Growing up in Drumbally

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6. Autumn

August and September were the harvest months, extending into October for the potatoes. The main cereals were corn and barley. Hay and flax were extensively grown. Until I was accepted for employment in the civil service in 1957 I worked during the summers on local farms. I tied corn into sheaves, set up stooks and assisted at the threshing later on. I loved working with the hay and corn. There were no combine harvesters in the early days and the corn was cut by a mechanical reaper drawn behind horses or occasionally a tractor. The reaper had a saddle seat from which it was operated. The reaper had a cutting edge that penetrated into the stand to a depth of about 5 ft, depositing the corn on a rack held at a 45 degree angle by the right foot. This left the hands free to wield a long paddle which was pressed the cut corn, when there was judged to be enough for a sheaf, and released when the right foot was raised to allow the rack to fall to the ground, thus depositing the sheaf to be gathered and tied. I always remember the weather as sunny and warm, the corn golden and aromatic, cheerful companions sharing a midday meal of ham and cheese sandwiches and buttermilk among the stooks, and long, calm and singing twilights. I earned 10s 0d a day and after I had given my mother 2 of this the 1 left was enough for a dance and several nights at the pictures in Cross. The work made me strong and fit and tanned and I was at the time determined to pursue an outdoor life.

The reaper was replaced by the binder, a mechanism which cut the corn and bound it into sheaves automatically. This was faster and less labour intensive. However, the sheaves still had to be stooked and transported to the haggard to be built into ricks before threshing. Eventually the combine harvester did away with all of this preliminary activity and delivered straw and grain as an integral part of a single process.

Paddy McGahan had a tractor and a threshing machine (or mill as it was locally known) which he took round the farms each year. The threshing took a day per farm and was the focus of much communal activity as everyone seemed to assist the process. The tractor was connected to the thresher by a long thick canvas belt from a spindle about a foot in diameter to a large spoked wheel about 3 ft in diameter on the thresher. The belt was crossed so providing a spin on the thresher in a direction opposite to the motion of the spindle. I assume that the action of crossing the belt had the added effect of keeping it in place on the machines. Before tractors mechanical power for the thresher had been provided by steam engine. There was at least one of these brutes still in existence, if not in use, at Jeffers's in Glassdrummond until the mid 1950s.

The thresher was a tall narrow machine. It was parked close to the ricks and was manned by a couple of men, who stood on the top in sunken bays. One received the sheaves from others on the rick, cut the binding and passed them to the second who fed them, head first, into the beaters. The innards of the machine were a mystery to me. The outlets was clear enough. These were under the machine. at the back and at the front. Underneath were a series of lateral reciprocating trays. These sifted the grain from the chaff, which fell through and grew to a substantial pile as the day progressed. Some of this would be used to make ticks - home made mattresses composed of opened out hessian sacks or flower bags stitched together. At the rear were a set of sluices - I think four - through which different grades of grain flowed into hessian sacks hooked to the body of the thresher. From time to time the farmer would sift this through his fingers, judging quality I suppose. At the front four large paddles moved in series up and down and in and out ejecting the straw. This was collected by men with pitchforks and laid on a prepared bed of stones and brush building up gradually to a new rick from which winter bedding for the stock would be drawn. As the day progressed one rick would reduce as the other grew until it had been transposed from one side of the thresher to the other.

The final layer of sheaves exposed the base and as this was revealed there was extraordinary excitement among the farm dogs who were gathered for just this event. Ricks were the home of dozens of field mice and as they scattered the dogs went wild chasing the tiny creatures most of which escaped into the abundance of hiding places in the farmyard.

I hated potato picking. It was cold, clammy, backbreaking drudgery, following the digger up and down the field, hoking for the tubers in the stony clinging clay, dirt under the fingernails, aching arms and legs and sore back from the constant bent over posture. Since it was October the weather was generally damp and there seemed to be a perpetual cold northern wind, driving dark brooding clouds through the ever grey and gloomy sky. I cannot recall a single sunny day. I always went home exhausted and fed up.

Flax was extensively grown, as there was until the late 1950s a thriving linen industry in Northern Ireland. Richardson's mill in Bessbrook, a village built to house its workers, employed many hundreds of local people and was supplied with raw materials by dozens of scutch mills in Countys Armagh and Down. The flax was not cut but pulled up by the roots, by hand. I never did this so I cannot say what it was like but it must have been hard work. The flax was then placed in pits filled with water, weighed down with stones and allowed to soak for some weeks. This was known as retting and during the process the countryside was permeated by the noxious smell of retting flax. The process separated the outer shell from the inner fibre. The flax was removed from the pits and spread on the land to dry before being taken to the scutch mills where the outer sheath was removed by beating. This was a dusty and ultimately unhealthy process. The sheath residue was called shous that had the consistency of dust and seemed to have little value. The pits were a rich source of newts, which we used to capture in jam jars.

August and September were also the blackberry months. The hedges and stone ditches were heavy with the fruit, well protected by their thorny briers. Blackberries were in demand from dye works and they purchased all that could be gathered. So it was inevitable that we picked as much as we could while the season lasted. Before school started after the long summer break and at weekends after it did, we would head out into the countryside with cans and buckets and sometimes a tin bath. We each had a small tin cup or an empty can that we emptied into the bucket as it was filled. These were easier to handle during the picking stage. The aim was to find the briar patches with the largest load of the largest ripe berries and steadily pick them clean. The technique was to pull whole bunches of berries into the tin rather than pick them individually. Quality control there was none; ripe or unripe, clean or with maggots, all were scooped into the tins. As these filled we tipped them into the bigger buckets and then into the tin bath until they were all packed, or we were sufficiently tired or hungry to quit. By the end of the season our fingers were stained a deep purple with masses of black pinpricks where the juice had penetrated the skin from the thorns.

Each week a lorry would collect our load. It was weighed and tipped into barrels and the appropriate amount paid. The going price was, I think, 2s 6d a stone - 1 a cwt - a considerable sum in those days when two loaves of bread cost 10d. We were not averse to adding a few pints of water to the containers to add to the weight. I'm sure this was allowed for in the prices paid.

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