Anthony  D  Buckley

'The frustrations of fieldwork’


Ulster Folk and Transport Museum Year Book 1978-79, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra. 1980



IT was a cold day in January and the third day of a successful fieldtrip and I had collected much information on cures. Only half an hour earlier, I had been drinking warm tea by a farmhouse fire. Now snow was on the ground, and, though the roads were free from ice, the car heater was unable to prevent the cold rising from my leaden feet.

I had heard the name of the woman I shall call Sarah McKenna from a number of people, though no one could tell me precisely where she lived. Her's was not an ordinary cure—she was not a seventh daughter or a posthumous child or anything of that sort. She had a relic of a saint (accounts differed as to what it was) and it had miraculous powers.

This was not the first time I had looked for Sarah McKenna. Two days earlier I had knocked on the door of two farmhouses on the same road – the only two I could find—but there had been no one there. On the point of going in search of a more accessible source of information I had spied a third house and had had a long conversation with a farmer in the open air. He was most helpful in other topics but could do no more than point down the long hilly road to where he thought Sarah lived.

The next day, I found the occupants of one of the two farmhouses who gave me the information I sought. The directions were, as it turned out, as precise as they could have been. But they were not easy to follow. As instructed, I drove down the hill from the farmhouse and then up another hill. There I would find a gate. Actually there were three such gates and I began to doubt whether I had found the right hill. I was to stand on the gate and look for a derelict car. As I did so, the wind blew through my thick clothes. Yes, there was the derelict car.

I picked my way carefully over the icy slope. There were in fact several vehicles of various sorts dumped at the bottom of the field. At the driving wheel of one sat a large goat observing me with an intelligent lack of interest. In others were chickens and a dog.

At last, the farmhouse. After my second knock, the door opened slightly and a man slipped out, closing it behind him. He looked away from me as he spoke, his voice hesitant and repetitive. She's not at home,' he said half to himself, Not at home. She's at the Creamery in town. . . at the Creamery. . .' His voice kept trailing away. I asked him about the cure. ' Oh yes,' he said doubtfully, Oh yes. She's got a relic. . . she's got a relic,' Another idea struck him, People come here on Sundays, on Sundays.' The sad, painful eyes stared out into the farmyard. ‘Perhaps I'd better come back tomorrow,' I said. ‘Will she be here at 12.00 o'clock?'  ‘Yes, 12.00 o'clock tomorrow,' he said, ‘12.00 o'clock tomorrow.'

Thus it was the third day's search which brought me to the house of Sarah McKenna. The ground was softer now and walking was easier. There was, I noted, not even a useable track from the road to the house. The goat was no longer driving his car. Sarah McKenna, a small, wiry old lady was straining to carry a heavy pail of milk from an incongruously clean dairy. Her eyes looked at me with suspicion. ' What do you want ?' she asked sharply. I told her I was in­vestigating cures and I had heard that she had a cure.

'Why don't you people mind your own business,' she said straightening up and looking hard at me. ' I don't care what people say about me. I want to be left alone.' You don't have to tell me anything that you don't want to,' I said gently. But she was not to be pacified. I help people who come here needing help,' she said, but I'm a hardworking girl. And I don't want to be pestered. What I do in my own house is my own affair and I won't have people asking me questions, or talking about me, or writing things about me.'

I found myself smiling at this slight old lady. I agreed with her wholeheartedly. I had no desire to intrude. Why indeed should she tell me something if she did not want to?

For an instant, her gaze faltered and she seemed sorry to have spoken so harshly. But the words had been said and she could not retract. I said what a nice day it was, for the sun was shining and the last of the mist was rising out of the valley. We parted regretfully, each knowing that we would have enjoyed our conversation.

As I walked back, I felt a great friendliness towards the old lady who had been so rude. I could afford to be philosophical because the rest of my trip had been successful and my notebook was full. Maybe she had struck a blow for humanity against the growing army of researchers. Perhaps she had taken a revenge for the multitude of informants who had given me so much and received so little. I pondered a while as I sat in my car. Then I burst out laughing and picked up my notebook. Who should I see next?