Autumn was the time of the year when we’d be marshalled to take in the harvest from the fields attached to the Institution, in our boots with leather laces; I remember the head of the Religious Order being asked at the Child Abuse Commission whether the children had “wet weather gear” and he was unable to provide an answer. That’s a puzzle as it would be very easy to find out from the records of the Order. The truth is we didn’t have anything as fancy as “wet weather gear”.
We’d start marching to the fields in pairs at 9:30am and would arrive at the fields at 10:00am or so. We’d be in the fields sometimes until 8:00 pm, depending on how much was to be harvested. Most days we finished at 4:30pm and we’d be marched back for our “tea” of Skinners – two slices of bread, spread with dripping and a mug of watery tea. During our days in the field we would sometimes get skinners and dripping and other times we’d get “Oxtail” soup. The soup was basically dark brown stock with a thick coating of grease but after being working in the fields of “Ferryhouse Farms” it tasted much much better than the raw spud, or beet, or turnips which we supplemented our diet.
“Ferryhouse Farms” consisted 80 acres, not all of it tilled as they had fruit trees, tomatoes, salad crops and a modern dairy farm with cattle. If memory serves me I believe in my time the dairy farm had 120 cattle. The cattle were regularly washed after leaving the milking parlours. The place was scrubbed from top to bottom literally and hosed down daily. The cattle looked spic-and-span.
Some of us felt that getting out of the workshops or classes, to work in the fields, for a few weeks was okay as it was a change from the drudgery of knitting, sewing, stitching etc., even though the work in the fields was back-breaking and dirty. Some of even looked forward to the “shnagging” of the turnips because we used them as a “supplement” to our usual “food”. And at the time of the year there were plenty of blackberries, haws, elderberries and Devils Berries in the hedges. We’d nominate a few of us to sneak off into the hedges to “acquire” our real harvest.
I don’t want to paint a romantic picture of this work but each fistful of blackberries we could “acquire” was a victory for us against “Them”, we’d have “feasts” in the fields and still have plenty over for our return. Some nights we’d have ‘feasts’ in the dormitory with the fruits and vegetables we were able to cadge. There were many of us who had an almost permanent purple colour around our mouths. The Devils Berries had almost the same effect as watery cider as it would lift our spirits and make us more cheerful. These berries were fairly rare and that’s probably a good thing as we always, always vomited after scoffing them. The vomit was very white and thick and I’ve heard since that they’re supposed to be poisonous but we probably built up a resistance to them!
On the walk to the fields the sides of the roads would be covered with leaves of all colours and we used to drag one leg as we walked, this let us gather up huge mounds of leaves where we could then kick them and scatter them some more. It was just a childish thing with no harm and I’m sure we’ve all done it but Father Barry took exception to myself and my chum as we seemed to be having a riot of a time. So he detailed the both of us to stay back and gather all the leaves around the front of Ferryhouse and bring them to the furnace to be burned. That meant we’d have no “diet supplements” that day and that we miss our meal of bread and dripping!
Anyway we made a game of it and gathered a few huge mounds of leaves on the road outside Ferryhouse, eventually we gathered them into one gigantic mound and played “cowboys & Indians”, or “King of the castle”. Most of the time though we just dived into the leaves and burrowed our way through the mound. The job of “bagging” the leaves and taking them to the furnace was forgotten and we eventually had moved all the leaves down to the banks of the River Suir where we proceeded to scatter them into the river.
The sight of all these multicoloured leaves flowing down a fast flowing river is something I’ve never forgotten. The leaves were, in a way, heading to freedom – speeding away from us, never to be seen again. The length of this carpet of leaves flowing down the river was at least 500 yards long and I’m sure plenty of people downstream got sight of it. I’ve always wondered what they thought of this almost endless carpet of leaves as it sped by them.