A Farming Memoir from the Parish of
Spoken By Paddy O’Reilly and edited by
Growing up on a small farm in the parish of Drumlane in the County of Cavan in the Forties and Fifties might, by present day standards, seem to appear dull and listless, but in retrospect there are many very fond memories and recollections which deserve preservation- and of course one of them is Farming itself!
As is the case today, there were in my young days, two fundamentals which governed farming to the hilt, namely the Weather and the Seasons.
Here in Drumlane, farms measured from 30 to 60 acres and would carry from 6-8 cows and 1-3 sows. Crops consisted of an acre-and-a-half of potatoes in the first year and then oats in the second year. In heavy soil such as my father had, you got poor yields after the first year, hence the need for rotation. Cows which would be tied in the Winter and early Spring would commence calving in April to May
The Potatoes in April – May
Around the time (and again depending on the weather), early April in any case, the ploughing of ground would commence, single score pulled with two horses. Potatoes were set in ridges rather than drills up to mid May. The ridges varied in width from three feet to four-foot-six.
The Turf in June
June was the month for saving the turf when all farmers headed for the Bogs. In our area it was Mud-Turf. If you ever experienced a hard day’s work it was surely the making of Mud-turf! Whether digging it from deep down, mixing it or spreading it on the Bank in the manner of mixing cement. The final Act was “marking” it with your bare hands.
July for Hay Making
Again the weather decided when Hay-Making began but in bad years it could drag on until August or even September. In these years Farmers had to resort to making Laps before getting it into Cocks which would be brought to the shed with Shifters (flat-bodied carts with low slung wheels). For a Farmer with no shed a “Meitheal” of up to ten men would collect to put it into pikes or reeks. As to the Cocks, a good man would make up to twelve in the afternoon.
Oats in September
When the turf was safely in sheds the next chore was the oats. If the weather had been good during August, saving the oats was a great pleasure but had it been wet or stormy, it was a totally different kettle of fish. In good weather the oats would be standing up straight and would fall down flat and in nice lots for the men (up to seven) to tie Sheaves. In Early Times, the oats was cut by hooks. In this system the men caught a large handful of standing oats and cut it across at the base. When he had enough handfuls he made a “soogan” or rope made from the oat stems and tied it tightly in a Sheaf. In the evening the Sheaves were made into Stooks. A Stook was made by putting four sheaves standing against one another with straw side on the ground and the oat side on top. Then one or two Sheaves were places upside down on top of the stook to keep out the rain. Some days later the Stooks were built into stacks and covered with rushes to keep the rain from the oats. When finished the stacks had the appearance of cocks of hay.
The next step was the Thresher which essentially separated the oats from the straw. As soon as possible after this, the oats went to the local mill for crushing into meal and made feed for the animals and porridge for the family. In later years the hook gave way to the scythe and then came the Reaper which cut the corn with a machine; then the tractor and for big Farmers, the Reaper and Binder, which did all together.
October digging the Potatoes
October was the month for digging the potatoes. As with all farm work success or difficulty depended on the weather! If the weather was dry and the farmer had tended to the crop as he should- like moulding, weeding and spraying- digging the potatoes could be a pleasure, both for the men doing the digging and those doing the picking, they would end the day with clean hands and clean potatoes. However, if the weather was cold and wet and the weeds not pulled, the whole affair became extremely difficult and mucky. Then, if spraying wasn’t properly done there would be a lot of “Dummers”(black potatoes) from blight and of course these had to be separated from the sound ones and with many of them rotten the whole affair became very disagreeable to say the least.
The next step was to get the potatoes into a heap or pit as it was known in some places and give them a good straw covering to keep out the frost. They could remain there for up to three weeks and then get a good covering of clay. The big trouble then could be rats, if there was a long period of frost or snow. If rats got into the pit it could be very serious and great damage could be done to a crop which had to feed the House until the following July. So the farmer, or some member of the household would be deputed to watch the pit for any sign, however small, of a rat, like tracks or droppings. If such a sign manifested itself immediate action was the order of the day. A large trap baited with a nice juicy piece of bacon would be laid down and generally did the trick. Sometimes more direct methods were needed like Strychnine or Killcrow but these were only used in extreme cases. The pit of course would have to be opened occasionally in order to get some potatoes but this was done with great care.
November was the month that cows and calves were housed for Winter and early Spring (generally around April, weather permitting). As to be expected the cows went dry very quickly and had to be fed with hay. The cows were tied into a byre while the calves had their own “Loose House”. The feeding regime would be three times per day with the cow being brought to a stream for a drink once per day. Some cows would run back to the byre when they found the cold air and therefore would miss the drink. The ones that did that however, were easily identified by the simple method of checking the manure which minus water, would be as cold as ice and just as hard !
Looking after the cows and calves was not as simple as it may sound. Granted, after both were housed for a while they would generally settle down but there was nearly always one called the “Figgetty One”. She always appeared to be getting up and lying down “mooing” for her calf in the other shed and tugging at her chain. This part of the action could be extremely dangerous for the reason (and it often happened) that she twisted and turned and the link on her chain would come loose; she was then free and what would she do then? Well, she would immediately attack the other cows and create bedlam. In most cases the cows that were being attacked would start roaring; the farmer or very often his wife would be woken up and action would be taken to settle things down. Even this was not as simple as it may seem for you now had the problem of re-tying the cow but in the middle of the night with the obstacle of a broken chain, how did we manage? Well, maybe if there was a good strong padlock about the house or in the barn, it could be used to put the two links of the chain together.
At this stage the wife would often chip in(at times to the annoyance of the farmer), as the farmer rummaged around for what passed for a toolbox- with some difficulty- she could blurt out……”This is a nice mess and me after tellin’ya several times to get rid of that lunatic of a cow as she’ll be the death of the two of us yet!”. Poor Tom, or John or Mickey was often heard to reply….”Maisey, will ya for Jaysus sake go back to bed, I can do nothin’ from listenin’te ya!”
There was, apart from everything else, a serious side to this situation and it often meant that the farmer had to stay with the wild cow and send his wife or one of the children down to a neighbour’s house for help. The danger was that if the wild cow got out of the byre she would go straight to the calf house and attack every calf except her own-often with fatal consequences. There are cases on record where three or four calves were killed before they could escape.
The Fair Day
The Fairs were a big event in rural Ireland from the mid-to-the-late-nineteenth Century until well on into the twentieth Century when they were superseded by the Cattle Marts. Cattle, sheep, pigs and sometimes the odd donkey, pony or horses could be traded out on the main streets of towns and villages throughout the country. Some farmers were very slow to adopt the Mart’s systems of buying and selling but eventually as the Marts grew the Fairs faded so there was no other choice. It had to come, of course, but a whole ritual not to mention a unique way of buying and selling slowly faded away. For instance, if a farmer lived, say, three to five miles from the town or village in which the Fair would be held, his day might begin between 4am-5am; particularly if “Bovines” were the animals to be sold. Firstly, the animal had to be collected from the “House Field” where they would have spent the previous night. And why, you may ask could they not be housed and save a whole lot of bother? Because, Dear Modern Farmer, the cattle had to be looking their absolute best and this could not be achieved if they were in a house and maybe lay down on a dungpat which would dry up over night and spoil the animal’s appearance. So, the drill was, bring the animals into the shed about twenty minutes before departure for the Fair; wash their hooves, tales and horns and then comb them down with a big comb called a “Rack”. They were then ready for the road.
In general, three men or two men and a stout boy, would drive the cattle to the Fair. The boy would go in front in case an animal was inclined to break away or there was a gap or open gate which had to be shut. The boy also had instructions to walk slowly all the way, it was a mortal sin to allow an animal to go beyond a slow walking pace on the way to the Fair. There was a danger from fast walking, namely, sweating, coughing or croup which would damage the animal’s appearance in the town and give the Buyer an excuse to belittle the animal or animals. The only time that an animal or animals were allowed to run was if a deal was done on the roadway to town and the Buyer told the owner to put them in a certain yard.
The buying and selling was of course, an art in itself with the owner asking for a ridiculously high price and the buyer sneering at his foolishness with remarks like….”Are yah out of the Quare-House?” or “Bring them home and give them something to ate!”. Around this juncture a “Blocker” might appear. Blockers were men with two functions-1). Close the deal on behalf of the Buyer and 2). Look out for lively animals for the Buyer and make a bid and then go away for a while. This would mean that no other Buyer could enter the deal until the first party came back to continue the bidding.
The Importance of the Pig
It was an old adage that the pig was the sheet anchor of the Cavan farmer and there is no doubt that there was more than a grain of truth in the old saying. For one thing, while the cow and calf (or the sheep and lamb) were seasonal, the pig, if treated with wisdom and foresight could be an all-year round help to the Household.
Put at its simplest, if the farmer sent his Sow to the Boar in Springtime she would have a litter of anything up to ten piglets in a few months. In another few months a goodly number would be ready for the Market but the canny Farmer would hold back maybe three or four for fattening into pork for sale to Butchers or to Farmers who killed a pig annually for use in his own home.
There was also good money to be made from Pig- Dealers from the West of Ireland who attended Pig Fairs all over Cavan in search on Bonhams. These young pigs would then be used for retail all over Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo for fattening into pork. The best known of these dealers was a man from Ballaghadereen called Mattie Touhy. In addition to Fairs, Mattie had a number of contacts in Cavan who, when he called, would go with him to Farmers that he knew had Bonhams for sale; there was one proviso- Mattie only bought top quality and so, woe betide the “Guide” who led him to second-grade stock. As a Dealer and as a personality Mattie was honest, upright and Religious and was never known to take part in a shady deal.
World War 11 ends- the Impact on Farming
The end of the Second World War in 1945 brought about many changes to Ireland, North and South, but the real changes came in the North long before the South got its act together! While the Farmers South of the Border spent that Autumn and Winter doing the chores they had always done i.e. lashing wheaten straw for thatch, cutting scallops for thatching with oaten straw, cutting overgrown hedges with slash-hooks and billhooks and cleaning drains, the Northern Brethren were entering a much more advanced Era. The tradition was that in winter with no Creamery cheques coming in or other cash flow (apart from selling a few eggs or perhaps a pig or two) everything went quiet North and South.
All changed however, as the year 1945 wore on and England after six years of war, was striving to get back to normality and of course, by far and away the main demand was for food. One element resulted from this which was to change the face of farming forever. Namely, England brought in a system of grants in aid for her own farmers and quickly followed suit in extending the facilities to the North. As the Subsidies rolled in from Britain through Belfast and made their way Southwards (but stopped at the border) all the Free-Staters could do was to look on in amazement.
Farming the Border
Very soon following the signing of the Treaty in 1921 the practice of smuggling in both directions along the border was not really a practice but an Art form. It was really intensified during the War Years when it probably reached its zenith. Depending on supply and availability it was a twenty-four-hour occupation with a variety of Goods going in both directions. One great Catcall was “sugar up and tea down”. This arose from the fact we had no ships to bring us tea from the East and the British had, but we had four sugar factories and the North or much of Britain had none- hence the Catcall!
When the war ended in 1945 major changes took place North and South. The British poured in money in all sorts of ways, i.e. grants loans and injections of all sorts, most of it coming from the USA as part of the famous “Marshall Plan”. Of course the North got its share and all we could do was to look on from South of the Border.
Machinery and fertilizers were our major difficulties as they were in short supply, but strangely with Irish ingenuity the problems were resolved. With an over supply of fertilizer in the North there were plenty of Farmers willing to deal with their Southern Counterparts. Transport was no problem. Farmers North and South got their hands on a few boats and hey, Bob’s-your-uncle! It was strictly a night-time operation conducted in deadly silence. It would not do, you know, to disturb or annoy those nice men who patrolled the Border day and night, No noisy oars or oarlocks, just slide along quietly in the shadow of the bank or tree and don’t come out of the River Erne where you had entered. Just take out the boat, carry it across a field or two and hide it for the next night. Custom men were not fond of dark fields!
The machinery was even more simple. An enterprising company, (Con Smith and Company) from Cavan had hit on the easy plan of purchasing many hundreds of discarded Ferguson Tractors in England, bringing them Home, rebuilt them and sold at a very attractive price. It was probably the greatest boost that Cavan farmers ever got.
The Birth of the Farming Association
Another great boost was on the way in 1955 in the form of the creation of the National Farmers Association (now IFA). But, until a man from Templeport called Benny Donohoe, came around seeking recruits, we didn’t know much about it. Meetings were held at which, Benny spoke passionately about the need for farmers to band together if they were to make real progress. He called to me as I was digging a drain one day…”Get ready” he said “Get organised and above all get educated, keep accounts and you will go places”.
Benny arranged for Dick Hourigan, the Chief NFA organiser and three other men to come to the area during the following week. They got to every farmer in the area with the message. To join up there were a scale of fees. Depending on your acreage it could be 10 shillings to two pounds. On that canvass alone no less than eighty farmers either came up with the full fees or signed Creamery Standing-Orders. There were of course those who doubted if the NFA would ever get anywhere or could do anything for them. However, by the end of 1955 almost 100% had signed up. A working Committee was formed with Benny Donohoe as Chairman. He also represented Cavan on the National Executive for about fifteen years.
Farming was in a depressed state in the early sixties but the Government was paying very little attention. The pressure among farmers was rising however and at County Executive meetings in Cavan an attendance of 70-80 farmers could be expected. Benny Donohoe was on the road day and night attending not alone county meetings but also meetings of the National Executive in Dublin which used to be held in Earlsfort Terrace.
Benny was a wonderful worker and he had many good men around him but the real guiding –light as far as strategies, procedures and foresight were concerned was a tall and farseeing Solicitor who farmed at Crossdoney, near Ballinagh. Tall, courteous and a most persuasive orator, his name was Myles Smyth.
1966 Farmers’- Rights march to Dublin
It was at a September County Executive meeting in 1966 that it was announced that an All-Ireland march to Dublin would be held in October to highlight the Farmers plight to the Irish Government. Farmers had been agitating for some considerable time and events such as blocking bridges over the Shannon had taken place but to no avail. Even those parts of the Media which in the usual course of events would not be on the side of the Farmers were of a different mind, in this case. Finally, a stone-wall was reached when the Government refused to recognise the NFA. It was at this juncture that the National President, Ricard Deasy and his board of advisors said….” If the Government will not come to us, we will go to them”-hence the National March to Dublin.
In Cavan, at an organising meeting Benny asked for Volunteer Marchers. When the result was sparse he jumped up, pounded on the table and shouted …” Be God I’ll walk with yiz but not for yiz”. At that, thirty to forty hands immediately went up!
The historic Farmers-rights-Campaign March to Dublin was a wonderful success. Good humour and hospitality was the order over the six or seven days with accommodation on offer everywhere. Marchers linked up with one another. Briefly, Navan was the meeting place for Cavan and it really was some sight when all Branches of the NFA joined on the Sunday. Then it was Monday, Dunshaughlin, Tuesday, Clonee and then the buses to Parnell Square.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT AT LEINSTER HOUSE MADE HISTORY