When We Were Kings And Queens of the Road: Alice Taylor

Photo: O'Brien Press

To School through the Fields

Going and coming from school was so varied, interesting and often challenging that it made school itself almost fade into the background. I did not venture on that school journey until I was seven years old, as the safari across a dozen fields of hills and hollows was deemed to be a challenge to be undertaken only by the strong and able bodied.

As a skinny, gangling, long-legged little girl, and also the youngest of the clan, I was kept at home until my mother deemed that I was strong enough to climb over the high ditches and scale the hazards of flooded gullies running down the high hills along the Cork-Kerry border.

Once we had left behind the familiar terrain of our own farm, the remainder of the journey was a hike into the unknown. But over the years of traversing that territory, familiarity brought coping skills and also appreciation for that challenging journey. After a night of torrential rain I was often mesmerised by the swollen river raging along the valley and the tumbling torrents of water cascading down the hills into it.

Alice at age 10-11, with her older brother Tim and one of their calves. 1940s.

During the winter months it really tested my mettle, and having sometimes arrived in school with sodden clothing and squelching boots, there was no choice but to sit in them all day. No children’s wellingtons or protective rain wear in those days! Just long wool coats and heavy leather laced up boots.

On stormy days we were cautioned about falling trees, and on very wet days we were kept at home due to fear of drowning. When the snow covered the land the whole place became a silent magical landscape, and we held our breath as we made the first footprints into the pristine morning snow. We were mesmerised at the silent wonder of it all, while still heeding parental warnings of the danger of falling into high snow drifts.

But come summer this whole scene was transformed and our entire world blossomed into a warm welcoming colourful landscape. We saw the first swallows return, swishing in and out of farm buildings, reclaiming their old nests, and were delighted to hear the early call of the cuckoo. Summer truly arrived with the cuckoo!

Off came our long black stockings, and we threw aside our strong leather boots and ran barefoot into the fields. Oh the joy of running through tall clover meadows, and feeling the warm dew run down our legs and out between our bare toes, and the disgusting delight of jumping into hot green cow dungs that squelched up between our white dancing toes. We were unaware back then that we were experiencing our first introduction to reflexology when smelly cow dung would be replaced by sweet smelling scented oils.

Thorns that could penetrate the soft soles of bare feet were the bane of our lives, and stumping a big toe off a hidden stone was a constant hazard, but a far more serious threat were the bulls that accompanied every herd of cows and sometimes we had to circumvent that danger by a more circuitous route to school.

In the morning, speed was required to make the morning roll call and families from along the valley left a stone on the humpy small stone bridge along the way to let it be known that they had gone on ahead. But despite our morning hurry, we still watched out for little white button mushrooms that overnight might have pushed their round heads above ground.

When 3pm came and the Master clapped his hands in dismissal, we bolted out the school door like released calves of early summer and then all sense of hurry evaporated and getting home was the last thought on our minds. There were milk bottles to be washed and refilled for the safari home, with cold water from the little sunken well at the side of a hilly field.

A deep pool at the end of that field had to be investigated, and hidden jam pots uncovered to catch collies, and then a balancing race along the top of the little stone bridge, and afterwards time spent hanging in over the bridge wall watching the water hens that were hatching along the river bank. Then, a long climb up a steep hill where we zig zagged back and forth to ease the journey to the top, but having reached the top we rolled back down again just for the sheer joy of tumbling over the tufts of grass and wild flowers.

Afterwards it was time to rest and make daisy chains or buttercup chains. If they had ripened we had a feast of blackberries, or collected sloes to be buried in bottles to make sloe wine. That ambitious sloe wine project never reached fruition because afterwards we could never remember where we had buried our bottles. We exchanged confidences and told each other stories, some more outlandish than others, but one little boy who was more fragile and delicately tuned than the rest of us insisted that we lie flat on the ground and admire the cloud formations in the sky.

Then there were a series of birds nests to be inspected, and we held our breaths in case the mother bird would sense that we had visited which we believed could cause her to abandon the nest. Our fragile friend had a special relationship with the birds, and when we all stood well away from him the birds would come and rest on his hands and pick the left over lunch crumbs off his palm. We made daily nest checks and waited eagerly as the number of eggs in the nests increased, and there was huge excitement when the first egg cracked open and a baby bird appeared.

The formation of the nests varied, but the wren was the best builder, with a tiny front door knitted into her little swirl of soft green moss and feathers.

We were sent to school to be educated, but on the journey back and forth we unwittingly absorbed a wide knowledge and appreciation of the natural world, which enriched our lives and stayed with us forever.

Born in 1938, Alice Taylor grew up on a farm along the Cork-Kerry border with a bee keeping brother and a nature loving father who advised his children on the need to care for the environment cautioning ‘wrong nature and we will pay a terrible price.’ She witnessed the resourcefulness of her mother and other country women which she later celebrated in her books ‘The Women’ ‘Do You Remember’ and ‘The Nana.’ All the family food was produced inside the farm gate and though they had never heard the term they were organic farmers. In later years when her children came back on holiday to that farm much had changed with the coming of electricity and more modern farming methods. Alice realised then that this new generation had no perception of the way of life that her generation had experienced so she documented it in ‘To School through the Fields’ which became an immediate best seller and was translated into many languages. Later she wrote about the books used in those schools in ‘Books from the Attic.’ When in 1961 she married and came to live in Innishannon, a little village on the upper reaches of Kinsale harbour she fell in love with this old historic place and became involved in parish activities. Over the years she saw the village change from a quiet rural oasis into a non stop traffic artery into West Cork. This too she documented in her books ‘The Village’ and ‘The Parish’. In 1984 she set up and edited ‘Innishannon Candlelight’ now in it’s fortieth year, encouraging locals to record their family and parish history. Over the years Alice Taylor has written many non fiction books documenting the changing face of rural Ireland and also a trilogy of novels with a rural theme including ‘The Woman of the House’ and a collection of poetry ‘The Journey.’

On behalf of the Museum of Childhood Ireland and Robert Burns, we would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all of our wonderful participants for their time and their stories. We are thrilled to be presenting this project and we hope you will enjoy following along with us in the coming weeks.

Have a story on this topic and want to get involved? Contact us on our social media sites, or email us at cbrowne@museumofchildhood.ie – we would love to hear from you!

By Chloe Browne

Chloe Browne is an Irish writer, curator and Art Historian, with a keen interest in objects and social history.