Coolakay’s wealth of farm­ing trea­sures


Wicklow People (West Edition) - - INTERVIEW -

THE brochure pro­mot­ing the Coolakay Agri­cul­tural Her­itage Cen­tre in­cludes a pic­ture of pro­pri­etor/ cu­ra­tor/man­ager/owner Robert Roe hold­ing a sil­ver-coloured lamp. The photo is com­posed rather in the man­ner of some fa­mous golfer dis­play­ing the tro­phy as win­ner of a pres­ti­gious tour­na­ment.

The lamp in this Rory McIl­roy meets Ali Baba mo­ment turns out, how­ever, to be as­so­ci­ated with none of the wealth of pro­fes­sional sport. Nor does it come with any of the ex­otic al­lure of the Forty Thieves, for this is a per­fectly or­di­nary paraf­fin lamp.

It is the sort of lamp which used to be fa­mil­iar hard­ware in house­holds the length and breadth of ru­ral Ire­land. It is the sort of lamp which was ren­dered largely re­dun­dant by the ar­rival of the ESB line up coun­try lanes in the fifties. It is the sort of arte­fact which Robert feels should not be for­got­ten as the gen­er­a­tion reared on home-made but­ter on horse-pow­ered farms slowly fades away.

Coolakay is a town­land in the hilly ter­ri­tory above En­niskerry, not so far from the Pow­er­scourt wa­ter­fall. Robert reck­ons that his fam­ily has been here since the mid-19th cen­tury, while his mother’s folk hailed from Ash­ford. As a boy, he turned the cream in the wooden-bar­relled churn to help her make the but­ter af­ter she had milked seven cows by hand. He re­mem­bers when the killing of a pig, one in November and one in April, was part of the an­nual routine to pro­vide meat for the fam­ily.

His fa­ther, Wil­liam Roe, was the last of the line to de­pend on horses, over­see­ing the tran­si­tion to mo­torised, com­mer­cialised agricultur­e. The farm­house bears wit­ness to the trans­for­ma­tion which has taken place in Robert Roe’s life­time. The orig­i­nal 200-year-old struc­ture has been re­peat­edly ex­tended to create a large B&B com­plete with con­ser­va­tory, with ad­join­ing sta­bles con­verted to be­come bed­rooms for tourists.

The ac­com­mo­da­tion is over­seen by wife Yvonne who has won a suc­ces­sion of Bord Fáilte awards. Most of those who stay are walk­ers at­tracted to the area by the Wick­low Way not far away, wend­ing its way past from Rath­farn­ham to Shil­le­lagh. The garden is beau­ti­fully main­tained and a walk­way has been cre­ated to al­low guests wan­der through sheep pas­ture up to the sum­mit of Coolakay Hill. There they may ad­mire views of the Pow­er­scourt demesne and the dis­tant coast.

The farm yard in Coolakay re­mains very much a work­ing farm yard, though the big­gest barn in the com­plex is no longer used for ac­com­mo­dat­ing sheep or cat­tle. This is the her­itage cen­tre, re­cently ex­tended to be the size of ap­prox­i­mately three ten­nis courts. To­day it houses such prized ex­hibits as a plough used by world cham­pion (and Bal­li­nagee neigh­bour) Char­lie Kee­gan and some stun­ningly re­stored old trac­tors.

It is also packed with hundreds upon hundreds of smaller ex­hibits, from ball­cocks and bee­hives to saws and scis­sors. Room has been found for sev­eral bi­cy­cles and, for rea­sons un­ex­plained, a trom­bone is propped up against one of the walls. This is a trea­sure trove rep­re­sent­ing the past com­plex­ity and sim­plic­ity of out-of-town Ire­land, with its mix of or­di­nary and in­ge­nu­ity.

The fel­low­ship of the plough is im­por­tant to Robert Roe and he has been a di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Plough­ing As­so­ci­a­tion for the past 15 years. His fa­ther com­peted at plough­ing matches all over County Wick­low and had a role in coach­ing fu­ture champ Kee­gan, the first Ir­ish­man to win a world plough­ing ti­tle, in Aus­tria in 1964. Yet to earn a place on the Ir­ish team for the world cham­pi­onships, Robert con­tin­ues to com­pete, though he has at­tended the great an­nual event.

He took over the run­ning of Coolakay in 1979 and be­gan col­lect­ing items for the her­itage cen­tre shortly af­ter­wards with a view to set­ting up a small mu­seum: ‘In the late 1980s, I had this thing about all this stuff which was go­ing to be melted down,’ he re­calls.

He started work­ing to re­store vin­tage trac­tors in his big work­shop and guests stay­ing the in B&B urged him to open up to the pub­lic. Ever since, our host has de­lighted in in­tro­duc­ing a mod­ern au­di­ence to the var­i­ous con­trap­tions he has as­sem­bled in his barn. He ex­plains the in­nards of a win­now­ing ma­chine which sorted out the plumpest grains of corn to be used as seed for the next year – no EU sanc­tioned cer­ti­fi­ca­tion back then. He points to a rig, pa­tented in 1887, which sowed bar­ley, wheat and oats, with marks still vis­i­ble where the horse reins wore into the tim­ber.

It seems that Pierce’s foundry in Wex­ford was once re­spon­si­ble for a vast cat­a­logue of gadgets and giz­mos to make the most of steed or man­power. Over there is a bo­gey – again noth­ing to do with golf – used for tak­ing in the hay. The col­lec­tion has been ex­pand­ing steadily since the her­itage cen­tre was first opened in 1989. Robert has con­tin­ued the work of ac­qui­si­tion and restora­tion ever since, with some of the ex­hibits dat­ing back to the 1700s.

‘Trac­tors, binders, seed drills, milk churns and so much more,’ pro­claims the brochure, ‘memories of a dis­ap­pear­ing way of life on the farm.’ It all started when Robert saw that the ma­chin­ery of his youth was be­ing con­signed as scrap iron into the maws of the Ham­mond Lane foundry in Dublin.

He harks back to the coun­try kitchen where the skil­let pot was on the fire and granny sat in the corner turn­ing the fan­ner to rouse the flames. Of course, he has a fan­ner and a se­lec­tion of crock-of-gold style pots among his col­lec­tion, in a va­ri­ety of sizes.

Nearby are saws which were used in forestry, the fierce­some blades de­signed for a va­ri­ety of ef­fects. Seek and you shall find a twis­ter for mak­ing ropes from hay, or a clothes iron which was heated in the fire or a pair of tongs used by a black­smith to hold red hot horse­shoes.

One corner is devoted to sleep­ing ar­range­ments, with a press bed on dis­play. A press bed? This bril­liantly de­signed piece of furniture looked like a chest of draw­ers when not in use but was un­furled to re­veal a tidy bed. This par­tic­u­lar ex­am­ple was picked up by its current owner at Bailiebor­ough in Ca­van where it was in use up to 1975. It was then due to be ex­ported to the United States but he stepped in with an of­fer too good to be re­sisted.

The com­plex­ity of the design of the farm im­ple­ments on show is fas­ci­nat­ing – tech­nol­ogy which was ef­fec­tive and prac­ti­cal in its day. Take for ex­am­ple the Ran­some’s potato dig­ger which re­quired two horses, such as used on small­hold­ings in the west of Ire­land up to the dawn of the new mil­len­nium. Or ex­am­ine the wheel rake which Robert’s fa­ther bought from Pierce’s in the 1950 for mak­ing hay in Coolakay.

There is even a thresh­ing mill, for­merly owned by Captain El­li­son of Rath­drum, used for pro­cess­ing the corn from his es­tate as well as from the smaller farms of his neigh­bours.

The stars of the show are un­doubt­edly the trac­tors (about 20 of them) and jeeps parked in the new ex­ten­sion to the barn. Though they are sta­tion­ary, Robert in­sists the en­gines are in order and they are all ready for ac­tion: ‘Any­thing there is on the key – if you put a bat­tery in. I leave them tick­ing over once a month.’

A grey Ferguson was the first re­cruit in the fleet, while a 1947 Massey is the old­est in the col­lec­tion, fol­lowed by a Ford Nan of 1949 vin­tage, a pic­ture in cream and red. Not far away is an or­ange Nuffield, first reg­is­tered in 1960, which was owned by Ed­ward Dunne of Carnew who ploughed at Wick­low events and na­tional cham­pi­onships.

A McCormick In­ter­na­tional of sim­i­lar age was pre­vi­ous de­ployed on the farm of John Tyner from Ash­ford. A bril­liantly ver­sa­tile per­former, it was also used by the Good­body fam­ily in the past for haul­ing boats ashore at the har­bour in Wick­low Town.

A cou­ple of David Browns and a Su­per Dexta fea­ture too but the most eye-catch­ing ac­qui­si­tions by far are a trio of green Deutz trac­tors dat­ing from the early 1960s. Robert car­ried out much of the restora­tion work him­self with fine at­ten­tion to de­tail, with parts im­ported from as far away as Hol­land.

But the re-spray­ing, us­ing paint of pre­cisely the right au­then­tic colour, re­quired a trip to North­ern Ire­land for at­ten­tion from spe­cial­ists. Such ve­hi­cles are a source of par­tic­u­lar won­der to Amer­i­can vis­i­tors who quiz their host end­lessly on their design and op­er­a­tion.

Robert is es­pe­cially proud of the 1977 Land Cruiser which gleam­ingly re­splen­dent un­der its im­pec­ca­ble mus­tard yellow paint­work. Toy­ota’s an­swer to the long es­tab­lished Land Rover, it was in a most sorry state when first ac­quired in 1985: ‘this was a heap of rust.’

It has since been trans­formed, with many of the parts re­quired com­ing from Aus­tralia or New Zealand. As the brochure for the Coolakay Agri­cul­tural Her­itage Cen­tre puts it: ‘come and see Ir­ish ru­ral his­tory come to life at this unique her­itage at­trac­tion.’

Robert Roe in his ex­tended agri­cul­tural mu­seum at Coolakay in En­niskerry. RIGHT: Robert as a young boy with his mother, Mar­garet. BE­LOW: An ar­ti­cle in the Wick­low Peo­ple when the cen­tre opened in 1994.

Robert Roe with a 1960 Robert Brown 990 at the ex­tended agri­cul­tural mu­seum at Coolakay in En­niskerry.

A 1977 Toy­ota Land Cruiser, com­plete with Wick­low regis­tra­tion num­ber.

A 1960 McCormick In­ter­na­tional that be­longed to John Tyner of Ash­ford.

Robert tak­ing part in a ploughin match in Round­wood.

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