Big thank you from

It took a good man to make a basket

The Rambler 06/12/2002

THE ubiquitous potato basket which provided much-needed employment for a squad of Aghagallon men, between the wars, is now a collectors item.

The Chestnut Hill school of basket-making has a range of samples which test the skill of beginners. They were two-handled burden baskets, and turning the handles is recognised as a challenge.

Yeast hampers, locally known as skips, were cheap one-trip baskets, and inferior osiers were used to make them. Weavers of potato baskets looked down on the skip-makers. It took a good man to make a basket according to folklore. Now the basket, which cost about two shillings (ten for £1), is almost forgotten. In my school days, they were regarded as indispensable. Father scraped them and washed them annually when harvesting was completed. Then they were hung up on an airy peg, high up on the barn wall to dry out. When a bottom rotted, the framework was apt to end up as a kind of ring fence for a broody hen hatching out some chicks, 'waste not, want not, was the philosophy.

The same philosophy prevailed before the era of the potato basket. Used sacks of cotton or jute were opened out and utilised as aprons. Bag rubbers they were termed. Vintage pictures of farming methods all feature bag rubbers which were far more versatile than wicker containers.

For example, what better way to flit a mother hen and her brood of chicks? The wee ones were gathered into the bag rubber, the hen was clutched by the legs in the owner's free hand, head down, and in a trice the flock was conveyed to an alternative site.

As lads, we gathered apples, turnips, heads of cabbage, damsons, Victoria plums and eggs in bag rubbers.

Dad used one to sow small quantities of seed, like Italian grass, also to apply sulphate of ammonia and super phosphate chemical fertilisers when potatoes were being planted.

Cotton flour packs were even better for making bag rubbers than jute, but, of course, they were relatively scarce. 'Spillars Purity' flour was about the only meal that came in cotton sacks. Ten stone bags were standard, and many a bed-sheet or pillow case was made of those after the lettering had been erased - a 'hard labour' process involving hours of scrubbing by hand on a ribbed metal wash board.

Happily, once bleached, the cotton cloth was virtually indestructible. Washing soda was much in demand to bleach flour packs. When potatoes were packed in cwt-weight sacks 112 pounds; sulphate of ammonia in two-cwt sizes, flour in ten stone, and bran and yellow meal in 1½cwt sacks, there was no place for weaklings.

Once, as a teenager, when a shipping agent lorry driver called to collect a six-ton lot of potatoes, which were packed in one cwt bags, the lone driver and I had a tough job. Dumping sacks from the top of a heap down onto a lorry was child's play, but when the sacks on the floor had to go maybe eight feet up to the top of the vehicle, life wasn't easy.

We had to build a kind of stairway of sacks, I need not go on. Suffice to say this, at 18 I lost a bit of sweat (and decided on a clerical occupation!).

Ulster Star