Long Buried Treasure


Author: Joe McKenna '88M.A.

Editors’ note: Fathers. We all have them. Sometimes they’re blood, sometimes not. They are the men who raise us, lift us up, let us down — now and then — and love us too often in ways we never know. This weekend you will find here some of the best writing Notre Dame Magazine published in decades past about the men who’ve helped make us who we are. Let the celebration begin.

The mounds of sods along Rockne drive reminded me of piles of potatoes in the garden at home and in a moment’s foolishness I looked around, almost expecting to see my Da standing at his spade, stealing a well-earned rest. If he were here, I knew, he’d be proud of me now. For the day’s work was over and the biggest machine in the South Bend city fleet, the articulated John Deer 240, had arrived to collect my bounty of rocks, sods and bushes and load them onto waiting trucks. The teeth on the gaping scoop shaved off the little mounds I had piled along the curb on Rockne Drive. In a few moments the whole thing had been scooped up and loaded into waiting trucks.

It seemed effortless for both machine and operator.

Things had not been so effortless for the 20 of us who had gathered on the city’s east side for the “Christmas in April” project. From the untypical 7:30 a.m. Saturday start, 1,500 Notre Dame students had volunteered their muscle power to do a spring cleaning in the Northeast Neighborhood. Our team had blistered through 50 bags of litter and trimmed back bushes and sod to reveal a 100-yard sidewalk buried under 10 years of neglect. These mounds represented a day’s toil for the group now reduced to the role of spectator, leaning on our spades and shovels.

As the noise of the trucks moved up the street toward another site, we agreed the day’s work had been worth more than a week in the classroom.

For me, the rediscovery of the spade was a high point.

I was just three weeks short of returning home to my parents’ farm in Derry, Ireland, having spent four years in the United States, three of them at Notre Dame. The day I spent digging sod in a city that I didn’t care about carried me back to the things that were permanent in my upbringing, and to the reasons why I needed to go home.

The blisters on the knobs of my fingers throbbed against the smooth shaft of the spade, and I thought of my father’s thick welted skin that knew no such pain. I could picture him at work, his sleeves rolled up beyond the big muscles above his elbows, his peaked cap pushed to the back of the head holding the gray hair in place, the weather-beaten skin and tight, brawny good looks that never seemed to sweat, and the jeans patched with holes and stains tied down over the hobnail boots buried in the brown earth. Over on the cheery tree in the hedge hung his dark sports jacket, the remainder of the spade-man’s uniform.

The spade Da used was shorter in shaft than the tool in my hands. It had a T-bar handle the width of a fist at the end, and the blade was small with a horizontal edge shiny and sharp. The instrument I now held was a poor substitute, but it was enough to remind me of the man who had inherited 50 acres of hill country in County Derry and got to know it well at the end of his spade. This day in South Bend served as a refresher course in the value of a hard day’s work and the goodness that comes with every turn of a sod.

A man’s worth was measured by the way he handled the spade.

Now was the first time that I realized that my Da spoke to me through the spade and in the process turned over little mysteries that soiled my hands with memories I could not easily shake off.

As we walked home toward the University after our spring good turn to some of South Bend’s less privileged residents, the students chatted loudly about the work they had done and its value for University-community relations. We resented the ease with which the backhoe belittled our day’s work and we talked hard, as if to convince ourselves that we had indeed done a lot.

I needed less convincing about my father’s efforts with 50 cows, 20 sheep, a scattering of pigs and hens, and my Ma and nine youngsters squatting on our little belt of green along the face of the hill near Maghera. It was the spade in my father’s hands that showed that soil well tilled, weeds rooted out and hedges trimmed back meant more food for all of us. Affection was dealt out in grand doses in the annual rituals of the potato-digging and the turf-cutting that brought our family together. These were the staple supplies for six boys and three girls who valued a hard-working man who showed his love in a way expected of a breadwinner.

A man’s place was with his spade. Wife, family, church, and God were a lot more important, but it all came together in well-handled sod and root on drizzly Saturday evenings at the bottom of the garden.

I remember how the lessons began when the books were put away after I had walked home from my three-teacher primary school. I’d be commandeered to join my father “in the garden.” The term was used affectionately for an area of land where you’d expect to find a man at work. And in the brisk fall evenings I’d father my share of the family’s potato crop and toss them into the tin bucket by my side. By the time I’d arrive, Da would have an afternoon’s work spread out and the shiny skins drying in the early evening breeze. Sometimes we’d work together so that I could catch up to the spade. He’d catch four or five spuds in each hand and still be able to rub the clay off. I’d launch one from each hand from three yards and they’d bonk against the side of the tin bucket. Now and again, when my back got sore, I’d crawl on my knees and rise to a scowl that said, men don’t do that.

We worked quietly. We’d stand to break the silence and I’d tell of Master Stone and how he smoked in class. Da looked down the valley from our little farm on the edge of the hill, Catholic settlements all around hewn into the little arable lots in the heavy clay soil of the Sperrin mountains. Down the valley were the Protestant holdings that had been there for 300 years and stretched for 30 miles to the south and west. At the 10-mile range around Moneymore, my Da could pick out the owner of a field as it changed its color in the harvest reaping, and he talked of the “quer land” that it was. I had no idea if the land was rightfully ours, but it seemed that we’d just been evicted yesterday.

On our side of the hill, known as the “Brae Face,” we referred in whispers to our Protestant neighbors as those who “dig with the other foot.” I was never quite sure of the connection between religion and the spade but it was there, just like the rule book for the Benedictine monks.

And then we turned back toward the work at hand and I’d face the man with the spade and try to stay up with him as he tossed out each tuber. The spuds clustered in groups of about 12 intervals of one foot. A good man with a spade could slice his instrument deep into the soil and spill out each top in one swoop. The back swing would knock off excess soil from the newly unearthed and toss out the rotten ones.

I’d scramble to gather the good ones into my tin bucket.

The ultimate sin was to slice a big potato. My Da worked with a surgeon’s precision in a silence that valued a job well done and questioned whether chatter was compatible with work. Man and tool worked in close harmony, and I was the surgeon’s aide doing my best and keeping fingers out of the way. The monotony would be broken by the arrival of a head of whites instead of the traditional blues, and I’d giggle at the genetic disasters if 30 or 40 little ones were tossed out and not a decent one among them. But I’d still have to gather them all, thinking I was great with four or five in each hand. Now and then, I’d clean one off and pocket it for later.

Eventually Da would give up and we’d cover the pyramid of potatoes in the middle of the garden. The long green rushes would be laid on first, and then Da would toss on clay from a little moat dug around the pyramid—that way the water would run off the pit and into the moat and the potatoes would be kept dry, so he said.

Sunday was the traditional day of rest and didn’t allow for the spade in an Irish work culture that is defined by physical labor. A man with a spade on Sunday caught the eye of the passersby on the way to church and chapel. It was OK to take the cattle in from the fields and pour Guinness bottles of medicine down throats for worms, but the spade stayed in its place. Other times we’d pile into the Ford and drive the 30 miles to Portstewart to play on the sand-hills and come back in time for the milking.

Sometimes after a family wedding or funeral, Da would go to the garden with the spade to turn over weeds or clear a drain to let the water away. The spade was the medicinal for dressed-up formality that seemed like a waste of time to Da. We would watch him out the kitchen window heading off to his retreat with the jacket and cap and spade over the shoulder; then for a couple of hours he’d be missing in action and we’d intrude now and again to borrow the car at the peril of being asked to do something more useful. And there in the twilight of the evening among the swarm of hedgerow midges he’d take off the cap and flatten down the hair. Then he’d spit on his hands to fasten the connection with the smooth shaft of the spade. Sometimes the neighbors would stop for a chat and do their business in the garden and plan a trip to another spade-man’s funeral the next day.

And on a wet evening the visitor would be brought in for supper with the 10’clock news from Radio Eireann in the background. One of the girls would serve hot tea and a plate of oven bread with butter and jam. More than oft the tea was sent back to draw. At 11 o’clock we’d kneel to say the rosary, leaning low over couches and chairs with our backs to the fire. Da led the little ceremony and I turned over The Irish News in front of me to read about the world that I thought held more for me than anything I had here. I’d listen to the instructions about saying the Hail Mary properly and throw things at whoever was on the spot when Da wasn’t looking. And the man in the jeans and shirtsleeves kept the proceedings going with the staple diet of work and prayer that constituted a seven-day week.

Then the hobnail boots would be left out at the back door and the socks hung over the firebox handle and the cap tossed up on the plate rack above the stove. Then they hung the rosary beads over the Sacred Heart picture and bid us goodnight, and we’d sit and talk in whispers and listen to Elton John.

Come Easter Monday, the boys and perhaps one of the girls would stand on the back of the tractor and we’d drive the three miles up the face of the hill to the heather-covered boglands for the annual turf-cutting. Each farm came with a turf bank on the common ground at about 1,000 feet, and it was the focal point of the annual pilgrimage to win the turf which began on Easter Monday when the children were off school. This was a primeval dig to expose half-decayed vegetation from its air-tight bed of water and lay it out in sods to dry in the westerly winds. The process involved the top of the line in spades, so out of its cover came the “turf spade” to take its sacred place in the spring rite. It had a narrower blade than the typical spade and was two sides at right angles, so that it cut back and side at once.

After the top layer of heather was removed the man on the spade moved side to side and cut out French fries of peat in lines along the face of the bank. One-million-year-old decaying Irish forests were uncovered for the first time in this ceremony, the sticky black fingers laid out to dry. They would be brought home in late summer as the winter fuel that gave off the homey smell.

My position was always at the foot of the turf spade as I waited for Da to slice out three or four slithers of moss. Then I’d pick them up and load them onto barrows for my brothers and sisters to wheel out to open ground and dump into heaps. With my sleeves rolled up I’d bend over the operation and keep my fingers out of harm’s way until the agreed number of slices were [sic] made.

I always took the job of lifter because I told myself that I was the quietest and most concentrated. The rest of the gang would play games, naming cars and pop groups till no more could be remembered. Dan and I kept quiet, and the slice of the spade marked time in the silence and provided the background noise on a closeness that wasn’t articulated. This indeed was the school of life, and it would take me 20 years to begin to value it all.

Back on the Notre Dame campus, the students gathered at the student center for the speechmaking by the important people who had driven around in sedans all day. I couldn’t help but think that they had missed a valuable lesson, the kind of lessons learnt along hedges when Da and me struggled with a big dock-leaf, the worst type of perennial weed whose root went straight into the ground, and only an old hand could ensure that it all came out without the little point of the root being left for another day’s growth.

Sometimes in the long summer evenings after the milking we’d cross tone of the hills away from the house. There we’d spend till bedtime digging around the young briars that would spring out from hedges to tear at a cow’s udder pressed full of milk. On a good night we lit little bonfires and tossed on the briars.

We’d look down over the lights of the farmers who dug with the other foot in an act of defiance that something good was happening on the side of the hill, if only they knew it. I’d stand and warm my hands and look up at the stars and walk home to my Ma with the spot in my eyes and the satisfaction of a man at work.

And later, when the brother came home from college and 200-horsepower Fiats leveled hedges and filled drains, my Da would still grab that spade and unearth the stone or root that had been missed by the bigger machines. And no matter how well the foundations for the new shed were dug out by the big arm of the digger, there were still the corners to be squared off when the contractor was paid and dismissed at the back door.

For Da’s machine was much more precise.

And I remembered the arguments about the value of the little garden of potatoes that wasted everybody’s time and cost more than if they were bought at the market. Soon the fields were all the same and the little gardens leveled and dock weeds sprayed down with weed killer.

And now the men in fancy suits finished the speechmaking and I returned to my dorm room in Sorin Hall. And I thought of the need to pack my bag and go home to the man with the spade who knew about an art that wasn’t covered at Notre Dame.

After earning his master’s degree at Notre Dame, Joe McKenna directed a community foundation in Berkshire, England. He now resides in Ireland.

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