The Coyne Family
Front (l-R): Mary, Margaret, Bernadette and Ann.
Back (l-r): Joe, Peter, Carmel, Frank and Tim
Insets: Pat and Nora
My name is Frank Coyne. I live in the townland of Park in the parish of Athenry where I was born on the 6th of May, 1938.I was the seventh of twelve children born to my parents Joe and Sabina Coyne. My mother was originally Sabina Holland from the townland of Park. My father was born in 1893, my mother in 1906.
Parents, Joe and Sabina Coyne
Living in Park since the 17th century
Some years ago I recovered a stone (pictured above,) that was being used in a loose-stone wall about two miles from here. It had one flat face about 24 inches by twelve on which was an inscription. It had the date 1687 and it read: “pray for the soul of Shaun Coyne and his wife Catherin Hessin and their son John Coyne”.
It seems the Coyne’s have been around here for quite some time. Some years ago I found a stone axe-head (pictured above, right) in a wall near the house. It has been dated about 1500 B.C. I wonder did B.C. mean ‘Before Coyne’.
My ancestors have lived here in Park from at least 1771. My grandfather (paternal) was born in Park in 1846. He married a lady called Honorah Cunningham from Lisadoyle, Peterswell in South Galway.
Grandfather, Peter Holland.
Coyne Heraldic Crest
My paternal great grandfather, Thady, was born in Park in 1804. Both he and his brother Thomas married two sisters with the surname Varden from Anbally near Corofin on the Galway-Tuam road. My great-great-grandfather was born in 1771. His name was Thomas and his wife’s name was Catherine. My maternal grandfather was Peter Holland. He was born in Park, Athenry, in 1875. He married Margaret Carroll from Ballinderry, Corofin, Co. Galway. My maternal great-grandfather was Patrick Holland. He married Sabina Ryan from Clooninagh near Tuam at some time in the 1850s. Sabina was born in 1830. She survived the “night of the big wind” in 1839 and also the famine in 1847. Her husband, Patrick, aged 42, was killed in an accident involving a horse in 1882.
Grandfather Peter Holland
Great Grandmother, Sabina Holland
My Father, Joe.
My Mother, Sabina with grandson Joe
Attacked by the gander
My first memory of life in Park was being attacked by the gander. I would have been maybe four years of age. It may sound very trivial but when the gander grabs your clothes in his beak and lashes you with his wings he will leave you black and blue, especially when you are very small.
(Left: Frank and his sister, Nora)
I started school in the Presentation Convent in September 1942. I was four years and four months at the time. I was in my bare feet for the first couple of months. People might think this was very cruel but in those days you had spent all summer in your bare feet and the soles of your feet were like leather.
‘Rashers’ off my ankle and toes’
I had been to school for a couple of weeks when one morning an older girl, who was attending a secondary course, took pity on me and gave me a lift on the carrier of her bicycle. As we sped down Corbett’s hill my right foot went into the spokes and they took ‘rashers’ off my ankle and toes. A man who lived nearby took me into his house and put bandages on my foot and took me home on the bar of his bicycle. It meant a couple of weeks off school and, might I add, there was no question of calling a doctor.
U.S. Airforce Flying Fortress (Stinky) after it crash-landed in what is now Mellows College, Athenry on the 13th January 1943
Plane Crash in 1943
Another incident which I remember occurred around the middle of January 1943. Rumour spread around the school that a plane had crashed near the AgriculturalCollege. When school was finished my brother Joe, who was supposed to be my “minder”, told me to go home as he was going out to the college to see the plane. The plane was an American B17 bomber, converted to carry some of the ‘top brass’ in the American army. Some weeks later I saw the dismantled plane loaded on large trucks as it travelled along the Athenry to Tuam road on its way to Northern Ireland.
When we started school we learned our ABC on a tray of sand. The tray or baking tin was about twelve inches long by nine inches wide and one inch deep with a thin layer of sand in the bottom. You drew the letters with your index finger and when you needed to change to some other letters you just shook the tin.
Pen and Ink
In the next year when you knew your letters you progressed to a pencil and then later to pen and ink. The pen consisted of a steel nib with a holder, which connected it to a wooden handle about six inches long. The ink came in powder form. It was then mixed with water and put in a five-naggin bottle. The cork in the bottle had a goose quill inserted through it into the bottle so that the ink could be poured slowly into the inkwell without spillage.
Cruel Lady Teacher
When you reached about seven or eight years of age and had made your First Communion you moved to the Boys’ National School on the other side of the town. It was certainly a baptism of fire. My first teacher there was a very cruel lady. She must have done a degree in corporal punishment. Naturally, I mitched a lot during my first year at school. I spent one week roaming around the golf course, which was situated in Cullairbaun at that time. Somebody told the Headmaster where I was, so he sent four of the older boys to round me up. I saw them coming and took off, but I didn’t stand a chance. I was caught and frog-marched back to school. My ‘lady-friend’ teacher gave me a good walloping with her stick. I was then put kneeling down facing the wall and if I sat back on my heels I got a wallop of the stick on my tail-end. This went on for two or three hours. I got on reasonably well with the other two teachers and eventually passed my Primary Certificate Examination.
Classmates in Athenry Boys’ National School
Front Row: Gerry Cronnelly, Ned Kearns, John Kelly, Seamus Waldron, Maurice Browne, Michael Kelly, Kevin Whelan.
Second Row: Peter Healy, Johnny Keane, Tony Ryan, Patsy Keane, Tommy Conneelly, Tomsie Cannon, Adrian Barry, Michéal Waldron.
Back Row: Michael Jennings, Frank Coyne, Ted Cunniffe, Jodie Curran, Austin Higgins, Anthony Donoghue.
Photos of my old home in Park, Athenry.
The house we lived in was a very old thatched house. It originally consisted of a kitchen and three bedrooms. Around 1920 my father built a flat-roofed parlour cum bedroom about 15ft x 10ft, which fifty years later was still referred to as the “new room”.
The kitchen was situated in the centre of the house with both the front and back doors opening into it. It measured about 14feetsquare. At one end were two very small bedrooms, each about 6ft 6inssquare. At the other end, “behind the fire”, was my parents’ bedroom, which measured about 14ft x 7ft.
Frank’s Mother, Sabina, in her kitchen.
A typical country house kitchen
The kitchen was the centre of all activity. Everything was cooked on the open hearth fire. My mother baked brown bread, currant cakes, apple tarts and meals, which consisted mainly of bacon and cabbage and also large pots of potatoes for the pigs. All the doors from the rooms opened into the kitchen, which meant there were six doors including back and front doors opening into it.
In the springtime you would often find a box with a couple of dozen day old chicks in the corner. My mother would spread a canvas bag on the floor and shake some oaten meal on it and then let the chicks out to feed. It was not unusual either to have a box with a lamb or a few bonhams recuperating beside the fire.
The home-cured bacon was always hung from the hooks inserted into the ceiling just over the fire. When some of it was cut down for cooking you would find a good layer of fine ash, which needed to be washed off. In the evening when you finished working with the horses, the collars were always taken in and hung on iron spikes at the side of the kitchen furthest from the fire.
Frank and family friend from Dublin in the kitchen of his old home.
The kitchen was also the place where the milk was set in large basins overnight so that the cream would rise and be skimmed off in the morning. The churning also took place in the kitchen, so it was a very busy place. All this happened without running water or electricity. The churn was what was known as an “end-over-end” type (left). It was barrel shaped and held about ten or twelve gallons. On each side was a short axle which fitted into a stand about three feet high. A handle was fixed to one side and when you turned this it went end-over-end and churned the cream inside.
In summer when milk was plentiful, any excess butter was sold to Jim Fahy, who ran a grocery shop in Athenry. My mother would weigh it in one pound pieces and press it into shape with wooden butter-bats and decorate it with a wooden butter-print in the form of a rose. Eggs would also be prepared for sale in the kitchen. A damp cloth dipped in bread soda was used to clean the eggs, which would be taken to Fahys.
Both eggs and butter were used as a form of currency and would be exchanged for tea and sugar and the odd pot of jam. These were always referred to as “the rations” because during the war years most of these things were rationed.
The weekly washing of clothes also took place in the kitchen. Two chairs would be drawn together and a large wooden tub placed on them with a corrugated wash-board inside. Preparations for washing had to start hours beforehand. A good roaring fire had to be got going and a large twelve gallon pot hung on the crane over it. It could take more than an hour for the water to heat, depending on how dry the turf was.
On account of being a large family, bread was baked every day. The oven was about fourteen inches in diameter and six inches deep. This was placed on a triangular iron stand with legs about six inches high. Hot coals were placed underneath and another layer of coals on top of the lid. It produced beautiful wholemeal bread and occasionally a currant cake. When the cakes were baked they were often left on the windowsill to cool. Now and again a hen would discover the cake and start pecking it. My mother would hear the sound of the pecking and would race out shouting dire threats.
The Fireplace and Crickets
The fireplace was about five feet wide and two feet deep. At one side was a hob – a stone seat which was hollow with an opening on the side of the fire. The ashes would be swept into this every day. It would hold a week’s ashes so it would be emptied every Saturday.
Crickets lived in the crevices of the wall behind the fire, which would have been about eighteen inches thick. At night when the oil lamp was quenched they would come out and their loud chirping call was lovely to hear as you drifted off to sleep. I have no idea what they lived on or how they survived the heat but they were a joy to hear.
On one side of the fireplace was a built-in press. It was divided in two. The lower half contained the 10 stone bag of flour, which was the normal purchase for a large family. A large canvas bag of wholemeal would be kept there also. The wholemeal was obtained by taking a bag of wheat to Taylor’s Mill and getting it ground into wholemeal.
Home Made Toys
When I was young we didn’t have “bought” toys. At Christmas, Santa would bring you a bugle or a small toy gun and that was it. We learned how to make what we called a popgun. After Christmas, there would be a few goose-wings lying about, so you pulled out a good long quill. You then cut off the feather end and also the pointed end. It left you with a tube about four inches long and open at both ends. You then sliced a potato in half inch thick slices.
Then you pushed one end of the quill into the potato so it became closed. You then did the same with the other end. Now your gun was ready to fire. Then you got a piece of stick about six inches long and thin enough to fit into the quill. When you pushed the potato at one end the compressed air forced the other piece out at great speed. It would easily travel twenty feet.
We learned how to make a water-gun from the stalk of a tall weed, which in Irish was called a “glórán”. It grew about four feet high and had a tubular stalk. Inside, this stalk had a closure about every fifteen inches – much like a bamboo. We would cut this stalk close to one of these closures and about fifteen inches long. We would put a hole with a nail at the end of the closure so it looked like part of a bicycle pump.
The plunger was made with a piece of stick from the hedge with a piece of sheep’s wool tied at one end and secured with thread. The tube would be three-quarters of an inch in diameter and would hold a mug of water. It would drench you yards away.
Draughts and Draughts-board
Playing draughts was a very popular past-time especially during the long winter nights. My father was a very good draughts player and taught us a lot of the little tricks that enabled you to get one over on your opponent. He taught us so well that eventually we were able to beat him at his own game.
We always made our own draughts and draughts-board. At the end of the war when oranges started to appear in the shops they came in crates about thirty inches long and about fifteen inches square at the end. The end pieces were solid timber, almost an inch thick and we used this to make the draughts-board. We would mark out a square measuring twelve inches by twelve inches. Then we would mark this off in one and a half inch squares, which would give you sixty-four squares. There was always a tin of black, cycle-enamel paint in the press beside the fire – it was used for touching up the old “crock” of a bicycle – so this was used to blacken alternate squares, thereby giving you a draughts-board.
The making of the draughts was another example of re-cycling. You searched around until you found a worn-out broom or “twig” as it was known among the country people. You then cut the handle into half-inch thick pieces, thereby forming the draughts – twenty four in total. Twelve of the draughts were then blackened on both sides and, “hey presto”, you were ready for any challenger.
We also made our own yo-yos. You got two lids from boot polish boxes – generally “Science” boot polish. You put a hole through the centre of each with a nail. Next, you needed a thick leather washer to put between the lids, so you raided the boot repair box. My father kept this in the press beside the fire. You made the washer as round as possible with a hole in the centre. The two lids were set up back-to-back with the washer between them. The holes were aligned and a short gutter-bolt passed through and tightened. Now all you needed was a long piece of twine, which you attached to the centre of the yo-yo and away you go!
Radio in 1950
About 1950 my father bought a radio. We did not have electricity so it was run on batteries – one wet and one dry. Every couple of months the wet battery would be taken in to Higgin’s garage to be recharged. It was made of very thick glass, about 6inssquare and 9ins high and filled with acid, hence the term “wet”. The dry battery – made of a moulded bitumen substance – was discarded after a few months. The first programme I heard was a sponsored programme for Donnelly’s sausages and you could hear the sausages frying on the pan.
In the forties radios were very scarce. On Sunday afternoons, if there was an important hurling or football match being broadcast, a lot of the younger people would go in to Athenry and walk about until they heard the sound of Michael O’Hehir coming from a house and they would congregate outside. Often the owner of the house would open the window and turn up the volume of the radio. There would often be twenty-five or thirty people on the street outside these houses and they cheering and shouting as if they were at the match.
Sheep and Lambs’ Tails
The type of farming we carried on would be classified as mixed farming with sheep being the most important element. We would have about forty five ewes and their lambs. If you averaged one and a half lambs per ewe you were doing alright.
One of the most disagreeable jobs when we were young was the cutting of the lamb’s tails. The sheep and lambs would be driven into the yard. Myself and my brother would have the job of catching and holding the lambs, which would be five or six weeks old at this time and very lively. We would hold the lambs while my father chopped off their tails with a large carving knife. As we never wore long trousers, our legs would be spattered with blood.
‘Eating a Live Lamb’
Sometimes my mother would pick out the biggest and fattest tails for cooking. We were given the job of shearing off all the wool – and anything else that adhered to them. The tails was then singed using an old newspaper. Then they were boiled in milk and used with potatoes and vegetables for supper. I didn’t like them because they were very fatty and tasteless but the older people seemed to enjoy them. It was really a case of eating a live lamb as the lamb was running around the field as you ate his tail.
The Harsh Reality of Farming in the 1950s and 1960s
Frank shearing with hand-shears
Early in May, about a week before shearing time, all the adult sheep would be driven to the river, which was about two miles away, for washing. This was done in order to remove the natural oil – mostly lanolin – that was in the wool. The sheep were pushed into the river one by one and allowed to swim about ten yards before being hauled out again. The wool buyers insisted on this being done and paid a few extra pence per pound for washed wool. A week later the sheep would be shorn with a hand-shears. Thirty to thirty-five sheep per day would be a normal day’s work.
When the city people would order a pure wool suit or sit down to some tasty lamb chops they little realised what both the lamb and the farmer went through to provide their comfort. The advent of the rubber ring for taking off the lamb’s tail saved a lot of bloodshed and cruelty.
Joe Coyne and his grand-daughter Anne Coyne (Liverpool)
Joe Coyne ‘tying the wool’
Farm work-Cows and Calves
We kept three or four cows and reared their calves until they were about two years old. We would also buy two or three calves and rear them as well. Having three or four cows did not warrant keeping a bull, so when the cow was in heat she was driven to another farm where they kept a bull. She would be left there for an hour or two for her romantic date.
Mary Williams with a pair of work horses
All the work on the farm was done with horses. When I was fifteen years old I started working with a pair of horses. Ploughing would start shortly after Christmas, if the weather was suitable. You would normally start with lea-land, which was land that had not been ploughed for a number of years and had been laid down to grass. You would plough about half an acre in a day as that type of land was very tough and hard on the horses.
When you left the home in the morning you would take with you two small jute bags containing about seven pounds of oats in each. They were referred to as “nose bags” and contained the horses’ dinner. The horse would put his head into the bag and it was fastened behind his head with a strong cord.
My father would arrive with my dinner, which would be a five naggin bottle of tea pushed into an old sock – one with the heel worn through. You also got a few slices of home-made bread with two fried eggs in between, all wrapped in an old newspaper. The newspaper was very important because it passed the time while you sat by the wall having your meal.
Oats were generally sown in lea-land as it didn’t need to be tilled very deep. If you tilled too deep you would bring up the scraw and make the ground very rough. The following year after the oats the stubble-ground was used to grow root crops – potatoes, turnips, mangolds, sugar-beet. Potatoes and sugar-beet were grown as cash crops; turnips and mangolds were grown as fodder for the livestock.
Jack Williams (Mary’s Father) with work horse and cart
Sugar-beet was a very popular crop as the sugar factory supplied the fertiliser and seed and deducted the price of these when the crop was delivered. It was a very labour-intensive crop as in those days everything was done by hand.
Firstly, the ground had to be tilled very deep using a springtime harrow pulled by two horses. It was so called because it had curved spring-steel tines that could be set at different depths with the use of a lever. The drills were made with a double mould-board plough pulled by one horse. Towards the end of April the seed was sown using a horse-drawn seeder, which you guided along the top of the drill. About a month later when the plants were about a few inches high they had to be thinned out to nine or ten inches apart. This is where the real work started. First of all you wrapped a canvas bag around each knee tied them on with twine. Then you got on your knees and went along every drill thinning out the plants and pulling the weeds at the same time.
The next job with beet was the pulling. It was all done by hand and it started around October. The beet inspector would call and give you an order to have your beet ready for collection on a particular date. So, the pressure was on regardless of the weather.
After being pulled the beet had to be “crowned”, that is, the leaves with part of the top of the beet had to be chopped off and the beet piled in heaps around the field. It had then to be put into the horse cart and taken out and piled on the roadside. There were special beet-forks used for loading the beet into the cart.
On an appointed day a lorry would come to collect the beet and take it to the beet factory in Tuam. You would get a few neighbours to help with loading it on the truck.
One of the bi-products of sugar production was dried beet pulp. Each beet grower was allowed to buy an allocation of this pulp for use as animal feed and was used a lot for feeding to cattle and sheep.
During the war years (1938 to 1945) when most food stuffs were rationed the beet grower was allowed to purchase four stone of sugar. This was eagerly looked forward to as it meant more apple tarts and home-made jam. It was always referred to as the “beet-sugar”.
Turnips and mangolds were grown in the same way as beet, so you would often spend weeks on end on your hands and knees. At this stage your wrists would be swollen and very painful. I never heard an English word for the condition but in Irish it was called “Trálach”.
People working on the land in those days would work from 9 o’clock in the morning to 8 o’clock in the evening, six days a week. In the hay-making season you would often work on Sundays.
Potatoes and the ‘Práiscín’
Potatoes were another important cash-crop. Preparation of the ground was much the same as for beet with drills made in the same manner. Potatoes were generally sown in the first weeks of April but preparation of the seed – or slits as they were called – started well in advance.
The medium sized potatoes, about one and a half inches in diameter, would be picked out and put to one side. If they did not provide enough seed the larger potatoes would be cut into two or three pieces, making sure there were two or three sprouts or “eyes”, as we used to call them, on each slit.
On the day appointed for “spreading the slits” they would be bagged up and some would be deposited at each end of the drills. If the drills were very long some would be left in the middle of the field. You then got a canvas fertiliser bag and cut it open down one side. It was fastened behind your neck, generally with a big nail, so it hung down below the knees. A piece of rope was then tied around the waist to keep it in place. This was known by the Irish word “Práiscín”. It would hold about a stone or a stone and a half of slits depending on how big you were as we would have been doing some work from a very young age.
You then set off down along the drill, putting one foot in front of the other in a straight line, as the drill was only four inches wide at the base. It was quite a balancing act with the bag of slits hanging around your neck. One slit was dropped every twelve or fifteen inches, just in front of the toe of your leading foot.
As the drills were approximately twenty-four inches wide there was four miles of drills to the acre. It was back-breaking work and your back would not be right for a long time afterwards.
Each evening the slits would have to be covered with soil as you were likely to have frost at night, which would destroy the slits. Also, the crows would attack them if they were left uncovered.
Frank (left) and his father, Joe, loading the manure that would be spread in the potato drills
A horse, which was trained to walk on top of the drill, was used. He was attached to a single mould-board plough, which sliced off half of the drill and deposited it on top of the slits. It was left like this for a few weeks until buds started to appear above the clay. At that stage fertiliser would be spread along to one side of the sprouts to avoid scorching them. At this stage well-rotted dung was spread as well. A double mould-board plough was then used to rebuild the drill on top of the slits and fertiliser.
Double mould-board plough
Everything was left like this while you went off to do some other work on the farm. After a few weeks the drills would be partially knocked down using a wooden frame pulled by the horse. This was done to kill the weeds which had germinated at that stage. Again everything was left for a few weeks until the double mould-board plough was again used to rebuild the drills. All this was done in order to keep the weeds down as there were no herbicides available in those years.
Spraying the Potatoes
The next job was spraying to keep the blight from destroying the foliage of the plants. The so-called “blight” was a fungus, which attacked the plant and would destroy the crop as it did in the great famine in 1847 when several million people died from hunger.
The spray consisted of a mixture of blue-stone (Copper Sulphate) and washing soda. The blue-stone was the active ingredient and the washing soda softened the water and made it stick to the plants. If you only had a small amount of potatoes you could spray them with a knapsack sprayer but if you had an acre or two you hired a man with a horse-drawn sprayer. This would cover six drills at a time and saved a lot of hard work.
The spray left the plants with a bright blue colour and on a summer’s evening it was like a work of art to see the cream-coloured blossom on the potato stalks against the bright blue background of the blue-stone.
Harvesting the potatoes
Harvesting the potatoes in those days was not a very nice job. The old reliable double mould-board plough was used to split open the drill. You would open whatever amount of drills you thought you could manage in the day.
You then tied a canvas bag around each knee and got down on “all fours” and started what was called in those days “cruabing”. This involved tearing the drill apart with your bare hands and throwing the potatoes back between your knees so they ended up in easily-picked rows.
It was very tough work when you consider there was four miles of this in one acre. You ended up with your hands like two shovels and as tough as old boots.
Pitting the Spuds
The potatoes (we never called them potatoes, they were always called spuds) were always stored in the field. A trench about twelve inches deep and four feet wide would be dug at the end of the field. The spuds would be put in there and piled up about three feet above ground. Straw would be “drawn”, that is straightened out as if for thatching. This would be placed along the side of the pile of spuds. Another layer would be placed across the top to keep the rain off, all held in place with spades of clay.
After a couple of weeks, allowing the potatoes to dry and mature, the whole pit of potatoes would be covered with a layer of clay eight or nine inches thick. This was to keep out the frost. Some of the older people would refer to this pit as the “praity hole” – práta being the Irish for potato. If the potatoes happened to be stored near the farmhouse you had to make sure the pig didn’t get to it as he would wreak havoc. There is a well-known traditional music tune called “the pig’s jig in the praity hole”.
In addition to potatoes we would always sow a few drills of carrots, parsnips, peas and onions. This meant we had a plentiful supply of food even though money was always scarce. Cabbage was also in plentiful supply and we would also grow a lot of common cabbage, which we would feed to the cows. This cabbage would grow to an enormous size and would easily weigh up to fourteen pounds.
Hay-making, Horseflies and Wild Bees
The hay was always cut with a horse-drawn mowing machine. This machine would cut a ‘swarth’ about three feet wide and was pulled by two horses. The machine we used was made by Albion and manufactured in Scotland. In those years hay would be harvested much later in the year compared to nowadays, which meant that horse-flies were very active and played havoc with the horses.
Jack Williams cutting hay with a horse-mower
This meant we would often start cutting the hay about 5 o’clock in the morning when it was nice and cool and before the flies came out to play!
Wild bees were another hazard frequently encountered during hay-making. They built their nests at ground level in the grass and if you disturbed them you had better take evasive action, and fast.
They had a very severe sting and the only chance of escape you had was to throw a bundle of grass on top of the nest. Still, this did not stop us coming back later with some straw. We would set fire to this in order to smoke the bees out and steal their honey.
Turning the Hay
Back: Jimmy Cummins, Carmel Coyne, Margaret Coyne (from Liverpool), Josie Coyne, Frank Coyne.
Front: Christine and Stephen Coyne (Liverpool).
After a few days drying in the sun the ‘swarths’ of hay would be turned with a wooden hand-held rake. This was hard going as it was generally warm hay-making weather. We would usually take a tin-can of water out to the hay field. A few fistfuls of oaten-meal would be put into the can before filling it with water. This was very refreshing after doing a few rounds of the field and the blisters were starting to build up between your thumb and index finger.
When you consider that one acre of hay contained two and a half miles of swarth, when you had turned two acres of hay, you had covered five miles.
‘Hand-cocks’, ‘Tram-cocks’, Sheep-cocks’ and the Tumbling Rake
As the hay dried out it was gathered into large rows using a horse-drawn tumbling rake. It was then made into what we called “hand-cocks”. These would only contain about a large forkful of hay but in rainy weather they would be very water-proof and very fast to make – especially if you saw a shower coming.
The tumbling rake was used in the next move, which was to gather the hand-cocks into a circle and build them into tram-cocks. These would be seven or eight feet high and about six feet wide at the butt.
They would be left in the field for a few weeks to dry out and mature before being collected on the horse-drawn hay float. Ten or twelve of these tram-cocks would be built into a larger cock, which in County Galway we would always refer to as “sheep-cocks”.
Gathering the hay with a tumbling rake with tram-cocks in the background
Jack Williams making tram-cocks
A long wooden pole, maybe fifteen or twenty feet long, would be sunk in the ground in a corner of the field and the circular haycock built around it. This was especially for the sheep to self-feed around it during the winter. The pole in the centre prevented it from falling over and trapping sheep under it.
I have seen some of those hay-cocks eaten to a height of about four feet all around and directly into the pole without falling over. By catching a hold of the hay and giving the remainder of the haycock a twist it would drop down to ground level and the sheep could start again.
The hay for the cows and horses would be taken into a small enclosed area near the house called a “haggard”. This was an old Norse word meaning haggard and probably came to us with the Vikings as did the word “husband” meaning “house-bond”.
Bringing home the hay
The cocks of hay were protected from the weather by a light coat of straw thatch held in place with scallops and twisted hay-ropes. To avoid the trouble of thatching my father would sometimes rip some beet-pulp bags and sew them together to form a cover for the cocks. We always referred to this by the Irish word “brat”.
Before being put on the cock, this cover would be soaked in a barrel of “blue-stone” (copper sulphate) for a few days. This was the same spray used to keep the blight off the potatoes.
It was a great preservative and the cover would last for years. Wooden stakes would also be left standing in this mixture, including the handles of shovels and forks and they would not rot for a very long time.
Corn-stack on the right behind Waltie Gill and Mary Williams
Harvesting the oats was also very laborious. A few attachments were added to the mowing machine, which enabled the operator to gather the oats into small piles. These would be dropped off at intervals of six to eight feet, depending on how heavy the crop would be.
Our job would be to tie those piles into sheaves. This is where the trouble started. You first had to take a fistful of oats and twist it a few times to make a loose rope. You then put your hands around the pile with the straw band in one hand and pulled the pile tight to form a sheaf and tie the band in place.
In those days there were no sprays used for weeds and the corn would be alive with thistles. Your arms, hand and knees would be scratched and torn and there would be no let-up as you had to get your area cleared before the mower came around again. By evening you looked like someone that had been wrestling with a grizzly bear and then pulled through a clump of bushes.
If that wasn’t bad enough you then had to collect the sheaves and put them standing in “stucks”. You would put ten or twelve sheaves standing in a clump and lying against each other. They would be left there to dry and ripen for a couple of weeks before being collected in the horse-cart.
The two ‘Haggards’
There were always two separate haggards – one for cocks of hay and another for the stacks of corn. The corn haggard would have three or four circles of standing stones or heavy pieces of timber about three feet high and ten feet wide on which was constructed a platform of light poles and tree branches. Each upright had a capstone about two feet in diameter. This meant that even if a rat climbed the upright the capstone stopped him from gaining access to the corn.
Great pride was taken in building the stacks but there was also a practical side to the work as they had to withstand the winter weather. The centre of the stack was kept higher than the outer edge so that even if the rain happened to penetrate it would run off to the outside. The stacks, which were kept until spring, were always well thatched with straw, held in place with hay-ropes and scallops. The ones for immediate threshing were built on the ground and would not be thatched.
The geese were always kept out of the corn-haggard as they had a habit of going under the stands and pulling down some ears of corn. It these were left hanging the mice were able to climb up along them and get into the stack. They were much more destructive than rats and I have seen some stacks, which were being kept for Spring seed, almost destroyed by mice. It was strange but you rarely got mice and rats in the same stack. It seems that the rats would not tolerate the mice and they got evicted.
Threshing the corn
Threshing the corn was always a very busy day. The thresher would come into one end of the village and work his way along from one house to the next. Neighbours always helped each other at the time of threshing and you could often spend a couple of days going to different houses. It was always a very sociable occasion with all the banter and chat and exchange of news when the tea-break came around. Two boiled eggs were the usual accompaniment to home-made brown bread and tea back in the forties and fifties. Later on, in more modern times, ham and tomatoes became the norm.
I heard of one farmer back in the forties, when things were very tight on small farms, on the day of threshing when tea-time came he would be first into his own house. He would say to his wife “Mary, put down a pot of eggs for the men.” Then he would give a loud cough and hold up his index finger – meaning one egg each.
It would generally take seven people to do the threshing-one man to fork the stack of corn onto the thresher, one man to cut the bands off the sheaves and one man to feed the sheaves into the thresher. Two men would take it in turn to fork the straw as it came out at one end of the thresher. Another man would be given the job of making the cock of straw. This was no easy job as the straw was very loose and bouncy as it came out of the thresher. At the other end, where the seed came out, the man of the house usually looked after the bags. There were generally three outlets here, two for good grain and one for “tailings”, which were small, poor quality seeds and empty husks. This was put by for feeding the hens. When I was young I was often given the job of keeping the chaff pulled out from under the thresher and I would feel very important.
For weeks after the threshing the fowl would have a great time as they scratched in the chaff for corn that had gotten lost in the process. Sparrows also benefited from this and there were scores of their nests in the hawthorn hedge around the haggard.
Sleeping on straw mattresses
When we were young we slept on straw mattresses. These were made by ripping up beet-pulp bags and sewing them up in the shape of a mattress. After being slept on for a year they would get very hard and uncomfortable as they were laid on wooden boards across the bed frame. So when the threshing was done and there was plenty of fresh straw about the old mattress would be hauled out. The side would be ripped open and all the old straw pulled out and replaced with nice, bouncy, fresh straw. Even though it was covered with a sheet you could get a nasty shock for the first few nights when you got into bed because a thistle could come through and get stuck in “you know where”.
The first thresher I remember was driven by a mobile oil-driven engine. The mill was towed from farm to farm by a horse. The oil engine was mounted on four wheels and was also towed by a horse. The owner of the outfit only had one horse, which he used to pull the mill. If a particular farmer wished to have his corn threshed he would have to go with his horse and pull the oil-engine to his farm.
Some farmers back in the forties had what you would call static threshers. They were set up inside a barn and were usually placed against the gable end. This allowed the long drive-shaft to be taken out through a hole in the wall just below ground level. This was connected to a very heavy cast-iron gear box. This was placed about twenty feet from the wall of the barn. The gear-box was about three feet high and had a long wooden pole attached to the drive-wheel on top. A horse would be chained to the end of this pole and driven around in circles. This operated the thresher inside the barn.
The apparatus in the shed was small and a very basic affair. It had a spinning beater, which knocked the corn off while the farmer held the sheaf. The farmer then threw the sheaf to one side and held another one in place. It did not separate the seed from the chaff so it then had to be winnowed in a winnowing machine. This was a wooden affair about five feet long by four feet high and three feet wide. It was hand operated so when you twisted a handle it operated a fan inside. The corn was poured in at the top so it blew the chaff out at one end and the corn dropped down. It took two people to operate and I got the job of twisting the handle. I get tired just thinking about it!
Using a flail to thresh oats.
I remember once seeing an old man, Pat Walshe, using a flail to thresh oats. This consisted of a handle about six feet long and a “beater” about three feet long. These were connected at one end by a piece of rope about ten inches long. The sheaves of oats were laid out on the floor of the shed and he used this ‘weapon’ to knock the seed off the sheaves. I use the word weapon because if you were not expert in using the flail you would knock your own head off.
Fair-Day in Athenry
The fair-day in Athenry was a very important milestone in the farming year, particularly March and October. Those were the months in which the rates had to be paid so most farmers would try to have something to sell at those fairs. Martin Finnerty was the Rate Collector in those years. He would set up office in Martin Glynn’s pub in Northgate Street. The fair would start very early in the morning. From 4 a.m. onwards farmers would start arriving with their livestock. When we were young we looked forward to the fair. It was always held on a Friday and the school closed for the day so we would always have a long weekend off.
Athenry Fair Day in full swing in the Medieval Square
Taking the livestock to the fair was a really tough job. It was always pitch-dark and the only light we had was an old bicycle lamp or a “flash-lamp” as it was called then. Sometimes when you thought things were going fine as you headed for Athenry, one of the cattle would jump over the wall into an adjoining field. This was a disaster as you had to find the animal in the dark and then find the gate to get him out as there was no way he would jump out where he jumped in.
If you arrived in town in good time you could pick a good spot to show your cattle, if possible on a footpath where they would look a bit bigger than they were. Eventually, after haggling with several buyers you would sell to the highest bidder. He would then take a scissors from his pocket and cut his initials in the hair on the animal’s rump. He then wrote a docket with the price and the number of animals. He handed you this with the usual “I’ll be paying in the Square when the bank opens.”
The buyer would have a couple of railway wagons booked and waiting down at the loading-bank near the railway station. Your next job was to take the animals down there and load them. It was no easy job taking your few animals through the streets still crowded with cattle and people and the ash-plant would have to be called into use on several occasions. Eventually, when you got the cattle loaded it was freedom to explore the fair and enjoy the rest of the day. My father would always gave my brother Joe and I a “few bob” to buy sweets.
When the banks opened it was a sight to behold in the Square. Large well-fed buyers or “jobbers” as they were called, decked out in brown coats, yellow leather boots and carrying umbrellas were lined up outside the bank. They carried rolls of red twenty pound notes, blue tens, green one-pound notes and red ten-shilling notes. The farmers queued up with their dockets waiting to get paid.
It was normal custom in those times for the seller to give “luck penny” to the buyer. The amount depended on the amount of money changing hands. The Jobber would always spit on the “luck penny” and put it in a separate pocket.’
‘Cheap jacks, ‘Unbreakable’ Delph and Crocodile Oil’
The second-hand clothes men or “cheap jacks” as they were called were lined up between the Square and Mahon’s shop, which is now Iggy’s Bar in Cross Street. Some of them were from Northern Ireland and the banter was really good at times, especially when they would try to persuade some man to buy a coat which was much too big for him. The ‘cheap jack’ would put his hand behind the man’s back and catch a fistful of the coat and pull it tight and say to the crowd “now doesn’t that look lovely” and the onlookers would shout in agreement.
There was always a man selling delph in those times. In order to draw a crowd he would throw a cup up in the air and catch it on the saucer as it came down while he shouted “unbreakable”.
I once saw a black man selling bottles of what he claimed was “crocodile oil” guaranteed to cure arthritis, lumbago, rheumatism and any other ailment you could care to think about.
Weanlings and suck calves
Weanlings and suck calves were always sold at the Square. The jobber would set up a crate in the centre of the Square and fill it with hay. He would then unload a dozen or more weanlings and they would gather around the hay and would stay there very contentedly. In those times you didn’t have any fancy continental breeds of cattle. It was almost entirely Hereford and Shorthorn with a few black Kerry breed, which were used almost entirely as milk cows. The Shorthorn also made good cows but the Hereford was used almost entirely for beef.
Johnny Trayers, Herrings and Ballad Singers
The fair was always held on a Friday and there was no meat allowed in the “ateing houses” as they were called, so the whole town reeked of fried herrings. A few private houses sold fresh fish for taking home. Johnny Trayers from Tuam would arrive and set up in the Square with boxes of mackerel and herring.
All the fish would be wrapped in old newspaper and a lot of farmers would buy their dozen of herrings before going for a couple of pints with the bundle of herrings under their arm.
Later in the day as the paper melted it was not unusual for the odd herring to pop out on the pub floor. When he was retrieved he would be coated in sawdust. The pubs used to have an inch or two of sawdust on the floors on account of all the muck on the streets.
On some occasions I saw a ballad singer go around the pubs in the afternoon. He would sing various ballads in return for the odd pint. He would also have a bundle of ballad sheets, which he sold for a penny or two.
When the fair was over that evening the town was in a terrible mess with several inches of muck all over the streets. Joe Shaughnessy, who worked for the County Council, would arrive with a horse-drawn revolving brush. This brush was set at an angle so that it pushed all the muck in towards the footpath. It would dry out a bit there so it could be shovelled into a horse cart. In the meantime it was your tough luck if you happened to step off the footpath in your low shoes.
When my brothers and I were young we would often be sent to my grandmother to do some little jobs for her like collecting the eggs, bringing in the cows for milking or going to Athenry for messages. On one occasion when I was there she asked me to catch the ass and to put the tacklings on him and put him under the cart as she wanted to go to Athenry. She wanted to sell some eggs and to get the “rations”, as the groceries were called in those days. I duly caught and tackled up the ass and as the cart was inside in the cart-house I took the ass in, backed him in between the shafts and chained him up. I then tied the reins to the wheel of the horse-cart which was to one side. My grandmother had a large wicker-work basket, which would hold about three score of eggs. She arrived out to the cart-house dressed in her black shawl and almost ankle length flouncy, black skirt. The ass-cart had what was called a box made of wood all around the cart and about twenty inches high. Across the centre of the cart and resting on both sides was a wide board, which served as a seat.
My grandmother went to the back of the cart and left the basket of eggs in over the back box and just behind the seat. She then climbed up on the cart, sat on the seat and said “gimme the reins”, which I did. Now this cart-house had a sloping flat roof which was much lower at the front. When I handed her the reins the ass took off at a gallop and she hadn’t time to duck. She struck her head against the low girder. This knocked her back on top of the basket of eggs with her legs sticking up in the air. She lost control of the reins and the seat kept her in this position as the ass galloped out the boreen and onto the road with myself in hot pursuit shouting at the ass to stop and my grandmother screaming. The ass and cart was brought to a halt after several hundred yards on the main road when I eventually grabbed hold of the reins. I have no doubt that if I didn’t manage to stop it the ass would have sailed in under the Arch in Athenry with grandmother still in that position. When we got back to the yard and grandmother was unloaded she had a large blue lump on her forehead but this was the least of her worries as half of the eggs were broken. They did not go to waste however as they were shelled into a bowl and there was scrambled eggs for a week.
Home Produced Food
As I have said before we always had plenty to eat as almost all the food was produced at home, except for maybe tea and sugar. Bacon and cabbage would have been the staple diet except on a Sunday when we would have mutton chops. I say “mutton” because lambs would never be slaughtered until they were a year old and it was also much more economical to have a larger carcass.
My father would buy two bonhams at the market. They would be kept until they were abouttwenty stone weight. At that stage one would be sold and the other would be kept for killing.
Pig-killing, a ‘Grim’ and ‘He kicked the bucket”. (Stands of corn in the background.)
The killing of the pig was a very primitive affair. The horse cart would be pulled out into the centre of the yard and the two wheels and the box removed. This provided a flat platform to get the pig on his back in order to kill him. My uncle would always perform the act of killing the pig. He would arrive with a very long butcher’s knife and a very sharp pen-knife. Several large pots of boiling water would also be prepared. A neighbour would also be called upon to help manhandle the pig on the platform.
It was no easy job getting the pig from the sty to the platform. An apparatus called a “grim” was used to hold the pig by the head. This was a stout handle about three feet long with a hole bored across through one end. A piece of rope about two feet long was threaded through and knotted to form a loop. The pig would be given a small piece of food in the trough and while he ate this the “grim” would be slipped on his upper jaw and the handle twisted until it had a tight grip. Then a rope would be tied on his back leg so he was under control. After that it was pull and push to get him to the platform amid horrendous screeching and screaming. Everybody in the village would know you were killing a pig as it could be heard a mile away.
After much pulling and dragging the pig was lined up beside the horse-cart. My uncle then took the seven-pound sledge, took careful aim, making sure the pig didn’t turn his head at the last second, and struck the pig a powerful blow on the forehead. The pig immediately collapsed and was rolled on to the cart by the helpers. The pig then had to be balanced on his back so the blood could be drawn. The initial cut in the tough skin was made with the pen-knife in the throat of the pig. The long knife was then plunged in where it severed an artery.
At this stage the blood would gush out at a great rate and another helper would hold a bucket and collect it all. It would almost fill the bucket. As this was going on the pig would often start kicking so the person holding the bucket had to be careful. Occasionally it happened that the pig connected with the bucket and spilled the blood. Hence the origin of the saying “he kicked the bucket”.
When the pig was killed it was really only the start of a lot of work. The door from one of the sheds was taken down and put on a couple of low wooden boxes and the pig was placed on this to make him more accessible for shaving.
A couple of canvas bags were spread over the pig and the water, which had been boiling in the kitchen, was taken out in buckets and poured over the canvas. The canvas helped to keep the heat in and soften the hair in preparation for shaving or “scraping” as it was called. The hair became loose in the skin and when it was scraped with large carving knives the hair would come away very cleanly. For any barber that is interested it would take two men two hours to shave a pig.
The pig was then taken into the barn and hung by the hind legs from the rafter. The pig was opened down the centre of the belly and the intestines dropped into a large wooden tub. The liver and the heart were retrieved, given a shake of salt and put to one side.
My mother would then take over the tub of intestines. She would remove what was called the small intestine but in reality it was several yards long. There would still be some undigested food left inside so she would run the whole length of this between finger and thumb until it was all cleaned out. Using a funnel she would then pour salty water through it to make sure it was clean inside as this would be used later on to make the blood pudding.
The pig would be left hanging for a couple of days for the meat to firm up and set. The cutting up of the pig would always be done at night-time. The carcass would be taken into the kitchen and laid on the table. The head would be removed first, then the back-bone, then the leg bones so you were left with two long sides of meat. The excess lean in several places would be cut off and used fresh, this was called “griskeen”.
The day before the cutting up of the pig was a very busy one in the kitchen. A large bag of coarse salt would have been bought in Corbetts and collected in the ass and cart. A sixteen gallon pot of water was hung on the crane over the fire. It would take several hours to bring to the boil. When it was hot enough salt would be added to it bit by bit. This was to make the pickle in which the bacon would be immersed in a wooden barrel. We had no scientific method of testing the specific gravity of the pickle but you kept adding salt until a raw spud would float on top of the pickle. This was the old method that was used for generations.
Each side of bacon was cut into four pieces and placed in a wooden barrel and all the bones placed on top as they would be used first. When the pickle was cold it would be poured into the barrel on top of the bacon and left for six or seven weeks. At that stage it would be taken out, allowed to dry and then hung on the chimney breast.
Meat was mostly home cured bacon and was so salty that a blue-bottle wouldn’t go within yards of it or he would have his feet burned off with the salt. Fresh meat was bought only occasionally and was cooked and eaten on the day –no left-overs.
We had fresh milk from the cows every morning, any surplus went to the calves-and the pigs wouldn’t say no to a bit of sour milk every now and then.
Churning was done once a week and again it was liberally salted and would not go rancid and if it went a bit soft in summertime, sure what harm, it was still nice on your spuds.
Making the puddings
The day after killing the pig the next job was making the puddings. A mixture of oaten meal, onions, suet and mixed spice was added to the blood to form a thick gruel but still capable of being poured. My mother always made the puddings. For some reason it was always considered a woman’s job. She would tie one end of the intestine with a piece of twine and then using a funnel and jug would pour this mixture into the intestine which was then tied at that end. She would have five or six very large rings of pudding, which then had to be boiled in a large pot of water over the open fire. They were boiled until they came to the top and floated. She used an ash-plant with a crook on the end to lift out the very hot puddings as they floated.
The next day a piece of “griskeen” and a piece of pudding would be given to the near neighbours. This was an old custom and when they killed a pig they would return the compliment.
Pig’s head and cabbage was not very popular among the children in the family even though my parents seemed to enjoy it. So, on occasions my mother would make ‘brawn’ from the meat of the head. The head would be boiled for a few hours until the meat fell away from the bone. When it was cold it was chopped up into small pieces and the jelly, which formed when it got cold, was mixed in with it. It then got a liberal dressing of mixed spice and put into a large bowl. A large plate was then placed on top and pressed down hard. A heavy weight was then placed on top and it was left to set overnight. It was very tasty when eaten cold.
In order to vary the meals a little bit my mother would sometimes make what she called “hash”. Any left-over spuds would be peeled and mashed. Then cold bacon and cabbage would be chopped up and mixed with the spuds. This was then put in a large oven and baked on the hot coals. It made a nice meal with a lump of country butter on top.
Another “dish” she would sometimes cook she called “Plum Duff”. This was more a dessert than a meal and you would have it as a treat on Sunday afternoon. On our way home from school we would be told to go to Jim Fahy’s grocery shop and get a stale loaf. It would only cost a few pence. This would be a large pan-loaf with a hard crust all over. It was broken up and put soaking in water for a few hours. At the same time a pound of raisins would be put soaking in hot water to soften them. The loaf would then be taken from the water, broken-up and squeezed to get the water out. The raisins would be drained and mixed with this and a generous fistful or two of sugar added, also a shake of spice, usually cinnamon. This was then put in a large oven and hung over the fire for an hour or so. It developed a lovely crisp crust on the bottom so when you had a piece of this on your plate and a jug of hot custard close by you wouldn’t call the Queen your aunt!
Fish on Fridays
In those days Catholics were forbidden to eat meat on Fridays so fish would be the most common ingredient of dinner on that day. Sometimes, if fish was not available, fried eggs would suffice. Herring was the most common fish available and would be bought from either Mrs. Connors near the Square or Mrs. Bane who lived in Chapel Lane.
The fish were always roasted on the tongs. Two sods of turf were laid parallel with each other and about eighteen inches apart on the hearth. Hot coals were then placed between them and the tongs was placed resting on the two sods. The herrings were then placed across the tongs and allowed to roast. The oil from the fish dropped on to the coals causing it to flame and this gave a lovely crisp skin. We did not know it then but we were the fore-runner of the barbecue.
Potato-cake, or “praitie-cake” as it was called, was always a great favourite. This mixture of pre-cooked potato, flour, really sour buttermilk, a pinch of breadsoda and salt was always cooked, uncovered, on the flat gridle. The praitie-cake of those days was very different from what you will see in the shops. The mixture was made in the consistency of dough, rolled out flat more than half an inch thick and about fifteen inches wide. It was then cut into farl shapes. Hot coals were pulled from the fire and the three-legged grid-iron was placed over them. The flat gridle was placed on top and the “praitie-cake” placed on this. After half an hour it was turned and half an hour later it was baked. It was usually eaten hot. The farls were thick enough to be split down the middle with a good lather of country butter. It was delicious, especially if you were young and hungry. Keeping the butter from running down your chin was a job in itself.
We were very lucky in that we had plenty of apples and we would have apple cake and stewed apple. My father was a very good bee-keeper, so honey was always to be had. He would also have surplus honey, which was sold to the shops.