Looking back at farming

Vol. 3 No. 3 - 1977

Looking back at farming

by S.J.W. Cooper

This article is concerned with farming in the first half of the present [20th] century as seen in the work and life on a small farm in the townland of Monbrief. The farmer was a Mr. Thomas Anderson.

Thomas Anderson was born in 1877 in Corcreaney, the adjoining townland, and on his marriage his father purchased for him the farm in Monbrief of 12 acres. He was an industrious young man and soon settled into a well organised routine of daily and seasonal activities. So successful was he that he soon possessed six milking cows and two horses with ploughs, harrows, roller, reaping machine, hay-shaker and hay-float. The loan from his father was repaid too.

Tommy Anderson was an early riser and at 6.30am - come hail or snow - he could be heard every morning whistling merrily, as the cows were brought in for milking. Milking was by hand, with the milker sitting on a small three-legged stool and the milk bucket between his knees.

The milk was carried in the bucket into a small room where it was strained through muslin and stored in an earthen crock. Neighbours, who were the main customers, would call and carry home the daily requirements in quart or pint tin cans. The care and sale of the milk was Mrs. Anderson's responsibility. The lady of the house was also in charge of the poultry on the farm, and the sale of eggs and butter.


A good breakfast of fried eggs and bacon laid the foundation for the day's work. The smell of the bacon - often home-cured - was something we rarely get today.

In the early part of the year the outdoor work was the preparation for cultivation. Two sturdy horses were always kept for this purpose. After the ploughing came the harrowing and the sowing of the oats which was the main grain crop. The sowing of the seed was by the 'fiddle' - or by hand alone. For potatoes, the ground would be harrowed, rolled, ploughed again and re-harrowed into a loamy tilth before the drill plough opened the drills. The open drills were given a good supply of manure from the farm. This was spread with a graip. Seed potatoes were planted by hand, and neighbours would assist in this back-breaking job.

The cutting of the hay was a time when many hands were needed and weather conditions were often disruptive factors. Mr. Anderson would cut, not only the hay in his own meadows, but often used his horses and mowing machine to help his neighbours. Two horses pulled the machine which had a projecting knife of triangular oscillating blades. The blades were re-sharpened in the evening.

The knife was taken from the machine and braced to a trestle and the blades were sharpened one by one, using a file. Often the locals gathered round for an evening's crack while the sharpening continued.


After cutting, the hay lay in swathes till partially dry when this was turned over by hand rake. The shaking-out came next. This was accomplished by using a two-pronged fork and when the hay was "won" or dried, came the stacking or building the hay into cocks. There was often competition among school children to get trampling or building the stack which took place amidst a great ring of hay collected on the fork. On really hot days, this could be very unpleasant when hay seeds would find their way inside shirts.

Hay-making was tedious work but the eventual reward came when Mrs. Anderson arrived at the field with the tea. The soda and wheaten farls baked on the griddle over the open fire, with the cake baked in the Dutch oven - and the hot tea - were very welcome to the haymakers.

Hay-making then continued and if the weather was suitable work went on - no matter what the time - till the hay was stacked.

Churning day was an important time in the farmhouse. Surplus milk was stored in a cool place and twice weekly this was emptied into the churn in the centre of the floor. The lid was placed in position with the long churn-staff through the centre of the lid. Once churning began there was no stopping till the little blobs of butter splashed onto the churn-staff. Every able person who came in had to assist. "Give it a brash!" was the signal and you grasped the churn staff with both hands and at a steady pace kept the down-up rhythm till someone else took over.

But it was all worth it. When the churning was finished you were rewarded with a long drink of the most delectable buttermilk - the real McCoy.


The harvest was a busy time on the farm. For the cutting of the grass-seed crop the cutting machine or the reaper now had two seats. One was for the driver and on the other seat, next to the swathe being cut, Mr. Anderson sat and with a tilling rake left the grass in bundles. These were tied into sheaves by the helpers who used a wisp of grass for tying. The sheaves were stooked and later built into stacks before being carted to the farm for threshing.

The threshing mill was a huge cumbersome looking structure and when manoeuvred into position parallel to the long stack was driven via a belt by the steam-engine. Many hands were necessary - attending to engines, feeding the thresher and removing the seed and the hay. The seed, in bags, was removed to the barn and later fanned by a machine turned by hand to remove chaff and other impurities. When cleaned and dried the seed was bagged and taken by horse and cart to the seed warehouse in High Street, Lurgan. The production of Italian rye-grass seed did provide a good part of the farm income.

The cutting, tying and stacking of the corn crop, like that of the grass-seed, was a busy time too. The process was somewhat similar to that of grass-seed but the riddles, or sieves, for cleaning the corn were not so fine as those used with the grass-seed. Potato harvesting came in October. School children had a week's holiday to assist with the potato gathering. Of all the harvesting occupations this was the most laborious and the most unpleasant because of the cold weather.


Hallowe'en was the time for thanksgiving and a less arduous time on the farm. Mr and Mrs. Anderson were not only hard working but kind and benevolent and it was at this time of the year they entertained all the local children at a Hallowe'en party. Children dressed up and made the round of all the houses nearby, then returned to the farmhouse for the big party. This was an annual event on the farm. There was ducking for apples, biting the suspended apple and presents for everybody. But the big treat was sampling the apple dumpling, apples baked in potato pastry and steamed in a cloth, followed by tea and all sorts of home baking. This was a night to remember.

Winter was the season of tidying up - cleaning out the sheughs or drains and trimming the hedges. Fuel supplies had to be replenished and this meant a horse and cart journey to the Montiaghs - a round journey of 15 miles where the turf was loaded and brought to the farm.

The Anderson kitchen or living room was large and heated by a huge open fire of turf. Here on long winter evenings, the neighbours would sit in a great circle, some on the turf-box, some on chairs, and like a parliamentary session - the topics of the day were discussed. The local characters often provided a good night's fun.

The farm, over the years, was extending in area by the purchasing of additional land. Success, too, was evident, when a pony and a very comfortable rubber-tyred trap provided the transport. It was a big occasion for older children to be asked to harness the pony and drive Mrs. Anderson to town.


Sunday was a day of rest and only essential work, like feeding and milking the animals, was carried out. Church was attended without fail. Mr. Anderson was noted for his punctuality and would be ready for church an hour before the time.

In the later years of his life farming methods were changing - no doubt accentuated by two World Wars. So the Fordson tractor and other machinery came to the farm which had now extended to 76 acres, extending in Monbrief and in Corcreaney.

The mechanical age was taking over. When Mr. Anderson died in 1961 at the age of 84 he had lived a full, successful life. He had seen farming change from an almost wholly manual occupation to a mechanised business with intensive crop and animal production on a large scale.

The years 1900 to 1950 were years of much change in the methods of farming.