– By Maureen Cusack –
In the early part of the 20 th century agriculture and the farming population dominated the rural economy. When the 20th century opened rural Ireland was still a society of tenant farmers, but by 1920s this had been changed by a series of land acts from 1880 to 1903 and culminating in the Wyndham Act which effectively abolished the landlord class in Ireland. By the 1920s the majority of farmers owned the land the land they worked.
Despite the change in the tenure system, the fundamentals of Irish Agriculture did not change. It was very labour intensive and horse technology dominated. In those early days the average sized farm would have two of three working type horses and a pony for the trap, which was their mode of conveyance when the family travelled to church, to town for shopping or on visits to friends and relatives.
Each farm had three to eight cows with their calves and other dry stock as well as a sow and Bonham’s. Some farmers also kept sheep. Hens, ducks and turkeys were also kept and some people also kept geese, but these were not always popular because they ate a lot of grass and their droppings made the pasture unpalatable for grazing animals.
The food for the family, their livestock and poultry was home produced. Corn crops of wheat, oats, barley and rye were sown as well as root crops like potatoes, turnips, mangolds, onions, carrots, and parsnips. Cabbage was also planted on every farm. The cultivation for all these crops had to be done by men and horses and the usual range of farm machinery would include a plough, harrow, roller, mowing machine, tumbler rake and hay bogey. Most of this machinery was made by Pierce of Wexford. Wooden equipment, like farm carts and turf barrows was made by local carpenters, to plant the crops, the ground had first to be ploughed and this was done by a man with a team of horses, as were also the other operations, such as harrowing, drilling and rolling. Farmyard manure was used as the main fertiliser for root crops and was also used as top dressing for pastures and meadows. This had to be loaded onto carts, taken to the fields and unloaded and spread manually with four grained forks.
Hay, which was the main winter feed for the animals, was cut by horse drawn mowing machine and the saving of it often involved hand turning if the weather was bad. When it was properly dry, it was made into field cocks for further seasoning, before it was drawn to the haggard or farmyard or hay barn. Corn, when ripe, was also cut by a horse drawn mower and had to be tied into sheaves which were then stoked in the cornfield before being made into stacks or reeks in the haggard, where the threashing was later carried out. The corn was put into jute sacks, which often weighed up to two hundred weight when full, and lifted then carried to the barn by man power. Some of this corn was kept for seed and the rest of it was fed whole or milled for the farm animals and poultry. The corn had to be brought to Flood’s or Doyle’s mills for grinding, and this grinding would not be done that day, so a second journey had to be made to collect the meal. These mills were on the Liffey near Victoria Bridge in the Halverstown and Newhall area. Later Dag Weld got a grinding outfit.
At that time baker’s bread was a rarity and almost all the bread for the family was made at home with white or brown flour or a mixture of both. Salt and bread soda were mixed with the flour and buttermilk added to wet the mixture. The dough was then baked in a pot oven on the open turf fire. Cows were probably the most useful animals on the farm, as they gave enough milk to feed their own calves and supply the requirements of the family as well. All the milking had to be done by hand and was done morning and evening. Some cows were difficult to milk and were liable to kick the milk bucket and the person doing the milking. The calves were fed fresh warm milk in individual buckets and the supply for the house and the butter making was strained and placed in a wide mouthed dish to allow the cream to rise to the surface. The cream was skimmed off each day and collected in another dish for about a week, when it would be sour and ready for churning. This was always done by women and usually took an hour. When the cream was separated into butter it floated on the top of the buttermilk and was skimmed off to be rinsed in cold spring water several times to remove the sour milk. It was then salted and worked into shapes with wooden butter spades. At this stage it was usually divided into pounds and decorated using the spades. Then it was ready for home use or for sale in the local shops.
The fowl were the women’s responsibility, and usually were hens, ducks and turkeys and all were free ranging. They were fed oats and hot mash made with boiled potatoes and crushed oats. They provided eggs for the household or for sale and chickens for the table. In spring, broody hen hens hatched out the chicks for layers and table fowl. Each hen would sit on a dozen eggs for three weeks before the chicks hatched out. At that time incubators were rare.
Most farmers killed a large pig which they had fed and fattened themselves about once a year or as required. This provided them first with fresh pork and later with home cured bacon for many months. When the bacon had been preserved in salt, it was hung up to dry and was sliced as require for cooking. After the planting of the crops in the spring had been completed, the next seasonal work was the cutting of the turf, as this was the most widely used fuel in the rural areas. All the cutting, catching, wheeling and footing of the turf had to be done by hand. Turf cutting was hard manual labour and so was the catching and the wheeling. Footing and clamping were not as strenuous and women and children often helped out with this work as with other summer work in the fields, such as weeding potato drills and thinning turnips. Every member of the family helped out on the farm, even the children had
their own jobs sometimes before and after school. Typical work would be bringing in the cows for milking in the evening, carrying in the firing and water, feeding the hens and seeing they were all safely locked in for the night, because the fox would be on the prowl during the night and would kill any of them that strayed out too early.
Farming then, as it still is, was a seven days a week job all the year around and before tractors and electricity were available it was very labour intensive, so one or two men would be employed.
At harvesting, threshing etc. work became a communal effort, with neighbours helping each other and nobody expecting to be paid for their services. All were given a good dinner and sometimes tea was brought out to the fields if they were working in the evening.
Farming today, with its use of electrical machinery and appliances on the farm and in the home, bears no resemblance to what it was at that time. There were none of the modern supports or grants available either. As well as giving direct employment on the land, farming supported local business and tradesmen such as blacksmith’s, carpenters, tailors and shoemakers.
Phones were very rare in the country places and there was no radio or television, but people were entertained by local storytellers and musicians. People visited each other regularly without any invitation and gave a helping hand when needed. There was regular contact and communication with friends and neighbours and people knew and talked to each other as they travelled leisurely across the fields, along the road or gathered outside the church.
In those “Good Old Days” it was not necessary to have a burglar alarm or to lock your door when retiring. The old sheepdog would give a few barks with a friendly wag of the tail.