Thursday 9 August 2012

Celtic Roots Craic 53 – 'Up ta yer uxters in glar!'

8th August, 2012

Barbour Threads (formerly The Linen Thread Company), Hilden, Lisburn
So what have I been up to recently – well, designing book covers and publishing paperback editions of a couple a' books, sorting out my accounts for the past year and, oh yes, cleaning out a well.  That involved climbin' down a 20 ft ladder (after pumping all the water out) and then filling buckets, either with very dirty water, stones, or thick glar – then climbin' the ladder again and hauling the buckets up on a rope to empty them.  'Glar' is a great Ulster-Scots word ye might not have come across before.  It refers to somethin', usually black and sticky, with the consistency of thick porridge.  It can apply to sticky clay, but in this case it means rotted vegetation, mixed with bits of stick and stones that have fallen down the well for many years.

There have been cottages here since the mid 1600s, so this well was probably dug nearly 300 years ago.  It's solid rock all the way down and nice and cool to work in when it's warm and humid up above.  When ye've spent a day up and down the ladder ye really do end up 'up to yer uxters in glar', I'm tellin' ye!

When i finally got it emptied, the well was three feet deeper than when I started!  One of the items removed was a large piece of timber which, on closer examination by my neighbour, turned out to be one of the shafts of a cart.  He being pretty much of a horse expert would know.  Though why anyone would want to throw this down a well, I have no idea!  Other items found were the remains of several buckets and three large stones, weighing several hundredweight, which I just about managed to haul up on a rope – with a few hours gap between stones!  Those stones were probably covering the well at one time and then got knocked in.

Thankfully, all the glar, stones and other items have all been removed now – the only thing still to come out is the old pipework, which is a heavy 2" iron pipe, with large flanged joints.  The pipe will have to be cut up into about five separate pieces before they can be hauled out by rope.  Meanwhile, the new pump is installed in the well and now connected underground to the building, with some lime in the bottom to sweeten the water a bit.  When I've finished and it has had a few weeks to settle properly, then we'll test the water to see if it is fit for drinking, needs filtered, or maybe only used for washing and flushing.  We'll see.


Well, I expect a lot of you watched the opening ceremony for the London Olympics – some spectacle, eh?  And a wee short clip of the Giant's Causeway in Co. Antrim near the start.  I was really impressed with the motte, the grassy mound with the tree on top – just like you find in Celtic forts all over Ireland.  In the performance the tree was pulled up and all the industrial workers came out, turning an agricultural scene into the Industrial Revolution. 

In Ireland that happened mainly in the north.  All over Northern Ireland you'll find mills, or the remains of mills – especially in Belfast.  In the heart of Co. Down, where we hope to be living in the near future, there were no less than seven mills along the nearby Ballynahinch River.  Some of these were corn mills, where the local farmers got their oats and barley milled.  Some were flax mills, were flax was taken from the flax holes –   or lint holes – and spun into yarn, then woven into the famous Irish Linen.

The farmer pulled the flax plant up by the roots and placed the damp bundles into the lint hole, weighed down with stones.  Nowadays they use tanks and chemicals instead.  The next stage after removing the retted flax and drying it was called scutching, which was done in a scutch mill, passing the flax between rollers to break up the woody material and remove it.  This process produced a lot of dust. After scutching the linen fibres were spun into yarn, giving rise to many spinning mills.  And finally, the spun yarn was was woven into Irish Linen, which then had to be bleached – originally in the sun on a bleaching green. 

Flax was grown particularly in Co. Down and Co. Antrim and you can still find the remains of old flax holes across the country.  Some of the skill in linen making came to Northern Ireland with the Huguenots – 10,000 French Protestant refugees in the 18th century, who brought their linen-making expertise with them from France.  The Huguenots didn't just come to the north of Ireland, there is a Huguenot graveyard in Merrion Row, Dublin, near the Shelbourne Hotel, with over 200 surnames from the La Rochelle area of France.  Most of these names are no longer to be found, but D'Olier Street in Dublin's city centre is an example.  Other small groups went to Waterford, Youghal, Cork, Portarlington and Lisburn, in Co. Antrim. 

When we were young my father worked for the Linen Thread Company in Hilden, near Lisburn, and flax was still being spun there.  We used to play with the wooden bobbins and used the combing needles, or hackle pins, to start a screw hole, etc.  The whole industry changed over to making synthetic thread – nylon, etc. – contributing to the decline of the linen industry.  I worked there myself one summer, I had a contract to replace windows on the third floor of one of the mill buildings, while the German machinery – and the music-while-you-work – rattled loudly in my ears.  It was impossible to have a conversation.

Linen mills are found all over Belfast, Lisburn and many other towns in Northern Ireland, though few of them produce linen today.  The pale blue flowers of the flax plant are becoming a thing of the past, too.

Thursday 31 May 2012

Celtic Roots Craic! 52 – 'On the wings of an eagle'

Eagle Wing at sea
Last show I talked a bit about Belfast's new Titanic Quarter and the Titanic Belfast centre.  Last Saturday we had a bit of a wander down there in the sun and checked out the facilities on offer.  There's no free parking and you have to be prepared to do a bit of walking to get anywhere.

The SS Nomadic – sister ship to Titanic, Britannic and Olympic, and the only ship remaining of the White Star Line – is currently in the dry dock at Abercorn Basin being re-furbished.  Nomadic was used to carry 1st and 2nd class passengers from Cherbourg out to the Titanic and Olympic.

At the moment there is also a small Belfast Harbour Marina, with temporary facilities, in Abercorn Basin at the back of the Odyssey building.  Eventually, as the Titanic Quarter is developed this marina will move to the dock below the famous Harland and Wolff cranes, Goliath and Samson.

The Titanic wasn't the only ship to leave Ireland for the USA and not to arrive.  In fact, the very first ship to leave here for America was the Eagle Wing, which set off as early as 1636!  The ship was named from verses in Exodus and Isaiah, referring to the children of Israel being "carried on eagles' wings" and "soaring on wings like eagles".  This ship was built at Groomsport Harbour, on the southern shore of Belfast Lough, from 1631 on.  In 1636, 140 Presbyterian men, women and children – including four ministers – set sail for the New World in order to escape the limitations on their religious freedom, being imposed upon them by the Church of England and the English government.

Although the province of Ulster had been planted largely with Scots Presbyterians in the early 1600s, the province had subsequently been divided up into Anglican parishes, with some Presbyterian and Puritan ministers being allowed to minister in a few parishes.  Four Scots Presbyterian ministers – Blair, Welch, Livingston, and Dunbar – twice excluded from ministering in their churches, began to make plans to travel to the New World.  They made contact with Cotton Mather in New England and were assured that they would be free to practise their own unique form of Christianity there.  They sent over an agent who selected a tract of land near the mouth of the Merrimack River, on the border between Massachussetts and New Hampshire,

Groomsport Harbour and village, Co. Down
The 150 ton ship set sail from Lockfergus (present day Carrickfergus) on the north shore of Belfast Lough – with Blair, Livingston and two other preachers, Hamilton and McClelland, aboard.  They immediately had some trouble with unfavourable winds off the coast of Scotland, and grounded the ship to look for leaks in the keel.  Setting off again, they managed to cover more than half of the journey, but then encountered very stormy seas, high winds and heavy rain, resulting in a broken rudder – mended by the captain, Andrew Agnew – torn sails and other serious damage to the ship, which also sprung a leak.  Even when several passengers became sick and two died – a child and an old person – they remained 'cheerful and confident'.  One child was born during the journey and was baptised by Mr. Livingston, who named it, Seaborn.

The captain and crew told the ship's company that it was impossible to hold out any longer, with more storms to be expected before they could reach their goal.  Eventually, after much prayer and discussion, the passengers agreed to give in to their urging.  The Eagle Wing turned back for Ireland and entered the harbour at Lockfergus again on 3rd of November, after an absence of about eight weeks.

The company of the Eagle Wing, having sold all their possessions to buy goods to trade in America, and with people they had hired to help them to fish and to build houses there demanding their wages, were a good deal worse off than before they set sail.  The four ministers, still not accepted in Ireland by the ruling authorities, returned to Scotland the following year, where they had more success.  They were welcomed by the people there and became instrumental in the subsequent overturn of the episcopal form in Scotland, which has been largely Presbyterian ever since.

Eventually, more settlers from Ulster did make it to Boston and Portland in 1718, the passengers immediately inquiring about the piece of land on the Merrimack River – very likely Londonderry, New Hampshire – where they then settled.  More and more ships brought Ulster Scots settlers to America, in turn becoming pioneers and frontiersmen.  As they established each new settlement, they would first build a fort for protection from the natives and then they would build a church and a school. 

The Rev. Francis Makemie came from Ulster to America in 1683 and organised the first Presbyterian Church in America, becoming the "Father of American Presbyterianism", and in the years that followed, Ulstermen played a tremendous part in the spread of Presbyterianism in America.  Ulster Scots settlers founded schools all over the country. One of the most notable being William Tennent's Log College, founded at Neshaminy in Pennsylvania, which became the forerunner of Princeton University.

They were also involved in politics and were instrumental in the Declaration of Independence, at least eight of the signatories being of Ulster Scots background.  The document was originally handwritten by Charles Thompson, from Maghera, Co. Londonderry, and it was printed by John Dunlap, an Ulster Scot from Strabane.  At least fourteen US presidents have had Ulster Scots origins, with several others having maternal links.  From 1881-1904 the US had a continuous 23 year run of Ulster Scots presidents!  Hopefully, we've made a positive contribution, rather than otherwise!

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Celtic Roots Craic! 51 – Goliath, Samson and 'Titanic Belfast'

Titanic Belfast

10th April, 2012

A new phenomenon in Belfast in recent years has been the development of 'quarters.'  First we had what is now known as the Cathedral Quarter which, strangely enough, is near St. Anne's Cathedral to the north of the city centre.  Like Dublin's Temple Bar area, this is an area of narrow cobbled streets, restaurants, old pubs and new pubs in old buildings, with music and other entertainment.  Just opposite the cathedral is Writer's Square, with the names of local writers inlaid in the pavement, where music and arts events are held.

On the other side of the city centre, bordering the Lower Ormeau area are a group of streets we've always referred to as the Holy Land – because it includes Jerusalem Street, Palestine Street, Damascus Street, Carmel Street and Cairo Street.  This used to be a mixed residential area of small two and three story terraced houses, but it has changed dramatically over the last few years.  Most of the original inhabitants have gone.  A small number of immigrant families still live there, but the area has been invaded by several thousand students – from both Queen's University and the University of Ulster – as developers have converted and extended the small houses into student housing, leaving only the original facades unchanged.

The area is now officially part of what's known as Queen's Quarter, an area encompassing the buildings of Queen's University, a proposed new site for the University of Ulster, (which is currently outside the city), student accommodation and lots of bars, clubs and nightspots.

White Star Line poster of Titannic
The most recent quarter is in east Belfast and it's been gettin' kinda busy recently – because we're about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a great tragic event – the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  In the docks area, near the former Harland & Wolff shipyard, we now have a spectacular new building – the Titanic Belfast centre.  The building cost £77M to build and has four wings, each looking like the prow of the ship itself, joined by a central glass tower.  Inside you can learn everything there is to know about the Titanic – how it was built, the shipyard it was built in, fitting out the ship, her maiden voyage, the sinking.  You can even visit and explore the wreck underwater.

The Titanic was built in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in east Belfast – at that time the largest shipyard in the world.  In 1910 Belfast was a boom town, a strong leader in engineering and linen manufacture as well as shipbuilding.  At that time the Titanic was the largest and most luxurious liner in the world.  The shipyard employed over 35,000 people in the early 1900s – including my grandfather!

The yard was founded in 1862 and has the world's largest dry dock and later the two huge yellow cranes, which dominate the Belfast skyline, manufactured by the German company, KruupGoliath (315 ft high) was the first, in 1969, followed by Sampson, in 1974 (348 ft high).  Each crane spans 259 feet, can lift a load of 840 tons, and run on rails, driven by their own huge diesel engines inside the top of the main leg of each crane – two engines in each, one for backup. 

Filming the Titanic Quarter from 300ft up on top of Goliath crane
When the Titanic Quarter was first being planned a few years ago I was asked to film the site for their new website, from the top of the Goliath crane.  We had to get special permission to film from there and were taken up in the tiny lift inside the leg of the crane, to the engine platform at the top.  The lift tends to bounce up and down rather alarmingly as it travels!  At the top is the gantry, which looks like a large red shed, that travels on rails from one side of the crane to the other and houses the lifting gear.  The driver is suspended from this in a little downward projecting cabin, so that he can have all round vision.

Seeing we had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to film from the top of the crane, we took guitars up with us and filmed each other performing on top of Goliath.  At first it was beautiful sunny spring weather and I got some great footage of ships moving and a plane landing at the nearby George Best City Airport

Unfortunately, when I was being filmed performing, not only did my guitar strap come adrift, but a sudden wintry squall came in around us, with strong winds and snow hitting us horizontally.  We had to grab camera, tripod and guitars and scramble quickly for safety down the stairs to the engine platform at the top of the leg of the crane!

In 2007 the Goliath crane crashed into one of the smaller cranes – at 95 tonnes! – knocking it over in what could have been a lethal accident.  (Check it out on YouTube under Harland & Wolff Crane Accident).

The Titanic was built in this dock, although smaller cranes were used in her construction, along with sister White Star Line ships, Olympic and Britannic; the Royal Navy cruiser, HMS Belfast; P&O's SS Canberra and dozens of other ships. Nowadays the yard deals more with refurbishing oil rigs and drilling ships and building wind farm components. 

Titannic left Belfast on the evening of 2nd April, 1912; calling at Southampton in England; Cherbourg, France; and finally Cobh, near Cork City, in the Republic of Ireland; before setting off across the Atlantic for Manhattan, New York City.  She struck an iceberg at almost full speed on April 14th and sank two hours and forty minutes later, with the loss of more than 1,500 lives.

My great uncle, George Given, was booked to travel on the Titannic, but he was so eager to get to Canada that he travelled on an earlier ship instead.  What a providential move that turned out to be, eh?

Saturday 17 March 2012

Celtic Roots Craic! 50 – 'How's she cuttin' now, byes?'

Celtic brooch sculpture, outside St. Patrick's Centre, Downpatrick
16th March, 2012

Well, it's the time of year for a wee bit a' celebratin' of all things Irish.  I've had a very busy week, so I'm just getting to record this show at the last minute.  We've covered a fair bit of history and culture in the last couple of shows, so maybe I should vary the theme a bit the day?  It often occurs to me how incomprehensible our way of talkin' must sound to most outsiders.  Maybe if you have some Irish background then at least some phrases might be familiar to you?

For instance, a week ago a friend mentioned having had some Swedish people over visiting, when his wife came out with, "Throw yer eye along that there and see if it's straight!"  Apparently, the Swedes looked at one another with no idea of what she was saying.  To be honest, I find it fairly amazing that strangers can understand us at all!  It's not as if we're being deliberately difficult – in fact, most Irishmen probably have a built in need to communicate, to want you to understand them.  Though we'll be likely to phrase it, "Do yez undtherstann' me now, like?" – which probably doesn' help!

Take "Wud ye howl yer whissht?" for example, literally meaning 'hold your breath', or "Would you be quiet?"  Now ye could possibly have known that one from the song, 'There was an aul' woman from Wexford Town'.  If yer behavin' like a bit of an eedjit, now, someone might tell ye to, "Have a wee titther a' wit, now!"  And if that doesn't do it, ye might be towl' to "Catch yerself on!"   If somebody asks ye, "How's she cuttin' now, byes?"  wud ye undtherstann' them?  Mebbe ye would if they said, "How are yez doin' there, lads?"

The answers could possibly be a mite hard to grasp, too: "Ach, I'm bravely, like."  Or, "I'm doin' rightly, so I am."  More than likely we'd answer, "Ach, I'm dead on, ye know?"  If ye were referring to someone who'd recently been ill ye might be heard to say, "Ach, 'e's powerful failed, altogether, so he is."  If ye were talkin' about yerself and ye'd been badly, ye might say, "I'm as w'ake as watther, so I am," "I'm not worth tuppence at the moment,"  Or, "I'm not worth three ha'pence," – which is even worse, obviously!  If ye were short of a bob or two – especially if somebody's askin ye to sub them (to lend them a poun' or two) – ye might say, "Listen, I haven't three ha'pence meself to rub together, so I haven'."

A great deal of our time is spent in "havin' a wee bit a' craic."  It's a way a' "puttin' yer day in," isn't it?  If ye're later home than expected from the pub, or some other event, ye can always report, "Ach, sure the craic was grann'"  or even, "The craic was ninety, so it wuz."  If it was crowded ye would say, "Thon place was hivin' the night."  Or, "It was packed to the gills."  If yer "Rarin' ta go" it means ye're anxious to be off somewhere.  And if a woman is dressed up to go out for the night she might be "all dolled up to the nines." 

On the other hand, someone who never makes any effort to tidy themselves up could be described as, "As througho'rr as they come," or "As rough as purty oaten," – which is actually a mixture of potatoes and oatmeal.  If he's rude as well, he might be described as "an ignorant  sort of a ganch."   An' if he's mean with his money, "He wouldn' give ye daylight, so he wouldn't!"  Or, "That fella wouldn' give ye the time a' day."  If someone is a bit greedy, or an awkward person to deal with, ye might say, "I'd rather have that body a week, as a fortnight!"  If he's a big fella, ye could say, "If he was chocolate, he'd be some 'atin'!" 

Many years ago I spent a few weeks doing some building work on a friend's farm near Belfast.  Every day his mother would feed ye up to the gills with spuds an' stuff at lunchtime.  Then when you went back to work the dad would come over to see how ye were gettin' on and he'd say the same thing every time, "You know, a full sack doesn't bend!" 

If you are listening to a conversation that ye know is in the Irish language, which you don't understand, you could always say, "Ni higim.""I don't understand."   If it's in English, but ye genuinely can't follow what they're sayin', ye could say, "I have no idea what yer bletherin' on about."  If you want to be a little bit more forceful – not to mention, risky! – you could say, "Are you talkin' ta me, or chewin' a brick?"   Not that I recommend that one, ye undtherstand!

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Celtic Roots Craic! 48 – 'Up the Lagan in a bubble?'

Lagan Canal and Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, Co. Antrim

26 February, 2012

On the last show I was describing how, many years ago, my father had sowed grass seed with a device called an 'Aero' fiddle. Just the other night I was with some friends in a small pub called 'Paddy's Barn', in Saul, Co. Down – and there, hanging up from the ceiling rafters was a perfect example of one of these devices – which I haven't seen in over 50 years. It's a small world, eh?

That got me to thinking of another event from way back, which my father had told me about. I'll tell you about it in a minute. First a wee bit a' background. I was brought up in Co. Down, as I've said before, but I went to school in Lisburn, which is mainly in Co. Antrim.

The two counties are separated by the River Lagan, which flows from Slieve Croob – a hill in Co. Down near Ballynahinch – firstly west through Dromore, then north east to Lisburn and through Belfast, into Belfast lough – dividing East Belfast off from the rest of the city. There is a beautiful Irish song, 'My Lagan Love' – the air made famous by Horslips as 'Fantasia' – and the ballad itself has been covered by The Corrs, Celtic Women, Phil Coulter and a whole lot of others.

The south eastern part of the city of Lisburn is across the Union Bridge over the Lagan and is usually referred to by locals as 'over in the County Down'.  Just downstream from the bridge is what's known as The Island – a bend in the river below a weir, which was cut off by a section of canal and a lock.  This was once completely occupied by the old Island Spinning Mill, which eventually became derelict. It's now the site of the new Island Arts Centre – a venue for concerts, art exhibitions and all sorts of events.

The Lagan Navigation, as it was called, was begun in 1756, to connect Belfast Lough with Lough Neagh, the large inland lake which borders five of the six northern counties. When my father was an apprentice in what was later Barbour Threads – formerly The Linen Thread Company – he can remember the horse-drawn canal barges, known as lighters, delivering coal from the docks in Belfast to power the machinery in the Mill. The lighters also carried sand and bricks from Lough Neagh back down to Belfast.

The canal has been in disuse since 1958, with the M1 Motorway being built along eight miles of the canal basin in the mid 1960s. The tidal section of the Lagan through the city of Belfast became navigable again in 1994, when the new Lagan Weir was completed. This keeps the water level upstream at a fairly constant level by raising and lowering five gates which can also protect from floods during extremely high tides.

You can enter the enclosed basin for an hour or two either side of high tide, so we have taken our boat, 'Warrior Maid', up through Belfast Harbour and into the basin – mooring it overnight at Donegal Quay, right next to the city centre, and also upstream at Stranmillis – at 'Cutter's Wharf' pub – which is as far as you can go upriver at the moment. There are plans, though, to re-open the whole navigation in the near future.

We've taken three trips in all from Groomsport, where our boat is moored, round to Belfast, also staying at the new concrete pontoon in a basin behind the Odyssey Complex and taking friends and family for short trips around the Harbour and up and down the river. On one of these trips the personnel on the Weir had forgotten to inform me when we went through the night before that the outgoing Gate 4 was not going to be in use next day, and so we ended up bumping our keel on the top of the partially closed gate! Needless to say, the weir staff weren't very pleased about this.

In 2001, when the Island Arts Centre was opened in Lisburn, that section of the canal was also restored, and the local branch of the Inland Waterways Association were invited to bring small boats along to celebrate the opening. We also own a 14 ft. wooden dinghy, so I borrowed a boat trailer and arrived on opening day with my 79-year-old dad, my three-year-old grandson, my wife, Gerry, and another young friend. We launched the dinghy from a slipway, collected the rest of our crew at the canal basin and, after negotiating the lock and accepting the loan of a small outboard motor, headed downstream for a mile to the next weir and lock, which was still closed.

On the way I happened to remark to my Dad that I bet he'd never been down the middle of the Lagan before. He agreed that he'd never done it in a boat. When I asked what he meant he replied that he HAD travelled down the centre of the river before, but on a pushbike! We were a bit puzzled until he explained that one winter when he was young, the river had frozen over completely and he and friends had cycled along the centre of the frozen river.

It was as we were happily discussing this interesting anecdote, that my little grandson mentioned that his feet were getting wet. We all looked down and sure enough the water was nearly over his shoes. On further investigation I discovered that the bung was missing at the stern of the boat and water was flowing in like a tap turned on full! We were in danger of sinking! My young friend started bailing out the water and we headed upstream as fast as our 2 HP outboard could take us – yelling ahead to our friends as we approached the lock, to keep the gate open for us. As my friend kept on bailing, and we rose slowly in the lock, we managed to get my father, wife and grandson up the ladder to solid ground.

As soon as the lock gates opened my young friend and I headed across to the slipway, still bailing out as we went. That concluded our trip on the Lagan – though we did have a nice meal in the new centre afterwards. We have an expression here in case anyone thinks we might be stupid, or gullible – 'Do you think I came up the Lagan in a bubble?'

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!

Thursday 19 January 2012

Celtic Roots Craic! 46 – 'Awkward as a pig in a sheugh!'

'Rise' sculpture, Belfast, at night – better known locally as 'The Balls on the Falls'
I don't know if any of you, like me, are prone to criticise other drivers when you're driving a car?  I'm sure you would never do that!

My wife was beginning to get tired of me remarking on drivers with only one headlight working and suggested – a bit sarcastically, I think! – that I ought to count them and keep a record.  Great idea, I thought and immediately began counting cars with defective right and left-hand headlights.

This had the result of my complaints being reduced to a simple, "Thirty three and thirty five, now!" every now and then, with a dry, "Yes", in response.  Eventually, I counted up over 4,000 defective headlights before I stopped, and discovered that the number of right-hand and left-hand defective lights always came back into balance.  Maybe I should publish this important research?  I don't know!

At least once a week I tend to be driving into Belfast from the Lisburn direction, in other words down the M1 Motorway.  A couple of years ago we had a major overhaul of this road, so it's now what North Americans would call a 6-lane.  It now connects directly to the Westlink, which takes you right through the middle of the city and, at the other end, connects with the M2 and M3 (Lagan Bridge).

As you come into Belfast from a southerly direction the road now dives under the Broadway Roundabout, which has recently had a huge new sculpture added.  This is in the form of two spheres, one inside the other, made up of interlocking triangles.  Locals in Belfast apparently now refer to it as the 'Balls on the Falls!'   Actually, just after they first opened the new road – and before the specially ordered pumps arrived – this tunnel flooded in heavy rain and the road had to be closed again for a while!  It happened so fast that a taxi driver who ran into the flood and stalled had to literally swim for his life!

Working in a Flax Hole
Another thing I was thinking about recently was some of the escapades we used to get up to as kids.  Just up the road from where I grew up in the Co. Down countryside, there's an estate of many acres – or a demesne, as it's often called – with a huge house and a stone wall built right around the grounds.  Incidentally, this was a 'famine wall', built in 1845/46 to provide work for poor starving labourers, in order to avoid actually giving them relief!

The father of a couple of friends of ours was the Farm Manager of this estate and they lived on the premises, so my brother and I'd often cycle up there and mess around with them.  You know, play 'King of the Castle' – by throwing each other off the top of the hay bales in the hayshade; take sips of the sweet molasses used for making silage, and leap around in the clump of rhododendron bushes right in front of the big house, as if we were monkeys!

One thing we loved to do was ride our bikes downhill as fast we could and crash into a large clump of bamboo at the bottom.  It would take us maybe ten minutes trying to extricate our bikes from the bamboo and then we'd have another go.  Right next to the bamboo was a small wood known as the 'Round Wood', which was well fenced off with 'Danger' signs placed around it.  Apparently, when the estate was previously owned by an army colonel, they placed a whole lot of unexploded World War II bombs there.  Needless to say, we never ventured in there.

Another thing we'd get up to was building dams – either across the small stream at my cousin's farm or, when we were younger, in the sheugh at the bottom of the field next to our house.  A sheugh is a field drain and, as this one led from a small bog to the river nearby, it always had water in it.  We'd arrive home for tea with our clothes black and stinking with river mud.  Animals sometimes got into the sheugh to drink and then found they couldn't get out again – hence the expression, 'Ye're as awkward as a pig in a sheugh!'  At the other end of this particular sheugh – just beyond our property and right beside the bog – was what is known here as a 'flax hole'.

When the linen industry was at its height in Northern Ireland, there were thousands of flax holes all over the countryside.  Farmers would cut the flax and bind it into sheaves, which were then placed in the flax hole underwater and left to steep for weeks.  The soft outer fibres would rot away, leaving behind the strong fibres needed for making linen – a process known as 'retting'  the flax.  And that's where your expensive Irish linen comes from!