Big thank you from

Pain in the picking and pleasure on the plate.
(First penned September 2010)


 Blackberry spongecake and custard. The pain in the picking and the pleasure on the plate is the proof of the pudding!

 Blackberry spongecake and custard. The pain in the picking and the pleasure on the plate is the proof of the pudding!

You cannot fail to notice the clumps of bright red berries on the rowan trees flourishing amongst our hedgerows and shrubberies. The sight is a pleasure to the eye, as too are the many other bushes, trees and plants laden with berries this year. It is often said that when the berries are plentiful, you can expect a hard winter. Time will tell.

It was a pleasure to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily routine for a few hours recently and relive a childhood experience amongst the briars, located on the boundaries of some local fields. Armed only with plastic lunchboxes and long sleeved shirt, I set out on a battle against nature, braving the defensive brambles, swiping away the spider webs and avoiding the odd wasp, who had temporarily forgotten his seasonal “angry spell” to gorge on the juice of some of the over ripened blackberries. The childhood temptation to have the odd nibble dwindled somewhat with the appearance of the first wriggling grub from a freshly picked berry. Soaking the produce overnight in water would deal with the unnecessary “extra protein”.

To recreate the memory of the distinct aroma of the apple and blackberry crumble cooking in the oven was the motivating factor, and disregarding the scratches from their thorny defence systems ensured a steady supply of berries tumbling into the collecting box. Today’s blackberry picking was for pleasure in contrast to a necessity in times past.

The blackberry was a source of food in famine times in Ireland. A typical report dated 1846 refers to a sighting of an emaciated man picking blackberries in order to survive.

In Victorian times there were many reports of disastrous consequences of blackberry picking published in newspapers from that era. Some children met their untimely deaths having “overcharged the stomach with blackberries.” Several cases of eating the unripe fruit led to other deaths. Sometimes children were tempted by other types of berries growing alongside the brambles and they would pick and eat them as they passed by. It sometimes would be a fateful mistake leading to a painful death. In 1866 the Belfast Newsletter reported that in the Kilkeel area during the third quarter of the year the registrar’s notes recorded the fact that there were three cases of “choleraic diarrhea” brought on by the eating of blackberries. One of the cases was recorded as having been fatal.

Blackberries had a positive effect on many people’s lives. In the Victorian book dated 1883, titled “Consult Me”, a Dr. Chapman informs readers that no other remedy had ever done so much in his practice than the use of blackberries in the treatment of cholera infantum, a condition that could have fatal consequences in childhood.

The Victorian book also contains recipes to fill the plates and glasses of any ravishing blackberry picker. They included recipes for Blackberry brandy, cordial, wine, jam and jelly. The wine was recommended for disease of the bowels and the syrup for cholera and summer complaints. Blackberries were also believed to be beneficial in treating cases of dysentery.

There was also a financial gain to the picking of the “bramble fruit” as they were sometimes referred to. That may simply have been the children taking their wares in the baskets down to the local village and receiving a few pence for their efforts, or it may have been a more structured and organised event. It wasn’t uncommon for some local businessman to contract the local children. In 1894 ten pence a stone was the going rate. It was reported at that time that children could earn in excess of two shillings per day. Organised collections in local villages and around the farmsteads moved the produce by horse and cart to market or to jam manufacturers. Miller and Co. Ltd., in Belfast were a well-known jam producer and they in turn sold their 2lb jars to many leading grocers. Several years later the going rate for a stone of the fruit was between four and five pence. Large quantities were also shipped over to England.

In the Tyrone area in 1894 it was reported that a sharp frost in May of that year had been responsible for a decline in the number of blackberries that year. Nature could sometimes be unpredictable and there were always strange phenomena reported. In January 1859 it was claimed that ripe blackberries had been found on the road to Carrickfergus. In April 1869 a similar find was made at Glynn, County Antrim.

Most landowners did not object to the gathering of the fruit from the hedgerows on their properties by responsible persons. There were of course several exceptions to that rule. Some local courts had to deal with trespassing issues arising from this seasonal activity and in one reported case a farmer assaulted two females who were gathering blackberries in his fields.

Brambles posed an obvious danger to the passerby and could tear both skin and clothing. They were also responsible for other freak accidents. There are several reported cases in the Victorian era of the bramble entangling with the trigger of a shotgun and subsequently discharging the firearm unexpectedly resulting in the death of the hunter or some unfortunate accomplice.

Brambles however had their uses. In March 1837 it was reported that Mr. Patterson of Dublin had taken out a patent from tanning from the roots, stems and branches of the blackberry bush. This was an alternative to the usual oak bark used in the tanning process. Reports in the early 1840’s stated that brambles and brushwood was being used in land drains as an alternative to broken stones.

In 1850 local newspapers reported a drastic cure for the whooping cough that involved the dragging of a child backwards through a bramble bush! There were many people in the country at that time who believed that crawling a given number of times beneath a bramble that had re-rooted itself would cure rheumatism.

The superstitious heeded the warning not to eat blackberries after Michaelmas Day on the 29th of September. It was said that the devil had defiled the blackberries at that time of the year.
Despite this warning there are still those amongst us who will be picking “Blackberries” for Christmas this year. Not of the “Rubus fruiticosus” genre – but of the mobile phone variety!

The Digger can be contacted at The Ulster Star or by email