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The trying life of a farmer's boy in 1920's

Rural life has been a feature of Lisburn through the centuries and here the Rambler recalls how tough it was in the 1920s

An old farm house.BETWEEN spending endless days turning the handle of the grass seed jigger, and nearly as long at the potato-sorter, Tim found life as a farmer's boy very, very trying. He lacked the patience of his parents and Alex, the hired labourer, and yearned for action.

When his Dad came home from the outfarm one day 'fit to be tied' about the terrible damage being done to corn stacks by rats, action soon followed.

"We'll have to draw it home and thresh it," he announced. "Tim, away out and tell Alex to get two horses yoked." Tim didn't need to be told twice. His father whistled for the dog, as soon as the two horses and carts were ready for the road, and off the three of them went to 'Darganstown' outfarm.

The stacks were riddled with rat holes and it was obvious they were heavily infested, but that was nothing new. The two men immediately set to work to erect a ring-fence of old doors, sheets of corrugated iron, etc., around one stack, then they brought the dog inside it. Alex got up on the stack, with the legs of his trousers firmly tied with grass rope; to keep vermin out and, pitchfork in hands, began throwing sheaves to Charlie who stayed in a cart parked against the makeshift fence.

Not much happened for a while, but as soon as Alex got down a bit in the stack, rats began to scurry for shelter. Most of them jumped to the ground, where the sagacious old collie promptly dispatched them with one snap of his powerful jaws. Tim had nothing to do but watch from a safe distance and shudder as he watched the swarm of rats around Alex's feet increase. As far as the dog was concerned it was a case of "the more the merrier."

He was rightly rated as the best ratter in the townland and when the second of the loads of sheaves had been placed on the cart, no fewer than 23 dead rats lay inside the enclosure. The old dog's mouth was bloody but the occasional wound that he had sustained had simply increased his ferocity. His technique was to break each rat's neck with one snap, throw it over his shoulders and instantly despatch another. He only looked back if one victim made a noise.

Then he grabbed it and gave it a second crunch. Tim was shivering with cold and terror when the slaughter was over so he opted to lead one of the horses home. He was actually too scared to ride, in case a rat might still be lurking in a sheaf, but he made the excuse that he wanted to get warm. Threshing the sheaves of corn in the barn machine was a tedious business. The boy was given the job of loosening the grain and handing it to his father to feed into the drum. Alex wielded a pitchfork to collect the straw and carry it to the stackyard, where James and himself stacked it later on. The horses that operated the threshing machine were hitched to a horizontal lever which was rotated by horsepower, a bit like the hand of a giant clock. The horse-walk, being circular, was a well beaten path for the team, and being hitched firmly to the lever, they needed no steering. If they slackened their pace on the circular track a guider from one of the men woke them up. Happily, for Tim (and for the rats) no vermin infested the farm, but there was plenty of noise and 'stoor' (dust).

When the threshed grain was processed with a cabinet containing fans, called a cleaning machine chaff was carefully collected and bagged. Poor people depended on supplies for filling palliasses for beds and James had a clientele who drew supplies from him annually mostly tenants of cottier houses.

With only one coal fire for heating, boiling, baking, etc., it was essential for Becky, the farmer's wife, to make sure that the crook, which hung from the crane over the grate, was never idle.

Now that the men had been fed, she quickly fried a couple of pieces of bread and a scrap of bacon for the wee lad's breakfast and as soon as he was settled, got on with her baking.

She had three 'cakes', i.e. four farls of soda bread to bake, and in no time she had the first one on the griddle which she had been heating in preparation. The child knew to mind the bread for her, and shout if it started to smoke, i.e. threatened to burn. With one cake baking, she hurried to get a second one kneaded-and rolled out. A ten-stone sack of 'Spillars'

Purity' flour always stood on a chair against the jamb wall of the kitchen, so that it escaped the damp atmosphere of the scullery, and well covered up to keep it dust-free. Buttermilk was stored in an earthenware, black-and-tan crock and had a pint tin on the wooden lid, as James liked a draught of buttermilk with his dinner, and in between as well, when he was thirsty.

As soon as the third cake of bread was baked, the griddle was whipped off, and a large cauldron was hung on the crook. Then, Becky hurried out to the water-butt below the spouting (gutter) with a bucket and filled up the cauldron

with soft (i.e. rain) water for washing clothes. That done, she stoked the fire and used the fan-bellows on the hearth to boil the water quickly. With other farm produce almost unsaleable, James concentrated on feeding hens and pigs on potatoes and grain. There was a market for eggs and pork. As well he needed home-cured bacon to feed the family.

He had to go all the way to Magheragall mill with the grain, but he was glad he had it for the stock, including the horses.

At the end of 1925, things could hardly have been worse. His next door neighbour actually carted tons of potatoes out of his barn and dumped them at the end of a field to rot. rather than take £1 a ton in the market.

If they had foreseen the national coal strike which followed in 1925 and lasted for months they would have been even more depressed.

Ulster Star