Coolakay’s wealth of farming treasures
DAVID MEDCALF VISITED THE ENNISKERRY FARM OF ROBERT ROE, WHERE THE AGRICULTURE OF YESTERYEAR IS RECALLED THROUGH A FASCINATING COLLECTION OF COUNTRYSIDE ARTEFACTS WHICH INCLUDES EVERYTHING FROM TRACTORS TO TEAPOTS
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.