My father-in-law, Geoff Cronin was a raconteur with a encyclopedic memory spanning his 93 years. He sadly died in 2017 but not before he had been persuaded to commit these memories of his childhood and young adulthood in Waterford in the 1920s to the 1940s.
The books are now out of print, but I know he would love to know that his stories are still being enjoyed, and so I am repeating the original series of his books that I posted in 2017. I hope those who have already read will enjoy again and that new readers will discover the wonderful colour of life in Ireland nearly 100 years ago.
Work on a Timber Gang – 1942
In September 1942 I had just left school and had decided I was going into the National Forestry Service. I made an application and found that I would not be admitted to the forestry college at Avondale, Co. Wicklow, unless (a) I was a farmer’s son, or (b) I had experience in forestry. I could not meet either of these criteria, and so I decided to join a timber gang and gain the necessary experience.
The war was at its height and at the time timber was at a premium both for firewood and for commercial purposes. Consequently there was a lot of activity on farms and estates, which had saleable timber and so there were many timber gangs active in my area.
There was a big old estate originally owned by Lord Bessborough – one of the Ponsonby family, which had been bought by the Oblate Fathers. The mansion had been converted into a Seminary, and they were selling off the timber to recoup their original outlay.
The Timber gang – Mikey, Jack, Dan and Petey
Carman Petey Welsh and helper at Bessborough Estate Winter 1942.
The estate was in the village of Piltown, Co. Kilkenny, twelve miles from Waterford where I lived, and two and half miles from Carrick on Suir. This village had a Creamery, a hardware shop, a pub, a grocery shop, an undertaker, and a population of about forty or fifty people.
There were two gangs of timber men working the estate, one gang was felling the hardwood, mainly huge oak trees which dotted the parkland, and which were going for firewood to fuel the steam boiler at the Creamery, and the other one was felling the softwood, Spruce and Scotch Fir, which went to a sawmill in Waterford. The man who ran the softwood gang was a friend of my family and he agreed to let me join his team for the experience.
So it was when my mother and I went to Piltown one Saturday seeking a place for me to stay five days a week. We found a vacancy with a Kerry woman, Essie Brosnan by name.
The digs would cost four shillings per day, sharing a room with an assistant from the local shop, and I could get a bus to go home at the week-end. All was agreed and the following Monday morning I reported for work, carrying my own axe, with a certain amount of self-assurance. I had been working on a farm in Woodstown during the summer, and I felt very fit and tough enough for anything the timber scene could throw at me.
The gang consisted four men, Mikey, the foreman, Danny, his right hand man, and two car-men, Peter and Jack, whose job it was to pull out the timber after it was felled, and cut it into lengths of twelve, fourteen and sixteen feet, and cart it a mile and a half to the railhead at Fiddown. They were paid by the ton. I remember particularly the wonderful smell of resin from freshly cut Spruce, mixed with the smell of leaves on the ground and the faint smell of the camp fire where the men were having their lunch break. It was midday when I cycled into the camp on that first day and was welcomed by Mikey the foreman.
Yours truly On the Timber Gang
“Will ye have the tay?” he asked. I declined, having had a snack in the digs when I checked in there earlier.
This was a Specimen Scots Fir Tree – 78 feet to the first fork – Which Mikey Wall (on Right) and I felled at the Grand Gates of the Bessborough Estate in Piltown, Co. Kilkenny in 1942.
“Show me the little hatchet you have,” he said smiling indulgently. I did so and he examined it “That’s not a bad edge ye have,” he said. The others examined it and there seemed to be a general air of amusement. I had no idea why this was, but it got my hackles up slightly.
“Here” said Mikey, now engrossed in filling his pipe, “While I’m having a smoke, maybe you’d take the front out of that tree there,” indicating a black Spruce, about three feet in diameter.
I took off my jacket, spat on my hands and squared up to my task, determined to show these guys a thing or two. My first two strokes took out a piece of wood about two inches wide, and half an inch deep, and the shock to my arms and wrists was unbelievable. A quiet snigger from Danny and the Car men reached my ears as I went in again with no better results.
Mikey let me go on for ten minutes, by which time the Car men had left to get their horses, and then he said “Here boy, take a rest for yourself and let me give you a hand.” I did so, and watched this little man – he was five foot four inches and in his late fifties – as he picked up an axe with a seven pound head, and addressed the job – my “axe” had a three and a half pound head.
Well, as he hacked into that tree, chips four and five inches wide, and two inches deep began to fly and in ten minutes flat, it was ready for the saw.
“Come on now,” he said, “get on the other end of the saw” – it was a five and a half foot cross-cut saw, and I knew how to use it so I knelt down and Mikey passed one end of the saw to me and we began to cut until we were about a third of the way into the tree.
“Now boy, get a hammer and two wedges out of the bag there, and knock the wedges into the cut to keep the weight off the saw.”
I picked up the seven-pound sledge hammer, and did the needful. We continued sawing and when we got two inches or so from the breast cut, I uncoupled my handle and he withdrew the saw from the far side.
Carman Petey Welsh
“Now” he said, “stay close to the butt and watch the top of the tree.” He took the hammer and drove the wedges in until the tree went out of the perpendicular, and down she came with a crunching thump. I sat down on the stump, and Mikey filled his pipe, and when I tried to get up, I found I was stuck! Mikey laughed – the resin had flowed up in the stump, and I had to yank myself free.
“That’ll only season the trousers for ye,” he said.
In that first day, Mikey and I felled four big spruces, and I honestly thought the day would never end. When Mikey said, “We’ll knock off now,” the relief was immense.
“We’ll hide the gear here ’til morning,” he said. “Bring up the bag with the other two wedges.”
Left to right – Jack Roche and Petey Walsh (Carmen), Larry Cantwell and Claus Cantwell , Mikey Wall (Foreman), Danny Sullivan, G. Cronin, Dick Cronin..
I went to oblige but when I caught the neck of the sack, though the wedges in it weighed no more than three pounds, I just couldn’t lift it off the ground. I was completely exhausted, and just about managed to walk the short distance to the spot where we had left our bikes.
Then I discovered that Mikey would cycle seventeen miles to where he lived near Clonmel and he would cycle the same distance back to work the next day! This little man was made of IRON!!
When I got back to the digs, I just ate my dinner and fell into bed and slept around the clock. The process of waking and getting up is something I shall never forget. Every muscle in my whole body was screaming in agony, and it took me quite a while to loosen up. Fortunately, I was left with Danny that day, trimming the trees we had cut the day before, and cutting them into lengths for the car men. This was a different exercise, equally strenuous but at least I was not on my knees punishing every muscle in my back.
Mikey had been off through the woods checking trees marked for felling, and deciding how they might be got to the nearest road or track for transport. After the lunch break he said, “Come on now young man. We’ll go to the shop and get you a proper hatchet” – he never called it an axe – “That thing you have is only fit for making kindlin’.” At the hardware shop I watched while he went through the rack of axes, and finally he handed me one. It was a “Black Prince” with a hickory handle and a five and a half pound head. “This should do ye nicely,” he said, and as we took it to the counter I saw that the assistant was my room-mate at the digs. “That will be thirteen shillings,” he said, and I paid up.
On our return to the camp Mikey showed me how to sharpen the axe with a file. Then he demonstrated how exactly to use it, left handed and right handed, how to cut the boots – big roots – off a tree prior to putting the saw to it, how to under-cut when starting the breast cut etc. In fact, the things expected of an efficient timber man. Then he left me on my own to practice as I trimmed the trees already felled and he departed with Danny to fell some more.
On the days that followed, I got to know the car men, and I marveled at their expertise in getting two and three-ton logs past all kinds of obstructions on the tracks where a cart could be used. I learned how to use levers, skids, stobs, squeezers, wire ropes, chains, combinations of block and tackle, shear legs and Weston Block for lifting logs onto a cart and tricks and dodges too numerous to mention. Nothing was impossible to these guys and no stick – their term for a sixteen foot log – was too big or awkward to be got onto a cart. Their horses too were expert in their own way and they knew the routine for each kind of procedure.
The whole experience amounted to what today would be termed a steep learning curve, and it stood me in good stead for the rest of my life. The work was physically very demanding in dry weather and even more so when movement was hampered with wet clothing, but very rewarding.The lunch time breaks were great fun and very educational in more ways than one, and as time went on and my body became attuned to the work, I could sail through the day, go shooting duck after dinner, and later on, cycle into Carrick-on-Suir to the Forester’s Hall and dance the night away to the strains of a band who knew only three tunes!
I stayed with that gang until the end of January, when I was being paid twenty-six shillings a week, and the friendships I made at that time lasted for many years. In the event, I never joined the Forestry Division, and instead went into my father’s Bakery business, as he needed my help at the time. However, the knowledge and experience gained came in very useful later in my life. But that’s another story.
Lunch break with my brother Dick
On the timber gang when we’d be packing up in the evening, we could see flocks of crows (Rooks) making their way to the roosting place called ‘The Mountain Grove’ ten or twelve miles away. Mikey recalled a night when the weather was so bad that the crows had to walk to the mountain grove.
©Geoff Cronin 2005
About Geoff Cronin
I was born at tea time at number 12 John Street, Waterford on September 23rd 1923. My father was Richard Cronin and my mother was Claire Spencer of John Street Waterford. They were married in St John’s Church in 1919.
Things are moving so fast in this day and age – and people are so absorbed, and necessarily so, with here and now – that things of the past tend to get buried deeper and deeper. Also, people’s memories seem to be shorter now and they cannot remember the little things – day to day pictures which make up the larger canvas of life.
It seems to me that soon there may be little or no detailed knowledge of what life was really like in the 1930s in a town – sorry, I should have said City, in accordance with its ancient charter – like Waterford. So I shall attempt to provide some of these little cameos as much for the fun of telling as for the benefit of posterity.
Thank you for visiting today and I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse of Waterford in the 1930s and 1940s courtesy of Geoff Cronin. As always your feedback is very welcome. thanks Sally.