All in a day's work

Vol. 7 No. 1 - 1995

All in a day's work

Memories from the farm over 75 years

by William McGeown

Pat Lennon set out to walk the half-mile from his cottage to the farmyard. It was 6 am on the 4th of February 1924. There had been a sharp frost that night and his heavy nailed boots made a pleasant sound on the metalled roadway.

Pat was thankful for the heavy black overcoat he was wearing. His first job of the day was to feed the horses; they had to have their oats and hay about an hour before the start of the working day. He would then walk back to his cottage, get his breakfast and be back to the farm at 7am in the sure knowledge that the boss would be already about, to see that everybody was in time and give directions for the day's work. This depended on the weather and the season.

At this time of the year if it was wet it may have been picking and bagging potatoes in the potato store, cleaning grass-seed on the seed sieving machine in the barn loft, or threshing oats or wheat in the grain store.

The farm, known as "Prospect Hall", was a mainly arable farm of 132 acres near the village of Aughagallon. Forty acres were in County Down, the remainder in County Antrim. This had been part of the Marquis of Hereford's estate of some 9,000 acres, which included the villages of AughagalIon, Aghalee and Soldierstown.


The County Antrim land had been bought from the landlord, by virtue of the Irish Land Acts about 1900. These Acts of Parliament enabled the tenant farmers to buy their land under a 50-year annuity scheme and so become owner-occupiers. The annuity debt went with the farm in the case of the land being sold before the annuity had been repaid. The 40 acres in County Down, which adjoined the bigger County Antrim part, had been in the ownership of the McGeown family for a very long time, so long, in fact, that the Land Registry Office had no record of when it was actually acquired. The farm was mainly arable, with the addition of a few cows and beef cattle. Perhaps as many as 8 horses were used; one at least would have been a mare to breed replacements. The crops grown were potatoes, turnips, oats, wheat, Italian ryegrass and hay. Most of these were sold as cash crops. A few hens and ducks and a very few pigs were kept for domestic use, with a pig being slaughtered from time to time to supply bacon and ham.

Any sales from the poultry would have belonged to the mistress of the house and were referred to as "pin money". Being four miles from Lurgan, this is where most of the produce would be sold. One must remember that most of the milk used in the town was actually produced in little dairies in the back streets and alleys of the town. The milk was retailed once or twice daily to the surrounding householders.

The feed needed for the cattle and horses provided a convenient market for the produce of the surrounding countryside, which would have been geared to this outlet. If it was a reasonable day Pat, or some of the other horsemen, would have taken one or perhaps two cartloads of potatoes or turnips to Lurgan. He would have weighed his cart or carts at one of the Council weighbridges in Union Street, at the Gas Works in William Street, or at the Railway Station, and delivered them to the customer. He would then have collected one or perhaps two loads of manure from the same or nearby stables, weighed them and returned to the farm. Then he would have stacked the manure in a neat square stack at the nearest suitable area to the fields which would be growing potatoes or turnips that year.


At this time, town "middens", or manure pits, were convenient places for minor rubbish disposal. It is surprising that old stone ink bottles and jars are still sometimes found in quite good condition after being cultivated over for perhaps 100 years.

When my mother was married in 1919 there were 40 persons living on the farm. There were 8 cottages, 7 of which were in a group known locally as McGeownstown. Some of the cottages had an extra room, or "bay" as it was known. This was to accommodate a loom on which linen was woven. The main farmhouse and yard were situated about in the middle of the farm. The slated farmhouse had over the years "like Topsy, just growed" as family needs and finance permitted.

In the Kilmore portion of the farm there was another substantial slated two-storey house to which apparently the older generation would retire when the son of the family assumed responsibility for the management of the farm. The availability of labour at short notice was advantageous to a farming system with seasonal needs. Apart from the 5 or 6 men employed on a regular basis, a great number of men, women and children were available for potato planting, hay making, seed harvesting and potato gathering.

A crop which was practically unique to the farmland in the Lurgan/Moira/Aghalee and surrounding areas was that of growing Italian ryegrass-seed; the basalt clay soil seemed to suit this crop. Growing grass-seed was a labour-intensive crop, as it had to be harvested within a very few days of being ripe otherwise the seed was shed and lost. This crop and other grassed crops i.e. perennial ryegrass and crested dogstail - were important crops in Northern Ireland until the late 1950s. About 30,000 acres were grown at one time. The coming of the combine harvester made the crop not dependent on an intensive labour supply, so it could be grown in more favourable areas in England and the continental countries.

Seed machining

The seed grown in the Lurgan area supplied the material for a seed machining industry In Lurgan, Banbridge and Belfast, The principal machiners were Alexander Cross in North Street, Hurst Gunston Cooper Taber in High Street, Morton's and Coburn's in Banbridge, and McCausland's and McClinton's in Corporation Street Belfast.

The milk produced on the farm was churned to supply butter and buttermilk which, as well as sweet milk, was sold to the women living in the cottages on the farm. The "maid" who lived in the farmhouse would have helped with the milking, separating the milk and making butter. Any buttermilk not needed for human consumption would have been fed to the pigs.

The "maid" had her own room, which was reached by a separate staircase and was completely isolated from the rest of the house. Washing facilities were a washstand and jug and basin. "Maids" were recruited, probably from the hiring fair at Newry. They were hired on a 6-month contract although, if they and mistress were mutually agreeable, they might have stayed for years and probably married one of the local lads. There was a difference in the term "maid" and that of "servant girl", who would have been expected to do manual work around the farmyard.

Garden grown

Most of the cottages had a garden and could grow potatoes, cabbages, peas, and beans. Porridge, wheaten bread, soda bread, and potato bread were cooked on the griddle over an open fire, hanging on a crook. These, along with sweet milk and buttermilk, provided a reasonable if monotonous diet. A frying pan and a stock pot were also important utensils.

The hedges around the cottages provided "fire lighters" and the occasional stronger timber, if it was allowed to grow long enough, would have been gleaned for fuel.

Apples were grown in some orchards near the farmyard and would provide some variety to the diet. How is it that in those days, apples could be grown without sprays? The yields were good and to our eyes there was little wrong with the produce. Farming in the First World War time and into the 1920s seemed to have been fairly stable and reasonably profitable, Most of the produce was sold locally but, if necessary, it could be taken by barge to Belfast via the Lagan Navigation Canal. A jetty was available near Aughagallon.

Barn machines

The McGeown farm was quite well equipped mechanically. A single-cylinder Blackstone oil engine drove a Garvie threshing machine and the other barn machines, one of which was a "pulper" which reduced turnips and potatoes to something resembling raw chips. This was used to feed cattle and horses. There was also a large mechanical sieve arrangement to produce a good sample of grass-seed. Unusually, in the yard was a fully-fledged forge complete with bellows, anvil, and the tools of a blacksmith. This, considering the number of horses, would have been useful.

Going to market

A Morris Cowley car was purchased in 1924, but this would probably have been used principally for social rather than business purposes. A light trap and horse would probably have been used to go to market which was on Thursday in Lurgan. Various merchants and traders would be in attendance at the particular part of Market Street where their trade was carried on. Once a month a livestock fair was held at Kitchen Hill, which was where the Upper Bann Institute Lurgan Campus is now situated.

Returning to Pat, and thinking of him emptying his last load for the day, he would then take the horse and cart down the avenue to the horse pond, and wash the horse's feet if they were muddy. Pat would then wash the cart, put it into the cart shed, remove the harness and hang it on the appropriate pegs in the stable, rub the horses down and then feed and bed them for the night. He would finally walk the half-mile back to his cottage, no doubt ready for his tea and his bed.

He had every Sunday off - apart from feeding the horses of course - and he could look toward to getting a holiday on the 17th of March, Easter Monday, the 15th of August and Christmas Day. All this for just under £1 per week.

What more could you ask for?