In today’s Trasna we have three poems by Clonmel writer, storyteller and farmer, Joe Whelan. In the poems below Joe brings the reader full circle, from his Uncle Davie in “My Uncle’s Coat”, and the farm at Harney’s Cross where he spent happy childhood summers, on to the experience of the young, naïve man in “Nally’s Men”, who came to work in construction in New York City in the 1980s. Finally, in “The Sheep Shearers”, we are returned to Harney’s Cross, to the farm now inherited by Joe near the Comeragh Mountains in County Waterford and the essential summer task of shearing sheep, one that demands many helping hands and knowledge built over generations. The “Nire” referred to in “The Sheep Shearers” is the Nire Valley, tucked into the Comeragh Mountains. These three poems bring us to worlds rich with lived experience on both sides of the Atlantic, worlds brought vividly to life by Joe Whelan. There is also an audio of each poem, read by Joe.
My Uncle’s Coat
(In memory of Davie Whelan 1924 – 2014)
Davie’s coat still hangs from his bedroom door.
The gaping pockets expose
A ball’d up hankie, starched by sheep’s blood and dirt
never bleached by a wife’s hand;
A broken penknife, its handle long lost;
Fag butts of Golden Virginia, the smell
of tobacco still strong, the narrowing ends sucked dry.
Red Setter baling twine, coiled like a nest,
that fastened every gate and door on the farm,
and still holds threads of hay from summers long past.
I press the twine between my fingers –
it ties me back to those who made me.
We met before cockcrow outside the Inishfree,
I shyed up Bainbridge avenue, a session of bars linked like daisy chains;
The Roaring 20s, The Phoenix, The Punch bowl ,
Koplosis’s Greek deli breaking the link.
Young Danny from Killybegs, gave me the tour.
“That’s a Waterford pub, and that’s a Donegal one,
The Phoenix is a “Raa” pub but the crack is great in there”
He arrived a week before me, he seemed to know the run of things.
It was my first day at school, I was green,
like the Inishfree’s tacky shamrock sign.
“That’s them there,” Danny said, as he pointed to a tormented Ford van,
the right front fender missing, I remember thinking “Jesus, how Irish.”
“I’ll grab a coffee for us,” said Danny, “Nally, the boss man, won’t stop till Princeton”.
It was 5.30 in the morning and Princeton was 70 miles away.
My stomach was still in bed, “grand” I said
I stuck my head into the van, pitch black but for the glow of cigarettes,
fire flies in a dense fog.
“Are ye Nally’s men?” I tried to sound confident.
Harsh northern accents growled “Aye”
A thick Connemera voice said, “ Hop in ta fuck. And where’s that other bollix?”
Danny followed with two coffees, “There ya go Tipp”. he said,
The stony air was broken by a benevolent Cork accent,
“Where ya from Boi?”
“Tipperary” I said glad, to hear the Munster accent
“Fair play to ya boi” he said slappin’ me knee
“You’re from the right side of the Shannon”
Flock of sheep at Harney’s Cross
The Sheep Shearers
The morning sun had me removing my own fleece,
22 degrees and it wasn’t yet 11 o clock.
The flock were in and we waited on the men from the Nire
“Guiry’s men rise late but they’d work all night” the uncle said
“They’ll be there be dinner time”
In Harney’s Cross the table was set for one o clock.
So, we readied sheds in case of rain
Corralled pens and darned wool bags
We tied gates with baling twine.
And ran cables for the shears
I opened two new tins of raddle*,
Blood red for the pole,
Ink blue for the hip
Stripes on an American flag.
They arrived at the crack of noon
Just as the spuds were ready
I couldn’t tell if it was their breakfast or dinner
But when they finished there was little left for dogs
“We better make a start” says Guiry
And four machines collectively whirred
Dogs worried sheep
And flies annoyed men
But the buzzing of the razors
Drowned out all other pests
I always struggled with the first ewe,
She’d waltz me across the pen
In some obscure tango,
Eventually I wrestle her on to her rear
And sit her up like a teddy bear
Guiry, effortlessly pulled her to him
Making light of my work
The razor lifted the grey coat of winter
A plough pushing away dirty snow
Leaving ivory trails on spent ski slopes
Flecks of crimson betrayed his unsteady hand
A consequence of a break for “a couple of large bottles”.
He called for Dettol. As flies shrouded the wound
I felt the relief of the sheep
as her shorn fleece was tossed in the pile
I raddled her pole and hip
Our colours, like a biker’s badges of honour,
Marking our territory. “Whelan’s ewes outa Harney’s cross” I said,
Guiry jolted me out of my trance as he called for another sheep.
I left one daydream and tangoed with another across the pen.
*raddle is a coloured marking for sheep
Shearing the sheep
Tools of the trade
After a day’s work
Joe Whelan at sheep shearing
Joe was born in Clonmel but spent a large part of his youth on his grandparent’s farm at Harney’s Cross in Co Waterford, just outside Clonmel. He became an apprentice plasterer at 15 and in 1987, like thousands of others, left for America. He worked with a variety of tradesman and developed a great love of timber frame construction. He returned to Ireland in 1991 and set up his own construction company until the crash in 2009. In 2015 he was lucky enough to inherit his late uncle’s farm at the foot of the Commeragh mountains. This brought him back to the place of his youth and where he now runs a sheep farm. He is currently constructing timber frame glamping pods on the farm, where people can come to experience country life. He enjoys writing poetry and prose and has been involved with the “Poetry Plus” writers in Carrick-on-Suir and has had writings published with the Clonmel Junction Arts Festival. He is a great fan of the Moth story slam from the U.S and had a story featured on the Dublin Story Slam and podcast in August 2019. In November 2019 Joe founded the Clonmel Story and Poetry Slam.
Photo credits: Joe Whelan