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.

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