Helen Thorpe

Donal has a woman named Inma living with him at the moment. She’s from Spain, and she’s a veterinarian; she moved to Ireland to work with cattle. Inma cooked us a fantastic meal of egglant and Spanish ham two nights ago, so we treated her to beef marinated in beer last night. We persuaded my uncle Ollie to have a drink with us, though he’d already eaten supper. The four of us drank red wine and talked about the differences between keeping cows (Donal’s trade) and keeping pigs (Ollie’s). Inma is a forthright young woman, and she declared that the one set of animals she never wanted to work with were pigs, as they require very little of a vet. Pigs drop their young in large litters with ease, whereas cows have their young one or possibly two at a time and often require help. Ollie took this very well. Then Inma added that everybody she met in Ireland told her to go for a pig farmer if she was looking for a husband, because they make so much money. She looked at Ollie with a challenging grin. Ollie, who is a determined bachelor, lifted his eyebrows sky-high.

“You’ve come to Ireland too late, I’m afraid,” Ollie told Inma. “That would have been true two years ago, but pig farmers haven’t been doing too well lately.”

This morning I rode with Ollie as he drove out to Kilnacrott, where he keeps his main piggery. We put on matching blue coveralls and Wellingtons and I trailed after him as he went through the pig houses. In the first we found one of the two men that Ollie presently has working for him; he was artificially inseminating a large sow. Ollie and I moved on to where other sows were having their litters. He checked on one sow that had just delivered eighteen piglets. Ollie picked up a tiny little runt, who was wobbling around gamely. His little ribcage was heaving. All the other piglets were shoving each other out of the way to suckle, and the runt couldn’t make any headway. Ollie lifted him up to a teat, and held him there, hoping to give him an advantage that would make a difference. In another house Ollie showed me pigs that had just been weaned. Whenever we went by any of the pens, the pigs would leap to their feet, scurrying away from us in a panic, making a great snorting sound. Then almost as quickly their curiosity would bring them back toward us, with their comically large pink ears flared wide and their odd flat noses moving and twitching.

Ollie’s piggery is highly mechanized, so it requires only three or four men to run it, but lately he’s had a hard time finding even that many. Everybody he hires quits to do construction work instead. In the last five years, the Irish economy has taken off, and now more people are moving back to Ireland than are leaving. Consequently, there are new houses going up everywhere. People who build them make more money than anybody who tends pigs, and they get the weekends off, as well. Meanwhile, American agribusiness has driven prices and profits down to the bare minimum. The pressure of competing with giant corporate-owned farms in America plus the construction boom here (an outgrowth of huge advances in the local high-tech and financial services fields) is affecting all types of farmers in Ireland. “You can’t get anybody to drive a tractor these days,” said Con, over at Cornaslieve, one day while he was having lunch at the kitchen table. I’ve been having coffee in the evenings with my aunt Nula, over at her farmhouse, and she told me that the agricultural college that her son Stephen went to is closing for lack of applicants. I find myself wondering: What is going to happen to this way of life?

Ollie showed me his pigs today because I asked him to and he is a gracious man, but what he really wanted to show me were his trees. Ollie loves to garden and he has been planting rare trees around the old stone manor that he purchased back when pork prices were a lot better. After visiting the piggery we walked up the hill behind his house to where he had planted a young sapling. “This is a California redwood,” said Ollie. “I brought it back in my suitcase the last time I went to visit your mother.” My parents live in Northern California, and my mother has a gardening business there. When Ollie visited 18 months ago, they found a redwood seedling in the woods, and miraculously it survived the trip to Ireland. The sapling now stands as tall as my chest. It’s grown a foot since August alone, according to the marks that Ollie has made on the pole that the tree is tied to. I nattered on about how someday the tree would tower up over his house and be quite an imposing sight. This grandiose idea prompted Ollie to remind me that it takes a long time for a redwood to reach its full height. “Well,” he said. “I won’t be here to see it anyway.”