Memories of country life

Vol. 8 No. 1 - 2001

Little memories of country life

by Mary Jensen

Over the past couple of winters we have had long power cuts and for two, three or more days, we had no electricity. Like the wise virgins in the Bible, we always try to have our lamps trimmed and filled with oil for just such an emergency!

Hurricane Lamps

Ours are hurricane lamps, fuelled by paraffin oil, and how the smell of a hurricane lamp can transport me in an instant back many years to when that and candles were the only source of light in the countryside.

As a child, my job was to carry the lamp when my father did the chores on winter nights. Mixed with the odour of the hurricane lamp were the smells of hay and the breath of cows and horses in byre and stable. The sounds were those of milk drumming into a pail as my father sat and milked the cows by hand; the steady munching as the animals ate their hay; and the occasional pungent belch as a well-chewed cud was passed back down to one of the cows' multiple stomachs. As we moved about the yard and outhouses, our huge, distorted shadows accompanied us everywhere we went - sometimes before us, sometimes after, depending upon where I was with the lamp.

Then it was into the warm kitchen for our tea, again eaten by the light of a paraffin lamp, this time a 'Tilly'. Before bedtime, my father would read me a story and, sometimes, amuse me by making funny shadow pictures on the wall, using his hands and fingers. That is something you can only do in the light of a lamp or candle - it just isn't possible with a bright electric light overhead.

Gathering Spuds

We used to get a holiday from school at potato harvesting time. Other girls and boys from my school would come out to my grandfather's to gather spuds and earn themselves some pocket-money. They were lucky - they did get paid. I was family and expected to do it for nothing! The potato digger, with its two-spiked vertical wheels spinning the potatoes out to one side, was pulled by two horses and we had to work fast to keep ahead of it. The men carried our filled baskets either to carts for drawing to the potato house or to one end of the field if the potatoes were going to be stored in 'bings'.

These 'bings' were assembled at the end of the harvesting, with the potatoes piled on the ground and covered in straw and earth to protect them from the frost in winter.

The weather was usually quite crisp when the potatoes were being lifted and, from time to time, we would run to the small, acrid, smoky fires where the potato stalks were burning to warm our hands. It was hard work for us children, but it was good fun too.

Hay Making

My daughter breeds horses and, to feed them over the winter, she makes haylage in big round bales, wrapped in thick plastic. This forage is not as moist as silage, which is fed to cattle, but doesn't need to be quite as dry as hay. It is very handy to make and, when a bale is opened, it smells so good you would almost like to eat it yourself!

There is a fair amount of work involved in getting it ready for baling and the weather is still the most important factor, but is a far cry from the way hay was made in years gone by. Then, the grass was cut by a mowing machine pulled by two horses and the swathes had to be turned and re-turned to let the grass dry and become hay. There were various mechanical swathe-turners, again pulled by horses, but most country people of my generation and older will have spent manys the summer day turning hay with a pitchfork or a rake, depending on which tool you preferred. I liked to use a fork and, if you could work with a bit of wind behind you, it would do a lot of the work for you, flipping over a good length of the swathe with each manipulation! However, if the weather turned a bit contrary, the work could be doubled or tripled - or even quadrupled! If the partially dried swathes got wet or tangled from too much turning, they might have to be shaken out - a much harder job than just turning. If things really got bad and the weather looked likely to break and turn nasty, then it was all hands on deck to get the hay 'lapped'. This was a back-breaking job, done by hand. The hay was gathered in armfuls, folded in on itself and carefully set down so that the smooth surface was presented to the elements to let the rain run off, hopefully without penetrating the inside of the lap. These, of course, then had to be shaken out and dried when the weather improved, but you can imagine the heartbreak if the rain returned and the whole process had to be repeated!

With luck, the hay could be gathered straight from the swathes and built into cocks. I remember two machines - a rake with curved prongs and a lever to lift the prongs when the load was close to where the cock had to be built or a wooden implement, known as a 'tumbling paddy', which did the same job, but was a less sophisticated, earlier invention and not as accurate as to where the load was deposited.

The building of a cock was a very specialised job and not every man was good at it. A round base was made with hay and gradually built up as men piled great fork-fulls onto it. The builder had to keep it even all the way round and well tramped down in the centre. When the cock reached a certain height, he then had to start tapering it in, putting the hay under his feet and bring it up to a nice even point. At the end, the bottom of cock was pulled out and narrowed, the sides were carefully raked down and tidied and small wisps were passed up to the builder to finish off the top with a smooth, rain-proof thatch - and all this was done without toppling the whole edifice! Finally, the cock was tied down with grass ropes or ropes made of hay itself, using a special tool to twist a continuous ribbon or hay long enough to go over the cock and tie in at the bottom. The builder could now slide carefully down the side of the cock and start on the next one. Today, hay is baled instead of being built into cocks and nobody worries if the odd bit of hay is left by the baler. In earlier days, it was the job of the women folk to rake the fields with hand rakes so that every last straw was gathered in.

When the hay was saved, it had to be taken from the field and built into a hayshed or into large stacks in the 'haggard'. These stacks were done in the same way as cocks, but on a much larger scale. To draw the hay from the fields, a hay cart was used. This was a smooth, flat cart that could be tipped up so that the back end could slide slightly under the cock. Two stout ropes attached to a 'windlass' at the front end of the cart were put around the bottom of the cock and fastened at the back with an iron coupling. The handle was then inserted in the windlass and the cock slowly wound up onto the hay cart.

The damp hay left on the ground from the bottom of the cock was gathered up and piled on the back of the cart. It was great fun to ride home on this musty smelling damp bed, holding on tightly to the cock when going over rough places, like field gaps. I don't think it is my imagination - summer days were longer, sunnier and drier then. There wouldn't be enough dry days in a row now to make hay as it was done in my youth. It is a basic fact of country life that you really do have to make hay while the sun shines!


In my granny's house, butter was made in a 'splash churn' - a waisted, wooden barrel with a lid that had a hole in it through which the churn-staff could pass. Anyone who happened to call when churning was in progress was expected to take 'a brash at the staff' - in other words, to churn for a few minutes. Not to do so would have caused great offence in any house. Indeed, so great was the superstition still rife in the countryside, that to refuse to 'take a brash' was tantamount to spoiling or 'tacking' the butter - and, remember, this was less than seventy years ago! I think it may have been the vestiges of a primitive belief in the power of ill-wishing and the 'evil eye', but it was a widespread, though largely unexpressed, belief in our part of the country. So too was the custom of having the spout of the kettle directed away from the door. To have it directed towards the door was a broad hint that the caller need not expect to be offered a cup of tea!

Some women made good butter, but there were others whose butter always seemed to be 'tacked'. It had an unpleasant taste. I don't know the reason for this, but suspect it had a lot to do with the basic hygiene procedures of keeping the crocks for storing the cream, the churn itself and the wood butter-dish and clappers for washing, salting and shaping the butter in aseptic condition by scalding. No matter whether it was good or bad, I don't think that many people today, even those of us who were reared on it, could stomach 'country butter' - our taste buds are just too refined and delicate!

Herb Lore

Nowadays, people are becoming more interested in herbal remedies. This is nothing new - country folk have always known the value of herbs. I often wish I could remember more of the plants I saw being used for healing when I was a child, but some I do recall.

We are all familiar with the dock leaf which we rushed to apply when we got stung by a nettle, reciting a wee chant as we rubbed - "docken, docken in and out, take the sting of the nettle out" - the better to make it work! Even to this day, my children love nettle champ. Most people know and enjoy scallion champ, but made with nettles stewed in a little milk, nettle champ is something else - far superior to that made with scallions. It was a tradition that you should eat nettle champ at least three times in March 'to clean the blood'. However, it's not that easy to find enough nettles in March to do this. So fond are we of this simple fare that it has been known in our house for Spring nettles to be frozen so that we can enjoy a pot of champ in December!

Another plant that grows so rampant as to have become a pest is chickweed, but it too is very useful. Applied like a cold compress to sprains and swellings, it quickly reduced inflammation and so eases the pain. Similarly, my mother would put a leaf of 'self-heal', a form of 'bugle', on cuts and sores - the name is self-explanatory. She also gathered great bunches of purple 'loosestrife', which she hung up to dry. When calves started to scour, she stewed a brew of this, strained off the liquid and used it as a very effective drench.

Fun and Games

I sometimes see marbles for sale in shops and always think how dreary the modern ones are compared with those we played with as children. They are all the same - just a swirl of colour inside a bit of clear glass. Even though I say it myself, I was quite good at playing 'taws', as we called them and I still have a little bag of trophies to prove it, a veritable treasure trove of jewels and memories.

Indeed, I could take you to the very spot in the school yard where, after a long drawn-out battle, I won the beautiful translucent green, white and orange taw from Doreen Allen. I was not popular with Doreen when, most unsportingly, I refused to play again and give her the chance to win it back!

The grey glass one with the white swirls all through it I won from a boy called Dickie Jennett and the dark blue marble with one white side once belonged to Jimmy Corr. We often played taws down the hill in front of Corrs' house. The trouble with a hill is that the taw is liable to run on and on, so we used to try to slip a sneaky foot into its path to keep it from going too far. Jimmy had a problem with his 'Rs' - they sounded like 'Ws' - so he could be heard shouting "Let that taw woull! Let that taw woull!" if he spotted one of us trying to stop his taw. How many memories a small bag of glass balls can evoke. I can still see Dickie Jennett's grey woollen jumper and the tie with the horizontal stripes he always wore with it.

A few years ago we had the Armagh Rhymers at our AGM. I'd never seen real professional rhymers before, but I remembered my absolute terror when the Christmas Rhymers visited my grandmother's house when I was a very small child. Many years later I learned that 'Dibbley Doubt' was a neighbour man I'd known all my life! By that stage, he was an old man, but he could remember snatches of the rhymes they said:

"Here come I, wee Dibbley Doubt,
If you don't give me money, I'll sweep you all out
It's money I want and it's money I crave,
if you don't give me money, I'll sweep you to your grave!"

The pace and complexity of life has changed beyond belief since those days. It's not really all that long ago - a short lifetime in actual years, but an aeon in reality. The technology available to us today, both in work and play, is miraculous and I don't think any of us would want to return on a long-term basis to oil lamps and turf fires. Nevertheless, I'm glad that I'm old enough to remember such times and feel a bit nostalgic when I smell a hurricane lamp in the midst of a modern power cut.