Friday, 10 February 2012

Celtic Roots Craic! 47 – Sowin' wi' a fiddle!

The 'Aero' fiddle seed dispenser
February 10, 2012

Last week I talked about drivin', our latest Belfast sculpture and about the things we used to do when we were kids.  I mentioned how flax used to be grown a lot and how it was retted in a Flax Hole.  I never actually witnessed that process because, although my Dad used to work for what was then called, The Linen Thread Company, by the time I was around man-made fibres had taken over and very little linen was being made.

I DO remember when the neighbour's field behind our house was used to grow corn.  Now corn, means different things in different parts of the world.  In the USA it normally means maize, which we used to call 'Indian corn,' here in Ireland – it was first introduced here when America first sent us some as famine relief in the nineteenth century.  In England corn means wheat, but in Ireland corn always referred to oats – the cereal that looks most like grass, in my opinion.  We don't grow much oats any more, because it mainly used to be grown to feed horses – in the days when horses where used for agriculture.

Then tractors began to appear on the scene and horses became a thing of the past.  The first tractors we saw were mostly old Ferguson 35s, before it became Massey Ferguson.  These started on petrol and then ran on something called TVO – Tractor Vehicle Oil.  Diesel tractors came a little bit later.  In fact, out in the country we improvised our own tractthers, usually by chopping the body off an old car and adding a sort of trailer body – more like an early pickup truck than anything – but you could use one to go around a field, spreading manure, or picking up hay at haytime.  Yep, it was right out of the Beverley Hillbillies!

I drove one of these – belonging to my uncle Wullie, who lived just up the road – when I was only about six, or so.  When I say 'drove', I just steered it in a straight line, while it crawled along in first gear, while my father and cousin forked peat litter (from the hens we kept), off the back of it.  When we got near the hedge my Dad would jump down and steer it back towards the other end of the field, then go back to work.

When our neighbour's corn (oats, I mean) was ripe in the field behind us, they brought in an old Ferguson 35 tractor, towing what we in Co. Down called a 'r'aper' – in other words a former horse-drawn reaper, trailed behind the tractor – to cut the corn.  The sheaves were then bound by hand and stooked together to dry – the whole family taking part.  After a few days drying the big event took place – the thresher arrived!  This was an old – originally horse-drawn – thresher, made mostly of wood painted with orange lead paint, that had faded to a sort of pink colour.  It was trailed into the field behind a tractor and then belt driven from the tractor to thresh the corn.  No such thing as a combine harvester in those days!

Back then, practically everything was done by hand.  When our hay was ready to cut in June a neighbour would come and cut it with a r'aper, then, in the evening, the whole family would rake the hay into rows, with huge wooden handrakes.  Even with my mother and uncles and cousins helping it took hours to row eight acres – and the next day they'd have to be spread out in the sun again!  We didn't have such a thing as a baler, either, so when the hay was ready it was loaded by hand with a pitchfork onto a trailer, or one of those pick-ups, and hauled in to the yard, where it would be pitchforked again into the shed.

Our neighbour on the other side had about twenty acres, which he farmed full-time.  He would stack his hay in fairly small stacks and then later collect it with a buckrake, a large pronged implement on the back of the tractor, which reversed under the stack and lifted it up.  What usually happened, though, was that the front of the small tractor would lift up instead – so my neighbour's sons and daughter would have to sit on the front of the tractor – just like Ellie-May Clampett! – to balance the load, and they would proceed across the field see-sawing up and down – great entertainment for my brother and I.

We had one very steep field, with maybe a 40 degree slope!  It's known as the Dam Bank, because it's opposite the river, which used to have a dam back then, so that it could feed water to power a couple of watermills.  My father decided to re-sow this field one year and a neighbour ploughed it for us one-way – in other words, down the slope.  There was some room to line up at the top – though it must have seemed like jumping off a cliff – but very little room to turn at the bottom – a very hair-raising and dangerous enterprise, which nobody would dream of attempting nowadays. 

After it was ploughed and harrowed my father sowed the field – again by hand, using a piece of equipment which was common enough in those days.  It was called a fiddle, because you held it in you left hand like a fiddle, with a small a mount of seed in a bag attached over your shoulder, and you played back and forwards with a bow in your right hand, whose string went around a cogged wheel.  This wheel flung the seed out in each direction as you played and all the sower had to do was walk back and forth across the length of the field, re-filling the bag and sowing as he went.  I helped by bringing him by marking the soil already sown and bringing fresh seed – but by the time we had that field sown my Dad and I were both pretty well sunburned!

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