Dun Laoghaire where he signed on for essential war work at the Pier side before embarking on the Holyhead mail boat. His first job on the English mainland was in Carlisle where he worked on the railways shunting railway stock before moving to Manchester to work on the building sites. When his father died in 1951, Gus returned home to County Mayo to take over the family farm.

The difficulties of farming a small holding split into six divisions each of which was separated by public roads and at some distance from one another are all too easily imaginable. Most farmers in County Mayo laboured under the same difficulties and the movement of cows from one division to another necessitated advance planning on a military scale as herds were prone to meet and mingle with each other on the public roadways.

Gus, an energetic young farmer with experience gained in the industrial cities of England purchased a Ferguson tractor in 1952. He could now supplement his income by doing hire work for farmers in the locality. However, the unrelenting struggle with the land continued and a recognition that something had to be done to alleviate the problems of the small farmers in the West prompted Gus to become involved with the Irish Farmers Association. The Association had its origins in Macra Na Feirme founded by Stephen Cullinane and others in Athy in 1946. The farming crisis of the 1960’s resulted in a Jarrow type march to the capital city by Irish farmers from all corners of Ireland. Gus joined a number of farming colleagues from County Mayo who walked the 140 miles to Dublin setting out on the second Tuesday of October 1966. They reached their destination at the Department of Agriculture in Dublin one week later. His involvement showed his commitment to farming despite his frustration at the perennial struggle to make a decent living and the lack of assistance from the Dublin based bureaucracy. He is immeasurably proud of his participation on that occasion and recalls with pride his introduction to an I.F.A. meeting in the Leinster Arms Hotel in October 1969 by the late Bill Diamond who was also actively involved in the 1966 campaign.

Athy and South Kildare has welcomed many migrants and immigrants over the centuries and Gus Prendergast was to join them when in 1969 the Land Commission offered him a farm in Ballytore, County Kildare in exchange for the Prendergast family farm in County Mayo. He visited Ballyroe and in his own words “admired the land which was so level and so good compared to anything to be found in County Mayo”. The farm he was shown that day was in his own words a bit run down and the hedges needed cutting but cutting hedges he felt would make a welcome change from the perennial drain cutting duties which were a feature of farming in the West of Ireland. The decision was made. Gus, his wife Mary and their three young sons would move to County Kildare and they arrived in Athy on the 29th April 1969 accompanied by two trucks and a trailer of furniture, machinery and equipment amassed over four generations of living in County Mayo. The Land Commission had already ploughed seven acres before Gus arrived and had arranged for Jim Lazenby and Johnny Neill to deliver twenty bales of hay and straw for the new arrivals. Barley was sown that year after Minch Norton’s gave Gus a quota for nine barrels.

The following year on a trip to Carlow Sugar Factory to get a beet quota, Gus had the good fortune to meet Dick Winters a Mayo man who held a unique Gaelic Football record of having played provincial football for Connacht, Munster and Leinster. The beet quota was secured and indeed increased the following year and from then on Gus reaped the benefits of hard work on land which unlike that in County Mayo gave a reasonable return. Looking back over 31 years spent farming in South Kildare, Gus still finds satisfaction at the opportunity to work his land and move his stock from one field to another without having to go onto the public road. This to a man who had once farmed land divided into six divisions all separated by neighbours lands and public road was a most welcome and obvious benefit of the move to the Midlands. “Having land altogether is a god send” is how he put it as he reflected on the yield one gets from land in Kildare compared to Mayo.

Gus still likes to return to Mayo as often as he can and on those trips he always renews acquaintances with his former neighbours and old friends in and around Cloonfad. On such trips, whether made for weddings, funerals or just weekend trips which he can now make more regularly since his family has grown up, Gus can share a pint with friends in one of the three local pubs in Cloonfad. When he does, he can recall past Sunday’s when his neighbours from Culnacleha quenched the thirst of a weeks’ hard work on the land under the Guise of bona fide travellers from Tulrahan. You see Tulrahan was three miles from Cloonfad entitling Gus and his neighbours to use the facilities of the local Public House on Sunday’s whereas their own townland was not the requisite three miles away. The local Gardai were not for a moment fooled but in those more carefree days common sense prevailed as I am sure it did when my own father as a young garda was stationed in Cloonfad many years previously.

Since he left Mayo, the one and only occasion Gus walked the former Prendergast lands was in the Spring of this year. He was astonished to find how small were the fields he once worked as a young man. He had remembered them over the years as bigger, indeed much much bigger than they actually were and the reality of what he saw on the ground reaffirmed his belief that he had made the right decision in coming to South County Kildare 31 years ago.

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