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!

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