The original family story was that our great-grandfather Jeremiah took a calf and walked down the road to his Uncle’s farm in Ballyworkan, County Armah, Northern Ireland. This story is dedicated to my cousin Evelyn Harper, RIP, for hosting us on a fantastic genealogical exploration and also to my cousin Ivan Pentland for relaying the story of Jeremiah for me to embellish and share.
Jeremiah’s hand rested on the gate. Was it the morning dew or sweat he felt on his palms? He couldn’t see much. He paused listening to the rustle of cattle. It was getting close to the time they would be liberated into the day, but the still dark confused them as did his presence.
With quiet exaggeration, he closed the latch, pushing cattle aside. Even in the dim light he knew the outline of his yearling and slipped the rope over the bull’s thick neck. Jeremiah trusted that his familiar scent would prompt the bull to cooperate.
Back through the crush Jeremiah felt the cows and other yearlings part for him. It was a hopeful sign considering his hammering heart, but he wasn’t safe yet.
He tried not to think about the disappointment of his mother and sisters. John, his older brother, would understand and smooth things over. He was the one everyone listened to. Especially their father when he was on the stony path not knowing whether to forgive or to strap the children. John explained their father like it meant sense to him, but for Jeremiah it didn’t ever make sense. It was either the strap or not the strap.
John said their father Thomas was an uneasy survivor. His own parents living through two wars, through the promise and then the terror of workhouses and reforms. So-called reforms between Catholics and Protestants where all paid the price for the aristocratic and political rhetoric of land and power.
After fifty long years Thomas’s family finally found peace, prosperity and community, but only briefly. In 1845, the potato famine wiped out their income and their food supply. Most of the family starved to death and it was only luck and the kindness of strangers that had kept their father Thomas, and his younger brother, William, alive.
By 1850, Thomas was grown and had developed a keen knack for raising cattle and for keeping the peace. The local landlord, when she bothered to show up, came to reply upon him to quell arguments as cattle pastured unfettered in Armagh county. After a time, Thomas’ one bull, ten cows and a small plot of pasture became a thriving farm. Thomas wasn’t greedy and as his herd prospered, so too did Ballyworkan benefit as a community.
A soft light now came from their small white-washed cottage. Their mother would be starting the fire to make his father’s tea. Porridge with butter would come soon after for the four sisters, for John and for him. It was Friday, so his father would also be expecting an egg. Fire, Thomas would say, to fuel the long walk ahead of them to Poynt Pass and onto Markethill, but Jeremiah wouldn’t be going with his father tomorrow or any other day.
He put his head down and willed himself not to run, as if that might stop him from being spotted. It was one day short of July and he was glad. Any earlier and the roads would have been deeply rutted and mucky making his journey slow. He was sure that if his father caught him now he’d lose his resolve.
Jeremiah thought only briefly about his sisters, except for Jane. The girls who shared a room were silly and would be too busy cheeping and grooming to notice his absence. Jane he would miss. She wasn’t yet bouncing about like his sisters of marriageable age, who were more worried about boys and ribbons. In the past he could always count on her to share the chores so there would be time to fish in the Cusher river, watching the lazy current and thinking big thoughts about nothing.
The sun was rising now, casting a pink orange glow and making the mist rise from the ground. Jeremiah’s heart was no longer hammering, but a steady leap, like the excitement he felt about his future.
Boys were expected to drive the herd for the eight hours to Poynt Pass, but once the cattle were corralled the men took care of the negotiations. Jeremiah remembered being grateful in the past for a penny tossed by his father to spend on toys or candy. It was nothing compared to the elation he felt last fall when standing among the men for the first time.
That day his father had given him a calf saying it was his responsibility. Jeremiah raised it with care watching his father and brother. He was not quite able to see, but anticipating with pride, his future as a cattleman.
Jeremiah slowed, he was almost at his destination and knowing that his absence from the family home would now be obvious. His father would file away his anger till just the right moment. Jeremiah hated the waiting game.
His brother John, however, always managed to deflect punishment, or rather what their father called “corrections.” John whose head was cool and smart, ready to take over the family farm, while Jeremiah felt himself a slave now and into the future because he would remain landless.
“He has no right to take it to market.”, Jeremiah complained to John. “I raised it. It’s my seed bull. My future.” Jeremiah thoughts, however gruffly appearing in his head, were shadowed by doubt and the echo of this father’s laughter. “No son. It was experience you needed, not the bull and it goes to market tomorrow with the rest.”, and the conversation was over just like that.
The sun had risen quicker than he remembered as if time was urging him forward. He blinked stupidly in the light, the bull bumping his back with a tipped horn reminding him it was both their breakfast times. Jeremiah hadn’t really noticed the other cottages that lined the road of Harcourt’s Hill, but he wondered now if any of the neighbour’s seen him pass.
A small house stood on the right, but he knew it would be empty so he rounded the back to the shed. The chickens were pecking and pigs rooting contentedly on their morning feed and the sheep and cows already at pasture. He put his hand with some surprise that it was a man’s hand. Calloused and red rough. A hand with experience. His hand.
Uncle William raised his own hand in welcome, his eyes showing the merriment he felt seeing his nephew at his door step. Jeremiah did not know how his bachelor uncle managed to work the farm alone, but he was reassured that it was possible.
John said that their father lost his own childhood protecting Uncle Will from the harshness and responsibilities he’d endured. “That’s why Da seems so mixed”, John said, “his enjoyment of life put on hold to make sure William thrived, but then,” and John winked, “… Will turned out to be a little too mirthful”. John and Jeremiah had both smiled remembering the practical jokes and the mouth harp Uncle Will constantly played. They liked how it drove their father crazy.
Uncle Will and Jeremiah did not need to make conversation about Thomas, whose stoicism was as set as Will’s humour. The two men set about the day’s chores, Jeremiah’s stomach rumbling with hunger and anxiety. The finally sun set and yet there was no knock on the door, not even from his Mother or wee Jane. Uncle Will said he could stay on his farm as long as he worked.
Out of character the next day’s promise was of summer sun, instead of rain. The mood was light as they, with a day’s rations and a bedroll, left for market ~ the bull calf safely away in Uncle Will’s shed. The cattle walked on ahead beside the river with only the occasional correction to stay on track. Jeremiah’s courage rose and fell in waves getting sharper as they neared the market.
Jeremiah never noticed before, well, maybe he had and not acknowledged it, but his father was holding court. Men leaning in on his words and the not so private exchange of flasks. The rest of his family was still at home. His sister’s would have preferred the social opportunity of the July 1st market, but his mother would only visit in September when the supply of goods bordered on extravagant. Jeremiah felt a moment of family pride and then his father’s body turned towards them, all the while still smiling and slapping backs.
Jeremiah tried to busy himself, but found his Uncle steering him towards his father. “This is what you’re here for, isn’t it?”, Will said. Jeremiah’s desire drove one side of his body and terror drove the other so that his body looked twisted. As the brothers greeted each other, Jeremiah stumbled. Everyone turned to watch as if the news of his defection had preceded like brush fire.
Thomas looked from Will to Jeremiah and then behind them. No calf. Jeremiah was trembling with the effort to control he knew not what. Was it rage or fear? Maybe the two were indistinguishable.
Jeremiah forced his eyes up and saw his father with a rare small smile playing about his lips. “Well, Jeremiah Pentland,” his father slapped his shoulder, “That was brass-neck thing you pulled. I’m sure your Uncle will appreciate the extra hand on his farm.” and with that he nodded to Will and turned back to the other cattlemen.
Some might have looked for the sarcasm in that remark or asked about the bull calf, but for Jeremiah it only meant no strap ever again and he let it be.
Author’s Notes: Along with my costume store, FeeFiFoFun Costume Concierge, writing photography and genealogy have become a big part of my daily life. No one knows with any certainty their entire family, but it’s fun to marry facts and anecdotes like I did here. The records show that our great-grandfather inherited land from his bachelor uncle William, while John, his older brother, inherited land from their father, Thomas. Jeremiah married Dinah Morrow, whom he called his Treasure. Of the eight children they raised, two sons migrated to Canada in the 1930’s and one of those sons was our Grandfather Bob Pentland. Jeremiah’s Ballyworkan farm was eventually purchased with glee by Tommy Flavel, whose family also raised cattle in Ballyworkan and who sat at Jeremiah’s knee while he played the Mouth Harp. Tommy, in his late seventies, hosted my cousin Evelyn, my sister and I on a walk through our ancestral lands which included, yep, cattle. Except for that which is bog, next to the Brackagh Moss Nature Reserve, all the pasture land is slowly being urbanized by the City of Portadown.