The Kerries Are Coming - 28th June 1947


From Tipperary, Cork, Kerry and many other places, where the soil was poor and unfriendly, youths and girls came to hire with the farmers of Munster's Golden Vale. They usually arrived on an early train on the morning of the fair. In fact, it was only those who came by train who were wanted, because, I suppose, the strangers were reputed to be good, diligent workers. They were known by the little bundles they carried, a coat of shirt, maybe, tied up in a paper parcel. Their belongings were few, their pennies scarce. They had no need of a "hand-trunk," as an old man from this part of the world used to describe a valise.


The thoughtless often sang about them:

"The 'Kerries' are coming,

Keep back and clear the track,

The 'Kerries' are coming,

With their bundles on their back."

At the railway station they lined up for inspection. Soon the farmers and their wives began to arrive in their traps. Often they'd have agreed among themselves on the highest price they'd offer those waiting at the railway. A man might see a suitable looking in the line. He'd point her out to his wife, and say: "There's a good-looking now." Having approached her he'd say: "Missy, go over there to the Missus in the car; she wants to talk to you." The conversation would be to the point: "How many cows can you milk?" "Will you be able to get up at half-four in the morning?" "Can you bake?" "What would you be expecting now?"


Some man might be heard telling a bronzed, open-shirted youth: "If you come with me, lad, you'll be comin' to the best house in the parish. The Missus can bake bread that you'll be able to ate without any butter, not like a lot more of them with the dough hangin' off their fingers." Twelve pounds was the price usually paid to a man; a got about eleven. And what hard bargains were driven for those few pounds! On more than one occasion a group of particularly mean hirers would go away on the Sunday, having engaged nobody. Knowing that finances would be slack with the strangers, they'd return again on Monday, and hire them at a lower price than they could have done the day before.


"The 'Kerries' are coming" -– that's what the song said, with a hardly veiled contempt for those whom economic conditions compelled to travel from their own districts seeking work. But there was once a "Kerry" who wrote many better songs than that, songs that have outlived, and will outlive, the years. His name was Eoghan Ruadh O Sulleabhain; but in his native countryside they called him lovingly, Eoghan a' Bheoil Bhinn -– Owen of the Sweet Voice. He was only a spalpeen, who often stood with other Kerry lads in the hiring fair, but once he explained the meaning of a difficult Greek word to his master's son, who had lately returned from a French University. It was this same red-haired spalpeen from the Kerry hills, who, before setting out to find work, had taken his spade to his friend, Seamus Mac Gearailt, to be mended, and addressed him thus:

"A chara mo chleibh 's a Sheamuis

ghreannmhair, ghrahaigh,

D'fhuil Gearaltaigh, Ghreagaigh,

eachtaigh, airm-nirt, aigh – "

which has been rendered into English by Aaodh de Blacam as follows:

"Seamus, the loving and laughing,

of comrades the best,

Son of the Geraldine breed, the

Greeks of the West,

Muster your craft and make me a

haft, not too big,

And fasten it into my spade – for

my trade is to dig.

When the work-day is ended, and

spent is the strength of my arm,

And the steward affirming its little

I'm 'worth to the farm,

Softly I'll sing of , the ender of woe,

And tell how Troy was destroyed,

and its pride laid low."


There was another spalpeen who, too, was a poet. He was the famous Spailpin Fanach. In a well-known song, full of pain and bitterness, he left us a lasting picture of himself at the hiring fair, standing despised at the side of the street, with

"Bodaire na tire ag tigheacht or a gcapaill

Da fhiafruigh an bhfuilim hiralta."

How little times had changed in the century that followed! The hiring fair was still the same. The men still paraded up and down, and the hirers examined them from head to foot, appraising and condemning, commenting on their health and appearance, as if they dealt in cattle and sheep, not fellow Christians. Oh, the degradation of it all!


No "Kerries" are coming now. Never again will the arrive at the station with their bundles on their backs. They'll go to the hiring fair no more. They've betaken themselves elsewhere, over the seas, to labour for aliens, who will show them that little measure of respect that makes life easier. The story of the bean-a-'tighe who could "bake bread they you could ate without butter" will never again attract them. "The 'Kerries' are coming," said the mockers one time. If they came now, strong-armed, bronzed and open-shirted, they'd be welcome on many a farm.

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