Farming is one aspect of life that has seen drastic changes in the last eighty years. The arrival of the tractor and, later, electricity revolutionised farming not just in Ireland but the whole world. John Hanley from Ballydavid is a man who has lived through and adapted to these changes from the 1920s on.
John, who is 88 years old, grew up in a lovely cut stone cottage which lies behind the modern one in which he lives today. It was built by Pat Hynes in the 1830s with his two sons, Frank who was a carpenter and Tom who was a stonemason. There were two rooms with a parlour and a kitchen and the loft was entered by a ladder. There was more tillage farming then as people did not have the land for pastoral farming. Animals were often borrowed and most families had one horse and one cow. They also had two calves, one of which was sold to “ranchers” such as the Lamberts. The family in which John grew up was small, with just two girls and a boy and he was the youngest. He can remember the farming methods which have now become obsolete such as “squitching”. This took place when wheat was cut with scythe – a chair was placed upside down in a barn and a stone was placed in the middle of it. Then the ends of the wheat stalks were hit off the stone until all the wheat grains fell off. The bare stalks were then used for thatching. Bluestone (copper sulphate) mixed with washing soda if sprayed on potatoes will keep away disease and actually make them bigger. A potato cut into slits or sections will increase its yield when it is sown in a ridge.
John can also remember wheat being winnowed in a special wooden container with a good draught behind it. Wheat was the most common type of grain sown. Oats were also important and as John says, “A hen will only eat good oats”. The wheat was taken to the mill which was owned by the Irvines during the 1930s, who bought it from all the farmers in the area. There was no such thing as a “sliced pan” in those days as people then baked their own bread. There were different strains of wheat also. “Attle” was used for white bread and “Brownie” for brown bread. Goodbody’s Mill in Galway would grind wheat for white bread. Prices generally were very bad and as John says, “There was no money”. A turfcutter was paid a pound for five long days’ work. Stalkers and beet pullers were paid about ten to twelve shillings. “If you had half a crown at the races, you were a rich man”. The fair days are still vivid in John’s mind. There were three every year on the 5th May, 2nd July and the 25th October. Fairs also existed in Oranmore and Monivea at the time. At the fair in Athenry a cow cost about seven or eight pounds, a sheep cost one to two pounds, a bag of potatoes cost twopence halfpenny and oats were five pence (old pennies) a stone. The previous evening the farmer marched his cattle about half way to Athenry and left them in a field for the night. The following morning he had to rise at 3.00 am or 4.00 am and herd them in the rest of the way. The town would be thronged with both people and animals.
Shopkeepers put up boards over their windows to protect them from cattle who were not dehorned in those days. However, shopkeepers endured this kind of thing gladly as the farmer bought much of what they had to sell. Most of the business was done around Glynn’s corner in Old Church Street where the factory buyer or “jobber” would approach the farmer and ask for a price at which he would laugh derisively. He would then send a friend to bid less, knowing that the farmer is getting worried that he won’t sell. The jobber returns and shouts “Will you give them‘?” and the bargain is struck. As John says, “You needed your wits about you”.
There was also a tax or “custom” of 6d (two and a half pence nowadays) a beast, taken by Mikey Tierney, which went to the County Council. Once the deal was struck, the jobber gave the farmer a docket so that the beast could be delivered to the railway. After the cattle were in the railway cars the farmer received another docket and brought it back to the jobber who was usually drinking in one of the pubs. If the two dockets tallied the farmer would get paid.
Every shopkeeper swept his or her part of the street and at 4.00 am. Then the County Council gang under the able leadership of Joe Shaughnessy brushed all the cow dung into a channel to be carried away later. One had to be careful walking the streets on the night of a fair as there was no electric street lighting at that time.
The first electricity supply according to John belonged to James Ruane of Prospect until the E.S.B. took it over.
The house that John grew up in was also the house in which he raised his ten children. John also thatched this house, a craft he learned from his father. Wheaten straw and hazel scallops were used for thatching. The wheaten straw was thrashed with a flail but sometimes reeds were obtained from the Shannon or as near as Caheroyan. According to John the knack in thatching is to put up the first row and tighten it. The second row is then bound to the first and the following rows are layered. The roof pitch has to be at least 45 degrees for the water to run off without penetrating the thatch. Depending on the straw the thatch would last about twelve to fourteen years. The hazel scallops were bought in Polnabanney for a shilling a bundle. The thick ones could be split in two if you were getting short of them. After the thatch was up it would be treated with bluestone to preserve the wheaten straw for up to three years extra. Hiring a thatcher then would not have been expensive, costing only five old shillings a day. Any hired labour stayed in the house with all the meals provided for them. Farmers then were basically self-sufficient apart from tea, sugar and tobacco which were bought in the town. John says, that people then ate a lot of fish and up to the 1920s a van would pass once a week selling herrings and cod. Everyone had a wooden container with a grill at the bottom for holding fish called a “skid”. The fish would last a week.
Bacon was also important and smoking made it very sweet. Every family in the district reared and killed a pig. This was a gruesome but necessary event on the farm. It involved tying two of the pigs legs together and throwing it onto a table. A special man, a local “butcher”, was brought in to kill the pig which he usually did by cutting it’s throat. The blood was then drained and collected by the women of the house. The animal died very quickly and the butcher started to “scald” the pig. One local man, Connor, charged half a crown but he needed a jar of porter for each stage of the butchering. The pig was scalded in a barrel and the hair was scraped off with a piece of tin. The pig was opened and the puddings were taken out and given to the housewife which she would prepare over two or three days. The pig was hung up and butchered and nearly everything was used. As John says “The only waste that was in the pig was her screech”. Another method of killing a pig was used by John Coffey. The pig was held with a looped rope on a stick and was stuck between the eyes with a pole-axe. This would make the pig drop and a knife was then plunged into its throat and heart. The blood was then collected in a bucket with salt in it to stop the blood clotting. Instead of scalding a blow lamp was used to bum the hair off and then the skin was scraped. Surprisingly pigskin was not utilised for leather goods.
Old or sick animals were sent to the factory to be processed into bonemeal, fertiliser or manure. Fertilisers came on the scene with the arrival of “Joanna”, which was a red manure from the Canary Islands. This was mixed together with “super”, which came in a 16 stone bag, and potash to give better growth. After the manure was mixed and put into an eight stone bag, it had to be spread by hand by throwing it with the wind. This was important because if it was ever blown back in your face “it would burn the eyes in your head”. John says that farmers today force the land by strip-grazing it but other new techniques like slatted sheds for collecting manure are very beneficial. Forking manure used to be a very big job on the farms of yesteryear.
John also thinks that although there was a lot more work to do, they were nicer times. There was no rushing with things like saving the hay. A farmer then was doing well if he brought in ten cocks a day with a horse and cart. Today this would be done in five minutes. Driving in the hens and ducks was a difficult job when they wanted to stay out in the rain after slugs. John also thinks that rushing is the cause of accidents on farms. In the old days farm accidents were quite rare and, even in a farm activity as dangerous as threshing, John can only remember one incident when a man in Craughwell had his arm taken off. It was only in serious cases like this that a doctor would be called. For ordinary illnesses you would just grin and bear it as John can’t remember if there were any old cures. He also thinks that people were not as prone to sickness then as they had a simpler diet. Because the people ate less sugar their teeth were better, although a “black” man at the fair used to do good business pulling teeth without an anaesthetic.
Also at the fair was a “cheap Jack” who sold good second-hand clothes. Sometimes John’s mother made clothes for him and the rest of the family. Men’s woollen trousers were very warm but were only partly lined with flannel which made them were itchy on the legs. According to John, men wore soft hats because they would soften blows received from ashplants during any faction fighting. The farmer of the times past rotated his crops in the following fashion. The first crops sown were wheat and oats. Then came early potatoes such as May Queens and Epicures which were sown in February and dug in May. Next came a second crop of oats and potatoes from April to June. Crows were a big problem on the farm and a scarecrow was the solution although that had to be changed once the crows became used to it. The last crop of the season was turnips which were sown in July and pulled in November. At Christmas a goose was killed, cooked and served with cabbage and turnips. The bird was put in a special grill in the oven so that the grease could be collected in a pan below. Hot coals called ciarans were placed under the oven and “if the ashes got in you didn’t mind”. The finishing touch was to cook a few slices of the bacon on top of the goose. As regards machinery, there were mowing machines, ploughs and harrows but no tractors. Preparing soil was very tedious and involved harrowing, tilling and cross harrowing before the oats were sown. After sowing, the ground was harrowed again and then the roller was brought out. Ploughs were mended by blacksmiths such as Maddens, Brodys and Quinns, who also manufactured gates, shovels and forks.
In those days land went to the eldest son. The second son had to spend most of his youth working on the family farm.
After that emigration to America or England was on the cards. Women on the farm had to milk cows, feed pigs, hens and turkeys as well as do the knitting, darning, sewing and cooking. Churning butter was another duty and when a man entered the room the women of the house expected him to give the chum a twist. Marriage was for either love or land or both. Matchmakers were common at fairs and dowries would be set at either fifty pounds or one hundred pounds. The father of the bride had to walk the land before the marriage ceremony to see if the groom had what he said he had. More than a few let the neighbour’s cattle in to confirm their status in their perspective father-in-law’s mind. John says that the arrival of the dancehalls like the “Seapoint’ in the 50s put an end to widespread matchmaking. Before the showband era, dancing took place at the cross-roads or more usually in the kitchen of one of the big houses like Monivea or Castlelambert. A Government Licence Controlling where dances could take place put an end to all that later on. The arrival of electricity under the Rural Electrification Scheme was of major benefit to the towns since the 1930s but did not come to the countryside until the 1950s. According to John there was some resistance to electricity by those who thought it was too dear or just useful for giving light. John agrees that this, together with the arrival of the tractor, was the biggest change in farming this century if not for all time. Before it took place radios had wet and dry batteries which had to be charged. In Athenry the wet batteries were charged by Joe Loughnane who was often called upon during a match.
Farm horses had to be brought out early or late in the day because of the horseflies. The other solution to these pests was brushing Jeyes Fluid onto the horse’s chest but after a while this would be sweated off. John says that there are less flies, which is a good thing, as they would torment the horses. The Irish Draught and the half Clydesdale were the most popular breeds of workhorse on Irish farms at that time. Cattle breeds were limited to Shorthorn, Angus and Hereford. There were no A.I. stations in those days – bulls were obtained from neighbours like the Murphys or the Maddens. Unlike today, there were no catalogues and bulls didn’t have fancy names or extensive pedigrees. “So how did one tell a good bull from a bad bull?” John says that. “A good bull should have square hind-quarters and broad shoulders”. For service a cow was brought down the road, sometimes for about 2 or 3 miles, to the field where the bull was held on his own. Once he saw the cow he started roaring and she was then led into the field to her fate. Cows came in heat all year round and were fed by putting them out to pastures. There were no nuts.
In the winter they were given turnips, mangolds and crushed oats. In a bad year the farmer had to keep the feed for his animals at the same level as a good year. The same went for seed. If there was any cutting back to be done it was with the farmer himself, and often the family just had to do without.
The Economic War of the 1930s was particularly tough for farmers with very poor prices such as four pounds being offered for a good cow, and five to ten shillings for a sheep. Things got so bad that people were killing calves for their skins. The small farmer found it difficult to survive with no money coming into the farm. ‘The only transport he could afford was shank’s mare or maybe a bicycle. The horse and gig or trap was for the better off farmer.
Religion was taken very seriously by everyone that time. Some priests were objects of fear. “You’d go in over the wall to avoid the priest”. If he saw a boy and girl walking together ” he’d nearly attack them”. A woman would never walk into a pub. Women rarely drank, or maybe “a glass of port wine at the Stations”.
Drinking in public was a man’s preserve.
When John grew up football was actually more popular than hurling in Athenry. This was due to the De Wetts football team whose popularity was probably more to do with the fact that they were doing military drills at the time rather than with football. Handball was also a much more popular sport here in the past than it is today and Athenry had some champion players then.
Superstition was much more prevalent when John was growing up. On May Day the butter could be stolen from the milk. At the fair there was red tape on the tail of each cow to show that their milk would give butter. There were pisrógs such as the burying of eggs and bacon in fields and in hay to take the good from the land.
Magpies also carried superstitions as John says, “One for luck, two for joy, three to get married and four to die”. When John was a child it was common for very young boys to be dressed as girls. This was done up to the 1930s and John was no exception to the rule. John looks back to the past as a time when farming was much more satisfying.
Ploughing with horses was actually better than with tractors. The satisfaction was in literally seeing the sweat of your brow being returned. Controlling potato blight is much easier now but John thinks that farmers today harvest potatoes far too early. In his day he would wait until the stalks were white and dry which meant that all the sap was in the potato itself. Perhaps the last thing to be said should be what John thinks would make a successful farmer. “If he’s interested in his work and put his money to the right use, then that’s what would make a good farmer”.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Eamon Brady, Moanbaun, for his invaluable assistance in researching this article.