Brien Friel · Partick Kavanagh · poetry · short stories · Stony Grey Soil


The mind is a fantastic thing. It stores up information, day by day, and then seems to throw random chunks to the forefront every so often, leaving you wondering what just happened, why you suddenly remember an event or develop a longing for a person, place or food. Often it is a smell or a sound that triggers the mind.
Yesterday, on the walk home from music lessons with the boys, we walked as usual on the path through the green. A digger or tractor must have been working there the previous day because part of the green was churned up and tracks were visible. Immediately the boys ran to it, muck being a boy magnet. The severe frost the night before last meant that the muck had frozen. The tracks had more or less ploughed up the damp ground, so when it froze it resembled potato drills. 
The sight of my two sons stumbling on the hard ground and trying to balance on the drills instantly brought snipets of poetry and prose to mind that I assumed I had long forgotten, namely Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Stony Grey Soil’ and Brian Friel’s short story ‘The Potato Gatherers’.

Kavanagh’s opening stanza suddenly popped into my head, a good twenty years after having learned it by heart in school:
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod-conceived.
It continues You clogged the feet of my boyhood…‘ When I came to this line, the meaning of the poem came rushing back to me; how little joy Kavanagh’s childhood in Monaghan allowed him. 

Friel’s short story tells the tale of two young brothers who skip school one day in November to pick potatoes, back-breaking work in the bitter cold for money that woould be handed straight over to their mother.
When I finished school, I never imagined that I would be glad for having learned these pieces. But they opened my eyes to how good my children have it. To them, a field of rutted, frozen muck is a souce of excitement. Wrapped up in fleeces, anoraks, gloves and warm winter boots, clodhopping along the hard ground, they marvel at the little frozen puddles and compete against each other to see who can balance the longest on the drills. 
I told them about the poem that I had remembered and sais we’d look it up when got home. To my surprise, they seemed genuinely interested in hearing it. “Is there a video of that poem on the compuer, Mammy?” Number 2 wanted to know. We are definitely a long way from Kavanagh and Friel’s depictions of childhood. 

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