It’s the milkman!

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2010), Volume 18

Grace Sweeney at her home in Annagry, Co. Donegal, about to celebrate her 100th birthday.

Grace Sweeney at her home in Annagry, Co. Donegal, about to celebrate her 100th birthday.

Grace Sweeney is getting ready to celebrate her 100th birthday on 15 December in her bungalow at Annagry in the Rosses in west Donegal. Born in 1909, she had a varied life. She went into service or, as they called it in Donegal, went ‘on hire’, working for neighbours until she was sixteen. Then she worked in hotels until she departed for America in 1929, where she remained for ten years until 1939. On her return she took over the working of the small farm of very poor land from her aging parents. She got married in 1940 and reared four children at home, while her husband emigrated to work on the buildings of England.
When the war ended in 1945, English cities had to be rebuilt and Irish labour was required for work that lasted all year round. The tradition of seasonal migration from west Donegal to Scottish farms now gave way to year-long departures for the men, who only returned for short holidays with their wives and families at Christmas and in the summer. Consequently, the work at home was thrown onto the women, who were expected to maintain the household, rear the children and work the crops. And in this scheme of things nothing was as important as a good milking cow for family sustenance.
The cow required oats, hay, potatoes and turnips for winter feed. These had to be grown on the patches of converted bogland. Such ground was unsuitable for ploughs and all the work had to be done with the spade. But with the majority of the men over in England, many women had to do the heavy work and toil long hours in the fields.

 

 

Mid-nineteenth-century engraving of women working with the spade in County Roscommon—things were not much different in mid-twentieth-century west Donegal . . . until Anthony John O’Donnell came along with his milk lorry in 1961. (Illustrated London News)

Mid-nineteenth-century engraving of women working with the spade in County Roscommon—things were not much different in mid-twentieth-century west Donegal . . . until Anthony John O’Donnell came along with his milk lorry in 1961. (Illustrated London News)

During the ’40s and ’50s it was not at all unusual to see women carrying heavy creels of cow manure on their backs to the fields, or pulling harrows with ropes across their shoulders. If a man could be got for a day’s work, a woman had to repay him by doing two or maybe three days of pulling the harrow or carrying the manure or a variety of other heavy tasks. The saving of the crops were the worst days of harvest for the women, who spent long days gathering oats, tying sheaves, building stacks and pitting potatoes and turnips. Six months of heavy labour in order that the cow would produce milk. No time for fashion, style or hair-dos.
And then one day in 1961 Anthony John O’Donnell travelled around the parish with his pick-up truck filled with crates of milk. He had a team of boys with him who ran up the lanes to the houses to tell the occupants that he was selling bottles of milk and that he would come around every second day. The traditionalists were shocked. The milk could not be trusted. Nothing was as good as the milk from your own cow. It might be watered. The deliveries wouldn’t last. It would ruin the place. Sure people couldn’t get rid of the cows. And there were a hundred other reasons to reject the offer. It was the talk in every house at the nightly gatherings.

 

Grace Sweeney placed her order and collected her three bottles of milk every second day at the end of the laneway. The milk was good, better even than the milk from her own cow. And it was delivered every second day, like the man said. Spring was coming, when the delving, the harrowing, the planting and the carrying of manure would all start again. What if she got rid of the cow? The work in the field would be limited to a garden of potatoes for the household. Night after night she lay in bed pondering. She dared not let her thoughts escape to a neighbour. Her aged mother, who had laboured in the traditional manner throughout her life, would have been horrified. For weeks her dilemma tormented her.
The Dungloe fair was coming soon, on 4 March, so she had to make a decision. At five o’clock on the morning of the fair she was on her way to Dungloe with the cow. The price she got was not very good but the cow departed anyway. Her mother only found out on her return.
There was shock. A tradition spanning the centuries had been broken. She was the talk of the place for weeks. Then her neighbour, Biddy Duffy, sold her cow and depended wholly on Anthony John’s milk. With time the talk stopped, and slowly, one by one, the women started selling the cows. Then some of the older men did likewise. Soon it became fashionable.
When discussing various aspects of her life with her family recently, Grace told us that it was not the coming of electricity to west Donegal that effected the greatest change in the lives of the people, but the coming of Anthony O’Donnell’s milk lorry that dropped off the bottles of milk at the end of the laneways. ‘You would know the women in the chapel on Sunday that had got rid of the cows’, she said. ‘Their faces were not as haggard or as weather-beaten from being out in the fields. They didn’t have as many wrinkles. That was when married women and older women took interest in their appearance. The milk changed our lives.’  HI

Frank Sweeney holds a Ph.D in history from NUI Maynooth and has a special interest in the history of west Donegal.

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