THE farm where I spent the lion’s share of the summer of 1966 nestles at the top of a densely overgrown lane on the outskirts of the tiny hamlet of Bohola.
Steeped in ancient Gaelic history, Bohola, located in the far west of County Mayo, Eire, with a population of a little over 200 mostly agrarian workers, survived plague, famine and long centuries of indifference to its fate.
It has changed little since my mother was born on that same farm in 1918, just as the First World War was coming to a close. I don’t know exactly which day or month she was born, for accurate local parish records did not exist back then.
When I travelled with my mother via an early Aer Lingus flight to Bohola as a child, the farm was running a modest dairy operation, overseen by Uncle Bernie, one of her eight brothers. Like my mother, they are now all long gone, but with the recent passing of a family member on the Irish side of my family, I was reminded of an event which took place on the farm all those decades ago.
You could say it was my first insight into the machinations of capitalism – or perhaps more accurately, how the long reach of capitalism serves even the tiniest of outposts.
As a commercial centre, Bohola has little going for it. A solitary public house serving cold Guinness to farm workers at the end of a long day in the fields. And a village shop, administering to the basic needs of the community. There is a Catholic church of course, and many a stern sermon has been addressed to the tiny Bohola populace from its pulpit over the centuries.
In order to secure anything more than the everyday bits and pieces, you’ll need to travel the seven miles or so to the small town of Kiltimagh, a beautiful spot, terribly ravaged by the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.
Which is what I ambitiously decided to do back in that long, drowsy summer in 1966.
England had just won the World Cup – not that the news travelled particularly quickly to the farm on which I found myself that year, for there was no means of receiving news from the outside world.
I was baffled by the fact that there was no radio, and further mystified by the worrying absence of a television. Nothing. There was not even a toilet. I remember when I first enquired as to the whereabouts of the loo in the rambling old farmhouse. To be met with lots of chuckling and rolling eyes and thumb pointing outside gestures.
So outside in the fields was where you had to go to relieve yourself. Maybe find a spot in one of the outhouses if the weather was inclement.
You get used to it, cackled my Aunty Bea, toothlessly beaming through a fog of Sweet Afton cigarette smoke.
I doubted I would ever get used to crouching down in a field under the mournful, watching eye of the dairy herd, but as the days passed and the summer ebbed and flowed, sure enough I began to adjust to the rural ways of this mythical part of Ireland, where leprechauns were said to congress with fairies, and heroic knights once fought against invaders from many foreign lands.
And where many children and their parents starved to death in their thousands in the pitiless famine that decimated the local population between 1845 and 1852.
On the day I set out to Kiltimagh, on a bicycle so ancient and rusted I had little faith it could support the 14 mile round trip, the children in the farmhouse were in a state of heightened excitement.
Cousin Bernard is coming down from Dublin and he’s bringing a picture box with him. A picture box! Who would have thought such a thing, they sang and chattered all around the farm.
I had no idea what a picture box was – what on earth could they be referring to, I wondered. But, as the miles crawled past on my epic trip to the town of Kiltimagh, I thought less of the mysterious picture box and more of the Victor comic I hoped to pick up that morning – assuming I made it there and back, of course.
As luck would have it, the comic was in stock, and the old bone shaker held up for the long cycle ride back to the farm.
When I finally arrived, exhausted, back at the ranch, the yard – normally alive with the sound of many young children yelling and shouting – was oddly quiet.
Where, I wondered, was everyone? Not even a chicken pecking at my feet. How strange.
On entering the farmhouse, it all became clear. Sitting proudly on the kitchen table, a somewhat fuzzy black and white picture weakly penetrating the gloomy stone floor and walls, was a television, a huge aerial protuding ostentatiously from its rear.
A television, transported all the way from a tiny warehouse in Dublin, to a farmhouse in the back of beyond which did not even have an outdoor toilet, let alone an indoor one.
Sat spellbound in front of the box were assembled children, quiet for once, looking as if they had been visited by a magician. Which in a way they had, in the form of my cousin Bernard, who had come down on a surprise visit with his miracle gift.
Bernard, who was eventually to become one of the UK’s most successful businessmen, building up and selling the construction company he inherited from his father – my uncle – had lavished what was then an unearthly amount of money in Ireland, a country where television sets were in the mid-60s as rare as hen’s teeth.
And this is where capitalism will always win, reaching out, feeling and probing for demand for its goods and services in the most unlikely of places.
You can call the story of my cousin Bernard and the television a parable of sorts. We had both made journeys that day. Me to the paper shop in Kiltimagh, and Bernard from Dublin to the miniscule hamlet of Bohola.
But I will remember cousin Bernard’s visit for another reason.
Unbeknown to me, when I was glued to that television set along with all the other kids, Bernard had felt the irresistible call of nature, and had crept out to one of the barns to relieve himself.
Like televisions, toilet paper was scarce in that part of Ireland in 1966: well, there were hardly any toilets, were there?
I later found my unread Victor comic in the barn. Well someone has found a use for it, I thought grimly as it was buzzed by flies. But no-one would admit to purloining it, leaving me with one of my earliest lessons, that investments, no matter how small and desirable, are never guaranteed to bring any dividends whatsoever.
I recall my howls of anguish at finding the comic in that barn. A comic I had sweated for – exchanged my labour for, in a way – on a windy day long ago in the far west of Ireland.
Bernard was well on his way back to Dublin by the time I had made him for the culprit. Probably never gave it another thought.
And just as it was an early lesson for me, it was also an example of one of the primary edicts of success in business. Seize the opportunity when it arises. Because you may not get another chance.