Farming in the Past

Up until the late eighteen hundreds the land in the West of Ireland was cultivated with spades called loys. A loy was made by the local blacksmith and when the iron was worn it could be pieced. The garden spade was unknown at that time.The body of the first ploughs was made from wood. Very few people had horses so they had to hire ploughmen to do their work. People kept jennets and they were able to draw a plough. Neighbours joined together to form teams.Jennets were very useful animals as they were nearly as strong as horses and a lot easier to maintain. At one time there were eleven jennets and only four horses in Esker. Like every trade it took time to become a skilled ploughman. There were good ploughmen and bad. Ploughing was a satisfying job.You could whistle or sing while ploughing. Opening the first furrow was the most difficult part of ploughing a field. The last furrow was called a “caolfhód”.  Ploughing could be a difficult job if you didn’t have well trained horses. Sometimes if a horse got a leg over the chains as they swung round at headlands they could become very contrary. I once observed a ploughman in England ploughing with three horses abreast.It was more enjoyable ploughing with horses than with a tractor. The spring tooth harrow didn’t come on the scene until the mid nineteen twenties. It was considered at the time to be the best invention ever for cultivating the land. It was harder work for horses drawing a spring tooth than ploughing.Ass and baskets played an important role in farming. A person could do a great deal of work in a day such as spreading dung or changing out turf using baskets.

There was a special home-made harness for the baskets. The “teirmeach” went under the ass’s tail to prevent the baskets going forward. The straddle was made out of pleated straw. The pegs from which the baskets were suspended were called “starraicín”. The “sloigín” (scorán) was a stick that held the bottom of the basket in place and when it was pulled the load got released. All of these objects can be seen at the museum in Knock. Nearly every farmer possessed the skills to make baskets and straw harnesses in addition to be able to thatch, erect dry stone walls and repair shoes. There were many tradesmen in this area at one time including weavers, tailors, blacksmiths, shoemakers, masons, carpenters and nailers. The women folk helped with the farm work as did the children. In winter the women spent the long nights knitting and spinning wool. Every house had a spinning wheel.The men spent some time threshing corn with flails with the aid of hurricane lamps and visited neighbouring houses to play cards.At one time John McDonagh was the only person in Esker to own an ass card and he hired it out for six pence a day. The cart cost him £5.00.

Author: Martin Keaveny, Esker