Udderly Fantastic

CLONAKILTY/CORK, IRELAND: November 23-December 4, 2013

Steve: It seems that as soon as we began to learn the rhythms of Dublin’s hustle and bustle we quickly had to leave it for the tranquil ebbs of country life. For us this was a welcome return to small-town living since it would be our first non-capital city metropolis since leaving Hetta one cold wintry morning that now seems like a lifetime ago. The first challenge was to smack ourselves awake after our late Dublin night and exchange a few heartfelt goodbyes and hugs with our host and new friend, Ciara. Packs on our backs we left Ciara’s with plenty of time to go; using the city’s efficient public transport we easily made it to our bus and assumed that no obstacles would be in our way…but of course we were wrong.

Like traveling in New Zealand, distances in Ireland are relatively short. Within less than four hours we went from Dublin along the northeast coast down to the southern port city of Cork. This was only a transfer so we hurriedly made our way to the ticket agent to get human-to-human directions as to which bus we needed to get on. So about that travelling-in-an-English-speaking-country thing?  Oh right, I forgot about the thicker-than-Guinness Irish accents that we had yet to encounter. For the life of me I couldn’t understand the guy and just when I thought I did…well, I apparently didn’t. Thinking we were on the right bus—it was going in pretty much the same direction, an old lady in line told Leah that our stop was only a half an hour after the first stop, the driver looked at our ticket which stated our destination—we in actuality ended up in the town of Bantry, about an hour away from our host’s town of Clonakilty. Luckily for us the bus driver felt bad and wrote us a note guaranteeing us a free ride on the last bus heading back to where we were trying to go. Our yet-to-be-met host Geraldine was more than understanding and returned several hours later to the rendezvous point where this time we actually arrived.

First impressions aside, we quickly fell into each other’s good graces. Geraldine, who runs a family dairy farm consisting of about 65 cows with her elderly mother, Peggy, took us out for a pint upon arriving and insisted that we sleep in instead of milking on our first morning in town. In fact she would later tell us that it was our choice whether we helped with milking or not, and the hours were generally ours to make. She was relatively new to WorkAway and had several workers who either shied away from working with the cows—why on earth would you apply to work at a dairy farm?—or only put in a couple hours per day before skipping out. We responded to her flexibility by mucking right in and more often than not joining on both morning and evening milkings (the first starting at a very manageable 8:00 AM and the evening around 7:00 PM).

Leah spent most of her time assisting in the milking parlor while I became an expert at sh*t scraping. Seriously. Using a handy motorized scraper I had de-cow-pooping the stalls down to a science; you could even say I had developed my own lean pathway (sorry, inside joke for Hetta Huskies veterans!). In between these tasks, we helped rounding up the lactating ladies and when milking was close to done we took to feeding the multiple groups of calves. It was kind of ridiculous how many little ones we got to be hands on with, there being about 17 calves only a few months old down at the stalls and six more younger ones living next to the farmhouse where they could be more closely monitored. In fact the youngest, an as-yet-unnamed black bullock was only six days old when we arrived.

Leah: I did thoroughly enjoy the milking, especially since I knew what I was doing after our stint on the Kiwi dairy farm. I do, however, still have ethical dilemmas about separating mothers and their calves almost immediately and keeping the cows in a suspended state of lactation just so I can have dairy products, especially after watching Hermione enter the world. No, not the frizzy-haired wizard know-it-all from Harry Potter, but the darling calf we named after her.  Perhaps I should back up?

On our first night Geraldine showed us a massively pregnant cow who was due to calf while we were there. Every night we checked her out for signs of labor and one chilly evening the day before Thanksgiving we noticed heavy mucous secretions and that she seemed to be in pain with her tail raised up and away from her body. No sooner had we hopped into bed around 11 p.m. when Geraldine hesitantly announced outside our bedroom door, “Um, not sure if you’re tucked in or still interested, but the hooves are showing.” Vaulting out of bed as if we’d been branded, we threw on our warm clothes and flew down the stairs with camera in hand, all while our farm family hosts giggled at our city folk response to an event that remains commonplace to them.

Sure enough, the entirely unsettling sight of a pair of hooves encapsulated in the amniotic sack protruding from cow #609’s nether regions greeted us upon arrival. It was like something out of a sci-fi movie and we proceeded to vacillate between fascination and revulsion with every push and guttural “moo” that issued from #609 while she alternately chewed her cud and calmly worked to bring a new little one into the world. I’ll spare you the birth story (although you can watch the video HERE), but besides assisting with a human birth while in the Peace Corps that consequently scarred me for life I’ve never witnessed a birth of any kind. Watching this slippery newborn calf—it’s a girl!—slide into the straw as her momma then stood up to lick her clean was a moment that made me feel so much in awe of nature, especially when the newborn took her first wobbly knock-kneed steps just a few moments later.

After sprinkling the calf with salt (a trick to get mom to lick her even cleaner) Geraldine then turned to us with a twinkle in her tired eyes and said, “You can name her if you want, just think about it and let me know whenever.” Yippee!  I live to name things (indeed, I’ve been creating a master list on the trip of names for future dogs/pets based on inspiration from places we’ve been) and the first thing Steve suggested was Hermione. We thought about it for a few days and in the end it just fit, so Hermione it was, or “Mione” for short. That meant the previously unnamed black male calf was thereby dubbed Harry (poor Geraldine had no idea the Pandora’s Box she had opened) and as luck would have it another black male was born the night before we left and—you guessed it—little Ron was welcomed to the world. Our Harry Potter trifecta complete we delighted in teaching Mione to drink from a bottle and then later, her first gulps from a bucket, as calves can only be kept with other calves once they can drink on their own. When not fawning over the newest baby bovine, I found myself goofing around with the slightly older ones, who loved to head butt from every angle when they weren’t slurping on your fingers. We even helped Geraldine burn off the budding horns from some of the oldest calves, which wasn’t easy for either party.

It really was soothing to be back in what I consider to be my new normal—dirty and cold. Yes, I’m still always freezing in Ireland, so it didn’t help that our newest home had no central heating save a wood-burning stove in the living room, and definitely no heating in the bathroom. Therefore I resigned myself to “Peace Corps showers”, also known as giving your important nooks and crannies a daily once-over with a wet-wipe. Had this been our first Workaway I may have balked a tad at the situation but after Hetta I’m so used to being covered in filth and too tired to care that I really didn’t think twice about not showering for ten days. Yup, ten straight days—you may commence judging my lack of hygiene at will.

When not eschewing soap and water, we could often be found eating. Shocker, I know. The food was of the hearty, heavy traditional Irish varietal, with loads of meat, potatoes, stews, custards and Peggy’s dense scones lathered with honey, butter and homemade jams. For those of you worried about our gaunt post-Hetta bodies, days of back-to-back protein, fat and carbs helped round out our sharpest angles but I was constantly lusting after fresh fruit and (un-stewed) veg while surreptitiously placing most of my meat portions on Steve’s plate. The radio frequently provided accompaniment to our mastication sounds and something I found delightful was how the local radio station out of County Cork covered daily life. In between songs the announcer would read community announcements ranging from obituaries and scheduled funerals to the times of the women’s guild bake sale and the tide tables for the local fishermen. It was all too quaint and the lilting timbre of the announcer’s accent made it that much more delightfully Irish countryside.

Speaking of the Irish countryside, our time in the fertile livestock-dappled hills outside Cork wouldn’t have been complete without the cast of characters we encountered during the week. First of all there was Peggy, Geraldine’s mom/the chef. She was simply lovely and we would have enjoyed talking with her about the days of yore if it weren’t for one problem—we couldn’t understand a damn word she said. We found the Cork country accent to be incredibly difficult to understand, even more so when the locals talk to each other and our unpracticed Yank ears find it impossible to deconstruct the individual words in the rapid fire string of garble. It honest to God didn’t sound anything like English and I kept having flashbacks to our time in Ukraine. I tried, I really did, but I ended up mumbling responses to questions that could have been taken as a yes or no and generally tried to avoid being in the room with Peggy when Geraldine (who we understood just fine except when she “went local” in talking to everyone else) wasn’t around to translate.

It was much the same with Charlie, the genial farmhand who’s been employed by the family for the last 35 years. Steve spent more time with him than I did and while he told us early on to ask him to go slower or repeat anything we didn’t catch the first time around, his missing front teeth and salt-of-the-earth Cork accent took some getting used to; indeed watching Charlie and Peggy talk was an exercise in futility and akin to watching a foreign film with no subtitles.

Another frequent visitor to the farm was Ernie the AI man. Wanna get your cows knocked up without actually having to schedule canoodling time with potentially volatile bulls? If so, Ernie’s your man. He rolls up in his car (Steve: ahem, correction…his Berlingo), pops the trunk and opens the pressure controlled lid on a shiny metal container, at which point mist from the liquid nitrogen pours out like a Halloween special effect. From there you can select your desired bull make and model (choose wisely, since some breeds cost more than others!) at which point Ernie takes the tiny vial of DNA and attaches it to a long rod, which he shoves inside his shirt and down his back to keep at body temperature while making his way to the restrained recipient. After donning his elbow-length latex glove, Ernie then inserts both arm and tube into the lucky lady, injecting the semen straight into her uterus where it will hopefully do its job. It’s over and done with in a matter of seconds and while it’s certainly not the most enjoyable way to get preggo, it sure gets the job done. Three cheers for Arnie and his deft artificial insemination skills!

Our hosts also happened to be Catholic and we accompanied them to mass on two occasions. We voiced our concern over not having dressy clothes, which made Geraldine laugh while explaining that as long as we weren’t covered in cow shit we were fine. Sweet as. Expecting to participate in a traditional Irish Catholic mass, imagine our surprise when the service finished 40 minutes later (mass at home is one hour) without any singing or homily message from the priest. We voiced our astonishment to Geraldine which in turn had her responding incredulously, “Really? That was a long one since most priests here tend to keep it to 30 minutes.” What the what? Sure enough the following week we attended a different church and were back in the car 20 minutes later (since we had arrived 10 minutes late). Definitely not what we’re used to and the only thing I can think of is that it must be a countryside things in deference to farmers needing to return to their livestock and farm tasks as quickly as possible. Either way, a cultural experience we were unprepared for.

Steve: Speaking of cultural experiences, there were several worth noting during our stay in Clonakilty. While not wanting to dredge up sore memories for any Irish readers, the first was getting to watch the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team duke it out with local hosts, Ireland. The All Blacks—who with their haka and South Pacific bravado—are personal favorites (anything from New Zealand is my favorite), so we were torn as it seemed appropriate to root for the hometown underdogs. New Zealand was on track for a perfect season and after the first few minutes it seemed like it was in serious jeopardy. In fact the whole game was in the lap of Ireland until the last minute at which point the All Blacks made a stunning comeback, taking their only yet winning lead in the game’s final seconds. Our hosts weren’t the biggest sports fans so their disappointment was trivial; however, for the ensuing days, sports on the television and the newspapers were dominated by the what-ifs and how-comes of New Zealand’s triumph.

On Friday we had the pleasure of experiencing another markedly Irish cultural event again thanks to the magic of television. The Late Late Toy Show, a Christmas institution in Ireland, is the most watched TV show in the country…just think the Superbowl of the Emerald Isle. We joined Geraldine in heading over to her sister’s household where we watched this epic display of humor and blatant consumer baiting. To be entirely fair, they don’t hide the fact that this is a way for toy manufactures to get the word out about products, from Fisher Price to Microsoft and Sony, the last two touting the new Xbox and PlayStation generations. In fact host Ryan Tubridy notes that all toys shown on the program are donated to local charities to be given out to the less fortunate so you get the requisite warm holiday do-good feelings just from watching. Part talent show—the kids who made the cut to perform were phenomenal—and part late night comedy show, this truly was an entertaining evening of TV. We could see why kids and adults alike gather around to watch it and can’t believe that something like this isn’t broadcast in the States of all places (hint hint studio execs!).

When not immersing ourselves in Irish culture thanks to the boob tube, we actually went outside and saw things. Geraldine was great about making the time and effort to drive us out to see the sights in and around Clonakilty. We visited local beaches such as stunning Inchydoney where locals and visitors come for the resorts and surf; churches like Timoleague Abbey, an 14th century preserved monastery that has been repurposed as a unique and solemn cemetery; and tourist sights like the mysteriously enchanting Drombeg Stone Circle, an ancient Druid rock formation that sits overlooking rolling green hillsides and the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean all while silently speaking of civilizations past. These aside one of our most memorable outings with Geraldine may have been our stop at the Bandon livestock auction where we got to see massive cattle sold off by an adept but equally massive auctioneer. We considered bidding on one of the scared silly calves but quickly realized that they may be just a bit too big to qualify under most airlines’ checked luggage requirements.

Lest I forget, the gaps between milking, farmwork and sightseeing were often filled by playing with the resident not-really-working working dogs. First there was the old and aptly named Lady who generally stayed away from us. Then there were the two boys, Lucky and Dudley, both equal sources of love and attitude. One on one each of these guys were lovebugs, and I think with no people around they were fine together, but when it came down to it Lucky (a rescue) flat out hated Dudley. Whenever possible he took the opportunity to bare his fangs and go after Dudely like a heat-seeking missile. I heard Leah reusing Hetta terminology and yelling ‘Ei!’ (“no” in Finnish) as if we were still in the Arctic Circle. Inter-canine animosity aside they were fun dogs who completed the family and helped ease us through our husky withdrawals.

Leah: Our time here flew by and despite pleas for us to stay longer, we knew we needed to be heading out so we could spend a couple days in Cork before heading up to our next Workaway. The day we left Geraldine pressed a bag into my hands containing extra sweatshirts, brand new toothpaste, tissues (my allergies were off the wall at this point), apples, oranges, hair ties and male body spray (gee, we can take a hint).  After the obligatory rounds to say goodbye to Hermione, Harry, Ron, Dudley, Lucky and Lady, I gave Peggy a farewell hug and heartfelt thanks, at which point she reared back, eyes teary, and gave me a forceful kiss on the lips while saying “God bless and thanks for all your hard work.” I understood her, hallelujah!

Geraldine drove us to the bus station to await the hourly bus to Cork and we did our best to thank her profusely for her above and beyond hospitality and generous soul. She too turned into a red-eyed mess fighting to hold back the floodgates and I felt a familiar catch in my throat as I waved goodbye. Despite the cold, slugs and my lack of “Corkish” comprehension, I thrived here. I became used to scenting my clothes and skin with eau de sour milk and unknowingly accessorizing my ponytail with cow shit. I adored my time spent with the calves as they sucked my thumb and learned to drink, delighted in flinging the Frisbee for the crazy canines, learned all about bee keeping, looked forward to milking time and even had fun herding errant sheep on foot since the dogs were worthless. But most of all I lived for the time spent around the kitchen table when we could ask about growing up on a farm, discuss Irish politics past and present, nosh on hearty food and generally glean an idea of what it’s like to live, sleep, eat and breath Irish dairy while feeling like family instead of voyeurs. And as for Hermione? I hope all your days are magical, little one, and here's to you and the boys always solemnly swearing that you are up to no good ;-)

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