The Travelling Threserman

Agricultural shows, steam rallies and videos of bygone days provide us with nostalgic and romantic pictures of the threshing days of yesteryear. However, these portrayals are in the main far removed from reality and in the present times of the Celtic Tiger or post-Celtic Tiger, fail to capture the harsh realities of life on a small farm anywhere in Ireland in the 1940s, 50s and 60s and in some areas even later.

Cash crops were the backbone of many households in the ‘40s and ‘50s and with flax, potatoes and the Christmas turkeys the corn (oats) were also one of the mainstays. Threshing time and harvest time were important times in the farming calendar. In some cases they meant survival through another winter, food for livestock and maybe that extra bob or two for some of the little luxuries in life. The five barley loaves mentioned in the gospels were as important then as they are today. The harvesting of grain right around the world is a perennial labour essential for human survival.

From earliest times the growing of grain for food has been part of human culture. The first farmers evolved from the discovery that grain dropped in soil grew and produced new grain. Corn can be grown anywhere in the world from Irish latitude to a similar latitude in the southern hemisphere. There are strains of the crop even suited to the warm, dry countries along the equator. It is a known fact that in every month of the year, somewhere in the world corn is being harvested. The Indians of North America taught Europeans about the native strains and they came to be used widely in Europe. Indeed Indian corn or Indian meal was for many years part of the staple diet here in Ireland. ‘Trevelyan’s Corn’, made famous in the popular song ‘The Fields of Athenry’, was Indian meal which was distributed in Ireland towards the end of the Great Famine.

Over the years uses have been found for all parts of the oat plant. The grain is used as livestock feed both in pure form and in mixtures. The straw is used for animal feed and bedding. Under proper conditions oat plants furnish excellent grazing and make good silage. Even the hulls of the plant can be used in various solvents. Its use in the making of alcohol in various parts of the world has also been well documented. Its versatility and the fact that it can be grown successfully in most types of soil led it to becoming a popular crop in all areas of Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. Co. Monaghan was no different from any other county in this respect. Fields of corn stooked and ready for stacking were a common sight around the county in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Many stories are told about the youthful frolics of harvest time, the prowess of certain mowers with the scythe and the subsequent separation of the grain and the straw at the threshing.

For centuries the threshing was done using a flail. A flail was two pieces of sturdy timber about 1m long joined together with leather loops. The user held one of the sticks and beat the heads of corn off the plants with the other. The loops joining the sticks were called the middling. This gave rise to the saying “How are ye doin?” “Ah, I’m just middlin’” (neither too well nor too ill). “A good middlin’ lasts a long time.”

With the discovery of steam power and the invention of the threshing mill, the flail and hand threshing slowly fell into decline. The barn loft where the threshing was carried out became a social centre.

People often assembled for dances, music and song. Where there was no barn loft the threshing was done on a door panel placed on the ground. A door with a “good spring in the timber” was always preferred to a dead weight door. A stationery mill powered by horses moving in a circle was adopted in some parts of the country but was very expensive to buy and install. The “mobile thresher” replaced it in a short time and remained in place until the arrival of the combine harvester in the 20th century. The first practical threshing mill was built in Scotland in the 1780s and an improved design was the brainchild of Pitts Brothers in America in the 1830s. The mills used in the Monaghan area were mainly produced in Scotland. Ransom and Garvie were common names and there is a memory of one such mill arriving at Monaghan Railway Station in 1946 complete with Fordson tractor.

Pat McArdle, Boughreel, Scotstown, was one of the travelling threshermen. He worked ‘on the country’ from 1955 to 1975. The family bought a tractor in 1952 and a thresher in 1955. Later on, along with his brother Peter, they acquired a second thresher and for the next twenty years or so worked through the parishes of North Monaghan and South Fermanagh threshing oats, barley and grasseed.

The threshing season lasted from September through to March or April. Three visits could be made to the same farm in any one season as most people only threshed enough for their immediate needs. The day began at daylight and lasted until darkness. Normally the thresher would visit four or five farms in any one day but occasionally a visit to a farm could stretch to a day and a half. “Every day had the makings of a pantomime,” says Pat. Many of the lanes and entrances to fields at the time were not constructed with a tractor and threshing mill in mind and accommodation had to be developed there and then. “There were always plenty of willing hands,” he says “and very often the mill was moved manually into the required position.”

The Boon or Meitheal was a very important feature of the threshing scene. Neighbours came to each others’ assistance on a rota basis. There was a need for about eight helpers at a threshing - two pitching the sheaves of corn, two loosing the sheaves and feeding the mill, two bagging and moving the grain and two moving and building the straw. Feeding grain into the ever-hungry maw on top of the mill had its dangers. Vibration or a similar occurrence could cause a slip and fall and many suffered injury by falling into the machine. “The feeders needed to be steady of hand, foot and eye,” states Pat “and thankfully we never experienced a serious accident in all our years on the road.” While eight was a normal boon, an extra pair of hands was very useful and a ninth or even tenth helper always found plenty to do. Although all the helpers had various areas of commitment a single focus of everyone’s attention was when an unfortunate rat made his bid to escape from the cornstack. For the moment the threshing was forgotten as all joined in the attempts to dispose of this malevolent intruder. Stories are told of pitchforks being thrown with unerring aim from the top of the threshing mill or cornstack and pinning the rat to the ground where an end came mercifully quickly. Then it was back to work until the next time. Most of the workers took pride in their respective roles and competition to be ‘the best’ was very keen. Fertiliser or bagstuff as it was called, was sold in 100kg jute bags at the time. These bags, because of the nature of fertiliser, were a heavy deadweight. Grasseed on the other hand was a light fluffy crop. One man too a great pride in being able to put 100kg of grasseed into a fertiliser bag. The compression needed to achieve this and the energy used were secondary to the ‘name of being able’ to do it and the pride that followed.

Grain was transported by horse and cart to one of the many corn mills in the area. These grinding mills were powered by great water wheels and in their time provided a valuable service. Again waiting one’s turn at the mill was another opportunity for social interaction and the retelling of associated stories. “It would take a book to record all the stories and funny incidents,” says Pat.

Sometimes the grain was “sold on” rather than “ground down for domestic use” states Pat. The buyers generally had a small scoop and a blackboard. They used the scoop to take a sample from a bag and scatter it on the blackboard. The subsequent examination for impurities determined the price paid to the farmer. Ways of following the buyers were sometimes tried but were more often than not discovered, much to the shame and disgrace of the perpetrator. The average price for the grain was about £3 per 100kg in the early ‘50s. Although hard-earned it was hard cash at a time when hard cash was a very important and much-needed commodity.

Food for the threshermen was another high priority. “You could nearly tell from the way the corn was built in the haggard what the grub would be like,” says Pat. “Generally it was the best and kept the boon going and in good humour.” Pat remembers one young married woman trying to impress with a brand new kettle and teapot on the day. “Sure when you saw and tasted the tea you hadn’t to be told they were new,” he laughs. “I got rid of my mugful at the bottom of the straw stack.”

With progress and the removal of hedgerows the small fields of the fifties gradually disappeared and gave way to bigger, more machine-orientated units. The thresher was replaced by modern machinery and the birth of the combine harvester sounded its death knell. This development in turn led to the demise of mixed farming in County Monaghan and “the couple of fields of corn” became a piece of history. Today grain is grown generally on farms tailored to its growth and as stated at the outset, the thresher and threshing boon have been relegated to the pages of history. While this is part of the price paid for progress, men like Pat McArdle will at least preserve the sight of a working mill alive in the memory for a future generation. At present Pat and a team of volunteers are working on the restoration of a mill which will be making appearances at shows and displays in the years ahead.

Courtesy of the Northern Standard
December 2004