Willie John Fitzmaurice’s farm is situated on a quiet local road near Athleague. So quiet in fact, that Willie John can spend most of the day working without seeing a single soul. It wasn’t always like this, however.
“This was always a kind of rambling house in the past and people used to call in while passing on their bikes on their way to Roscommon,” Willie John told me as we sat in the original farmhouse, which is up to 300-years-old.
“My uncles used to own a tractor and at the time the brought sheep and cattle to the mart for the neighbours,” Willie said before explaining how his uncles and their neighbours used to trade labour in order to get the work done.
“That was the country life at the time but after that more machinery came when the grants came in the 1970s. Then diesel started getting dearer and people couldn’t be working for nothing then,” he added.
Willie, by his own admission, was lucky to inherit two farms of land, one in Athleague and one in Four Roads, and has vowed to pass the land on in as good if not better condition than he inherited it.
Willie John’s world is caught between the modern and the traditional and nowhere is that more obvious than in the old farm cottage he is currently renovating. On one side of the building we look out a centuries old Crown glass window complete with ‘bullseye’. The bullseye was caused by the process of blowing the glass, a skill which dates back hundreds of years. Behind us there is a modern PVC window complete with vent. It’s a stark contrast and it reminds Willie John of other changes.
“This was always an open house. People could come here and take off their boots at the door and make their own cup of tea. It was always a stop off for people on their way to Roscommon town. Now, most of the people are older or have passed away,” he said.
According to Willie John, however, his own house in nearby Four Roads is still very much an open house in the modern sense. He lives there with his wife Kathleen, who first caught his eye on a snowy St. Patrick’s night in Rockford’s in 1987!
Kathleen, who Willie John described as “quieter” than himself and “very patient” must have cast a very powerful spell that night judging by the beaming smile on Willie John’s face as he described how they met.
While Willie John and Kathleen have managed to remain close to their roots, modern Ireland has taken its toll close to home. Their children found their lives taking them away from Athleague and Roscommon. Daughters in Dublin and a son on agricultural science placement in Scotland attest to the need to move elsewhere for work and education. Their father believes there’s only one solution to this modern Irish problem:
“We need a factory or two within a 30 mile radius of Athleague that will employ maybe 100 people each and that way we’ll keep people on the farms,” he said before bleakly admitting that the days of small farms with small flocks may be numbered.
Willie John also highlighted the importance of supporting local businesses, shops and butchers. After all, his father, Tommy, opened an account in Keane’s of Athleague in the 1950s and Willie John has continued that relationship with Bernard Keane. New business relationships have formed in that time also and our host paid tribute to the work of companies like Kepak in supporting the work he does in both Athleague and Four Roads.
Modern technology also plays a big part in farming nowadays and Willie John was adamant that broadband would be as important as rural electrification was in the 1940s. Although he did say he wasn’t expecting the broadband workers to become part of the local community in the same way the ESB workers of the last century did!
Before we left, Willie John took us on a tour of his own personal fiefdom, which spreads towards the imposing wind turbines on Scrine hill. The turbines are a sore subject in these parts and Willie John assured us we were lucky to arrive on a day when they were aimed away from the ancient cottage.
It isn’t long before even the wind turbines are overshadowed by Skip the sheepdog however. Skip follows Willie John’s directions while moving a flock of sheep towards one of the ‘sheep creeps’ which dot the landscape. It’s impressive work and proves that man and animal are still as vital to the land as grant funded machinery.
As we made our way back to the car Willie John graciously extended an invitation to his farm walk this Friday at 2 pm. The farm will play host to a number of visitors as part of Roscommon Lamb Festival and Willie John even promised us a hearty bowl of stew!
Friday’s event promises to be another entertaining and informative day out with Willie John and he’s certainly looking forward to the occasion which will once again bring visitors from across Roscommon to Fitzmaurice’s farm.