The Tuesday before Christmas, I received an email. I didn’t recognise the sender right away but given that the subject line was “#Lambin,” I assumed it was, indeed, meant for me.
On opening it, I was greeted with a photograph of a lovely looking ewe —thick dark fleece and a white face— nuzzling a little lamb of the same colouring that was laying in the straw at her feet.
“Just thought you might like to see a baby lamb on a Tuesday night in December,” read the message.
Then, it clicked: it was from a neighbour of Jack’s. Sixteen years old, Conor is the second of four sons in a farming family that often lends a hand on Jack’s farm. I’d met them a scattering of times, most recently at the Tullamore Show where young Conor swept the boards, winning prizes left right and centre for his Jacobs sheep. Showing the animals was a family affair, with everyone from Mammy Lisa to the youngest, Ciaran, getting involved. Between the prep work the evening before —grooming the sheep and ensuring the white exhibitors’ coats are spotless— to the early start the following morning and the long day that comes after, it wasn’t how most teenagers would choose to spend a summer weekend.
On that Tuesday night in December, I was struck once again by the fact that while many of his peers were no doubt sprawled on sofas watching TV or playing video games, Conor was in the sheep shed at the beck and call of a labouring ewe, and now proud as anything of the gorgeous little lamb she’d produced.
I had to wonder; do they rear them differently in the country?
“How old were you when you started helping out around the farm?” I asked Jack. He couldn’t remember, exactly, though he was quick to recall one instance when, while playing at a friend’s house one summer’s day, he was summoned home to help stack the bales. He must have been 8 or 9, he reckoned.
I thought this terribly unfair, depriving a child of the frivolity of summer, until I remembered the summer of 1995 when I was 11. My best friend had come round to play, but our visions of a fun, carefree summer’s day at the beach were soon shattered when it emerged that our mothers and co-conspirators had agreed our time would be better spent locked in the dining room, doing practice tests in preparation for the 11-plus exam we would sit that Autumn. Math was not a strong point for either Grainne or myself, and so the only sea we saw that afternoon was one of fractions, decimals, and percentages.
Our common experiences of childhood injustice notwithstanding, Jack and I enjoyed very different upbringings. When I was making sand castles and identifying coastal birds from the pictures in my Usborne Nature Trail Omnibus (yes, I was that child), he was making hay castles and riding on top of the square bales on the back of his father’s trailer.
The idea of growing up on a farm has come to the forefront again in recent times as Jack’s eldest sister prepares to give birth to her second child. She’s due any day now, in fact, and it’s all very exciting. Not to mention aptly-timed, as the shed fills up with ewes on a similar countdown!
I’ve seen first hand some of the characteristics that growing up on a farm can breed: an understanding of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death, a strong work ethic, sense of responsibility and accountability; a respect for nature, and a ready willingness to help out family and friends. Nothing that can’t be learned from parents, in school, or in time from life itself — but there’s something special about a way of life that means this combination of qualities is almost innate.
Jack reckons a farm is a great environment in which to grow up, and indeed, to raise a family, too. For now, I take his word for it. But who knows? Maybe someday I’ll find that out for myself. In the meantime, we pray that all goes well for his sister, and look forward to a new arrival of the two-legged variety.