Report by Sandra Millsop
A large audience heard an excellent, well-illustrated talk on farming in Ulster during the period 1930-60 given by Dr Jonathan Bell. Dr Bell had worked at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum for 30 years.
He said that he and his colleague Mervyn Watson had been working at the museum on various aspects of farming before they started interviewing some of the farming families. This aspect of Dr Bell's work turned out to be intensely rewarding.
Farms in Ulster were small and mixed and produced hay, oats, potatoes, and for a time, flax. The flax crop was labour intensive so most of the flax used in Ulster in the 20th century was imported except during World War II when imports were difficult and there was compulsory tillage.
Between 1750 and 1840 the population of Ireland trebled - the fastest growth in Europe. People were land hungry. They spread into the hills and the bogs where potatoes -the wonder crop - could be grown. In the 1800s, flax was grown in Ulster by weaver farmers. Even on good land there were many small farms of 5 -10 acres. Later when spinning and weaving went into factories the small farms were no longer viable. In 1940, 80% of Ulster farms had less than 50 acres whereas in Gallowway, farms of 400 acres were quite ordinary.
Dr Bell showed a picture of a wooden plough - the Mourne plough, its uses having been recorded by Professor E Estyn Evans. It could be used for turning over the ground or for making drills. Another picture showed Bertie Hanna of Saintfield using an English wheel plough, sometimes called a chill or chilled plough. These English-style ploughs were also made at Ballyroney in Co Down.
The ‘moiley’ is a very old breed of hornless cattle and was in danger of dying out but was rescued in the 1980s by the efforts of two farmers, Jimmy Nelson of Co Down and a Co Antrim man.
Dr Bell showed some old photos of early reaping machine experiments at Clandeboye in the 1830s and Mr Murphy from Hilltown with Mourne rams. Many claimed that the Mourne breed was superior to the Scottish Black Face sheep. Another showed Bob Crosby of Monlough with two horses pulling a seed drill.
The most famous figure in Co Down farming was Harry Ferguson. During and after World War 1 he developed a smaller, lighter tractor and the three point hydraulic system that made ploughing very much easier and could also do other jobs. This was the 'wee grey Fergie'.
At Balmoral Show in 1930 there was a big crowd at the stand of the Ballyroney plough manufacturer but very few watching Harry Ferguson's tractor demonstration. A common view was that there was no need for tractors in Ulster. In 1939 there were only 550 tractors registered in Northern Ireland but by the end of World War II there were 7000. By 1958 there were more tractors than working horses. Dr Bell showed a picture of a Mr McAlpine working with a tractor near Scrabo in 1938.
A picture taken at Ganaway near Ballywalter showed William Lyons working with horses. This was a happy farming family with four daughters. At that time the man made all the decisions. It was a case of 'boss and mammy'. However, there were exceptions. Near Lisbane Lily Adams, who was one of four daughters, ran the farm. There was a picture of her sister Grace doing the milking.
Generally the women processed the products of the farm. They made the butter, baked the bread, looked after the fowl and the eggs and processed the by-products from the pigs such as ham, heart and liver. In the 1930s bacon from the large white Ulster pig was popular in Northern English cities but the pigs did not travel well as their skin bruised easily so the pigs were killed on the farms. Farmyard killing became illegal in the 1970s.
In 1850 there were about five million hens and chickens but by 1900 there were 100 million. The women looked after them and dealt with the eggs. It was estimated that the income from 40 fowl was equivalent to the income from one cow.
The price of farm-produced butter fluctuated during the year. In summer when it was plentiful, the price dropped so the producers held on to it in the hope of a price rise. If it was kept too long it went off. In Liverpool it was used for greasing machinery. Co-operative societies were then set up. They produced butter under controlled conditions and maintained the quality.
Around 1900 hens' eggs also had a bad reputation. They became inedible if the farmers held on too long. Again a degree of control and a better system of marketing restored the reputation of the trade. However, when the men brought the eggs to the creamery with the milk, they were paid for both, so the women lost income. The result was that for every two men who left work on the land, three women left. This led to a growth in the number of old bachelors.
Some farming skills were lost. Dr Bell showed a picture of a young girl poling oats as a man cut the crop with a scythe. Another picture showed Frank and John Murphy with a horse on a farm near Hilltown in 1938. They learned to plough by following the example of their father. In 1940, John Adams used his potato digger to help his neighbour. Most farmers aimed to be independent but at busy times they were glad of help from neighbours. This practice was called 'neighbouring', 'swapping' or 'marrowing' in different parts of the country.
When various forms of farm machinery became more common, the help of neighbours was not so necessary but there were also occasions when a lot of extra manpower was required such as when a portable threshing machine and a steam engine were hired for the day. Threshing day was frequently regarded as the happiest day of the year - when all was ‘safely gathered in’. There would be a harvest home meal and possibly a dance.
In replies to questions Dr Bell said that during World War II large numbers of unemployed people from Belfast worked on farms in North Down, especially during the harvest. The stench from flax dams was horrendous. When the effluent was discharged it poisoned the watercourses and there were fish kills. Very little flax is now grown in Ireland. Flax for thatching is grown in the Carndonagh area of Co Donegal and in Co Wexford.
Randall Gill said that Dr Bell had a wonderful knowledge of farming and proposed a hearty vote of thanks.