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.
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: 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?
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.
eaching 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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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