There are still a few older Clonmel citizens who can recall the farming enterprises which were carried on within the modern town and into modern times. These farmyards and buildings were survivors from the late 18th early 19th century, when the expanding town broke through its medieval fortifications to accommodate development. It was a time of growing prosperity and population.
There had always been farming activity contiguous to the old town, some of which is still marked by place names, such as Burghery Lands, where the burghers, the important citizens, kept cattle and grew crops. But by Cromwellian times, the town had already established small suburbs outside its borough boundary, in Irishtown and on the northern periphery.
Some of the in-town farmyards still survived until the middle of the last century, and the recent death of that much respected older citizen of the town, Charlie Acheson, evokes memories of the Queen Street farmyard, which supplied milk to the large local community. This was situated on the eastern boundary of the Fever Hospital (now the site of the offices of this newspaper), and encompassed the access road to Oliver Plunket Terrace.
This Queen Street site had long associations with the dairy industry before it was taken over by Charlie’s father, Tom Acheson. It was already known locally as “the creamery” since it was the first location in the town of the Condensed Milk Company of Ireland, established by the Cleeve’s of Limerick. This industry, which gave considerable employment to both men and women, was the first to organise the collection of milk from farms, a function which was facilitated by the development of the railways and the so-called “milk trains.”
The Condensed Milk Company moved to Suir Island at the turn of the 19th/20th century, and it enjoyed a very large export trade, especially during World War I.
It was subsequently to become the centre of an industrial dispute and the foundation of a social experiment - the Clonmel Soviet - which ultimately deteriorated into anarchy. This coincided with the foundation of the State and the outbreak of Civil War. It was an experiment for which, in the circumstances of the time, the majority of citizens had little stomach and it marked the end of the Cleeve industrial interest in the town, though they still maintained cold storage facilities in the Manor Mills.
But by then, the Achesons were well-established in their dairying business in Queen Street. The farms were located on the north of the town - on Cashel and Fethard roads, and every day - morning and evening - the large milch herd was brought into Queen Street where milking took place and where people would go to collect their daily supplies in cans and jugs and receptacles called “gallons.” These were containers for “hard” or boiled sweets, and which were “recycled.”
It is difficult to visualise herds of cows on the busy Cashel and Prior Park Roads, and on the traffic highway that is now Queen Street. But every vehicle, cars and bicycles and pedestrians, gave way to the cows, which were accompanied by a man standing upright in a horse and cart, and a dog, sometimes two dogs. The cows were very familiar with the route. One dog always turned on a display of dicing with death, as it ran, barking, between the horse’s legs, narrowly missing a collision. But it seemed that horse and dog had some sort of a consensus and all eventually arrived safely in the farmyard.
And wind or rain, summer or winter, the cows always arrived at the same time morning and evening. “You could set your clock by Achesons’ cows,” people would say.
Collecting the milk (“going for milk” in popular parlance) was a task for women and children. Because there were few domestic refrigerators, it was a twice-a-day activity for many large families. In a way, it was more than a task, it was a ritual. Children would meet each other, talk, play, and “slinge home,” as my mother would describe the slow preoccupied walking of us children. There were one or two show-offs, who would travel on roller-skates to collect the milk, and who would manage to take it home intact, even when doing some spectacular turns on the way.
For women, it was a meeting place. News and views were exchanged: the “state of the country” (then even more dire than it is now), births, deaths, marriages, sicknesses, unemployment, the latest emigrant, the cost of living. Milk-collecting at Achesons was a focus for community-gelling. It would have been impossible to do this ordinary domestic activity and stay lonely or isolated.
The major part of the Acheson farming enterprise was, of course, in beef, cattle-rearing and export, but every autumn, there was a special country-comes-to-town, event, which filled Queen Street with the noise, dust and smells of the countryside, when the threshing machines moved into the farmyard. There was a major event which filled the sunny days of late September, and it always coincided with the return to school, following the summer holidays, with no prospect of the modern mid-term break.
Milk for the urban dweller now has little connection with cows. It is contained in packets stacked on shelves. Industrialised, processed and homogenised it no longer has that thick rim of lip-sticking pale yellow cream.
Times change and so do towns. The four or five farmyards in Clonmel have now all been “developed.” The Queen Street site was the last. It has become the now vacated Chadwicks. And Charlie Acheson, the last direct contact with a once thriving “urban” farm, the daily meeting place and the focus of a community, has died.
May he rest in peace.
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