Camino de Santiago - Brian's Update No 19

In which Brian remembers more episodes from his childhood as he nears the end of his pilgrimage.

Days 103 and 104

Wednesday 6th July - Santiago

I probably won't get any more writing done after today.

Tomorrow the mighty Fitzy arrives, Eilis will be in Santiago by this evening, and later tomorrow evening that other stalwart the indomitable Rowan Hand will be here with his daughter Ruth.

I have a lot of catching up to do, and I know I will not be able to manage it today, but I'll do what I can.

I have been extremely busy these last few days acting as back up. It is very difficult to find people on the Camino, since it follows, for the greater part of its journey, very remote routes, which are very difficult to access. It is wonderful for those walking to be in rural Spain far removed from the Tourist Trails, to see life which seems to be unchanged for centuries. Very often you see a couple working together, (probably husband and wife), in the fields, raking up hay perhaps with the old wooden hay rake, or driving cattle to or from milking. A very easy pace of life, a quiet gentle people, most courteous, friendly and helpful. 'Buen Camino', comes very easily to their lips, as does the normal greeting of Ola, or Buenos Dias.

I have stories still to tell, so I think perhaps I should try to complete my reminisces on Flax. I finished I believe just when we were about to bury it in the pit, to be covered in water and left to rot.

Incidentally by the age of 10 or 11 I was fit to hold my own at the pulling, as I now recall it was probably the movement of your leg which actually pulled the flax, one hand supported the sheaf at your knee, the other pulled the upright flax towards the bundle, and then you moved with the flax hard against your leg. It was this movement which pulled it up by the roots, amazing how such short roots could support the growing flax.

As the top layer of sheaves were being buried in the pit the large stones lying around the pit were loaded onto them to force and keep them down below the water.

When all was done everyone would go up to the house were Granny would have all prepared, and no man went home hungry. Plenty of spuds and butter, cabbage and boiling bacon, followed by steaming hot tea and as much griddle bread as you were fit to eat, liberally spread with butter and home made jam. The flax was left to it's own devices to rot so that the kernel within, later called shouse, would soften and could then be removed at the scutch mill.

It was the job of the 'scholars' (everyone going to school was a scholar), to keep the flax tramped so that it was always buried. We used hop from stone to stone watching out for the eels, which as the flax rotted and fouled the water, would poke a head above the water looking for air.

I do not like eels, actually I have an unnatural aversion to them, perhaps it comes from those days, as well as when I used set lines in the stream to catch trout, come down in the morning to find a big eel on the end of the line. I never could kill them, and they were so slippery, I absolutely abhorred them.

So we tramped the flax every day after school and as the time progressed the smell from the rotting flax got worse and worse, your trousers would get splashed and you'd stink to high heaven. But it was enjoyable enough chasing each other, jumping from stone to stone.

I have no idea of how long the flax was rotted but eventually the time came to lift it out of the pit. It was illegal to let flax water into a water course, but you often seen the stream running brown with flax water. We had an underground drain that let the flax water out of the pit to drain into the stream two fields away. The young ones would be sent well down stream with buckets or large cans just before the flax water was released. As the flax water came down so did the trout, rising to the top gasping, we'd scoop them up with bucket or can and throw them out on to the bank to be gathered up after the flax water was all away. We'd have a quare feed of trout that evening!

Once the water level in the pit went down the job of recovering the now heavy, soaking, foul smelling, flax sheaves started. Either recovering them by hand or with a drag, heavy unpleasant work, the bag aprons people wore, provided little protection from the wet foul smelling sheaves.

The sheaves were then loaded on to the horse and cart and drawn up around the field from which the flax had been pulled, it would now have a short beard of grass, ideal for spreading out the flax to dry.

The cart progressed across the field and as it did so sheaves were tossed out at intervals, leaving lines of unopened sheaves across the field.

'Labour intensive' could not describe the work involved. When these sheaves were later opened, they would have lost quite a bit of their moisture, but despite wearing a bag apron you got wet through to your legs. You took an opened sheaf, put it up on your knee, allowing the flax to fall to the ground as you slowly moved backwards. You were almost bent double, with your upper torso bent over to ensure an even spread. As you opened each sheaf you placed the rush band, with which it had been tied at the end of the last spread sheaf, left there in readiness for the lifting again.

Aye in a few days, with suitable weather, back you came to gather the flax into sheaves again, the name beat comes into my mind, were they flax beats or flax sheaves?

In any event gathered it had to be, if the weather was unkind and it lay for to long the grass could have started to grow up through it, another problem, harder to gather and longer to dry. Once re-sheaved the flax was built into large stooks, headed all around with upturned sheaves, waiting on collection to be drawn to the scutch mill

There were numerous scutch mills around the country, the Boyle flax most likely went to either Stokes Mill on the Carrive Road above Silverbridge or over to Mulllaghbawn.

Drawn to the mill it was then scutched, the 'schouse' removed and the fibres bundled into huge bags which were weighed and drawn into Newry, I'm not sure where it went from there but that was the end as far as the South Armagh farmer was concerned.

Is it any wonder our Linen Industry declined, who could pay for the flax fibres with that sort of labour input?.

A couple of anecdotes concerning some of the people involved.

I mentioned Stokes, very decent people, I remember two of the girls going to school in Newry, they'd be a bit younger than myself, but we'd meet on the bus and their people were good customers in the shop.

Anyway, they had a farm labourer working for them and in common with all others at the time, beef would not be on the menu. The story goes that that this fellow was getting turnips and spuds nearly every day, but then there were visitors and of course beef had been provided for the midday meal. He always ate with the family, and he fairly wolfed into the beef.

Mrs. Stokes was watching with growing alarm, at the rate he was going there'd be no beef for the visitors!

She could stick it no longer, 'Jemmy', she says, 'If you don't stop eating that beef there'll be a wee bullock bawling inside ye'.

Jemmy's reply was fast and very pointed, 'Well Mam', says he, 'it'll not be for the want of turnips'.

Another story concerns a family who lived in High Street, Bessbrook.

Their nickname, 'The Shouse', so called because they used burn schouse, a very cheap form of fuel, but you could smell it, it still retained the smell of the rotting flax, and as a fuel it was very inefficient.

Like everyone else at the time they bought their groceries locally, and invariably it was bought on tic, with your weekly groceries being recorded as you bought them in a book. The local grocers shop was owned by Pat McGinn - our John's wife Stephanie is a daughter of Pat McGinn, God rest him. The story goes that one Friday evening, Biddy the Schouse, gets a hoult of the book, and the first thing she sees is:- Balance....2/6, [Two shillings and six pence].

'Balance, balance, what's balance, hey Paddy did you get the balance',

'No' came the reply, 'I got no balance',

'Where's that young fellow, hey boy did you get the balance'.

'I got no balance', came the hurried reply.

By this time Biddy had worked herself into quite a fever, 'By God' she says, 'I'll go down to see this fella'.

Pulls a shawl around her head and shoulders and heads down for McGinns Shop, by the time she reaches the shop she's got herself rightly worked up. In she goes, shop's full as is usual on a Friday evening, pay day.

Pat is behind the counter serving a customer, doesn't stop Biddy, she bangs the book down on the counter.

'Balance', she says - not giving Pat a chance - 'Balance, we neither ate it, drank it, smoked it, snuffed it, or shit it, and I'm frigging sure we're not going to pay for it'.

Out of the shop, leaving the book on the counter and away back up the road, leaving a man who was well known for the quick witty retort, speechless. Not too many in the country fit to do that!

Fair play to you Biddy, that bloody balance would sicken anybody!

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