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Reproduced, with the Society's permission, from the 1986 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society

Mary Cumiskey

My Father often told us children of an incident associated with the hiring which has always remained vivid in my memory. His younger brother was hired `down the country' about three miles below Markethill. The time was the early 1900s. A change of shirt had to be sent to him every three or four weeks, so one Saturday evening my father headed off from Drumbally with the shirt; to walk the twenty or so miles to Markethill. He had only reached Creggan when the rain started and it continued to rain heavily for the rest of the journey. When he arrived he was soaked to the skin, and the poor shirt, still tightly rolled up, was as wet as himself. It was quite late in the evening and he decided to stay the night with his brother and share his sleeping accommodation which was in an old garret over the horses' stable. Neither of the boys were allowed access to the dwelling house. My father thought the people of the house would offer him something to eat as he was so wet and cold, and the farmer did approach his wife on the subject, but she said the fire was out and that was that. I remember him saying: "I would not be under a compliment to her, so I asked her to make me something to eat and I would pay her". She grudgingly produced a piece of dry bread and a mug of buttermilk and so ended her hospitality.

This story, I think sets the scene very well to illustrate the total disregard the farmers had for the welfare of their hired hands. The boy was hired to work, and that was of paramount importance. Scant attention was given to what he ate. His sleeping accommodation, in most cases, was outside on a loft or garret and he never had his washing done for him. I asked a lady who had plenty of experience of being hired herself and she confirmed that she was never allowed to wash for the 'boy'. She said that in later years she did wash 'on the quiet'. Once the farmer came into the house and caught her ironing the boy's shirt. He looked at the shirt and then at her and said "Oh I see Annie that you have now taken to wearing shirts".

Before the time of the compulsory school leaving age country boys and girls left school at 11 or 12 years of age and immediately offered themselves for hire as soon as the opportunity arose. There were hiring fairs in three centres in our area, Newtownhamilton, Dundalk and Newry and the fairs were held in May and November. The young boys and girls who hired at 11 and 12 years of age usually continued to hire every six months until they were in their late teens when by then most of them had enough, and they sought other employment or emigrated. There were however the few who continued to hire for most of their lives and even in the forties when 'hiring' had petered out these people continued to work for a weekly wage for the same people with whom they had been previously hired.

As I have already pointed out, the conditions under which the hired hands worked were pretty dreadful. There were some good houses and humane employers and it would be unfair not to acknowledge this, but in general, the farmers were dedicated to getting as much work out of 'the boy' as was humanly possible, feeding him as little as possible, and treating him like an outcast. The hired boy was segregated from the farmer and his family: he was rarely allowed to eat at the same table or in the same room, his sleeping quarters were, in most cases, an old loft or garrett outside, and in these cases he was allowed no access to the dwelling house. The hired girl fared little better, although most of her work was done inside the house, she never ate with her family; her sleeping accommodation was in the poorest and the least accessable room, like the attic; and she was poorly fed. Indeed many a story is told to illustrate how dedicated the farmer was to work the hand to the limits of his endurance. A woman and her son from around Markethill kept a servant boy. The woman got sick and she was overheard telling her son; "Whatever you do, if I give in, keep the hired cuddy running". Another farmer was heard to say on several occasions that he could get more work out of an eleven year old boy than a grown man (One can only deduce that because the eleven year old was hired for the first time he did all lie was told to do, the older man had more experience and might not be quite so co-operative). In defence of good employers my father always had a good word for the Presbyterians for at least two of his brothers were hired with them. Because of their strict observance of the Sabbath all preparations for Sunday were made on the Saturday and only the bare necessities like looking after the stock, were done on Sunday. Thus the hired hand had one easy day every week, and who was he to complain. To my knowledge my father hired once only, with a Mrs. Jackson from Silverbridge who must have been a Presbyterian. She kept the Sabbath in the strictest sense and the Bible lay open on the table all day on Sunday. He said she would cry if she thought she offended anyone or told a lie, and she treated her hired hands most fairly. Unfortunately her kind was in the minority.

The hiring fair itself must have been a very degrading place for the young children, especially for those hiring for the first time. There they stood with their little bundles at the mercy of the hard outside world and with no one to champion their cause. The farmers walked up and down, most of them with a scowl on their faces and greed in their hearts. They always enquired as to what work the boy or girl could do. The boys were expected to be able to milk, plough, cut turf and do all the general farm work and this was required even from an eleven year old. The amazing thing was that even the eleven year olds could do most of these tasks. The girls were expected to be able to bake, cook, sew, scrub, wash, milk and in many cases do yard work as well. These farmers were hard men, and they had the knack of picking a person suited to their needs, but then most of them were in the business for a long time. As someone said of them "They were a good judge of man and beast". Indeed the whole transaction was carried out in the same way as if they were buying an animal, as a sound investment with good returns.

One cannot help but compare the hiring business in Ireland to the slave trade in America because there are so many similiarities. The degrading spectacle of the fair itself where these young people `sold' themselves for six months, and selling it was, for when they made their bargain and accepted the `earnest' money this constituted a binding contract. They were virtually the property of the farmer for the allotted term. Indeed the contract was so binding that no wages were paid until the last day of the term and if the hired hand left before that date the farmer refused to pay him a penny of his wages.

The segregation from the families they worked for and the poor conditions in which they lived in is another comparable factor; indeed in some cases the American slaves were probably better fed because their master looked on them as a long-term investment. The one redeeming factor was that at the end of the six months the `Irish Slave' was free, for at least a week anyway, until he hired again for another six months.

One grand little lady I spoke to, hired for the first time when she was about 13 years of age. The year was 1926. She hired in Newtownhamilton at the May hiring fair. The bargain was agreed at 6 and she travelled home with the farmer to Ballymacnab, his means of transport was a pony and spring cart. She relates how it was late when they arrived at the house and she was rather shocked to see that the farmer's wife had a paralized arm. She knew that because the woman was so incapacitated it would certainly mean even more work for her. She was given a mug of tea and then taken out to the yard to be shown the work which she had to do next morning. The work included milking six cows, cleaning the byre and stable, feeding all the stock etc. She was called at 5.00 the following morning and the pattern didn't change for the next six months.

She firstly went out to the yard to do the complete yard work then back into the house to get the three children up for school and after that she had to do her housework, like baking, cleaning, and washing. When the farmer arose, which wasn't very early, she was expected to be ready to go off to the fields with him to do whatever seasonal work was on. In fact she had to do a man's work along side him and return at night to do the yard work, and then into the house to complete her day by finishing off the tasks which didn't get done in the morning.

The main summer dinner was Indian meal, gruel made with butter milk, and this was usually brought out to the field where they were working, to save time. All the water had to be carried from a spring well about one mile from the house and our friend had to carry the water morning and night. She said the woman of the house was hard and bitter, the farmer himself was a lazy man but there was a `side to him'.

Her sleeping accommodation was poor, the flour-bag sheets on the bed were not changed for six months, but then they had problems with the other beds because the three children wet their's every night. The chaff ticks were dragged down the stairs each morning. If the weather was dry they were thrown out on the hedge, if it was raining they were dried at the stove.

This was her first hiring and the hardest. She said you never knew what to expect when your first hired and it was always worse, much worse, than you anticipated.

I spoke to another grand gentleman (now ninety four years of age), who left school at the age of ten years in 1902. He stayed at home for a year and he noticed his friends coming back from the hiring and, as he put it himself, 'he was mad to hire'. The next hiring fair in Newtownhamilton was the November one and he headed off to the fair. There were people standing around the Square with their little bundles and men with hard hats came around looking at the boys and girls for hire. One man approached our friend and said: "Are you for hiring boy", "You see" said he "I had no bundle". He replied that he was for hire and after some haggling the bargain was made for 3.10.0. and the earnest money was handed over. Of course he had been asked if he could milk, set spuds in a double 'fur' and cut turf. All of which our friend could do.

The tarmer came from the area around Darkley and on that Saturday evening after the boy had a mug of tea he was taken out to the yard and given a run-down of the work he was required to do. There were four cows to milk, one horse to feed, byres to clean, calves and pigs to feed along with all the other tasks in the yard. He was told to get up the following morning when the Darkley horn blew at 5.00 p.m. The five o'clock horn was a repeating one calling the workers to rise, ready for a six o'clock start. Our friend Said when the horn blew the following morning it frightened him to death; he had never heard anything like it. However the farmer wasn't going to depend solely on the horn to get his hired hand up, for in a few minutes the floor got several knocks and a voice from below shouted 'Are you up yet'?

There was nothing for it but to get out of bed and start the day as he was instructed. He was told that when he had all the yard work finished be was to start barrowing manure over to a spent bog about half a mile from the house. On the dot of eight o'clock the farmers wife came out into the yard and blew a whistle for the breakfast, "Just like a referee calling her players to order", said our friend. The players duly responded and turned in for a bowl of Indian porridge with buttermilk, a mug of tea and a piece of soda bread. Fie didn't eat with the family but in a sort of back scullery. "'hen breakfast was over the farmer and himself went off to the spent-bog to work there for the rest of the day.

The farmer had a straw rope of about sixty yards pegged down at both ends. The boy wheeled barrowfuls of manure out from the yard and emptied the loads at intervals alone the line. When this task was completed the manure was spread (the width of the ride was carefully measured at each end). Then the farmer and the boy started to dig along the line and continued until the ridge or 'rig' as it was called was completely covered with soil. This work continued everyday until by the middle of March the two and a half acres of the boy was reclaimed.

When the farmer and the boy returned to the house each evening the yardwork was done. Then the hurricane lamp was lit and hung up in the barn where a half stack of oats was waiting to be thrashed. The first evening the boy was handed a flail and asked "You can thrash can't you"? and left on his own to thrash the corn. The farmer returned from the house at intervals to fill the corn and bottle the straw. He was taken in at 9.00 p.m. and presented w ith seven pairs of boots to clean and polish. He said the polish was a large round cake of 'Berrys Blacking'. A little water was poured into the centre of the block and the brush was dipped in the liquid. The boots shone up beautifully.

This was a typical day in the life of a hired eleven year old boy. He said by the middle of April the potatotes were showing over the ground, the seed had been dibbled into the rigs at the end of March. The farmer had his turf cut, dried in the house by early May. This small farmer had a complete programme of work finished by the time our friend was due to leave at the end of May, most of the work having been done by the eleven year old himself, and all for the cost of 3.10.0.

(to be continued)

We would like to thank the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum for kindly giving us permission to reproduce the photographs in this article