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The Tierworker Ceidhle House (November 26, 2011)

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By Richard Barber

Submitted to Philip Donnelly's Blog - November 2011


The production of potatoes, the staple diet of the Irish for many centuries, was a very labour intensive procedure. In that time, before tractors and electricity came to rural Ireland, everything had to be done by hand except for a horse to do the ploughing. Potatoes were not only produced for human consumption but were also widely used to feed animals as well, so large quantities were required. Acres of land had to be prepared for the crop which started in March and ended with the harvesting in October and sometimes into November. First the field would be marked  out into what was called ridges. Each ridge was about three and a half to four feet wide with a furrow of about two feet wide. This was often done with a horse-drawn plough, but also, just as often, by manual labour using spades and shovels. Care was taken in marking the ridges as pride was taken of having a very straight ridge from top to bottom of the field. Now the hard work begins. Farmyard manure, called dung, had to be applied in large quantities to ensure a good crop. The dung, which was taken from the sheds during the Winter, was in a heap outside the sheds in what was called a dunghill.(pronounced something like 'dunkell' in the local Cavan-Meath lingo). Dung was loaded onto a horse cart with a tool that was called a grape. The grape was much like a common garden fork but with much thinner prongs that were quite sharp. This was a very heavy task as it was difficult to tease out the dung from the heap, being full of straw and bedding. Everyone knew when dung was being drawn for you could get the stench for miles, and I have even seen strong nosed farmers sometimes flinch at the aroma. The dung  was put in little heaps on the ridges four or five yards apart to prevent drying out until planting day. Every other ridge was done as it made it easier to plough the furrows. The seed potatoes were prepared often by the housewives sitting for hours in a barn cutting seed. The ideal seed potato was about the size of a hen egg. Bigger ones had to be cut to size ensuring that each segment had an eye or it would not grow. 


Potato planting was one of the major tasks of the Spring involving all of the family in some capacity. At this stage the dung would be evenly spread all across the ridge again using the grape. Then the children would be employed in dropping the seed potatoes. This job was usually done by the boys, equipped with a sack apron filled with as many  potatoes as they could carry. The seed potatoes had to be placed three across the ridge with the cut side facing down. The next row was placed about nine inches apart. This was a back breaking task, hence the use of children. The potatoes, taken by the cart-load from the barn in sacks, were placed in convenient places for the droppers to get new supplies. When the seed was down, the men came along again with grapes to the ploughed furrow, and put all the sods onto  the ridge taking care not to put a sod directly on top of a seed. When all the sods were taken out, they would come along with long-handled shovels to cover over all the ridge. Emphasis was always put on putting in a good brow in the ridge to prevent it from drying out. Potato planting usually took place in April and took weeks rather than days to complete. It would depend on how much potatoes were needed for the year.    As the Spring went on, the potato shoots would begin to appear over the ground. Another course of action had to take place. This was called shovelling, a process of earthing up or covering all the  young shoots. This is a much easier task. The furrows are ploughed again, and again, with the shovel, the earth is put onto the ridge, but this time, half of each ridge was done at the same time. 


Potato blight, a fungus to which potatoes and also tomatoes are susceptible, was a major cause of concern. One has only look back in history to know what happened in Ireland in 1846 & 1847 to find what havoc the famine caused, being solely dependant on the potatoes. Countless thousands died of hunger and probably millions had to emigrate.  A solution was found by spraying at least three times with a mixture of bluestone and washing soda. A ratio of five lbs of bluestone to seven lbs of soda were mixed in a 45 gallon barrel of water, applied by a two gallon back sprayer called a budget. The sprayer had a two nozzle lead on one side, and a handle for pumping on the other side. The light green coloured liquid got everywhere, and you were always sure of a good soaking before you got finished. The water had to be brought to the field by a horse and cart in barrels from a river or well. When the barrels on the cart were filled, they were covered with sacks to prevent spillage during transit. An empty barrel was needed in the field to be filled from the one on the cart. Melting down the soda crystals was a difficult task and had to be done in a bucket before being added to the barrel often helped with the aid of a fire.  After spraying, the crop did not need much more attention, except the occasional weeding. 


St Peter and St Paul`s day June 29th was the first time to sample the new crop. Very limited amounts were dug as the spuds would be small, and had to be left to develop in their own time. Harvesting the crop, or potato-digging as it was called, was another major task, usually started in October. Men with spades would start early in the morning, and as the days were getting short that would not be too early. The ridge had to be turned over bit by bit and the potatoes were left in a neat row on the middle of the ridge. Care was also taken not to let much earth into the furrow as it would hinder drainage during the winter months. Picking the potatoes was again the job for the children, (school was not too much of a priority in those days). Picking was done in two stages. All the good spuds were first picked and carried to a pit, made in a cleaned out furrow. There would be three or four pits in a row down the field. New pits would be made when the carrying distance got too far. All the small and black potatoes were later collected for immediate use in feeding the animals. As frost was often a problem, the potatoes mostly had to be covered at night. The pit was tidied into a nice  long A shaped row. A covering of rushes were spread all over the pit, then it was covered with  about a foot of earth. which would prevent the frost from penetrating during the Winter. Potato-digging took several  weeks to complete depending on man power and the weather.     Boiling potatoes for the animals,(mostly pigs, hens, and turkeys,) was always a problem, as they had to be boiled in big metal pots over an open peat fire. Often (especially if there had being a bad Summer) the turf which had to be dried out in the Summer would not be properly dry, so it would be difficult to get the fire burning  with enough heat to boil the potatoes.  An ingenious way of cooking the spuds was discovered to boil large quantities in one go. It involved going to the saw mill and getting lots of saw dust. You had to be at the saw mill at a certain time because you could not go near the saws when they were working. Dinner time was the preferred time but you could also get in just after knocking off time as well. The idea was to get a steel barrel, make a round hole about 3inches in diameter, pack the barrel, with the saw dust leaving a hole down the middle, (this was done by putting a shovel handle or another suitable round object into the barrel before filling with the saw dust). The barrel was placed on some concrete blocks to keep it off the ground. A large container  of potatoes was prepared  Usually a half barrel would be placed on top of the saw dust on two separate iron bars, the tops of the potatoes were well  covered with heavy sacking to prevent the steam escaping. The saw dust was lit from the bottom and the hole had a funnel effect and all the heat was placed directly on to the drum of potatoes. The potatoes were steamed rather than boiled, and it was a quicker procedure. The cooked potatoes were mixed with various sorts of corn meal, and that made a perfect diet for all the hungry mouths. Alas, as with the milk production, the potato crop has gone the same way, and potatoes for the dinner have also to be got from the supermarket. What ever did we do before their invention ????.

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The Eyes That Shone - from Ireland to Canada in the 1950s

But a word of warning! The Eyes That Shone is not a saga filled with horrible tragedy and dysfunctional relationships, but rather a celebration of family lives in Ireland and Canada, in other words, a happy story featuring:

  • Memories of life on small farms in Ireland before 1950 and before tractors and electrification, when growing food depended largely on human sweat and muscle
  • Recollections about people and events in the Department of Public Works of Canada where the author worked during the period 1957 to 1991
  • Intimate perspectives on living and dying, politics and religion, home and family