The launch of Maghera Roots, the vintage farming project initiated and run by Maghera Heritage & Cultural Centre, took place on the 30th June at the Presbyterian Hall Maghera. We were delighted to welcome Barclay Bell, President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union to formally open the exhibition and Mukesh Sharma, Committee Member of the Heritage Lottery Fund who came to support and acknowledge our work. The entire project was only made possible by the grant aid provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and for that we are very grateful.
Five farmers together with a team of volunteers from The Heritage and Cultural Centre worked on the project for over a year. This exhibition and the book which accompanies it, is dedicated to Elizabeth Shiels, Raymond McNamee, Harry Armstrong, Charlie Convery and James Armour.
‘Dedication’ as defined in the English Oxford Dictionary means; ‘The willingness to give a lot of time and energy to something because it is important’.That meaning certainly applies to all five farmers involved in the project Maghera Roots. Each one of them generously, and without reservation, opened up their hearts and homes and allowed us into their lives for the duration of the project. They realised the importance of recording and documenting how life was for them, and others, in the mid-twentieth century and that this record would stand as a source of information and knowledge in the future.
The Open-Day was the opportunity for the people of the area to engage with the project, learn more about the strong farming heritage of the area and enjoy a good day out. Information on the project was set out on ten panels, dealing with farming activities and traditions as well as describing the five farms involved in the project. In addition Elizabeth, Raymond, Harry, Charlie and James had brought in a huge variety of equipment, machinery, artefacts and tools used at the time. Everything from churns to tractors were on view and many of the pieces had been carefully mended and restored as part of the project.
The event was a huge success and we look forward to repeating it in a suitable venue in the autumn. For more pictures visit our Gallery Page
The 1940s and ‘50s were a time of dramatic and far-reaching changes in farming in Northern Ireland in common with the rest of the western world. Traditional agricultural practices, some of which dated back to the dawn of time, were superseded by the arrival of the tractor, and the move away from the horse as the main source of power on the farm. Mechanisation had arrived, and it went on to have an enormous and permanent effect on our landscape, our economy, our food and our way of life. Rural communities were particularly affected, but the ramifications and effects still run through the whole of society.
It has been said, that ‘Farming in 1940 was not significantly different in structure and practice from farming in 1840.’1 Since then the rate of change has accelerated on many fronts, technological advances, advances in science, alterations in the pattern of labour and increased government support and intervention. The technical changes between 1935 and 1965 have been characterised as being of two types:
‘the output-increasing and the labour-saving. Among the former were varietal change, fertilizers, feeding-stuffs, Friesian cows and artificial insemination (AI). Among the latter were combine harvesters, tractors and milking machines.’2
An in-depth examination of these advances and their subsequent implementation on the land is outside the scope of this project – however, the tractor arriving at a farm was really the moment when the farmer rose to meet the opportunities and challenges of the new order and stepped away from centuries of tradition and familiarity.
Each of the farms taking part in this project spanned the gap between the earlier model of farming and the new methods and techniques of tending the land. For all those involved, the arrival of the first tractor and the move away from the horse was a significant and memorable moment:
The only thing I remember doing with the horses was when they were cutting the oats. They cut across the field and they had to take the horses ‘roud to the start again. Well, that was my job. They cut one way and it was always my father doing the ‘leaving off’, then he got off at the end and I brought the horses back around…..I was about twelve. ………I collect items belonging to the horses. My brother often says to me that if you had worked with the horses you wouldn’t be so anxious now to collect those things.
……We got our first tractor in 1949, a David Brown Cropmaster costing £458. It had a double gearbox and went very fast on the road. It also had a bench seat for the driver and passenger…. The first time I remember driving the tractor was when my brothers were putting the beets of flax out to dry. (Harry Armstrong))
I remember (the horses) well but I didn’t work much with them, they were on their way out when I was starting to farm. We got a tractor in the middle of the ‘50s in 1956 but she was a 1954 Ferguson TE20 TVO. Before that we had a Fordson back in the early ‘50s.……I was in my teens then and I was very able to drive and operate the new tractor and all the machinery. (Charlie Convery)
I remember two horses (Tommy and Johnny). It was sad to see them go when our first tractor arrived on 11th February 1954. This was a Ferguson T20 Diesel (nearly the first in the area) and she was supplied by Chesney’s of Portglenone hence the County Antrim registration; KZ9928. The price then was £550.00 approx. £16,000 – £18,000 in today’s money. …… I am proud to say I am still the owner of that tractor and that she is still going well.……………..my father used to morrow (share work) with neighbours called Doherty from the Crew. As long as I can remember, they had a Fordson. She was made during the war years because of the narrow wings – to save metal. I would think she was a 1941/42, but I still remember the registration no. IW 7961. I got driving her before our Ferguson arrived and she seemed so big then. (Raymond McNamee)
I just remember the horses and the transition to the tractor.….I do have very vivid memories of the horses working. I….remember one evening when my father had finished in the fields with the horse and was probably very tired, coming into the yard and throwing me up onto the horse’s back or neck just behind the collar and hames. The horse continued to walk towards the stable and I felt as though I had been given something special…….When you entered the stable at night it was lovely to hear the horses chewing away at the hay, the warmth in their small home was incredible, my father always checked them last thing at night before he went to bed.
My father bought his first tractor a Ferguson TE20 TVO, registration no. NZ 2152, on the 11th May 1951 from R. Crawford & Co. Maghera. The invoice price then for the tractor was £363-10s-0d with carriage of £17-10s-0d. Together with the tractor, he bought a Ferguson two furrow plough. This was known as the ‘Ferguson System’ meaning that implements being used were carried on a three-point linkage system on the tractor and could be lifted and lowered when required. (James Armour)
The first tractor bought on Shiels’ farm was in 1953/54. The introduction of the tractor was seen as a major change by Roy Shiels and Elizabeth remembers heated discussions on the topic in the Young Farmers’ Club:
…….one night in particular we were having a debate (in the Young Farmers’ Club) on ‘Horse versus Tractor’. Roy
was for the horse with James Dripps from Culnady being for the tractor. The debate became an argument and the two men stood arguing all night and the Rev Anderson, being the Vice-President, intervened and said, ‘I propose that the chairman bring the debate to a close.’ Which we did.
On the farms, the tractors were a source of excitement and a challenge to the younger generation who learned to drive them straight away: Raymond McNamee was eight years old when his father bought his first tractor:
I was introduced to driving our tractor about the age of eight…. this would have been when the dung was being carted out from the farmyard to the field. About March or early spring the dung had to be hand ‘graiped’ into the cart…..and they used what was termed a ‘dreg’, which was a long-shafted graip with the toes bent at 900, to pull the dung out of the cart. When this was pulled off and enough was in the coup all I’d hear was the word ‘Right’, so I’d move forward another few yards and then it wasn’t ‘Stop’, it was ‘Whoa’, as if I were a horse. I couldn’t actually sit in the seat to get the clutch pushed down. I had to get up and stand on it.
James Armour remembers his first experience driving the tractor as well:
I remember the first time my father said, ‘Away you go,’ when I asked, as I had asked so often before, ‘Can I bring the tractor over?’ I was desperate to get it right…..I can still feel the mix of emotions going on in that moment…….I must have passed the test because I never looked back and by the age of ten I was a veteran driver.
With the coming of the tractor, existing machinery, suited for use with the horse, had to be either adapted or replaced. Farmers usually carried out their own alterations. Raymond McNamee describes the new equipment his father bought and the modifications he made to other pieces of machinery:
Well my father, when he bought the tractor….he bought a Fisher Humphries two furrow plough along with her because there was a screw system with her…..they were good enough ploughs but if you touched anything they were very, very easily bent…..very soft compared to the Ferguson….. He (my father) purchased a Ferguson drill plough, a Ferguson grubber and a Ferguson potato dropper which he used for planting our own potatoes…when our would have been planted he planted potatoes to the country…. He took great pride in straight drills, they had to be straight. Nowadays they put the drills in the shape of the hedge.
My father did the changes to the horse machinery…. The old horse-reaper – she’d have been an old Bamford Royal – the shaft for the horses would have been taken out of her and it replaced with a short shaft with an attachment on it that could hook on to the tractor. The hay-turner the same – an old Bamford hay-machine- the shaft on her was adapted as well and on the horse hay-rake. The horse’s cart was kept, the shafts cut off it, the large wheels with the steel rims taken off and an axle put in which allowed rubber wheels to be put on. I think most farmers round this area would have had something like that. (Raymond Armour)
The machinery we had at that time was a tractor, mower, potato digger, plough, drill plough, cultivator and disc. With the tractor coming we altered the mower and potato digger. The plough, drill plough and cultivator were bought to work with the tractor. (Harry Armstrong)
In the ‘50s and ‘60s all you needed was a mowing machine, a plough, drill plough and grubber and maybe a set of harrows.We also had a potato digger and reaper. Some of the machines were converted from when they were used by the horse…….the potato digger, the reaper and the horse cart, we put a shaft in them or a tow-bar as we called it. (Charlie Convery)
My father kept a horse for a period of time after the tractor arrived just in case it was needed to pull a machine before conversion to suit the tractor. The machinery had to be changed, two shafts in some cases were replaced by one to enable it to be hitched up to the drawbar of the tractor. (James Armour)
The changes brought about by the tractor were immediately apparent with an immediate increase in the amount of work achieved, the reduction in effort and a corresponding increase in yield. James describes the difference he saw on his father’s farm:
In 1950 my father would have ploughed with a one- furrow horse plough an acre of land in a day with the horses and walked behind them for approximately thirteen miles, that would have been a good day’s work. In 1951 when he got the tractor and two-furrow plough he would have ploughed about five or six acres of ground in one day and walked no distance, so the increase in the amount of work that was done in a day was enormous……..in 1953, due to the increase in output he had to build a three-tier hayshed. Each tier fifteen feet long.
Despite the obvious advantages to working with the tractor, the change for farmers who had worked all their lives with horses, was not always easy. Harry Armstrong recalls the strong bond his father had with the horse:
My father would have worked almost completely with the horses. The tractor was just coming in and taking over when I started to farm. My father never drove a tractor at any time…..the children were able to drive the tractor….he never drove a car either. Machinery was taking over when I started to farm. My older brother did work a bit with the horses but my younger brother and myself…….the tractor was here by the time we started farming……As long as I remember we just had the two horses and he (my father) was sort of attached to them. They were part of the family and he kept one on for a long time though he wasn’t doing very much with it…. it was more as a pet.
James Armour also remembers the connection between the farmer and his horse:
It must have been a serious culture shock for my father -the farmers of his generation were the only ones to make such a change to their lives….. He had to say goodbye to an animal that he communicated with every day and at all times …..the horse was man’s companion, and to go from that to a mechanical machine where no form of communication was there other than by physical action, must have been like removing a part of the farmer’s anatomy. The transition from the horse to the tractor was not forced upon my father but he, and other farmers of his generation, accepted that progression. They knew it had to be embraced and they did so with a silent dignity.
1B.A. Holderness, ‘Apropos the third Agricultural Revolution; how productive was British agriculture in the long boom, 1954-1973’, in P. Mathias and J.A. Davis eds, Agriculture and Industrialization: from the eighteenth century to the present day (1969) p.69)
2Paul Brassley ‘Output and technical change in twentieth-century British Agriculture’, Agricultural History Review 48, 1, p.71
3James A. Walsh ‘Adoption and Diffusion Processes in the Mechanisation of Irish Agriculture’, Irish Geography (1992), 25(1), p. 34
4Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs website.
Ulster was the centre of the linen industry in Ireland going right back to the 17th century and throughout this time Irish linen was considered to be of a particularly high quality. However, from the years of highest production in around the 1860s (83,815 Hectares in 1864) the industry went into a steady decline with only temporary recoveries during the First and Second World Wars.2
R McN In the earlier times, there was always flax grown right back to my great-great-grandfather’s time. During the First and Second World Wars, a lot of flax was grown to be made into stretchers for carrying the casualties of the battlefields. I also read somewhere that linen was used for making the wings of small bi-planes.
‘Although Irish flax served as an effective substitute for continental supplies during times of need, the crop was less dependable than the Belgian. It was expensive to produce and subject to variations in terms of price and yield. Quantity became more important than quality. After the war, supplies from abroad were quickly re-established, a consignment of Russian flax arrived in 1945 and members of the Flax Development Committee visited France and Belgium in the same year.’3 The import of cheap supplies combined with the increasing reluctance of farmers to be involved with such a labour-intensive crop meant the writing was on the wall for the growing of flax in Ulster. By 1962 it was no longer even recorded in the annual agricultural statistics for that year.
All five farmers taking part in the project remember flax or lint being grown on their farm, and all testify to the hard work that went into its production. Not only was the work labour-intensive but it was also unpleasant. Methods of cultivation had not changed over three-hundred years.3 Although flax-pulling machines were used on the continent, and were manufactured in the 1940s by James Mackie and Sons Ltd in Belfast, they came too late to make any difference to the virtual disappearance of the crop from Northern Ireland.
E S I remember a flax pulling machine being demonstrated on our farm, it was of Belgian manufacture but I think it wasn’t a success. Maybe the human flax pullers didn’t welcome the machine.
C C We grew a little, not much, it was just dying out at the time and that would have been the middle ‘50s I think. Here there may have been some grown a little later than that…..I was glad to see it go, it was very hard dirty work.
H A When I took over the farm I never actually grew any lint……I think farmers stopped growing it because cheaper supplies were being imported from Russia. I remember seeing a poem somewhere about Russian Flax. They started using a system where they hadn’t to put it into the dams, a chemical was used so that the lint didn’t have to go into the dams. It never really got going here……lint disappeared completely in the late ‘50s.
The flax had to be pulled by hand, as the valuable fibres run the length of the stalk right down to the root. Also, cutting allowed the sap drain from the plant and damaged the fibres. Machines, even today, do not pull the flax up from the root so the finest linen is still made from hand-harvested flax. Harvesting the lint was a backbreaking task and usually neighbours came to help with it – Four handfuls made up a beet or sheaf and this was tied with a band made from rushes.
R McN I remember it (the lint) growing in that field where St Pat’s is now – it’s about five acres. The lint all had to be pulled by hand but before the pulling started there had to be rushes cut to make bands to tie it into sheaves or beets. I had to make the bands by tying two lengths of rushes together. That was called ‘rush band knotting’. You pulled the lint against the knee at an angle and laid it on the rush band. When it was near the right diameter the band was tied in a knot and then you had the beet.
E S I have clear memories of the flax pulling, we called it lint pulling. There were teams who carried out this task, as it was a skilled craft. The flax was pulled from the ground by the root and literally wrapped around the legs of the worker and then stacked in stooks it was an art in itself.
J A The lint crop was ripe for pulling in August or early September when the purple flowers on the stalks had faded and fallen off. Lint stalks were pulled by hand and the job could take four or five men. Again the morrowing system was vital, with neighbours coming together to help. Lint was pulled, not cut, and there was a certain knack to it. First, your two hands grasped a bundle of stalks. Then you pulled down at an angle and finished with a twist of the wrist to get the bundle out cleanly. This bundle was placed on a band made up of rushes. When the bundle of stalks was considered large enough it was tied with the band to form a beet.
The most troublesome part of the business came next. This was known as ‘retting ‘ the flax. This was generally done in a specially constructed dam on the farm. Usually, the dams were dug near a river and were long and narrow in shape. The point was to separate the ‘shous’ or centre parts of the flax from the surrounding fibres. Most farmers in Ireland retted the flax soon after pulling. The lint retted best in stagnant water as the bacteria could build up there and speed up the process. If they remained in water too long, the fibres deteriorated.
R McN The beets were then transferred by a tractor and trailer to the lint dam. The dam was full of water to a depth of about three feet. The beets were put into the dam with the heads pointing downwards and the roots sticking up. The roots did not have to be under water. When the dam was full of lint we had to gather stones and place them on top of the beets, this was to ensure they did not rise out of the water. This process was called ‘retting’ the lint. As a young boy I had to go down to the dams every day to ‘tramp the lint’. You had to walk over it to make sure it was all under water. The lint would stay in the dam for about ten days but when it was coming near the time my father would pull out one of the straws. He would then start rolling and breaking it to see how the fibres were behaving. When it was ready, the stones had to be manually removed and then the dirty work started. Someone had to change into old clothes and shoes, lower themselves into the smelly stagnant water and physically throw the beets out on to the bank of the dam. This was a very heavy dirty job because the sheaves were double the weight of when they went into the dam.
E S During the lifting of the lint from the lint dams, if you had gone out at night the smell throughout the country would have knocked you down. We ladies, if we went to a dance around this time, and we knew our partner had stood waist deep in a lint dam that day throwing out lint, we steered clear of him. Even after a good bath hours earlier, the smell permeated the dance floor when the heat got up.
J A The lint was left in the dam for up to three weeks to rot. This process was known as ‘retting’. During this time the water in the dam became toxic poisoning any form of life that lived in it., including the eels which would leave the water and come out on the dam banks to die….. I remember collecting the dead eels with my brothers and using their long slender bodies to make designs on the grass. …After retting the sheaves had to be removed… this usually fell to my cousin Robert to do…. The water he had to stand in stank, was dark brown in colour and had a dense slimy texture. Definitely not a job for the faint-hearted.
The lint was then spread out to dry, usually on a south-facing field.
C C ….it had to be spread out and allowed to dry. When it was dry enough it had to be tied up again into beets and then it had to be ‘gaited’ which meant two beets propped each other up and this continued in a row for about three yards.
E S It was imperative that the weather didn’t become stormy when the lint was drying. The flax was light and under windy conditions the crop was blown against hedges and this could badly damage the recoverable linen. That told a bad tale when the crop went to market to be graded – I remember farmers coming home from the flax market and relating to the family how many stones 2AVP (avoirdupois) their crop had yielded to the peck. Flax was very flammable – I remember a fire in the barn at Tirnony. It was caused by a spark from the tractor exhaust.
When it was considered that the process was complete the flax was brought to the local mill for scutching. Mills were very common then and there were several around Maghera.
C C It went to the local mills, Higgins was one of the local mills. McKays also had two scutch mills and they were all in the area.
E S The mill to which we took the flax was owned by my mother’s brother Bob Cunningham of Grillagh. This was my mother’s homeplace. Bob’s grandfather, my great-grandfather, Robert, with the assistance of his wife the former Margaret Moore (who came from a mill family in nearby Macknagh) founded the mill.
R McN The flax mill belonged to my grandfather. When it arrived there it was stored with other people’s flax but my grandfather had it all marked so he knew who it belonged to. When your time came you had to go down to the mill and give a hand with the scutching process.………After scutching he would have taken it to a market in Magherafelt where he would have looked after the sale and try to get as good a price as possible.
As Raymond McNamee explained, after the scutching process, the stalks would have been taken to the market in Magherafelt and this is where the buyers from the linen mills, for example Clark’s of Upperlands, would have come to select the best lint. This process was overseen by the owner of the scutching mill.
The first step in turning the dried lint into thread for weaving is rippling: Here the stalks are pulled through a coarse comb to separate the ‘bolls’, or seed pods. The next step is ‘scutching’. The stalks are made up of two layers that must be separated. First, they are broken in a ‘breaker’ to make it easier to take off the rough, woody part which falls away leaving the flax fiber behind. They can be cleaned further at this stage using a flat wooden scutching knife. ‘Hackling’ is the final step in dressing the flax. Here the fibres are split and straightened by being drawn through a graded series of combs. The long fibres are used for weaving and the shorter coarser fibres which catch on the comb (called ‘tow’) can be used to make rougher cloth. The woody waste matter, known locally as ‘shous’ were often used as firewood.
In earlier years this process would have been carried out as a cottage industry.
2(The Irish Flax Famine and the Second World War. Jonathan Hamill page 248 Industry Trade and People in Ireland 1650-1850 essays in honour of W.H. Crawford Edited by Brenda Collins, Phillip Ollerenshaw and Trevor Parkhill Ulster Historical Foundation 2005).
One of the greatest changes in farming over the last sixty years is the enormous decline in the acreage of oats (or corn, as oats referred to locally) and a corresponding increase in the amount of land under barley. As can be seen from the table above, comparing the figures for 1935 and 1945 the Second World War had a dramatic influence on the area of tillage. The production of both crops declined over the next ten years and there was marked decrease generally in the amount of cereals being grown (down from 191,057 ha to 105, 917 ha) but oats was still by far the most popular crop. However, it is interesting to see that by 1963 both oats and barley were produced in almost equal amounts (59,490 Ha and 59,895 Ha), and after that the balance altered completely. By 1965, the output of barley was almost double that for oats. Cultivation of both crops steadily declined in the intervening years, reflecting the overall move away from tillage.
The main reason for the transformation is the virtual disappearance of the horse from the farm and the arrival of the combine harvester.
As Harry Armstrong explains:
barley wasn’t grown in the 1950s, just oats then with the coming of the combine everything changed: ……barley didn’t really come in until the combine came. Then we started to grow barley and it just changed over completely. There was no oats after that, it was all barley……the oats didn’t combine well. You had to keep it till it was too ripe and then it used to be ‘strow-broken’ ………before it was ready for combining so barley took over.
And Raymond Mcnamee describes how the variety of corn he remembers being used, Stormont Sceptre, was no longer suitable for present-day methods:
The Sceptre wouldn’t really have been a corn for nowadays because it grew to be at least six feet high and nowadays it’s the short stuff they want because it’s the actual seed that they want off it. There was a problem………that if you got a bad night’s wind the whole thing went down flat to the ground and it was a nuisance to try to cut. It was a job for the scythe and sharpening stone then.
Up until the 1960s oats were grown on all the farms taking part in the survey. Shiels at Crewe House grew four to five acres, Armstrongs at Parkhill Farm grew twelve acres, James Armour’s father grew twelve acres as well. Raymond McNamee remembers his father growing ……… While Charlie Convery’s grandfather could have grown five acres, Charlie himself grew up to fifteen acres.
Once the ground was ploughed and prepared, the seed was sown with the aid of a corn fiddle then fertilizer spread. Children were drafted in when necessary, James Armour remembers helping his father:
If it was a busy time and the weather was going to be good we may have got the great opportunity of being allowed stay off school if we were going to carry the corn to my father……it was great to get off the school but it wasn’t so great when you had to carry buckets of corn through a field of deep soil and you were about eight or nine – just old enough to be able to lift the bucket of corn high enough to empty it into the hopper of the old corn fiddle . I didn’t enjoy that. I would go into a daydream sitting there on the bag of corn and my father would give a gulder; ‘where are you? I need another bucket.’ As the crop grew, so did the weeds, and James spent long hours as a child manually removing the dockens and thistles with a thistling tool which was ‘almost the same size as myself’.
During the ‘40s and ‘50s the crop was cut by either a reaper or binder, but the scythe was not totally redundant, Harry describes his father ‘opening-up’ the field before cutting the crop:
My father would have been a lot tidier than me. When mowing the oats he always cut a path around the field with a scythe so that the horses did not walk over the oats the first time round the field.
We were all (James with Uel and Maurice, his brothers), vying for the job to drive the tractor to bring the huts into the thresher………then shoot back down the field at a very high speed on the tractor with the buckrake to bring in another hut. At ten or eleven year’s old it was a great day’s work…….threading the baler was a dreaded job……Freddie Cauldwell always did it with one helper and too often that helper was me… My mother was the centre-piece of the whole thing. Food was very important to the working man……fourteen men could come into the kitchen for their dinner……as a showing of respect coming into any house a man would never sit at the table with his cap on. They always took it off and put it behind them on the chair. (James Armour)
Several contractors operated in the area at the time:
At that time the thresher man was Jakie Sufferin and before him was Freddie Caldwell. Atty McLean out the road was another threshing contractor He would have come to us for a day and then he would have moved down the road to another farmer, so really all farmers in the area knew when the thresher was in the area. (Raymond McNamee)
…….Robert Hugh Dripps, then the Heuston brothers took over. Robert Hugh had a birthday not so long ago. I think it was his 96th (Harry Armstrong)
There were a number of thresher men in the area, Freddie Caldwell, Robert Hugh Dripps, Joe Johnston, Jakie Sufferin and Atty McLean. Freddie Caldwell was the one I remember coming to our Farm, a big tall powerful person who in my eyes could do anything. (James Armour)
Charlie Convery recalls another contractor too, Dan Convery who was known as Dan the Navy.
After threshing the corn was used to feed the stock and for bedding:
……..the straw would have been used for bedding and sometimes we might have used it with fodder with a taste of treacle or something put over it. The corn itself would have been kept and brought to my Grandfather’s mill for, we called it bruising – it’s actually crushing and you’d have fed that to the cattle. If it was good clean corn …….you’d maybe have kept a few bags for next year’s sowing. You sowed, I think they used to talk of about eight stones to the acre. (Raymond McNamee)
Raymond’s brother, Michael McNamee, with several of his friends who were also vintage enthusiasts like himself, made a film, based on 1955 illustrating the complete season of the corn harvest.
The making of the film ‘Farming down the Years’ was the brainchild of my late brother Michael. This was a film he wanted to make and show to future generations, so he asked me for the field and I agreed. He then got in touch with his friends and neighbours namely; Tommy Doherty, Willie Turner, Paddy McKenna etc. The film took over a year to make taking all the various stages into consideration. Michael died a short time after its completion……. John Thompson thought it looked so well he marketed it with much success. This was the first farming video to be made (locally) and the start of a trend.
Still available, this film gives an insight into the work practices of the mid-fifties and was a significant contribution to capturing the essence of harvest time in a different era.
Potatoes were introduced to Ireland in the sixteenth century and since then have become almost part of our identity. For many years, they were the staple diet of the people and the recurring shadows of the potato famines of the past still hold a strong emotional charge today. Because of the huge part the potato played in our diet as a nation, it is not surprising to find that potatoes were grown on all the farms featured in the project.
Elizabeth Shiels recalls that they grew approximately five acres of potatoes in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The varieties they favoured were Arran Victory, Arran Banner, Kerr’s Pink, DiVernons, Home Guard and Sharpe’s Express. James Armour’s father grew around six acres in the ‘40s and ‘50s (increasing in subsequent years), of mostly Arran Victory and Kerr’s Pink for the market and some Golden Wonders for themselves. Harry Armstrong’s father grew five acres or so of Arran Victory, Arran Banner and Dunbar Standards, while Harry himself concentrated on Arran Consul and grew ten or more acres. Charlie Convery grew up to fifteen acres of potatoes whereas his grandfather grew five. Again, he favoured Arran Banner, Arran Victory and Kerr’s Pink. The amount of ground given over to potatoes on McNamee’s farm varied from five to fifteen acres, depending on whether Raymond’s father took on extra land. In earlier years, Arran Victory were grown but they moved on to Arran Consul for the seed market.
In the early days the type of potato was mostly Arran Victory, they would have been marketed as a table potato. They had to be graded….. the real big ones you kept at home and the small ones. They would have been boiled on a Saturday and fed to the pigs…….In later years we moved on to Consul. They were exported to the Canary Islands and they could probably come back here as early potatoes. The potatoes would have been sold to an agent in the town here, Harry Canning, who bought the potatoes for another agent at Toomebridge by the name of Alex Bell. Alex’s name appeared on all the bags…….. Harry had a fish and chip shop in the town but none of our potatoes were used for Harry’s chips. …….Prices would have fluctuated a right bit some years you would have got about £5 a ton then maybe £10, then on up to £15…….whatever the reason would have been. (Raymond McNamee)
We grew up to about 10 acres when I started farming. At that time it was mostly seed potatoes we grew. Arran Consul was the variety and they were exported to Spain. They would have been planted there at an earlier time of the year because the climate was warmer. The seed suited our ground better as you had to burn down the taps earlier, meaning an earlier harvest. A lot of my ground would have flooded later on so we liked to get them dug earlier. You had to burn the taps earlier to stop growth and keep the potato small so it suited my ground and Arran Consul did well as my ground was fairly heavy. The Consul was a round white potato but very watery and soapy in texture and not good for eating but they were used quite a lot for making chips. That’s where the ware out of the seed went to – some of the local chip shops would have bought them. We would never have used them ourselves for eating. We would have used Arran Victory or Arran Banner for our own use…….About 10 or 15 years ago we decided to stop growing potatoes. The one thing that put me out of potatoes was because the lorry men wouldn’t handle the potatoes unless they were on pallets and then you needed to have a forklift which would have meant spending a lot of money on a machine and pallets…. and we were getting to that age that we felt we would wind down a little bit……. We decided to stop production but my brother and myself worked together at the potatoes. ……..The only difference was in my father’s time the potatoes were always stored in pits in the field over the winter. When I started we had more housing so we could cart them into the yard and store them in a large shed over the winter…….so we brought them in to the store after being dug and then we could start sorting them any time over the winter regardless of the weather. (Harry Armstrong)
Potatoes, were a very labour intensive crop. The ground had first to be ploughed and harrowed to fit in with the crop rotation:
….sometimes the lea ground would have been ploughed up ….you required new ground for potatoes. You weren’t allowed put potatoes in two years following each other…….then (the ground) could have been ploughed for corn- you would have taken a crop off of just corn then back to potatoes. The next year you could have maybe put in corn again and under-sown it with grass-seed. On the fifth year a crop of first cutting hay was saved. That was when my father went to the dole office and hired men to tie the grass seed. (Raymond McNamee)
Then the potatoes were prepared for sowing. To make them go further they were cut, making sure each section had an ‘eye’.
You were able to use a large potato….basically seeing where the eyes were on the potato and drawing the knife right through it and spreading them out on some sort of surface. Then maybe giving them a dusting of lime to seal the cut that you’d made. (Raymond McNamee)
The seed potatoes for planting would have been selected by size and stored in a shallow clamp. The corner of the meadow field was always used for this……..our second well was to be found here too. I can still see my father working there on a sunny day, wearing his straw hat and sitting in the shade of the hedge cutting the potatoes ready for planting. (James Armour)
Charlie Convery describes the work of sowing the crop:
It was all done by hand …….the drills were opened by horse or by a tractor…you put farmyard manure in the bottom of the drill and then you walked along just with an apron and dropped the potatoes and spaced them out. Later the potato-dropper came in….it would have come in in the early ‘50s. When they (the potatoes) were planted you had to cover the drills……you needed skill……the drills had to be very straight that time. That was very important. Then you saddle-harrowed them to break down the weeds before the potatoes came through. Then you did what they called ‘scouring’….. you grubbed between the drills and you’d run the drill plough through them and ‘run them up’. Then there was ‘moulding’ the potatoes. That was when you grubbed between the drills and you used a hoe to take out the weeds between the potato taps. Then you ran the drill plough through them. …….For the blight bluestone and washing soda mixed was sprayed on the taps ……with a knapsack sprayer. (Charlie Convery)
To decide when the crop was ready to harvest, after the taps died down the farmer would pull a tap to judge the quality of the crop and the possible yield. The harvesting required a great deal of man-power and there was a strong tradition of closing the schools for a few weeks at this time to allow the children to help. The amount paid increased over the years from five to ten shillings a day. Not only did the money mean a great deal to the children, but it helped with family expenses as well:
For harvesting we used an old trail digger that was made for behind the horse. Then it was converted into use by the tractor. The potatoes would have been gathered by local ones from the school when they were on holiday. The gatherers were paid five shillings per day. That is the equivalent of twenty-five pence today. (Charlie Convery)
Elizabeth Shiels and James Armour remember the schools closing to allow the children help with harvesting the potatoes:
Then in October, there was the potato-gathering. In my school-days we had two or three weeks off school to help with the harvesting. I remember my Grandmother giving me six shillings for a day’s gathering. I thought I was ‘no goat’s toe’. (Elizabeth Shiels)
We all got prattie-gathering holidays from school…….some years they could be up to three weeks long. When we were finished our own crop we headed off and worked for the neighbours. …….The going rate of pay in the ‘50s was a ten-bob note per day……Some of this went to help to helping my mother with the cost of school clothes or Christmas presents. (James Armour)
Kenneth Murray who lived in the town describes how local children were recruited to play their part in the mid ‘60s: ‘It would have been common at that time for the farmers to cruise about Crawsfordburn on a Friday night booking gatherers for the next day. If we were heading out the country to a farm, getting to and from the field was, on occasion, verging on the comical. I was often amazed at how many gatherers could be transported safely in the back of a mini-van……..One pleasant day still stands out in my mind. I was gathering for Linton in the townland of Grillagh, and we were gathering ‘blues’. The pace was leisurely and the countryside was peaceful. As we gathered the potatoes they were placed in a heap forming a neat line. They were then protected from the weather by soil and straw. This process was known as ‘pitting’……..in the middle of the day the woman of the house brought the food to the field in a large basket. I can remember so well the delicious egg and onion sandwiches we had that day along with the good strong mug of tea. It was almost like having a picnic. I received twelve shillings and sixpence for that day’s work. For a youngster like myself this was as good as it got.’
Note on Potato Types:
The varieties of potatoes grown on the farms in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s (with the exception of Golden Wonders and Kerr’s Pinks), differ from those we are more familiar with today. Different varieties were grown from district to district – depending on local conditions, for example soil type. The potatoes popular in Maghera were:
Golden Wonders, a dry, floury potato, date from 1906 and were developed by Mr. Brown from Arbroath, Scotland.
Kerr’s Pink, (main crop) which have a pink tinge with a deeper pink colour around the eyes, were raised by J. Henry in Cornhill. Scotland in 1907. They were launched commercially in 1917 by Mr. Kerr, and arrived in Ireland in the same year.
Arran Victory (a main crop, released in 1918), Arran Consul (released 1925) and Arran Banner (released 1927) were all varieties of potato bred by Donald McKelvie OBE from Aran, Scotland. These are just three of the many varieties he produced. He received his OBE for his services to agriculture. Arran Banner and Arran Consul have light-colored skin whereas the skin of Arran Victory are a very striking vivid blue/purple colour. Arran Banner was particularly favoured as it is resistant to Wart Disease, which was a serious problem in the early 1900s.
Sharpe’s Express, (early) – a small pear-shaped, floury potatoes – is a famous heritage variety that has been around since 1901. They are named after C. Sharpe, Sleaford, England who bred them.
Home Guard, (early) a potato variety grown mainly in Ireland, were raised by McGill and Smith in Ayr in Scotland. Released in 1942 they were very popular during the war years.
Dunbard Standard, a floury potato, were bred by Charles Spence in Dunbar, Scotland in 1936. These potatoes could grow to a very large size. They were known for having shallow eyes, so were good for chipping.
DiVernon, (second early) Introduced in 1922. This potato has a very distinctive flavor. Looking at the list of potatoes above it is very interesting to see how many originated in Scotland illustrating the close ties between the two countries.
My name is Harry Armstrong. I farm Parkhill Farm outside Maghera which has been in the family since 1867. My brothers and myself followed in the farming tradition – my two older brothers and myself all worked on the farm. I started working full-time when I left school at eighteen in the late ’50s. I never thought of doing anything else. Farming was in the blood. I took over running the farm in 1960.
I was never paid a wage for working on the farm with my father. What he did was to make me and my brother partners in the business when I was very young, so we had our own share of the farm. One of my brothers farmed on his own so I was equal partners with my other brother and my father until that brother started to farm on his own too.
Over the years I have been very interested in collecting artefacts connected with farming and have enjoyed restoring them to their former condition.
Description of Parkhill Farm:
Parkhill farm is half-way between Maghera and Kilrea, five miles from each. It is a farm of fifty-two acres with the Clady river running round part of it.
It was always a mixed farm. We grew hay, oats, potatoes and flax. In my father’s time that would have been ten acres of hay, twelve acres oats, five acres of potatoes and three acres of flax. We had lint dams in one field. When I took over the farm, I never grew any lint. The varieties of potatoes we planted were Arran victory, Arran Consul and Dunbar standard. In later years, I would have grown up to ten acres of potatoes. We didn’t grow barley back then in the ‘40s and ‘50s, just corn or oats.
In the ‘40s my father would have had about eight cows, twenty-five cattle, two horses, forty pigs and maybe eighty hens. The cows were Shorthorns and Aberdeen Angus and the pigs were large whites. Later on, I went into Landrace. The hens we kept were White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds.
The biggest change in farming from my father’s time to mine was the use of the tractor. He always had horses on the farm and kept two Clydesdales to do the work.
The only thing I would have changed looking back on the farming is that I might have gone into producing milk rather than mixed farming.
Looking to the future, I think farms will become a lot bigger and mixed farming will die out. Farming is not an easy life. There are plenty of long hours and a lot of ups and downs but it is a very rewarding way of life.
I was born in the early 1940s and grew up helping on the farm. I was always interested in farming, even from an early age, and was glad to spend my life working in it. There were six children in the family and my twin brother and myself were the youngest. Because there are so many Converys we all have nicknames – I’m known as Charlie the Hollow, even though I live on a hill. There is another family not far from here and they were known as Convery’s of the Hill though their ground was lower than ours.
Description of farm at 11 Fallalea Road:
The farm I was brought up on was about twenty acres. Now we farm about 100 acres. The farm is classed as LFA (Less FavouredArea). That means it is more hill than lowland. We are just sheep
and cattle now. We grow grass and make silage but very seldom have time to grow crops. There were lint dams in one of the fields but they have all been filled up. There was also a lime
kiln, and going back years they would have burnt lime there to spread on the fields.
My father and grandfather grew potatoes and oats, or corn as it was called, and grasseed. The grasseed would have been grown every year, it was a first hay crop that was threshed and the seed taken off it. We used to grow a little lint, not much, it was just dying out at the time and that would have been the middle ‘50s I think. We would keep the corn for feeding the cows and the chickens. The potatoes we didn’t use would be sold to merchants in Maghera, J C McKinney, Bob Armour &
Harry Canning. We had cows, calves, pigs and chickens. We had our own sows and a boar. They were kept, fed and fattened until they were ready for slaughter. When the pigs were killed they went to McKinney’s or Noone’s in Maghera. The cows were milked, and the milk used for feeding the calves and for churning to make the butter. The cows were mostly Shorthorn going back to that time in the early ‘50s and then later we had Aberdeen Angus. We kept them until they were about a year or older and then we sold them as ‘stores’ at the local market. I remember putting one or two on the train one time and they would have gone to the grader in Coleraine.
The chickens were free range and then there was the deep litter, where they were kept in over the winter months. We sold the eggs to Hassans of the Glen who had a shop where they sold some of the eggs to customers and the rest would have gone to a processing factory in Derry. We cut turf every year over in Ballyknock Mountain just up the Glenshane pass. The middle of May we would have started to cut the turf. A few weeks afterwards, there was the spreading, turning and the futting. It was hard work and sore on the back getting them dry enough to bring home for the fire.
I was born on the 25th March 1925. The first six years of my life I had with my father and mother but sadly my mother died at the young age of thirty-six. My Aunt Maggie and Uncle Bob McKeown volunteered to take myself and my sister Molly – we remained in McKeowns for five years, returning home when our father remarried.
I went to the Tech at thirteen years of age. When I came out of the Tech Davy Hyndman gave me a job. Three years later my father took me home to help as he had had commenced supplying milk to Maghera and district and I was needed to help.
I was involved in the formation of the Curragh Young farmers’ Club in 1943 and so was my husband Roy Shiels. This brought us together and I was very happy to marry Roy on the 20th November 1947 and move to the Crew. It is seventy years since Roy and I were married. Even today, twenty-five years after his death, I have a big gap in my life such was the beauty of his character. Our family consisted of eight boys and one girl, Amy. Many a soda scone I baked, especially when ‘half the town’ arrived in the yard to play football.
I was always interested in singing. My last venture was when I belonged to the Sperrin choir in Magherafelt and we were part of the ‘1000 Voices’ which included singers from all over the world singing at Landsdowne Road. The memory climbing up to the very top of those concrete seats was unforgettable.
Description of Crewe House Farm:
When I came first to the Crew in the late 1940s this was a mixed farm of fifty-five acres. The soil was heavy clay and moss and a stream of about half a mile, the Crew Burn, ran through it which watered and drained the surrounding land. The crops we grew were oats, flax, potatoes and grassland – four to five acres of potatoes, the same of oats, three acres of flax and the remainder was for cutting and grazing. We kept 12 cows, (which we both milked by hand), about 20 pigs, maybe 10 sheep and up to 300 hens. The cows were shorthorns and in later years British Friesian. The pigs were Large White York at first then later Landrace. In later years Roy had pedigree cattle and pigs and he would have shown his stock at Balmoral Show, where he gained some placings. The cattle were registered as ‘CREWMA’ and the pigs as ‘MACREW’. An interesting feature on the farm was a set of grain-cleaning fans, horse-driven from a horse walk behind the barn loft. In the fifties we acquired a double-acting ram powered by the stream which pumped spring water to a 700 gallon tank on an elevated position on the farm.
Roy’s mother had a poultry supply farm known as a ‘Station’ concentrating on the Light Sussex breed of fowl. The station was accredited by the Department of Agriculture but that finished beforemy arrival. Roy and I kept various breeds such as, Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes, White and Brown Leghorn and Crosses. We also had a few Light Sussex. In my first years the hens were kept in wooden houses (10’ X 6’) in the field, we had no deep litter. It was a long time later before we had the deep litter. Then, in the ‘60s, we went to battery cages and later again we reared pullets to sixteen weeks and then sold them on to people who were going to use them commercially to produce eggs. While the younger chicks were under brooders,
I remember on alternate days carrying nineteen half-cwt. bags of meal and distributing it to the growers. The growers were those aged from approximately eight weeks. At sixteen weeks, the point of lay pullets were sold to customers for commercial egg production.
Born in the late 40s into a family of five boys to my father Samuel and mother Margaret Armour (nee Clarke). Samuel and Margaret were married in in 1939. Clarke was the eldest, Uel next then myself followed by Maurice and Freddie.
During my earlier years when I attended the Beagh school when on coming home after having done my homework I would have been asked to do small tasks around the farm, maybe bringing in the cows for milking or collecting eggs from the deep litter house.
While walking home from school I would often stop and watch our neighbour Tommy Gordon school his horses over jumps. Later on on the same farm I would often visit Jakie Sufferin and watch him work on repairing machinery, sometimes I would be asked to help.
In 1959 my father bought another farm in Murmeal near Tobermore and we all moved there to live, that also meant a change of school to Kilcronaghan Primary whose head teacher was Mrs Evans, her teaching techniques were much softer and kinder and a little different from that of the Beagh school. In the mid 60s I moved to live with my Uncle and Aunt in Garvagh and from there I attended secondary school in Coleraine after which I was commissioned by the Ministry of Defence to train in aeronautical engineering and later become a member of the Royal Air Force where I remained until my tour of duty ended and I settled in Scotland.
Description of the Beagh Farm:
The Beagh Farm, is situated two miles outside Maghera on the Maghera, Gulladuff Road. Our farm was approximately 25 acres in size with an additional 20 acres taken as con-acre each year to increase the cereal and potato crops. The land was of light soil with the exception of about five acres of meadow and boggy land. We were a mixed farm. Crops grown were corn, potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbage (kale) and grasseed. Lint was grown in the 1940s and ‘50s, but discontinued in the late ‘50s because it was so labour- intensive. We would normally have had twelve acres of corn, ten acres of potatoes, two acres of turnips, two acres of cabbage with the rest of the farm in grazing. My father kept a variety of livestock. He always maintained that if you kept a little bit of everything and not too much of anything you would always have something to sell. He had milking cows, calves, cattle, pigs, breeding sows, hens, turkeys and sometimes he would breed partridge. He usually kept four milking cows and about ten sucklers for producing the cattle for market. The number of pigs varied, but normally there would be about two-hundred in total. We always had had about 200
to 300 laying hens which were my mother’s responsibility.
My life as a child growing up on the farm was a healthy and happy one. As I look back, I would love to be able re-visit those days I remember so well – when everyone was there to help each other and when a bond of friendship was developed for life.
I am Raymond McNamee and I was born on the 23rd of January 1946, the eldest of four children, two boys and two girls. My father’s name was Joe and my mother’s name was Mary Annie (Lagan). I grew up on the family farm outside Maghera. The farm has been in the McNamee name for five generations, I inherited it after my father’s death in 1980. My son who is in the homestead would be the sixth generation of the family living on the farm.
After finishing primary school I went to Magherafelt Technical College, (The Tech). Then after my education, the opportunity arose to join the Ministry of Agriculture. When I first joined the Ministry on 17th August 1964 I was sent to Riversdale a small village about six miles from Enniskillen but I continued to help out on the farm at weekends and during the holidays. I always loved working with my hands and even to the present day I get a lot of pleasure from restoring old machines that would have been used on the farm in the ‘50’s and ‘60s. My pride and joy is the first tractor that came to the farm, the T20. I married my wife, Bernadette in 1972 and we have three children and eight grandchildren
Description of Farm
Our farm is situated in Tamneymullan just outside Maghera, the back wall of the house is the boundary between Tamneymullan and Moneymore. It was a mixed farm as most farms were in those days. Originally, the farm was approximately 20 acres but there would have been a lot taken in con-acre. In the ‘50s and ‘60s there was about 30 acres taken in con-acre.
In the past there were two lint dams in one of the fields, and a mill. Where exactly the mill was I don’t know, but I was told that there had been a mill in what we called the Mill Field and it got burned. The only remaining thing we have left is a heavy rectangular stone that was used in the mill. There is a small stream running through the farm between two of the fields and that stream was always referred to as the mill race.
We were fortunate to have a very good type of land, mostly a light clay suitable for all types of crops. The only field there was a bit of moss in was actually the field that belongs to St Pat’s College and is now used as a playing field.
Our land was all arable. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, our main crops were potatoes, corn, grasseed and lint (flax). My father also kept livestock – cattle and pigs – we never kept sheep. The cattle were all bred and reared on the farm. My father always kept pure bred dairy shorthorn. We took a bull to Balmoral show one time it was called ‘Tamneymullan Monarch’ and it got a second place in the Dairy Shorthorn Class.
My father picked the best heifers from the herd and kept them for milking cows, the rest went for beef. Most of our cattle were sold as ‘stores’ in Maghera by Roy Crawford who was an Auctioneer and had a place in beside where Gormley’s pub is now. The dairy shorthorns were good milkers, we sent the milk to the creamery in Moneymore.
There was always a cow tail pump in the yard and it’s still there today. In 1931 my uncle sent money home from America for the erection of the pump which was bought from Henry Hugh McErlean, Magherafelt.