The Plough Horse

The placid old horse pulling the plough was a familiar sight in the old days, the rooks and the gulls following close behind as they scrambled for worms and more.

The plough horses had a quiet kind of dignity about them, a broad-shouldered grace if you like. It was almost as if they were at ease with themselves and the world around them, the long lines of the furrows shining in their wake.

An old neighbour of ours here in Kerry, Mikey Joe, remembered ploughing with the horse in the windmill Field by the river, the field so called simply because there was an old fashioned windmill there. 

The latter generated electricity for the big house, which was owned by the Lesson-Marshalls, harnessing as it did the power of the wind, which came sweeping in from the bay. It was clearly a case of making the most of renewable energy, long before such things were ever in Vogue. 

It was lovely working with the horse and plough in the sloping field, Mikey Joe said, and it was easy to tell when someone was coming too. The rooks, nesting then, made a great flapping and cawing in the rookery above, when anyone approached. it might have been a scene from some old master: an old chestnut horse and a plough, the ploughman walking behind, the sails of the windmill turning gently in the breeze. 

The land was ploughed not just for oats and wheat, but for potatoes too; the latter still very much part of the staple diet of the time. Mikey Joe had memories too of bringing the old chestnut mare to be shod at the forge in Milltown. 

The forge was in Old Chapel Lane and the blacksmith was James O’Shea: the latter particularly busy on a Friday, a favourite day it seemed for bringing the horses to be shod. A huge old chestnut tree grew in the garden at the back of the forge, the horses and their owners gathered in the lane as they waited patiently in line. 

There were greys and bays, chestnuts and browns and more. The plough horse was the very epitome of the peace and quiet of the countryside, of the renewal of springtime too.

The ploughing of the field was an art form in itself; the relationship between horse and ploughman was especially close. It was as if they knew and understood each other without the need for words at all, the bond between them palpable in every move. 

The Bible speaks of the turning of swords into ploughshares, making the plough an emblem of peace. It was hardly surprising then that in his poem In the of The Breaking of Nations,’  Thomas Hardy looked to the plough as a symbol of continuity. 

The poem was written in the year 1915 when the world was gripped by war on a grand scale. Hardy offered the hope that though the great dynasties would come and go, the essential things of the countryside would go on and on. 

Hence the image of the horse and plough was a symbol of continuity. Gerard Manly Hopkins, meanwhile used the ploughing of the land to illustrate the theme of the resurrection, a very appropriate theme as springtime is a time of hope and renewal in nature too. No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine. The soil that has been ploughed and trodden upon gives off a wonderful sheen or radiance, the word ‘sillion’ being an old fashioned word for furrow.

It is essentially an image of triumph that comes from defeat, the furrow shining after the ploughman, just as Christ overcame death in the resurrection. 

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh celebrated the man after the harrow too. In his poem, Kavanagh takes a commonplace experience and imbues it with an eternal significance. As the poet sees it, the man with the harrow is doing the work of creation in the very act of ploughing and sowing the seed. 

One of the best-known manufactures of ploughs in Ireland was Pierces of Wexford. They were, in fact, the largest makers of farm machinery in the country; mass-producing iron ploughs from the turn of the twentieth century One of their advertisements from the 1920s claimed that there were very few ploughs, which would appeal to the skilled and skilful eye as the models in their latest catalogue. 

Their ploughs came complete with wheels and skim coulter. The latter was a blade, or sharp-edged disc attached to the plough so that it cut through the soil vertically in advance of the ploughshare itself. 

Novelties or adaptions such as the reversible plough and the seed plough were popular for a time but fell out of favour simply because they were too expensive. 

It was the eminent folklorist Seamus 0 Cathain who wrote that despite changing times the horse whisperer, known in Irish as cogar i gcluais an chapaill was held in high regard. The three sweetest melodies in whole wide world were the churning of butter, the plough ploughing and the mill grinding. 

The three things that left the longest traces, meanwhile were charcoal on wood, the chisel on stone, the ploughshare on the furrow. The art of ploughing with the horse is today largely confined to folk farms and the like, still evoking as it does memories of gentler more leisurely times, when life in the countryside was inextricably linked with season and soil.

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