By John Murphy
Next was the potato harvesting or ‘digging the potatoes’ as was the local term. The first thing was to have covering for the ‘spuds’ after digging to protect them from frost and rain. Different materials were used for this such as straw and sedge, but in my time it was ‘scraws’. These were the surface of certain parts of bogland. They were usually two foot square, cut with a sharp spade, allowed to dry a bit and brought by cart to the potato field. The potato was a very stable diet and was eaten by every household in Ireland in days gone by, even twice daily by the poorer families in the countryside. So great care was always taken to save and protect the crop. During our school going time we were given one week off to help pick the ‘spuds’. We dug our crop with horse and plough but I did see some of the smaller land owners in Addergoole dig them with spades. Digging by plough was done by ploughing out every second drill for a number of drills. Then the men (although I have seen women do the job too) would tie canvas bags round their legs and get down on their knees and search the ploughed drill for the ‘spuds’ and when found would leave them behind them for picking. Two drills were always put together that is to say four drills would make two lines of ‘spuds’. The cart was put on the horse and brought between the two lines for the pickers. The big spuds for human consumption were put into the cart and when filled were tipped into the pit. The local name for the pit in this area was a ‘hole’ of potatoes. Some two or three weeks after finishing the digging of the ‘spuds’ a covering of clay would be put on the pit of ‘spuds’ to protect them from severe frost during the winter. The clay covering was about five or six inches thick and well packed.
The surplus amount of ‘spuds’ were sold at Galway potato market, which was held in Woodquay. At that time twelve stone bags was the norm. They were sold by weight and were weighed at the lake side end of Woodquay. The bags were unloaded, put on scales and reloaded again with a little help from men from the city who had a love for ‘porter’ when given a few pence by the owner. In later years the ‘spuds’ were bought by lorry men and taken 31 to the South of Ireland for sale. The small ‘spuds’ and some blackened ones were put in bags, taken home, put in the barn and boiled for pigs and fowl. Some people even washed them before boiling them. The big cast iron pot of ‘spuds’ was hung on a crane by pot hooks over the open fire. There were no ranges then. These pots were very large and very heavy. I often saw Julie Leonard lifting and carrying the pot of boiled ‘spuds’ outside to a trough for mashing up for the pigs. She was an old frail woman and I often wondered how she was able to do it. Of course the farmer kept potatoes for seed for the following spring or he might exchange seed with his neighbour if he wanted to change to a different variety. So much for the potato harvest.
After the potatoes being finished, the mangolds were next. Nearly every body in the village would sow some mangolds. They were pulled by hand, blossoms chopped off and pitted the same as the spuds and covered by clay. They were prone to frost. Next was the beet crop. We did not sow beet until 1940 after the start of World War 2. The beet was a good money making crop. There was always a fixed price so a person knew what he would be paid even before sowing the crop. The price then was based on beet yielding 15.5 sugar-content. The price per ton increased or diminished if the sugar content went up or down. Beet was pulled or lifted by hand during my youth. It was a hard job but later it was made easier by pulling a boardless plough close to the beet root. Of course the plough was pulled by horse. The crop was then stacked and left for a few days to dry. After that it was ‘crowned’ that is, the blossom and crown were cut off by knife. It was then brought to the roadside by cart for lorries to bring it to Tuam Sugar Factory. I drove for the Railway Co. for two seasons drawing beet to the factory in the years 1958-1959. Eight tons was the weight my lorry was meant to carry. Sometimes there would be more and sometimes there would be less. The sugar factory was a great asset to the locality. The first cheque would always arrive before Christmas. As well as giving the farmer cash, there was plenty of feed for livestock, such as beet pulp and crowns. We were also given two stones of sugar per acre during the war years when sugar was rationed. The factory was closed down some years ago – a great loss to Tuam and the surrounding area.
Turnips were the last crop to be harvested. They had a good resistance to frost so they were left until last. There were two varieties namely – Swedes and Aberdeens. The Swedes were nice and tasty when boiled with bacon. The other varieties were used as animal feed, mostly for cows which were housed during winter. These turnips were always sliced or pulped. Turnips and mangolds were sometimes sold to dairy men around Galway city. With all of the harvest gathering done, it was time to clean up for Christmas, though the beet campaign often went beyond Christmas. The old thatched house would be whitewashed on the inside. It could not be done on the outside at that time of year as frost and rain would render the job useless.
The bad spots on the thatch were patched and the chimney cleaned. Houses that needed a full coat of thatch were left until the days lengthened in spring time. Straw was pulled or drawn as they would say and tied in bundles, stacked and left there. It was always easier to thatch with straw which had been pulled for some time. Of course, slashed wheaten straw was not pulled as it was ready-made shall we say and much better for thatching. Hazel rods to use as ‘scollops’ were either pulled or bought. Hazel did not grow in the townland of Addergoole. My father was always given permission by friends in Lisheenoran to pull all he needed. Plenty of hazel grew among the rocks in that village.
Note: The above is an extract from John Murphy’s book By Corrib, Clare and Cregg / Seanchas Cois Teallaigh, available to order from our bookshop.