The First Tractor in Lislea
Hugh A Murphy was present at the beginning of a new era
During the 1940s, and for a period after, the landscape of Lislea and the surrounding area was a patchwork of small farms, worked by the horse. These farms had been handed down from father to son for generations and were the only livelihood the people had. Virtually all the lads who left Lislea School at 14 (then leaving age), went straight on to the farm.
Each small farmer owned one horse, which was sufficient for most of the work throughout the year, except in springtime. For ploughing and drilling, two horses were required. For this purpose each farmer had a ‘join’, either a neighbour or a family friend. Each spring their two horses were put together as a team and the work was done consecutively on each farm.
Most farmers kept their horse for three or four seasons and then replaced it. This was always a fairly anxious time and involved much discussion. Having a good horse was always of paramount importance, and also a source of a certain amount of pride. It was essential that the replacement would be, if possible, better than the one being exchanged, but this depended on a very discerning eye and also a certain amount of luck.
It was not unknown for a degree of trickery to be employed in the horse fair in Camlough, especially by dealers, to alter one’s impression of an animal. For example, a lazy, lethargic horse could be transformed utterly with a shot of ginger under the tail, causing him to sparkle with unbridled energy and spirit. The unsuspecting buyer would not be aware of this until the effect of the ginger wore off, normally by the time he was arriving home.
My own father, who was a fairly shrewd judge of a horse, was caught out himself on at least two occasions. The first was when he ended up with a very nice mare that was a great worker, provided you kept her on the straight. As soon as you asked her to make a turn she would stumble and fall. She had a fairly well concealed form of head staggers.
As a result, as soon as she reached the headrig or the footrig where a turn had to be made my uncle, the man with whom my father was joined, would have to run forward and catch her by the tail and keep her upright until the turn was made.
On the second occasion my father had a fine young horse that was perfect in every aspect of work until, as he grew older, he took to exploring the countryside. Eventually, no matter what field you would put him into, he would soar across even the highest ditch and away. We called him ‘the jumper’. Finally, and with great reluctance, my father had to get rid of him.
Some years later, when another exchange was being made, my father arrived home with a beautiful horse. He was almost fourteen hands high, with a sleek coat and rippling muscles. My father was very proud of his conquest. As we all stood around examining him my mother said that for some reason, which she couldn’t quite put her finger on, he seemed vaguely familiar.
He was finally let loose into the field below the house and we all watched in admiration as he went galloping around the field kicking his hind legs in the air, as horses do when released into a new paddock. When he reached the bottom of the field where there was a high ditch with a wide shuck behind it, without even slackening pace, he took off and soared as graceful as a swan over ditch and shuck with yards to spare and went off galloping up through Donnelly’s land. The jumper was back!
At that time I was still attending Lislea National School, just across the road from my father’s house and each day I came home at dinnertime to get my lunch. One day, in the spring of 1947, as I crossed the road as usual, a sight met my eyes that stopped me in my tracks. There in the yard in front of the stable door was a brand new tractor, with a new two score plough attached to it.
I went up to the wonder almost holding my breath and looked in fascination at the shining bonnet, the twin wing mirrors stretching out to the right and left, the horn with the round rubber ball at the end, and the massive back tyres with the large rubber grips which were as deep as my hand.
I walked around it again and again, noting the make, Ferguson, stamped in large letters on a plaque on the front of the bonnet, and the number-plate, LZ1 944. I had never been this close to a tractor before. There were only two others in adjoining town lands, one in Ballinaleck and one in Levelamore. This was the first one ever in Lislea.
When I went inside I found that the tractor had been delivered to my father that morning from Hosford’s, the tractor dealer in Newry. The man who had driven it out was still there eating his dinner. Part of the contract was that he would stay for one day to instruct my father in the operation of the new machinery.
The rest of that day at school seemed like a week. When I was finally released, I gulped down my dinner and set off running up the road to Boyle’s field where the tractor was working. My father was coming down the field ploughing, his two hands clutching either side of the steering wheel as though he were holding the ends of a pair of reins. The ‘tutor’ was standing on the back of the tractor issuing instructions.
I sat on the bottom ditch of the field watching in fascination as the twin scores flowed out from behind the plough, up and down the field, at a speed which, in comparison to a pair of horses and a single score plough, seemed unreal. After a while the tutor came and joined me on the ditch and lit a cigarette. My father worked on now on his own, apparently fully qualified.
That evening after tea and before the Hosford man left, there was still one more task to do, to get the tractor into the stable. The whole family came out in the dusk, including my mother, and everyone shouted directions as my father reversed slowly in through the twin doors:
‘A bit more to the left… Watch out on your right!… Back away, back away… Whoa! Whoa!’
The tractor was finally stabled, with just a couple of inches to spare on either side, the twin tracks of the large back tyres clearly visible across the floor in the thin film of dried horse manure that still lay on the surface. The twin doors were closed and barred. A new era had begun.