By John Fitzgerald
Jim Ryan of Coolagh, outside Callan- better known as the Poet Ryan- composed a lengthy poem in honour of the first tractor to see service in Coolagh, near Callan.
The arrival in wartime of the famous tractor shook the district, some would say quite literally, to its foundations.
Jim was something of a Strolling Player. Wherever he worked or visited, he entertained people of all ages through his vocal and poetic gifts.
Born in 1912 in Thomastown, Jim was the son of a coachman. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Callan, where they lived for a while in Mill Street. Jim had little basic education and from an early age worked for farmers in areas around Callan such as Kilminick, Ballytobin, and Coolagh.
Though he toiled as a labourer, Jim’s mind soaked up the traditions and cultural idiosyncrasies peculiar to each district he frequented. He had an uncanny knack for listening to people and then re-cycling the yarns and stories he heard to others, with hilarious effects.
It was at the threshings and other high-spirited community gatherings that Jim found his gift for telling stories in song and verse.
Without ever transcribing anything on paper, Jim devised lengthy poems and ballads that he either recited or sang, or maybe both, at firesides or in the fields at hay saving or threshing time. His fame spread and he became known as “The Poet Ryan.”
Jim, unfortunately, took his compositions entirely for granted, reciting or singing them for the merriment and edification of others but never making a penny from his creative work. All of his poems would have been lost to us but for the integrity and foresight of one of his Callan buddies, Johnny Maher, who carefully wrote down some of them.
Jim met his future wife in Ballytobin and they had ten children. In the early 1950s, he and his wife settled in Bauntha. The grounds of their home became renowned far and wide as a gardener’s dream-come-true, with passers-by stopping in their tracks to admire Jim’s impeccably tended hedges and lavish flower displays.
Jim retired as a farm labourer in 1973, when he and his wife travelled to live with her family in Bournemouth. He never really settled into what struck him as an alien and unfamiliar environment…understandably after a lifetime spent in a close-knit rural community. He longed for the old country and his health declined. He died in 1975, after just two years in England.
Apart from his poetry, Jim was a deeply humorous and pleasantly mischievous character, and one of his more audacious pranks is recounted my chapter on religion in the Callan district.
Luckily, one of his poems that survived thanks to Johnny Maher is Dwyer’s Tractor, and no serious or comic look-back at Emergency days in this locality would, I think, be complete without the inclusion of this poetic “cracker.”
Jim captured vividly the impact of the first tractor ever to roll into Coolagh, a tranquil patch of rural County Kilkenny to whose inhabitants this labour saving godsend to the farmers was a phenomenon; a miracle of technology that heralded a the advent of a new era in agriculture.
Tim Dwyer was the local man who purchased the sturdy iron-wheeled Fordson. He converted a disused lorry into a large and somewhat cumbersome trailer and he was also the proud owner of a plough.
The arrival of his tractor in Coolagh sparked enormous curiosity, a little initial confusion, and even some fear.
Nothing like it had ever been seen before in the locality. Nor had the locals heard anything like the sound- or the racket- it made. The poem aptly hints at the problems occasioned by fuel rationing and the typically offbeat or innovative measures taken to overcome them.
The final two verses especially were sung aloud in all the Callan pubs:
They got the tractor working
And they filled it up with oil.
Says Brett “Now you can go and root
For Leahy’s down in Kyle”.
Next morning bright and early,
Between four and five ’o clock,
All the neighbours in Coolagh,
Were awakened by a shock.
The men they were all frightened
And the women were in dread.
They swore t’was one of Hitler’s planes
That was flying overhead.
Dawson he took out his watch,
And said “it’s just gone five,
They’re bombing Coolaghmore tonight
As sure am I’m alive.”
(Extract from my book Are We Invaded Yet?)