Helen Thorpe

I walked with Donal as he herded the cows up the road after the morning milking. It was cold and foggy and everything appeared to be some shade of gray. The cows slowed; I heard a car engine idling. Eventually the herd clopped past the halted car and the driver’s face emerged from behind the black-and-white flanks of the animals. “Hiya, Clareann,” Donal called out. He said to me, “That’s Jimmy’s sister.” We’d been drinking with Jimmy on Sunday at a bar where they had the all-Ireland hurling finals on television. Hurling is a cross between field hockey and rugby, and it’s a brutal game. Jimmy had put a fiver on Kilkenny, and it looked like he was going to win his bet, but at the last minute Cork scored unexpectedly. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!” Jimmy had yelled. “Cunts!”

We walked on a bit farther and then the cows balked again. This time the obstacle was a No. 10 bus carrying a redheaded driver and one moony-looking child. The driver stuck his head out the window. “How are ye, Donal?” he said. “Will the ground ever dry out, do ye think?” It has been a rainy September, and nobody can do their farm work, as the machinery keeps getting bogged down in the fields. Donal and the driver conferred about the state of the ground and the state of the weather and the state of County Cavan in general, while the child stared out the window with a dreamy expression. Donal opened up a nearby gate while he talked, and most of the herd ambled into the field. The Charolais bull hung back, though, keeping an eye on me. I noticed that his eyelashes were very long and white.

We got the bull and the rest of the herd into the field and we went in ourselves and Donal pulled the gate closed behind us. It was a steep field. As we walked up the hill past all the cows, Donal said, “Look at the cobwebs.” Over in the hedge, it was as though somebody had draped lace tablecloths over the blackberry bushes: The bushes were covered in droopy cobwebs, and they were all shining as the morning light reflected off the dew that had collected on them. At the top of the hill, we turned right, then opened a gate to a second field. The first of the cows appeared out of the fog behind us. One by one, like old ladies wobbling in uncomfortable shoes, they picked their way gingerly past us in a meandering line and filtered into the field.

Donal took me back a different way. Up ahead I saw a big white farmhouse appear out of the fog and wondered whose it was–then I realized that we were looking down on Cornaslieve. I could see the corrugated tin sheds, the old farmhouse where my mother was born (Donal and James store tools there now), and the new farmhouse, which was built in the 1950s. We walked around to the backyard and hosed down our Wellingtons. I looked into the stainless-steel vat where the milk was being spun in circles by a mechanical arm. “It’s very low, isn’t it?” I asked. “It is,” said Donal. “In the summer, it will be overflowing sometimes. This is very low indeed.” Most of the cows are going dry; their milk production will pick up after they calve again.

Last May, I saw a cow give birth for the first time. My uncle James took me and my boyfriend over to where the cow was lying on her side, her stomach heaving and rippling. At the sound of my voice, the cow lurched to her feet, and stood there swinging her head about in agitation. James explained that she didn’t like having strangers nearby while she was giving birth, and that we better come back in a few minutes, and be very quiet. James had the calving jack in place by the time we returned; the two arms of the jack were cradling the hind quarters of the heaving cow. Under her tail, the tip of a pink nose was visible, and two tiny forefeet. James had tied a rope around the little feet and had attached the rope to the jack, which he started cranking. In a matter of seconds, the calf plopped out onto the hay that James had spread for him, and lay there in a slimy purple bundle. One big plop and it was done. Afterward, I said it looked very easy. James gave me a wry glance and said, well, yes, if you were lucky–otherwise, you could be up half the night.

This afternoon, Donal came in with a recipe for beef marinated in beer that his sister Geraldine e-mailed from Brussels. (Geraldine and Donal exchange e-mail every day; she works for a dairy lobbying group and her messages arrive from “@euromilk.org.”) I took over the responsibility of executing her instructions while Donal did the evening milking. As I poured beer over the beef, my uncle Ollie stopped by. He’s a quiet man with a dry wit. At the sight of this dish, which was now hissing and fizzing, Ollie lifted his eyebrows until his forehead wrinkled. “Better get the fire extinguisher,” he said.