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03 Oct 2022

Best-selling novelist talks all things farming

Best-selling novelist talks all things farming

Author Louise Nealon

SNOWFLAKE by Louise Nealon is a No.1 bestseller and winner of Newcomer of the Year 2021 at the An Post Irish Book Awards.

It follows the life of Debbie, aged 18, who lives on a dairy farm with her mother and her uncle Billy, who lives in a caravan in the garden. Who knows what happened to Billy's dreams, but now his company is a bottle of whiskey and the stars that hang overhead. This world is Debbie's normal, but she is about to step into life as a student at Trinity College.

In the beautifully-written novel one of its many stand-out features is its grasp on what agricultural life is really like, a rarity. Louise kindly took the time to answer questions on an agri-theme from Farm Leader

Either your research - tubing calves with beestings, thawing out frozen water pipes, calving cows etc - was incredible or did you grow up on a dairy farm?

I grew up on a dairy farm! My dad and my brother run the farm on the North Kildare/Meath border, between Kilcock and Enfield.

From what age did you start helping out on the farm?

I remember milking with an Ag Science student once, and he said that farmers’ daughters are either princesses who wouldn’t know one end of a cow from the other, or else they are absolute mucksavages. I like to think I fit into the middle of that spectrum – maybe leaning towards the ignorant princess end.

Growing up on a farm, I didn’t ask too many questions. I had a knack for avoiding work. But the work was always there. You were roped in to stand in a gap when moving cattle or to cover the silage pit. As a child, I loved singing to the calves in the shed. I was around fifteen or sixteen when I began to milk cows, but I didn’t do a lot of milking. I still help out the odd time, but the lads would need to be really stuck to come looking for me.

Did you naturally gravitate towards helping out or was it a chore?

We naturally gravitated towards playing on the farm. That was great craic. Our friends and cousins loved coming to our house when we were kids. Playing on hay bales in the summer, picking blackberries and conkers in autumn, tobboganing in the snow and picking holly at Christmas.

Milking was always a chore for me. It seemed too much like hard work, and the smell really got to me, especially when I was in college. You’d have to milk in the evening and then have to shower and get ready really quickly to go out with friends that night. I remember feeling really self-conscious in a nightclub that people could still smell the farm off me.

Were you struck by the ignorance that exists around farming? I can remember being asked in Trinity, “Do ye still milk cows by hand?” And many people do not know the difference between a bull and a cow.

Yeah, people are gas. It’s funny to be seen as an authority on farming, especially because in my family, I am the one with the least knowledge of what’s going on. I’m often caught out by how little I know. One question that is always tricky to answer is how many cows are on the farm. I remember my dad telling me that it was rude to ask a farmer how many cows he had. He told me that it was the equivalent of asking someone how much they had in their bank account. But that is always the first question that people ask. You don’t want to be rude and not answer, but I always have my dad in the back of my mind warning me to tell them nothing.

People are interested in farming as a kind of amusement or a mirage of an idyllic life. So many people tell me they’d love to have a farm and I look at them and think, not a chance. It’s a vocation. It’s a lifetime of work and sacrifice. I respect the work that my family do, and the lads that work on the farm. They are tied to the land in the most profound way. They look after the animals. And most importantly, they show up. They get out of bed every morning. There is no such thing as a day off when you live and work on a farm.

Did growing up on the farm have an effect on you regarding hard work and perhaps the realisation that there were easier ways of making money?

That is a difficult question. I suppose the line between work and family life is blurred in farming families more than in others. But the great thing about growing up on a farm was that both of my parents were at home all the time. They were both very present in my life. And whenever the world gets too overwhelming or alien, I know that home is always there for me. That’s part of the reason that I still live at home on the farm. It is my safe space.

The first job I had outside of the farm was waitressing, which in a way, is similar to farm work in that it involves long hours and hard work. I really wanted to be good at my job, but I underestimated just how difficult it was to be a good waitress. Jobs in the service industry are tough going. Waitressing is a grossly under appreciated profession. But I’ve met waitresses in the past – very good waitresses – who disagreed with me and said that anyone could do their job. They thought it was easy. They didn’t realise how many skills required to waitress came naturally to them. I didn’t have those skills, so I struggled.

I wouldn’t say that I enjoy writing all the time, but it is something that comes naturally to me. I’m lucky that I have been afforded an opportunity to learn the craft and now, I have worked out a way that I can make a living from it. But would anyone find writing an “easier” way of making money? I don’t think so. We’re all so different. My dad can’t imagine not being a farmer. He lives and breathes it. So while it is not always the easiest way of making money, he loves it and it comes naturally to him. I respect that. I am grateful to my parents for showing us that you can earn a living by doing what you love.

Do you think the bubble nature of growing up in a farm, generally removed from neighbours and people, has an effect on young people and in some way they are not as ready for the big bad world and leaving that bubble for bustling cities and college?

Growing up, I would say I was very connected to my community. We knew all of our neighbours, we went to Mass and played with our local GAA club. I would say that people who live in rural areas are connected to people more than people who live in the city. I wasn’t ready for the anonymity of city life. There was no saying hello to someone if you walk by them. People were strangers. I felt a lack of authentic connection which I had at home, where I knew everyone, or if I didn’t know them, I knew of them, or who they were related to.

You’re always able to place a person when you live in the countryside. You don’t have that same context when you live in a city. People don’t care who you’re related to. You can invent a whole different personality.

When I started college I was aware that everyone around me wore better clothes and seemed more culturally engaged. I say “seemed” because when we got our first essay results back, I realised that wearing a blazer and chinos to class didn’t necessarily make you smarter or better than anyone. Then I realised that the difference between me and other people in my class was that they were better at performing confident versions of themselves. We were all intimidated by each other. Some were better at hiding it than others. I think that when you live in the city, you are encouraged to hide your vulnerabilities and shield yourself from the big bad world. When you live in the country, there’s no one around to hear you singing to the calves in the calf shed when you’re far too old. I was as green as the grass starting college, and I used to be ashamed of that. Now, I think of naivety as a kind of superpower. I wouldn’t be a writer if I wasn’t comfortable with sharing my own vulnerabilities.

Debbie has no problems with mucking in and getting her hands dirty but is the contribution of daughters, wives, mothers and grandmothers to the successful running of a farm often forgotten about in this male dominated industry?

That is an interesting question. I suppose it is important to say that my mam plays a very important role on the farm as well. My parents work as a team. mam makes breakfast and dinner for the lads on the farm. Both home life and the running of the farm wouldn’t work without her. I think that domestic work is overlooked, not only by the farming industry but by society as a whole. I remember going to a tutorial in college on 18th century literature, and the lecturer said, “This was a very different era to the one we live in now, where the women’s domain was the home and the men worked the land.” And I remember thinking that my home life wasn’t too different from that.

There is a lot more housework to be done on a farm than in a normal family home. Washing dirty clothes, shopping and making dinner for any number of people every day, as well as doing accounts and keeping everyone on the straight and narrow. There are a million invisible tasks to be done on any given day. My mother goes away for a week and the place looks like a bomb has hit it. So mam doesn’t even need to get her hands dirty to be a vital asset to the farm. She’s the one who keeps us all going. And yes, I do think we take her for granted. We have a long history of taking women for granted. But the consciousness is shifting and changing, slowly.

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