The year was 1955: John A. Costello was Taoiseach, the Mass was still being said in Latin, and RTÉ was three years away from its first official television broadcast. In the village of Castledermot, Co Kildare, 16-year-old Norma Cook faced the challenge of a lifetime.
After her father suddenly fell ill with a serious illness, Norma — now 83 — was left to manage her 150-acre blended farm on her own. As a young girl managing more than a dozen male farmhands in 1950s Ireland – with her entire family’s financial future at stake – Norma was a challenge she simply had to face.
“My father lost his hands and couldn’t walk,” she recalls. “No one knew what was going on with him. His brain was working very well. My mother had to take him to England to see a specialist and she had to stay with him.
“So I had to manage the farm as best I could. The men (farm workers) all did their jobs very well.
“My father would dictate a 10-page letter to my mother every week, and she would mail it to me. This letter would set out what every man on the farm should do. My father had great insight.
“So the men lined up in the barn every morning and I gave them instructions on what to do each day. It was a big responsibility, but I had to do it. I was the only one who had insight into what to do in the yard.
“Every week my father sent a 10-page letter and to my great disappointment I burned them all. They were very detailed. When it was too wet to work on the land, there were orders for a specific man to do a specific job.”
In 1957 Norma’s father returned to Ireland and hired a manager to run the farm.
“I went to Dublin and got a job as a dental assistant,” says Norma. “I also trained as a secretary, which I wasn’t very good at.
“When my father came back he couldn’t go out. He was initially unable to support himself or walk. But eventually he learned to walk and even ride, with his hands through the rein loops. He was a very determined man.”
Norma’s father, Jim Ashmore, ran a remarkably eclectic and progressive farm. It was a mix of farming and ranching and one of the first businesses in the area to have both a tractor and a small Ford pickup truck.
“My father was a good jockey and he also bred and trained Thoroughbreds. We had beets, beets, barley, oats… it wasn’t just horses, it was busy,” she says.
Norma soon knew how to do all the varied and complex work on the farm. Her attitude then, as now, is that you can’t ask someone to do a job if you don’t know how to do it yourself.
“I used to drive the tractor a lot,” she says. “I learned to drive a car at a young age. I guess I was about 10 or 12 when my dad let me out in his Ford van. He told me to get out into the fields and if I can’t stop it, just keep driving until it stops by itself.
“I wanted to know how to do every job myself. I felt that I (the farmhands) could not give instructions unless I was able to do the work myself.
“I remember I used to drive the Massey Ferguson tractor and my dad sat in the back. I would drive around and he would give out turnips for the sheep to eat.
“We also grew a lot of potatoes. I remember we had Shire Horses, they were very big. I could never tighten them myself, I always had to get someone to help me put them on. They were huge animals.
“I used to work a lot with the cart. We had cattle in stables that had to be hand fed.
“When we harvested the potatoes, the women would go around the drills with baskets and collect them. I came with the horses and the wagon, the women threw the potatoes from the baskets into the wagon.
“I would direct the horses to the yard, maybe a mile away. We would then tip the cart and split the potatoes into seed potatoes and ware potatoes. They were covered with straw and put in a pit to store them for the winter.
“I tried plowing with a tractor – I wanted to try everything. Farming was very labor intensive back then.”
She married Patrick “Paddy” Cook and lived in Wales for some time before returning to a small business “on the side of a mountain” in Blessington, Co. Wicklow and building a house.
Starting with just 5ac, Norma expanded this farm to include sheep, goats, horses, chickens, Kerry moor ponies and even a peacock.
“It started with a lamb that Paddy found lost in a ditch one night on his way home from work,” she says. “I brought it in and kept it next to the Aga. So one thing led to another, that was the starting signal for me to become a sheep farmer.
“When I came back from Wales I took a truck driving course and got my driving licence. So I was able to transport the sheep to the market myself.
“I then took two of my father’s horses, point-to-points, and I trained them. That felt like home. Farming, the green grass under my feet. I loved it.”
In 1979 and 1981, Norma was a finalist in the Farm Woman of the Year Awards and competed against five other farmers at the Spring Show in the RDS.
“We had to do a project about how you would spend £1,000 on your farm,” she says. “I made a plan to build a new stall for the sheep.
“You had to make an outfit for Ladies Day at the Spring Show in RDS and you also had to submit a recipe for a meal.
“On the day of the Spring Show we had to change the tires on a tractor with a low loader. We had to lift water barrels with a tractor and push them onto a platform. That wasn’t a problem for me, I had a lot of experience on the farm.
“It was always like that for me. I wanted to know how to do everything myself. There’s no use preaching in front of other people unless you can do it yourself.
“I never felt like I was breaking new ground, I just did what I thought was the right thing to do at the time.”
A lifetime in the countryside and in roles in agricultural organizations
During her eight decades on the land, Norma Cook was involved in dozens of farming organizations.
A founding member and past Chair of the Kerry Bog Pony Society, she was Secretary of the Kildare IFA for six years and also provided animals for the annual Live Christmas Nativity Scene on Dawson Street, Dublin.
Her involvement with farm organizations began in the early 1970’s when she joined the National Sheep Breeders Association and then her local branch, the IFA.
“I suppose they thought at the time that a woman would do a better job of secretarial work than a man, which led to my being proposed as Kildare IFA Secretary. I’ve been a secretary to four different chairmen,” she says.
“When I first came home from Wales my mum gave me money for a Christmas party. I went straight in and spent it to become a member of the Royal Dublin Society. I have been a member ever since and was a member of the RDS Agriculture Committee for a number of years.
“We organized a petting zoo behind the main arena of the RDS, I supplied animals like chickens and goats for it every year. I even delivered a peacock. Unfortunately, the peacock kept resting outside of our farm and was eventually run over by a car.
“The pet corner led me to supplying the living nativity scene on Dawson’s Street for years. My animals went to a man in Dun Laoghaire who brought them in every day at 6am and took them away in the evening for the full fortnight of the crèche. I was very disappointed when that ended.”
Norma also served as the Irish representative to the Jacob Sheep Society in the UK and as a show judge for the Irish Pony Society. At one point she was keeping 80 goats and providing the Irish National Stud with goat colostrum for mares who could not feed their foals.
Now 83, Norma is still walking strong.
“I’m back to managing two donkeys aged 24. I don’t have many animals anymore. I also breed Kerry Moor ponies. They are a native breed.
“I compete with them from time to time,” she says.
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/rural-life/meet-the-pioneering-83-year-old-who-took-over-the-running-of-her-150ac-family-farm-at-just-16-in-1959-42180183.html Meet the 83-year-old pioneer who took over leadership of her 150-ac family business in 1959 at the age of just 16