A Farming Diary

Vol. 8 No. 2 - 2003

A Farming Diary for 1885

by Florence Gracey

This article on farming activities in the Parish of Montiaghs is based on a diary written up each day for the year 1885 by a farmer who lived in the townland of Derryadd. The journal is a foolscap size-book with three days to a page, (there is no space allocated for Sunday), and came to light when an old house was being cleared. It is a document of considerable significance since it gives a direct glimpse at the organisation, activities, work-force, machines and tools of the period, The last line describes the weather for that day.

The overall picture is of a moderately prosperous farmer employing a workforce of neighbours, and in turn taking their produce to market with his horses and carts, supplying them with turf, for which they paid by work. This farmer owned two farms, both in the Parish of Montiaghs, one comprised 15 fields in the townland of Derryadd, and another of 18 acres in the adjoining town-land of Derrycorr. This was a mixed farm as animals were kept as well as crops grown. In addition there was a considerable area of bog as will become evident by the number of men employed to cut and make turf, and by the number of months over which the activity was continued. Since the diary was kept for the year 1885 it is a bonus that Bassett's Directory for Co. Armagh was published in 1888 and tradesmen mentioned in Lurgan and Portadown can be identified there.

Six blacksmiths in Lurgan

The precise wording used is evident in the entry for New Year's Day 1885... "I took one horse to Lurgan with the lea plough to get it repaired at Mr. Gallaghers". The latter was one of six black-smiths then in business in Lurgan. Henry Gallagher's premises were in Castle Lane.

The entry continues ... "I paid Mr. Gallagher 3 pounds and 5 shillings for a new iron harrow."

The blacksmith occupied an important position in the community. He was a man of great strength and skill. Not only did the blacksmith provide shoes for the farm horses, he also produced various tools and implements ... shovels, forks and harrows. He assembled ploughs and also made the equipment for the hearth in the home... crane, hook and fire irons. Even though the blacksmith assembled the swing plough he was unable to make all the parts. The actual ploughshare and mould board had to be cast in a foundry. In Bridge Street, Portadown, a foundry did exist in 1885 owned by the Bright Brothers.

There was a local blacksmith in Derryadd, but presumably his business was the shoeing of local horses and making gates for the fields. The forge continued in Derryadd until the mid 1950's. It is not difficult to recall the atmosphere of the forge with its anvil and bellows that blasted the dying turf embers into instantaneous heat. The heat and the pronounced smell of the seared horses' hooves always pervaded the place. Here too at a time when few newspapers' would have reached the Montiaghs, the local news of the area was exchanged.

The entry for January 3rd emphasises another important aspect of nineteenth century farming: "I took one horse to Portadown. I bought a large heap of manure from Mr S. Wilson at £8: 0: 0 and I am to get all the manure that is made in his yard up till the first of February,"

Thereafter for the next three weeks two horses were driven to Portadown twice daily to cart home manure. By February 3rd there was this entry... "The two loads of manure which the horses brought this forenoon, were the last of the heap which I bought from Mr S. Wilson, being in all 54 loads."

The manure was built up into a characteristic heap in the farmyard. Later its significance will become apparent during the planting season.

Rare breeds

Other activities in which the farm workers were engaged in January were feeding the cattle, which were housed indoors from November through to early April. The best known of the local cattle breeds were Irish moils (hornless cattle), today preserved as a result of the efforts of the Rare Breeds Society. Most of the cattle would not have been pure bred, but rather cross-breeds of short-horns, belted Galloways and Herefords.

January and February were the months when most of the farm maintenance was carried out... ditches dug and cleaned, hedges cut, fences repaired, briars trimmed and weeds lifted and burnt. Stones were gathered off the fields. They came to the surface after the freeze/thaw action in the soil during winter. In the previous century the land had been enclosed by the construction of a bank of earth faced on one side with stones and planted with a thorn hedge (known locally as 'quicks"). In among the quicks this farmer planted willows which were the source of osiers used for securing the roof thatch.

Another specialist in the farming community was the neighbouring butcher employed to kill pigs. The killing of the pigs took place on the farm. The pig was hit with a heavy object so it became stunned; its throat was cut and once slaughtered the pig was bled. The carcass was then placed in a tub of boiling water to scald it, and make the hair more easily removed. After the carcass was lifted from the scalding tub it was placed on a wooden board where the butcher shaved off the pig's hair. Then the carcass was hung up, cut and the internal organs removed. Often the heart and liver were kept by the family for consumption,

This procedure continued in the countryside until 1947 when an agricultural act was passed known as 'The Farmers Charter'. In the still air of a frosty morning it was possible to hear the squealing of the pigs over a considerable area. Their stiff carcasses would next be suspended in the bare branches of trees. Fair Day in Lurgan was the second Thursday of every month while in Portadown it was the third Saturday.

The diary entry for Friday, January 16th, records a pig being slaughtered and the next day, the third Saturday of the month, the farmer wrote... "I took one horse to Portadown with a dead pig which I sold for £21: 15: 0 per hundredweight. It weighed 3cwt and 14lbs."

Portadown's pork curers

The income from this sale was approximately £5.34. At the fair, the buyers from the various bacon-curing firms purchased carcasses from the farmers. Bassett's Directory 1888 records that in Portadown there were three pork curers... McCammon and Sprott in Castle Street, A Sherneld and Co. in West Street and A.G.Thompson of Market Street.

The weather for January started fine and by the second week had turned very frosty. By the middle of the month it was once again fine. That fine weather continued into February 1885, but on the eighteenth a shower of snow was experienced. The weather deteriorated and the entry for February 21st, reads "Weather was cold and stormy in the morning, afterwards the wind blew a perfect hurricane and rain fell in torrents." This resulted in considerable damage in the countryside as revealed in later entries... "The thatcher repairing the roof of the house in Derrycorr, some of the straw was blown off by the storm of February 21st. I went to an entertainment at the Bannfoot, the proceeds of which were given in aid of the rebuilding of the Esky Hill Church, which was blown down on the night of February 21st".

A similar concert was given in Ardmore school, the proceeds of which were donated to the re-building fund. The local community obviously rallied quickly to gathering funds and a further entry records... "I was in Lurgan with Mr. Robinson collecting money for the new Sunday School at Derryloiste. We got seven Pounds 16 Shillings."

Digging and levelling the baitin

By the middle of February two workmen started digging and levelling the baitin in Derryadd. The word 'baitin' means food and has an Irish root coming from the same origin as 'to bait'... as in fishing. My late father gave me this account of the Derryadd baitins- "Once this area was bog, the turf having been cut out. Each Spring the baitins were set on fire to regenerate the soil. They were mainly used for growing potatoes, and some vegetables, mostly turnips and cabbage. The area of each was a half-acre, owned by the local residents. The baitins ran from Derryadd Road back to the bog."

Two horse team at Moyallon
Two horse team at Moyallon

Ploughing started at the end of January. The lea plough was used to plough grassland fields, which had not recently been used to grow crops. It had a sharp iron blade to cut up the virgin ground. The swing plough had been introduced from Scotland and was widely in use during the nineteenth century. The ploughman had to control the horses and also the depth and width of the furrow being turned by the plough. This man would also lift the plough over obstacles. The ploughman had thus considerable skill, and it was the same ploughman throughout the journal.

It is likely that the pair of horses that pulled the plough were of the medium sized Irish Draught horse which was preferable to the large Clydesdale since its lower legs were not as hairy making it easier for them to walk a furrow, and the lower legs were more easily kept clean. Throughout the month of February the ploughman with his two horses was doing work on neighbouring small farms, ploughing their fields. It was common practice in the countryside to pool resources, both machine and manpower.

This farmer identified his fields not by names but by numbers and 9 of the 15 fields were ploughed, then harrowed, ploughed again and then harrowed, The harrow which comprised a wooden frame with iron or wooden pegs was used to break up the ground after ploughing or to mix soil and newly sown seed, in this case oats, together. Again the workman who sowed the seed had special skills in this operation. Wearing a sack in a sling-like position around his neck he dipped his hand in and broadcast the seed over the prepared ground. His special skill resulted in the seed being sown evenly leaving no bare areas.

Again this hand-sown method was still in operation in Derryadd until the 1950's. This farmer had oats in one half of three fields, and later sowed potatoes in the other half. Clover and grass-seed for harvest in the following year were also sown in the area where oats had been planted,

Buying the seed potatoes

On March 23rd, he wrote ... "I went into Portadown with the bay horse and brought home 10 cwt of seed potatoes (Irish whites) . I paid two shillings and ten pence" (equivalent to 14 pence today). Incidentally in Autumn 2002 the cost was £12.00. "Four men spreading manure and dropping potatoes in Field Number 2; I with one horse covering them and raising drills."

Good Friday 1885 was April 3rd. and despite being a Bank Holiday, the farm hands were at work. The entry includes:.. "I was in Moy Fair, and bought a young bull (11 months old) for which I paid 10 guineas."

The shovel used would have been the long handled shovel with its broad top and pointed lower end. The baitin was the lower part of the cut-out raised bog which began in ill-drilled hollows. The drills therefore aided drainage and the breaking of the impermeable pan provided minerals which had been leached downwards were thus returned to the top soil when the potatoes were earthed.

The April 10th.. entry shows the labour intensive side of nineteenth century farming. "One horse carting out manure to Field Number 10, We commenced to put in the potatoes, had to dig them in as the ground was too soft for the horses. Ten persons were employed to spreading the manure, dropping potatoes and digging them in."

This spade-work continued over the next 3 days. As Professor Evans comments "Strong arms have been the Irish labourers passport to labouring jobs overseas. Those arms were toughened by field work in field and bog."

On Friday April 17th, the entry reads... "The three horses carting manure from the yard to Field Number 2 and covering it with the drill plough," Seven workers, including one woman, were spreading the manure and dropping potatoes in rows. Three fields had potatoes planted in them. Attention then turned to planting in the baitin. "The drills have to be raised with shovels and the manure carried into the drills."

The entry for Saturday April 18th. reads: "I was in Portadown Fair and sold a springing heifer for 10 pounds... cattle very cheap."

One week on for Saturday April 25th. is the entry: "Pat H. came this afternoon, he being previously hired by his mother at 2 pounds till November 2nd." This was in preparation for May 1 st., when sure enough Pat is recorded as "gathering weeds in Field Number 2 in the forenoon and working in the bog in the afternoon." Professor Evans maintains that the Celtic year in pre-Christian times had only two seasons, winter and summer and the first days of November and May were the times when rents fell due and were also the times of the hiring fairs.

Turf making begins

By the second of May turf making in the bog had begun in earnest. After the March winds, and the lengthening days of spring, had dried the bog surface, conditions were right for the harvesting of this essential fuel. "Three men cutting turf, three boys forking the turf and two others paring and making spread ground." The fork used somewhat resembled a cut-off pitch-fork with four iron prongs and a long handle. It was used to pitch the turf to the barrow-man to load. Opening up a bank involved the removal of the top fibrous layer to a depth of a foot or so.

The natural vegetation comprised heather, long tough grasses and mosses. When dried, being light in weight, it was known as "fum" ... burning away quite quickly. The common spade was used for opening up a turf bank. The bog parings were spread on the cut-over bog below the bank where they gave a dry footing for the men with barrows wheeling away the turf. In time the pared sods consolidated so that the rough grazing of the bog was preserved at a lower level. The turf was cut with a special turf spade, a narrow straight shafted steel blade with a wing set at right angles. The purpose of the implement was to detach a complete turf at a single stroke of the spade. In the very wet bogs the turves were cut larger than normal for when dry they shrank to approximately one-eight of their original volume. Turf barrows were used to take the cut turf to the spread-ground. The slats ran length-wise on the barrow. The wheel was large and broad to aid pushing over rough ground. A barrow load comprised of 10 to 20 turves.

After one or two weeks lying on the ground for drying the next stage was footing. Upwards of a dozen turves were arranged in a lean-to fashion to catch the wind and aid drying. The drying process was of the utmost importance for when thoroughly dried the turf acquired a waterproof skin.

Bog oak

There are several references to bog timber being dug from the turf bog. The oak was used for roofing beams, and pine was split up and used for lighting the home fire. The fir hatchet used for splitting the pine was still in use in the Montiaghs area until after World War 11. This hatchet had a very long handle with a massive axe head on one end. When the fir was carted home to the farmyard it was built into a stack. The March wind blowing through it dried it (for it was heavy and saturated when dug from the bog). Once dried it kindled very easily and set alight the turf fire.

Two horse team in the 1800s
Two horse team in the 1800s

The entry for Saturday May 16th. reads: "two of us with the mare which was ill to foal. I had to go for Mr. Thompson V.S. who had to take the foal from the mare as it came with its four legs together. The foal was dead."

Mr Thompson of Church Place was the veterinary surgeon in Lurgan. Bassett's Directory does not record any in Portadown. There was obvious concern for the mare which was said by the following day to be "still improving". The following day she was back in harness carting manure from the farmyard to the fields. The mare had thus 3 days to recover.

Turf making in May was interspersed with ploughing, harrowing, drilling grubbing and rolling. The grubber was a machine comprising a number of hoe-like blades which scuffed out the weeds. The entry for May 18th reads "Two horses finished drilling Field Number 2 at half past 10 o'clock. Afterwards one horse in the small grubber was grubbing the potato drills in Field Number 10 and in the evening with two horses putting up the mould with the drill plough, One boy picking weeds off the same field, one man breaking clods at the top of Field Number 10."

The latter comment demonstrates that despite the machinery it was still necessary to have the spade to break up the heavy lumps of soil where the machine entered the field or turned. The potatoes required a lot of attention throughout the month of May, illustrating the intensive labour required. This work was interspersed with work in the turf bog.

On May 26th the entry reads: ... " I with the pony sowed the turnips with the turnip drill in Field Number 2."

The weather in May was predominantly fine. The month opened with dry cold weather and snow and hail stones were experienced during the first week. Thereafter it became fine and when precipitation occurred it was described as 'soft rain'. The fine weather continued into June when it was described as "very fine and warm."

The entry for Thursday June 4th reads: "I drove into Lurgan and saw Mr. Moore (solicitor). He is to employ a Councillor to plead my case of appeal." On June 8th, there is the entry:"I was in Armagh. My appeal case in the Land Court was to be heard."

Saturday June 13th. reads: "I have heard the decision of my appeal: my rent is to be fifteen pounds for 18 acres 18 perches, that being a reduction of ten pounds."

Land Reform

The 1880s in Ireland was the era of 'land reform'. Gladstone was back in power and his parliamentary reforms had given labourers the vote. In 1881 he had introduced the Land Bill whereby a fair rent would be set by the land courts; free sale enforced compensation for improvements; and fixity of tenure gave protection against eviction, on condition the rent was paid. A general election was held in 1885 and the actual political literature is included at the back of the journal showing the names of the two candidates for the Montiaghs... Saunderson and Shillington.

The entry for June 17th reads; "Three horses at Magheralin for lime". The next day a further load of lime was brought to the farmyard and on Thursday 18th, "Three men turning a bank of soil and putting three loads of lime in it".

The farmer was obviously aware of the value of the lime to reduce the acidity of the peaty soil. That must have been the week of the Balmoral Show for the entry for Friday June 19th, reads: "I was in Belfast at the Cattle show".

The month ended with the men busy for the last ten days stacking turf in the bog and carrying out turf onto the rampart. The turf was then carted from the bog and stacked in the yard. A favourite place for the stack was against the house gable, where it provided a certain amount of warmth, even before the turf was burnt.

The first week in July saw the beginning of hay-making. On July 7th, "Six men thinning turnips in Field Number 12, one man cutting grass and weed with a scythe in the orchard and one man lime-washing walls."

Annual lime washing

This last mentioned activity continued for three days and involved 'white-washing' the cottier houses. This was a practice which continued right up to the middle of the twentieth century when the residents renewed their lime wash before the July celebrations.

By July 24th "Two horses in the reaping machine cutting grass in Fields Number 3 and 7, which they finished; six men lifting and binding the grass and three men stooking the grass." By the beginning of August three men employed "Taking off grass-seed in Field Number 2 and one man riddling grass-seed on the loft."

On August 12th the entry reads; "I was in Portadown and sold my grass seed at ten shillings and six pence per cwt. to Robert Adgar, Green Street, Belfast. I am to deliver it in his own sacks on Thursday week at Lurgan station."

The grass seed was got ready for delivery to Lurgan station;.. "Two men in the afternoon cleaning, weighing and bagging the grass seed and sewing the bags."

Thursday August 20th is recorded thus; "One man with two horses in Lurgan with grass seed at the railway station. I had 31 cwt, 2 quarters of grass-seed for which I got ten shillings and six pence per cwt." The total income from this sale was £16.54.

On Portadown Fair Day there is an entry; "I was in Portadown Fair and sold a cow for £5.00, one which I paid £10 for about two and a half years ago." This is an indication of the state of the economy at the period of agitation that accompanied Gladstone's land reform.

Harvesting now dominated the farming activities. Friday August 21 st... "The three horses carting hay to the stackyard, one man making a bottom for the hay and in the afternoon two men building the hay." The haystack was later thatched with straw to keep out the rain. When the hay was finished, cutting the oats began using a hook. The oats, as previously noted were carefully hand-wed, and thistles growing among the corn were pulled out with special pincers, made from either iron or wood. The hook used to cut an entrance for the reaping machine was a smooth edged semi-circular blade with a wooden handle. It was wielded with a slashing cut, the blade being pulled towards the shearer, who held a bunch of oats as it was cut. This meant that the seed was not shaken out of the heads.

On Monday August 24th... "Two horses in the reaping machine cut the oats in Field Number 11, I laying off the oats, 10 men lifting and binding the oats, which were a very good crop." The number of workers required was a result of the speeding up of the reaping process, compared with the scythe. The fever of activity continued into early September and on the 16th of the month is this entry:.. "Two horses in the reaping machine finished the cutting of the oats in Field Number 12 in the forenoon, that being the last of the harvest,"


A week later the horses and carts conveyed the oats from field to yard where they were built into stacks. The threshing of the oats was the next stage.

Wednesday September 23rd. ... "Two horses threshing oats for myself, one man driving the horses, one man feeding the sheaves into the machine and one man carrying out the straw."

In this type of thresher, introduced in the nineteenth century, two horses were harnessed to a gearing mechanism which was turned as they continuously walked round about it. The gears were connected to the threshing machine inside the barn by an underground driving shaft. In the threshing machine inside, revolving beaters knocked the seed out of the grain. The straw was carried out by revolving spikes in the drum at the rear of the machine. Many of the neighbouring smaller farmers brought their oats to the farm for threshing, a common practice in rural areas. The threshing continued for several weeks.

The entry for September 29th reads: "Two men carting rye from Field Number 15 to the barn." On October 2nd... "Two horses in the threshing machine, two men attending the machine, the roller being raised; the men putting in the rye and taking it out not allowing it to pass through, as I want the straw for thatch."

This is because rye straw is longer, softer and more flexible than any other. Straw rope had a wide variety of uses ranging from mats, seating for chairs, horse harness, tethering livestock, clothes lines and as improvised belts over long overcoats worn by countrymen on an inclement day at the fair!

September 6th... "I took one horse to Lurgan with 3 sacks of rye to have it crushed at Mr. McClimond's mill for cattle feeding." Bassett's Directory 1888 lists Robert McClimond of North Street as one of five grain merchants in Lurgan.

The autumn weather was showery with stormy periods giving way to fine weather the last week in October. Mid November had a lengthy fine spell, turning cold and dry at the end of the month. The fine weather continued into early December. This month on the whole was dry and ended with frosty conditions.

There was an old windmill in Derryadd, on an elevated site overlooking Lough Neagh. It was built by the Fforde family of Raughlln. Previously it had sails and local tenants were expected to have their oats ground there.

The potato harvest

The potato harvest began towards the end of October. On Tuesday October 20th he wrote" "Two horses in the potato digger, digging out potatoes in Field Number 2 in the forenoon and in the afternoon digging out in Field Number 10; nineteen persons being engaged in picking up the potatoes; one horse carting the potatoes from the field to the yard. Potatoes in the two fields very good. Magnabonums in Field Number 2, Champions in Field Number 10".

This work continued over 7 days. The difference in harvesting potatoes in the baitin in Derryadd is reflected in the entry; "Four men digging out potatoes in the baitin at Derryadd, 4 boys picking up the potatoes, 2 men forking up weeds and potato stalks for burning."

Further income was derived from the potato harvest... "I was in Belfast and sold all my Champion potatoes and Magnabonums at one pound and eighteen shillings per ton to be delivered in Belfast Lough."

Sacks were collected two days later at Lurgan Railway station for packing the potatoes. The next day, six men were engaged in filling the sacks with potatoes and weighing them. By the end of the week; "3 men with the 3 horses carting potatoes to Kinnego, each horse going 3 times in the day. Five men were filling the sacks, weighing them and sewing the sacks." Over the next 5 days a total of 32 trips were made to Kinnego on Lough Neagh and the potatoes were loaded onto lighters. The entry for November 18th. Reads . . . "I have sent by lighter to Belfast 5 tons Magnums and 28 tons and 16 cwt. Champion potatoes which I sold to Cullen, Allen and Co., Corporation Street at one pound and eighteen shillings per ton."

By canal to Belfast

This brought a total income of £64.22. Lighters which operated from Kinnego to Belfast via the Lagan Canal at this time included the "Ida', 'Sara' and the 'Amy', the last mentioned being built in Portadown Foundry. This was a good money-saving way to transport the potatoes to Belfast, as at that particular time, because of competition from the railways, potatoes were transported free of charge by the canal barges.

The year ended with one man digging and raising fir in the bog and another digging in one of the fields. This digging is a theme that runs throughout the diary and the year, and as a result of so much emphasis placed on it, Seamus Heaney's poem on that subject, as he watched his father digging, may be a fitting note on which to end.

"The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that were picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands."


  • Mr. John Weir for the photograph of the two horse ploughing team at Moyallon.
  • Dr. F.X. McCorry for the derivation of the term 'baitin'
  • My two brothers, Stanley and Brian, who spent their school holidays in the 1950's helping local farmers. The tractor had reached Derryadd by then, but many local farmers still adhered to old traditions.

Secondary Sources

  • C. Armagh: a Guide and Directory 1888, George Henry Bassett (Friars Bush Press)
  • Farming in Ulster, Jonathan Bell (Friars Bush Press)
  • Irish Folkways, E, Estyn Evans (Routledge)
  • History of Ulster, Jonathan Bardon (Blackstaff Press)
  • Once Upon the Lagan, May Blair (Blackstaff Press)