Rural and farming culture in County Tyrone
In terms of culture, rural people and more particularly, those who come from a farming background, have a very different viewpoint from that of the town or city dweller. I learned this when I married into a farming family some years ago, leaving my sophisticated city life behind me and moving to a rural village in County Tyrone.
Here, people are not constantly assailed by loud neon lights announcing a wide range of ever-changing entertainment choices and venues, flash in the pan gimmicks or ground-breaking novelties. It seems to me, that in a farming community, people live more simple lives, in which their culture and heritage are completely and intimately intertwined with everyday life and work.
The city dweller, for example, will go to the theatre or museum, attend a concert or recital, or maybe take a day trip to an historic site or garden. In the main, unless they are some kind of an artist themselves, the chosen cultural activity for the townie will be something which is relatively divorced from their work in the office or factory and a world away from their homelife. In fact, for many in towns and cities, culture offers a diversion from the realities of the daily grind.
Rural people and families from a farming background, on the other hand, are a completely different breed. They seem to live lives where their domestic and work interests merge, bringing them into almost daily contact with their local culture, heritage and the legacy of the past.
One example is the ploughing contests, which take place, in March, in almost every district in Northern Ireland. A ploughing competition is a real spectacle, just as the weather starts to fair and people are beginning to emerge from their winter hibernations. People compete for titles for the old horse drawn ploughs and vintage ploughing as well as classes pitting the new modern heavy weight tractors against one another. The champion ploughmen have to compete for the right to enter the grand final of the Ulster Ploughing Championships, the all Ireland, European and beyond.
To me a ploughed field is a ploughed field- but the judges here know a thing or two about ploughing. They can see things that the untrained eye cannot detect. The finished work is judged on many factors including the overall finish, the straightness of the furrows, the evenness of depth of the furrows and the time taken to finish the job.
Veteran competition goers will know the names of the main contenders and will have a knowledge base against which they can gauge the wisdom of the judges who decide the winners of each class. Agreeing or disagreeing with them is part of the day’s entertainment.
It is a family day out, a chance for grandfathers to show their grandsons that they know a thing or two about something. Competitions are always well attended, and there are trade and craft exhibits and side stalls to keep the younger children amused.
Fetes and fairs
Over the summer months, horticultural fetes and village fairs will bring pipe bands, Irish or Scottish dancers into village greens or other favourite gathering places. Sometimes there will be craftwork displays or sales, fruit and vegetable competitions, sidestalls, bouncy castles and all the usual attractions for children. Tossing the sheaf, where a hay bail has to be lifted by a fork and tossed over a bar about four metres high, throwing the wellie and tug’o’war are commonplace.
Poultry and game fairs are well attended throughout the year. Here the women come to sell their home made jams and preserves, pies and pastries while others hawk home cured bacon or farm fresh vegetables amid the sounds and smells of ducks and chickens and other small animals on sale.
These are the type of events where farming people will happily congregate, to poke and prod and price the wares. The chance meeting of an old acquaintance only adds to the enjoyment. Rural living can be isolated and these country events bring people into contact with their neighbours whom they may not have seen for some time. There is always a noisy banter in the air and a smile on the ruddy faces of the outdoor workers whose red fingers don’t seem to feel cold.
Another example of work and hobbies combining is the cattle sale. In almost every corner of Tyrone, there is a regular sale of livestock in one shape or another. The bigger towns have a cattle sale at least once a week. Buying and selling cattle is a necessary part of the farmer’s work, and the weekly mart has come to be the regular meeting place of those who make their living from animal husbandry. It is also a great social event for the retired farmers of the area to come together and grumble about the new modern ways and how much better it was in their day.
There are as many pedigree clubs as there are cattle breeds- Aberdeen Angus, Limousin, Blonde D’Aquataine, Charolais, Belgium Blue and so on. Each one of these clubs hold regular specialist sales, attracting not only buyers but also many who have a passing interest in the finer points of the breed. Many farmers and their sons will attend these sales with no intentions of buying. Their interest is to admire the finest animals and wonder at the very high prices some of them command.
As the growing season ends and the harvest is brought in, old style threshing displays will take place. Here the old fashioned method of separating corn from the stalk is undertaken by local farmers. Pride is taken by the older folk in knowing how it was done before modern machinery changed farming from a community activity where each man helped his neighbour, to the solitary labour that it can be today.
There is a great atmosphere as families watch the men fork the corn from the huge stooks in the fields. The chaff blows in the air and the Jack Russell terriers yelp wildly as they pursue the mice that are chased from their winter hiding places. It is a demonstration which farmer’s sons watch, knowing that the new ways of doing things involve much less hard work and muscle and they have to admire the strength of the men who worked so hard in the past. The old timers get a chance to reminisce for the afternoon.
Modern farming methods have brought shiny new machines and tractors into the field and farmyard but, even the most progressive farmer can’t lose sight of the generations that have gone before him and exhibitions like this give a grateful nod to the labours of the farmers of yesterday. They make him aware that, while the methods may have changed, like his forefathers, he carries on the challenge of grappling with the land to make it productive and, at the same time, retaining it safely for future generations.
Sometimes a vintage car rally will be part of exhibition, other times the rally alone will be sure to attract a range of age groups. Young and old seem to enjoy wandering round the old tractors or motor cars of yesteryear. There are many people whose hobbies are maintaining their vintage vehicle and they bring out their prize vintage car each year, as proudly as any parent with his first born.
So rural people seem to weave their social, cultural and working lives closely together and there is much mixing of the generations.
While the playhouse, art exhibition and film are all very well, I think if you asked the people around here what kind of cultural activities they partake in, they would tell you they go to ploughing competitions, threshing displays, poultry and game fares, vintage car rallies and the like. Such entertainment may not be everyone's idea of culture but one thing is for sure – country people turn out for them in droves and you'll not find them in the towns.
By Gwen Tener