|My Father, Robert Sproule, by his Grandson, Robert Harkin|
Many of us carry pictures in our heads, distant memories of our childhood that we want to treasure forever. In his later years, my father tried to capture some of his childhood memories in poems. He had lost his sight at this stage, and he worked with a tape recorder to paint evocative word pictures.
The Farmhouse Kitchen
Robert Sproule, or Bob as my father was known, was born in Derry in 1911. He spent his childhood summer holidays on the Tullymoan farm in County Tyrone, with his Granny Sproule and his uncles. He described the Sproule boys as big, well-built men, and I am sure this is true as my father and grandfather were fine big men themselves. The farm employed labourers, and these came from the locality or from the hiring fairs held in Strabane and Letterkenny.
At the end of each day, all the men came in from the farm for their tea. The maids, Mary Jo and Lizzie Curry, would boil a huge pot of spuds. The men sat at either side of a long wooden kitchen table. Mary Jo and Lizzie went to the head of the table and tipped the pot so that the hot potatoes ran down the middle of the table to land in front of each man. They drank the tea out of deep bowls and finished with homemade bread and butter.
The Clay Pipe Sessions
In the evening, farming neighbours called to the house, and they gathered round the fire. My father described the ritual of the ‘clay pipe sessions’, where one person filled a clay pipe, and that pipe was passed to each man in turn until it came to the last man, who was always his Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam had his smoke, then cleaned the pipe, and returned it to its owner. Another man’s pipe was filled and lit, and passed round as before. Every man smoked every pipe, and each one was cleaned by Uncle Sam. The person who started each round, who filled each man’s pipe and lit it using tongs and a red hot coal from the open fire, was Granny Sproule herself.
The Much Loved Granny Sproule
The main character in my father’s Tullymoan stories was always his Granny Sproule. Granny was Mary McGlinchy, widow of James Sproule of Tullymoan. Granny Sproule had made a huge impression on this young boy, and she filled the memories of the old man.
Granny Sproule, by Robert Sproule
I mind the time when I was nine and me Granny was eighty four
That’s what she said for many a year, and many a year and more
She used to sit at the open grate, with the clay pipe in her hand
And she could smoke both day and night as well as any man
She would take her pipe and fill it up, right up to the brim
With a tobacca she loved called Warhorse Plug* that she kept in a yella tin
From then to now is very long, for seventy years have come and gone
But still I can see her sitting there, smoking happily in her fireside chair
With a wrinkled face, and her gaunted cheek, and her pointed nose, like a turkey’s beak
Her toothless gums, and her eyes so bright, that I believed she could see at night
Her withered hands were another sight, both stained brown from her old clay pipe
Me Granny usually dressed in black, and a wee shawl hung down her back,
Of Galway grey, but now jet black
If I did anything wrong or bad, chased by me uncles or me Dad
I used to run between Granny and the fireside wall, and snuggle up beneath her shawl
She’d raise her stick and shout at them all, and stop them dead as if they’d hit a wall
Then her arm around me, there we waited, until their anger had abated
She ruled the kitchen sitting there, like an ancient queen in her fireside chair
She had two servant maids at hand, both well under her command
She kept them going to and fro, Lizzie Curry and Mary Jo
But I loved Granny best of all, as she leant against the fireside wall
And she turned with a toothless grin, and welcomed me as I came in
*Warhorse Plug tobacco is still going today! It is known as a very strong ‘manly’ tobacco, not for the faint hearted!