How it Was

Jim Devlin shares his memories of Ballinderry

On holiday in Ballinderry, we did not miss the amount of work my mother put in at this time of the year. We were conscripted into all the activities of running a farmhouse and some of the jobs were not always jolly. Churning was one such activity, which we tried to avoid. Standing plunging a churn staff up and down for half a day was boring to say the least.

The best aspect of this job was to see the transformation of milk into butter. When the butter was skimmed off I loved to watch my mother go to work on it with two small paddles to beat the residue of milk from it, rolling and kneading it and adding salt, until she had several nice blocks of butter.

When she had it to the desired shape and consistency our reward for churning was to be allowed to stamp it with a swan print leaving a picture of a swan on the top. And even better reward was to come in the evening to have hot soda bread and the same butter made earlier melting on it.

Reproduced by kind permission of Muinterevelin Historical SocietyAs the holidays wore on, the grass seed had come ready for cutting and out came the scythe, one of my uncle’s prize possessions, to cut the first swathe around the field as the grass would be lying around the outside of the field and the horse mowing machine could not cut it. We would watch in amazement as my uncle swung the scythe with such precision just above the ground and leave the grass in the perfect shape for lifting and tying into sheaves with a belt of grass.

This done, the horse would be harnessed into the mowing machine and ‘tyers’ would come from the neighbourhood to tie and then stook the sheaves in fours with the heads turned down to protect it from weather and hungry birds. Later, when the stooks had dried and the seed fully ripened it would be built onto ‘huts’ with a special top which my uncle called a cockaninny. These huts were an art form and every farmer took pride in doing it to the best of his ability, it was nice to see a field of huts standing in lines and nice and straight.

We hoped for good weather, as we did not want to miss the threshing before we went back to the city and our holidays over. The excitement of the thresher coming down the road with the baler behind was a sight to see. This lumbering machine, like a house on wheels, with Denning in large print on the top boards and painted a sort of pinkie beige, seemed out of place in the greenery of the countryside.

This meant tea in the field with the neighbours who came to help, and having fun with the dogs catching mice and the occasional rat, which hadn’t got off the haycart in time. While the grass seed was fed into the top of the machine the seed came to one end and hay to the baler where a man tied the strings on the bales.

As each stook was set onto the winnowing cloth an assortment of insects would make their ‘bid’ to escape, of these we had a fascinating collection in assorted jam jars and small boxes.

When the bales of grass seed were drawn into the barn and the hay was built into havels (like a house built of bales), as we did not have any sheds big enough to hold it all, that day’s dinner would be late. The workers would have theirs firs and would gather to listen to the ‘craic’.

Old memories would be called up as to when there were no threshers and seed would have been beaten off over a barrel or with a flail, two sticks joined with a leather thong in the middle. Another would intone 'its better than feeding a barn thresher and getting choked with dust'. This was also one of my fond memories, going to Drummenny to my grand uncles and seeing a horse going round in a circle all day pulling a shaft attached to a gearing, which would drive the thresher in the barn.

After the thresher had gone from the area and the neighbours had theirs done it was time to tidy up as it were. We went to the ‘moss’ as we called it to cut thatch, to cover the havels to protect them during the winter. This would be cut with the scythe, as the moss was too wet for machinery; it was tied in sheaves and drawn home on the horse and cart.

There were ponds in the ‘moss’ and they were covered in grass that looked solid until you walked on them and you could sink to the neck. I remember jumping off the cart into one and having to be rescued by my uncle. We went for a ‘sail’ as my uncle termed it on the cart to the ‘moss’ and came home on top of a load of thatch.

These heady days stick in my memory and whether it was our youth and innocence or the summers were longer and better than we have now, I’ll never know.

Our holidays over, the gathering of our belongings began and the long journey home. Our wellingtons were carefully left by for the next year as we did not need them in the city, as there were no sheughs to paddle in.

Life went on and the dreaded journey home would begin. In our suitcases every nook and cranny would be stuffed with mementoes of our holiday, stones, butterflies and grasshoppers in match boxes, catapults. I remember one occasion we took some small frogs in a tobacco box which promptly escaped when the box was dropped on arriving home. Life was filled with simple pleasures from everyday life and work in the country. To be quite honest we never looked on Belfast as our home and never called it such.

Jim Devlin is a local man who writes with fondness of times past in the parish of Ballinderry, Co Derry.  He has been a regular contributor to the community magazine Western Loughshore.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation