FLAX IN AUGUST
Michael J. Duffy
Everything on our modern farms is so mechanised now, that most of the work has lost a lot of it's human interest and colour. Not only are most jobs now done by one man with a great noisy modern machine, but even if there are two or more men engaged, the noise is so great that you might as well try to have a conversation in a modern dance-hall. Before flax growing declined, it was one of the greatest opportunities for team work, and indeed only recently, have engineers managed to invent machines, which will replace hand labour in the harvesting of this particular crop. There is good reason to hope that we will soon again see numerous fields of flax. with its lovely delicate flowers, (blue or white according to variety) throughout our Ulster countryside.
Nothing could be more true than the old saying that:- "Many hands make light work", especially if we relate it to flax pulling, and in the past when a boon or team of twenty flax-pullers swept across a field, mother earth seemed to release her jealous grip on the roots more easily, and the sparkling conversation and banter was better than massage and linament for muscles that would otherwise ache unbearably under the strain of the work. Sometimes, young men, and even "young" old men with spring and spirit still in their hearts raced each other, to prove who could tear the greatest number of "beets" or sheaves from the reluctant soil, and skill and experience often won over strength.
In the early 1930's the number of marriages taking place in rural Ulster were few and far between. Economic depression, emigration and cyniscm held sway, consequently it became fashionable to make fun of any marriageable man who was seen visiting a house too often, where there were marriageable women or girls, and indeed any young fellow who seemed to be heading in the direction of the alter, was thought to be "a wee bit touched in the head".
No doubt many of the flax pullers, who took advantage of the large audience to ridicule such a potential victim, were jealous deep down themselves, but this only added zest to the innuendos, and even the rhymes were quickly composed to scourge the Romeo - "I hear Peter John is going to Barney's every night". "Is that right? There must be someone sick about it". "If there's not, likely there will before all's over". "Ah now once you get your feet under the table, there's not much hope for you". Well there's good cooks about it anyway, - there'll be nobody poisoned".
This sort of dialogue would be casually delivered within easy earshot of the victim - Peter John, who might turn red and say nothing or try to hit back with a mention of some previous similar activity of his tormentors. One of the locally composed rhymes which I remembered went something like this - "Doran's ass he won't eat grass McConville's won't eat hay, and Peter's Jinnet swore against because he was bought in Ballybay".
Now the history of the appetites of these sometimes fictitious animals were not important, but when linked to significant names, the situation was different. You see only very small farmers kept a donkey or jinnet, ones who couldn't afford a horse or even a pony, so the implication in the rhyme was that from at least a financial point of view the prospective match would not be a great one. Similarly the goat was the poor man's cow. A widow woman called Biddy Pat, who had three daughters let her small farm in conacre for grazing, and so part of the yearly bargain was allowed to run four goats along with the tenant's cattle. When a local farmer left one of the daughters home from a dance one night he was asked the next day at a flax-pulling: "Did Biddy Pat's white goat kid last night"?
"What the hell do I know about Biddy Pat's goat".
"Oh I heard you were sitting up with her last night".
The "beets" of flax were tied with bands made before hand by knotting two small handfulls of green rushes together at the flowring ends, and during pulling, young boys and girls kept a steady supply of these bands to the boon of men. The green beets with their hard "Beughs" or seedboxes, rattling against the modern sideboards like hailstones were loaded on to orange leaded farm carts and brought to the flaxholes as we called them in South Armagh, or the Lint Dams as they called them in Co. Antrim.
They were placed in gently sloping layers, with the roots down in the three or four feet deep, water filled pits, tramped down and weighted with large stones. When the last stone was in place in the August twilight there was a rush home to get on the good suits and clean shirts for the flax dance which usually followed that night in the barn. After 11 to 13 days "wetting" in the dam, all the green matter had disappeared and the boughts containing the seeds fell off.
I remember an oldish man whose flax was nearly all in the dam at about 8 o'clock at night, when he saw one of the young fellows who had been working all day with the rest of the boon, and who was knowing to be courting reaching for his coat. - "Ah Paddy you'll not leave till we get it finished sure its early yet". "Ah says Paddy its not like oul times James, they'll not wait for you now".
Even if the pullers had to quench their thirst during the day from the two gallon tin cans of buttermilk, kept in the shade on the foot rig, there was always sure to be a halfbottle of a well known dark brown coloured beverage on top for the dance. The consumption of this seemed to be a completely male prerogative, as no doubt in those days a young lady seen guzzling a pint would be farther down the matrimonial list, than if her mother had only one goat or even no goats.
No doubt elderly settled respectable wives and spinsters, who attended the dance, on the face of it to hear the music and watch the young people enjoy themselves, but in reality to run speculative eyes over the dancers, and diagnose new romances. They were invited into the farmhouse parlour, where there was a wee drop of Port wine or maybe even something stranger "To take the dust out of their throats".
Anyway by about eleven o'clock most people would have arrived and to the tuneful lilt of fiddle and melodeon, sunburned men with their sleeves rolled up would be expending even more energy than they had already during the day pulling flax, in four hand jigs, set dances, one steps - two steps and waltzes - everything". There was usually a Belle of the Ball, and one such, a very attractive but equally flirtatious young lady, made arrangements with no less than five different young men whilst dancing to be escorted home, at the end of the dance. But they all happened to meet near the porter barrel, and in the course of conversation, disclosed to each other what had happened. The result was that when the time came to leave they all stood near the barndoor and as she went out past them their spokesman, an inveterate card player addressed her saying - "Goodnight Molly, and I hope you're not afraid in the dark, but you tried to go nap on a hand, that wasn't worth four"
Taking out the flax from the dam was an operation that was not very pleasant as you were wet chest high in the strong smelling water, which the low of the land did not allow you to release because of the danger of river pollution. But a traditional antidote for the sometimes very cold water and strong smell, was a bottle of Irish whiskey, which the two men doing the jib shared and moved it up along the brow of the dam as they emptied both.
They said of one powerful young man who, in this way had his first experience of this strong beverage neat, that by evening he was going so well that he was sending heavy wet beets of flax fort feet high, - probably a slight exageration. The wet flax was then carried off in carts to a green grassy field, the rush bands removed and the flax spread by hand thinly and evenly over the grass to dry. After about two days the flax was lifted .`- and tied again in sheaves with the same rush bands which had been made even stronger by the processing of wetting and drying.
Soon the csutchers in the mills would turn it into flex fibre which later emerges as the glorious white linen for which Ulster is famous.
But by then the wonderful month of August would have gone, although in the Autumn mists, the thoughts of many, went back to the boons the boughs, the fun and the flax dances.