In April, 1938, a front page of the Irish Times featured a photograph of a quartet of stern-looking men accompanied by the caption "Four Brothers Over Eighty." The Ward brothers—Laurence,Michael, Patrick, and John—were distinguished by their longevity on the occasion of the marriage of Laurence's only child, Joe. Laurence, born in 1849,married late and was fifty-nine years old at the time of Joe's birth. Joe's memories, collected by his daughter Chris Ward throughout the latter decades of his life (he died in 2000), include much of his father's story, as well his own. The family history presented here thus encompasses many of the most significant events in modern Irish history but, astonishingly, does so in only two generations.
These larger events are threaded together by the Ward family business of cattle trading. Joe relates stories gathered from his father and grandfather, which detail not only changing farm practices but also the cattle fair culture of County Meath and other points. Editor Ciaran Buckley has arranged the stories chronologically [End Page 153] and interspersed brief summaries of corresponding developments in Irish history. To scholars of Irish Studies, these will appear as well-rehearsed glosses, but they do provide a valuable context for understanding the role of the Wards, and others like them, within the defining conflicts of their time. To that end, Buckley also includes Ward family documents such as those recognizing Christopher Ward, Joe's grandfather, for enrolling 20"Repealers" in 1841 and Laurence Ward's membership in the Irish National Land League in 1886.
It is Joe's own narrative voice that fuels the book; he is by turns proud, humble, principled, practical, wry, and stoic. His anecdotes remind us of the extent to which the factions at the center of nineteenth- and twentieth-century conflict in Ireland were interdependent. Describing the Dublin cattle market during his father's time, he admits, "Catholics sold practically all Catholic cattle, but both Catholics and Protestants got on really well together. "Not one to mince words, Joe does later note that in general the Wards "got on quite well with [Protestants], except for a week before the Twelfth of July, when they were absolutely unbearable."
The Wards sold most of their cattle for export to England and Scotland, and thus dealt regularly with English buyers. Joe recalls a buyer with the unusual name of Horsefall, who would send an agent to buy cattle with postdated checks in order to see the cattle in England before the payment could be cashed in Ireland. He says,"[y]ou took a certain risk in taking those cheques, but it was very rare that anybody ever got stuck in the cattle market. It was done on a word-of-mouth basis from start to finish and was very honourably conducted on both sides."Undoubtedly, a sense of loss for the informal way that business was once done can be found in the memoir, but Joe's storytelling is rarely elegiac or sentimental. He eschews polemic as he relates the decline of the Irish cattle industry under the protectionist economic policies of the first Fianna Fáil government, but is also candid about his own skirting of the new rules. He can be warm as he discusses his friendship with Mattie Ward (not related), a laborer who worked closely with him at the cattle fairs for many years, but also, as befits a farmer, quite matter-of-fact in noting Mattie's death after an accident. Ward is proud of his own commitment to doing business honestly, but is equally honest about rivalries and incidents that occasionally erupted into violence. Though he avoids physical confrontation himself—and avoids the drinking he associates with such violence—the life Joe describes is not one of a gentleman farmer. There was nothing glamorous about the rural Ireland of the cattle fairs in the days before tourism imagined it an idyllic life; for instance, he says of...