[Regarding what to do if one encounters the bull...]
"
Keep your eyes on him and keep your distance."

- J.P. Donleavy from "The Agrarian Reforms of Organic Farmer J.P. Donleavy" by Bill Dunn
Photo © Bill Dunn 2007.
THE AGRARIAN REFORMS
OF ORGANIC FARMER J.P. DONLEAVY


by Bill Dunn

Copyright © Bill Dunn 2007
Photo © Bill Dunn 2007.
As so many Irish immigrants before and after them, Patrick Donleavy and Margaret Walsh, the woman he would meet and marry in New York, left the struggles of family farms in Ireland for hope and opportunity in America. He became the orchid grower at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Manhattan and later a building inspector in the Fire Department of New York City. And before their marriage, Margaret was a social secretary to a world-traveling American heiress, traveling in private railroad cars and staying at the best hotels.

Reversing Course

Their second child, the contrarian, iconoclast and budding artist known as Paddy to the family and friends in their Woodlawn neighborhood in the Bronx and later to the world as the author and painter J.P. Donleavy, proved a trend-setter not only as an author and literary litigant but also in reversing the immigration flow and farm exodus. After service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he went to Ireland in 1946 to attend Trinity College, Dublin. He married Valerie Heron in 1949. They bought a cottage in Ireland on 31/2 acres in the village of Kilcoole, not far from the sea in County Wicklow. There the city boy of Irish immigrant parents commenced farming, raising a few chickens and all the vegetables he and Valerie ate, while he began writing the manuscript that would become The Ginger Man.

The instinct to farm was learned from his parents. While they left family farms, farming never left them. Patrick Donleavy maintained a backyard garden at their Woodlawn home and even farmed a few extra acres nearby in Westchester County for enjoyment and to grow the food the family ate. In the basement of their home, Mrs. Donleavy canned the vegetables and preserved the fruit from the garden. “I rarely ate anything brought in. All these things were preserved,” recalls J.P. At his mother’s dinner table, J.P. developed a taste for fresh food and proper diet that continues today.

The initial and essential farm implement the fledgling farmer used to break the hard, rocky ground at Kilcoole was the rusted remnant of a shovel lacking its handle, discovered in an overgrown hedgerow, perhaps discarded in disgust by a frustrated farmer giving up the land and its grief. J.P. reactivated the shovel by attaching a serviceable handle fashioned from a tree limb he whittled to the appropriate size and jammed into the cylindrical opening at the top of the shovel’s face. Before that experience, J.P. has admitted: “The only tool I ever had in my hand was a golf club and tennis racket.”

That Man’s No Phoney

The cranky poet Patrick Kavanagh was not initially impressed by farmer Donleavy. J.P. recalled in his 1986 memoir J.P. Donleavy’s Ireland: In All Her Sins And In Some of Her Graces that he was surrounded at Kilcoole by “chickens and scratching a living from the soil which Patrick Kavanagh rightly defined as entitling me to being called a phoney. Kavanagh [was] a small farmer knowing full well that any American could climb aboard an aeroplane and a few hours later, having stood under a hot shower could then sit down to bacon, eggs, sausages, pancakes and maple syrup back in the good old U.S.A.”

Said Kavanagh of Donleavy’s agricultural efforts: “Phoney, phoney, phoney. Utterly phoney. The whole things is phoney. Nothing but phoniness.”

The harsh judgment was delivered by Kavanagh to Donleavy’s face as the two chanced to meet in Dublin at the second-floor editorial offices of Envoy, the literary quarterly edited and published by John Ryan. J.P. writes in his memoir: “I had come to this peasant land with my nice big American pot to piss in. And I laughed outright at his wisdom. … But as I left the office of Envoy that day. Still laughing, Kavanagh turned to talk behind my back. ‘That man’s no phoney. Sure if he were he couldn’t laugh at what I said.’ ”

J.P. used the manure from his chickens to fertilize his fields for planting potatoes, which grew “as big as grapefruits.” So plentiful was the crop that J.P. several times filled a burlap sack with potatoes and gave them to his friend Tony McInerney. At first, Brendan Behan was dismissive of J.P.’s generosity, but then revised his opinion.

Behan is quoted in J.P. Donleavy’s Ireland as saying: “And now I’ll tell you another thing. To your credit and not mine. I was behind your back complaining to McInerney that there you were bringing him bags from this place of old dirty potatoes and cabbages for him to use to feed his kids and that you wouldn’t be that fast or generous when it came to buying a thirsty man a drink in a pub. And McInerney turned on me and nearly tore my head off, saying it was more than the fucking likes of me or anybody else had done.”

After three years of subsistence farming at Kilcoole, J.P. sold the cottage and property and returned to America for nine months, during which time he edited The Ginger Man and began circulating it among publishers. But in 1953, he and Valerie came back to Europe, eventually buying a London flat with apartments upstairs and down on Broughton Road, then a socially no-go district in the industrial area of Fulham near the belching smokestacks of a power plant. J.P.’s experiment in farming was put on hold.

Crop Rotation

In 1969, J.P. had remarried and moved from London back to Ireland with his second wife, M.W. (Mary Wilson Price). He bought the historic Balsoon House and its 35 acres in the village of Bective, in the hunt country of County Meath. Mary being a fine equestrian, horses were brought to Balsoon House. A gardener maintained the flowers and tended the vegetable garden.

J.P. was ready to get back to some farming himself, rotating his crops by switching from chickens and vegetables to beef cattle. As noted in the “Chronology: The Donleavy Years” in the catalogue of his 2007 New York City art exhibition: “Sends wife to purchase bullocks to graze the land, she buys heifers and J.P. has to buy bull.”

At Balsoon, as well as before and since, J.P.’s experiences and keen observations provided the raw factual material for reinterpretation and presentation in his works of fiction. J.P.’s Trinity friends and their adventures were reworked into The Ginger Man (1955). His theatrical forays prompted him to write Schultz (1979) and Are You Listening Rabbi Löw (1987). And the challenges of country life on a sprawling estate inspired The Onion Eaters (1971) and the Darcy Dancer novels: The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman (1977), Leila: Further in the Adventures of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman (1983) and That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman (1990).

In 1972, J.P., M.W., the horses and the herd headed westward from County Meath to the neighboring county of Westmeath. J.P. sold Balsoon House and bought Levington Park, a handsome manor house built in 1742 by local Anglo-Irish squire Sir Charles Levinge, 3rd Baronet of Parwich. His granite Georgian pile, atop a hill surrounded by rolling, wooded parklands, overlooks Lough Owel.

Initially, J.P. had a few hands to help him with the herd, horses, the occasional lamb, and a few wolfhounds. But in the wake of his 1989 divorce from M.W., J.P. has basically tended the cattle herd by himself most days and the other animals have departed. He only brings in farm hands as needed, for example for dehorning the bullocks, during visits by the veterinarian, and to help select cattle to go to market and then get them there.

Welcome to Levington Park

A notice, written by the author, greets uninvited visitors at the black wrought iron gates that guard the entrance to Levington Park. It cautions:

GATE CLOSED

BULLS AT LARGE

WOLFHOUNDS

HIGH VOLTAGE
ELECTRIC FENCING

DO NOT ENTER
WITHOUT PRIOR NOTICE

In truth, there’s only one bull and no more wolfhounds. There is electric fencing with enough volts to get the attention of wandering cows and to discourage them from venturing outside the fenced pastures. J.P. does mean it about not entering without prior notice.

Levington Park’s 170 acres is surrounded by stone fences along much of the perimeter, impenetrable hedgerow and other vegetation in other areas, and some metal fencing. The property is divided into several sprawling and rolling pastures, delineated by interior walls, hedgerow, and stretches of electrified fencing.

Where cattle confined in barns and fed on schedule develop a cautiousness and defensiveness, J.P.’s herd is content, knowing that J.P. isn’t going to pen them up, feed them scraps, or jab them with growth hormones. J.P. has never put fertilizer or insecticides on the ground. His cows get to go where they want and eat sweet grass whenever they’re hungry. There’s room enough to wander, open fields on which to play, and vast centuries-old trees under which to shelter during the frequent rains.

A Break from Writing

Most afternoons, after several hours of writing and editing works in progress, J.P. heads out into the fields to inspect the herd and the fencing. First he heads for the mud room on the ground floor to suit up. He usually arrives wearing a long sleeve work shirt or sweatshirt atop blue jeans or dark blue sweatpants. He slips out of his shoes and jumps into a pair of Wellington boots for protection in the often muddy fields. He grabs a pair of work gloves. In warm weather he puts a Panama hat on his head. During fall and winter, he swaps the Panama for a tweed cap or knit watch cap and puts on a barn coat for the warmth that is in it.

He’s then off on foot patrol or driving the red Massey Ferguson tractor to check on the herd and the fencing to be sure no cows have broken out or in, which does happen but infrequently. The herd, which started out as Charolais, is now a mixture as other breeds have been introduced through a succession of bulls.

Cow Census

During a visit to L.P., your correspondent was deputized by J.P. to conduct a herd census. J.P. advised: “Take a stick with you. And be aware of where the bull is.” He then pointed to a far field behind the big house where the cows were likely to be found. Upon reaching the area after a 20-minute march, a few questions belatedly came to mind:

• How many cows are there?
• What do I do if and when I see the bull?
• And, other than to keep my balance, what do I use the stick for?

I started counting and came up with a total of 61 bovines. Then I walked up a hill and realized I missed several calves that were hidden from view behind their reclining mothers. I counted again and spotted 65 this time. Then I uncovered a breach in the hedgerow through which I peered finding several more cows in an adjoining Levington Park field. I counted five cows and two calves there. I redid the count in the adjoining pasture and again came up with a total of seven in the far pasture. Then I went back to the first pasture and counted the herd there. But they wouldn’t stay still. They were moving slowly toward me. I counted 64. Realizing I would probably get a different total every time I counted, I averaged the numbers in the main pasture – 631/3 and added the spot-on count of seven from the adjoining pasture for an estimated total of 701/3. When finally back at the big house, I found J.P. and delivered my report.

“That sounds about right,” said J.P. I asked him what the exact count is. He admitted: “I don’t know.”
I then asked what I should have asked before venturing out: what do I do when I spot the bull. J.P. advised: “Keep your eyes on him and keep your distance.”

The walking stick, it turned out, was a confidence builder and good for poking cows to get their attention. But the stick would be totally useless for beating back an assertive 1,500-pound bull protecting his turf.

Agrarian Reformer in the News

J.P. has gained a national reputation as a pioneering organic farmer, interviewed by the news media for his views and insights on farming. An opponent of genetic modification (G.M.), he has declared Levington Park the first “G.M.-free farm in Ireland”, which was duly reported in the June 2, 2004 issue of the daily national newspaper The Irish Examiner.

On the RTÉ network program Questions and Answers a few years ago, J.P. participated in a wide-ranging panel discussion with moderator John Bowman, two journalists, an author, and a government minister on modern Ireland and the changes underway. At one point, interviewer Bowman inquired of J.P.: “You’re an organic farmer?”

“That’s right. Yes, totally,” J.P. responded. “My cattle never get anything. Now I can’t claim to be deliberately an organic farmer. I was just simply too tight, too cheap to buy them food to eat. But as things went on and using this particular arrangement, I find now that what I’ve done as a farmer other farmers actually now do. Strangely, it’s less work than if you put your cattle out in paddocks and feed them through the winter and so on. … And the other point is that your cattle evidently are better behaved. They have a thing that’s just come up in America very recently. It’s ‘the flight time of the cattle.’ ”

J.P. went on to explain: “All it is is the amount of time it takes an animal to run from you. That degree of speed they use to run from you, the less tender the meat will be. The slower they are to run away from you the more tender the meat is.”

To Market

Each fall, J.P. calls in Paul O’Keefe and Mick Hewitt – knowledgeable and skilled veteran farmers – to select 10-20 cows to send to market, separate them from the herd, and then get them trucked over to the local cattle auction. With all the rain in the summer of 2007 and lush tall grass that resulted, the herd that fall was especially well fed and naturally filled out. While J.P. has not gone through the protracted process of getting his herd formally certified as organic, it is known in farming circles that the L.P. cattle free-range graze exclusively and have not been fattened up artificially. As a result, L.P. cows are sought after when they enter the auction ring.

The market sale each fall not only generates a nice income, it also brings the Levington Park herd down to a manageable number of around 50, which can be comfortably sustained through the winter grazing the 170 acres without having to buy hay or bring in other feed.

The Gift of Beef

Not only is L.P. beef prized at the market, it’s prized at L.P., where a variety of cuts from the last butchered cow are stored in the back freezer. Being the generous person he is, and in the tradition of his gifts of vegetables to Tony McInerney, J.P. has occasionally suggested to departing Levington Park guests that they first head to the freezer and pick out some frozen beef to take home as a reminder of their visit to L.P. A few days after one particular group of guests left, J.P. had occasion to go to the freezer where he discovered a dearth of prime cuts but an untouched supply of hamburger, cubes of stew meat, and something Irish butchers label “housekeeper’s roast”. But then it’s better to give than receive.

When it’s been suggested to J.P. that he rid himself of the bother and expense of keeping the herd, he notes they practically take care of themselves. What work he must invest in them is invigorating, getting him outdoors and exercising in the fresh air after long hours of writing and editing. And that has kept him in top form.

J.P. is quick to point out that he is not sentimental about the animals and does not consider them pets, as some visitors do. But he admits the sight, sound, touch and smell of the herd and their interaction with him are pleasant and calming – certainly more enjoyable than being surrounded by 50-60 people.

And the herd provides one additional advantage. J.P. notes: “I don’t have to cut the grass.”

JPD, father, Patrick & brother, T.J. - photo courtesy, the J.P. Donleavy Archives.
J.P.'s Parents' wedding picture. Photo courtesy, the J.P. Donleavy Archives.
First wife, Valerie, outside studio at Kilcoole cottage. Photo courtesy, the J.P. Donleavy Archives.

To purchase books by J.P. Donleavy, go to the Buyers' Guide.

JPD tending his chickens at the cottage in Kilcoole. Photo courtesy The J.P. Donleavy Archives.
U.S. first edition of J.P. Donleavy's Ireland, Viking - Penguin Group, New York, 1986.
Portrait in oils of Patrick Kavanagh by J.P. Donleavy, 1950. Photo courtesy Mathews Fine Art.
Playwright, poet, novelist, shoe thief Brendan Behan.
Portrait of Brendan Behan in watercolor and ink by J.P. Donleavy. Photo courtesy Mathews Fine Art.
J.P. at the doorstep of Balsoon House with trusty wolfhound. Photo courtest The J.P. Donleavy Archives.
Aerial view of Levington Park and some of its lands. Photo courtesy of J.P. Donleavy.
J.P.'s Levington Park with his herd of cattle grazing on the grounds. Photo © Bill Dunn 2007
Levington Park's free-garzing "lawn mowers." Photo © Bill Dunn 2007
J.P. tends his herd as cows graze to their heart's content. Photo © Bill Dunn 2007
J.P. on inspection patrol. Photo © Bill Dunn 2007
Tallying up the free-roaming herd. Photo © Bill Dunn 2007
A couple of younger members of the herd.
J.P. and the herd. Photo by Kieran Clancy - Photocall Ireland.
GM-Free Ireland's press release regarding J.P. declaration of Levington Park being Ireland's first GM-Free farm.
J.P. on the cover of the Farming section of The Irish Examiner, in which he states his stand against genetic modification in agriculture. (press release regarding J.P.'s declaration of the first GM-free farm in Ireland)
On the hoof. Photo © Bill Dunn 2007.
Levington Park prized beef. Photo © Bill Dunn 2007.
J.P. in good company. Photo © Bill Dunn 2007.
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It should be noted that this piece was writen in 2007 when JP Donleavy was still alive. - editor