Working The Land in Lislea (3)

Hugh A Murphy was threshing in an age when the mill man was king

The mill man was one of the most respected men in the area, although respect might not be exactly the right word. It was more fear, perhaps, than respect that the people felt towards him.

He was a man of a fairly short temper who could be quite easily offended. Although he did not own the mill himself, he was in sole charge of it and was the final arbiter of all its operations. Since his was the only threshing mill in the area everyone was very careful not to get on his wrong side.

In childhood, I thought the mill man to be the most powerful man in the area, almost like a king. I also got the impression as I watched him operate the engine that pulled the mill that driving was one of the most difficult jobs a man could undertake. He would be constantly turning the steering wheel, often at a frantic pace, even though he was driving along on the straight.

It was only later that I realised the reason for this excessive behaviour. Both the large back wheels of the engine and the wide front ones were made of iron. Under any present conventional steering system the wheels would have been almost impossible to turn. The mechanism employed at that time was such that the wheels moved only a fraction with each turn of the steering wheel, thus requiring the constant alternate left and right twisting just to keep the machine on the road. In childhood, however, it added considerably to the mystique surrounding the mill man and the whole threshing experience.

During the threshing season the mill took precedence over all other activities. No matter how important a task a farmer was engaged in, as soon as the reverberating hum of the mill reached him along the valley he would drop the task immediately, sling his pitchfork over his shoulder, and head off in the direction of the sound of the mill.

The reason was very simple. The threshing was a job that no family could do on their own. It took quite a number of men to perform all the essential tasks and each farmer was relying on his neighbours to gather to help him when his turn came. It was essential, therefore, that he 'earned the swap'.


 When our threshing day arrived, there would be a great deal of excitement. My mother would have been getting food in for a couple of days previously and anything that could be prepared in advance would be ready. My father would have all the gaps open and the pathway into the haggard cleared and levelled. Early on the morning of the threshing, he would strip the stacks of their ropes and thatch.

When the iron clad engine pulling the long and, to us, towering mill finally arrived it was an impressive sight. It took a great deal of skill to guide the whole mass from the road in through the fairly narrow entrance to the yard. The steering wheel would be in full flight but the mill man always looked calmly in control. He rarely ever spoke and the questions of those fussing about trying to help were ignored. He was a man who knew his business.

The fold-away extension flaps along both sides of the top of the mill were folded outwards and the iron supports beneath them slotted into the keepers provided for the purpose on the sides of the mill. This provided a wide platform onto which the sheaves could be pitched. It was here that the 'loosers' stood, those who opened the sheaves and passed them to the 'feeder'.

The latter’s job was to insert them seed-end first into the opening leading to the spinning mill-drum. Behind this opening there was a recessed standing place, approximately waist deep, in which the feeder stood. This was to ensure that he could not fall, or be pulled, into the mill. His was the most dangerous job at the threshing.

When all was ready the mill was started, sending out its summoning call. In about ten minutes enough neighbours would have gathered to start the threshing. Normally the hay would be threshed first as there would be much less of it than the corn, usually only one fairly small stack.

During threshing, the seed was channelled out at the front of the mill, through four slots positioned approximately three feet from the ground. Each of these slots had a vertical sliding hatch door which allowed them to be opened and closed easily. At the rear of each slot were two metal hooks, and one at the front. The tops of the bags for catching the seed would be placed through the rear hooks. The front of the bags would then be pulled tight around the slots, overlapped, and run through the front hook. As each bag was filled, its slot would be closed and another one opened. This allowed time for the full bags to be removed and placed to one side and new empty bags attached.

The men in charge of the bags had an easy time when the hay was being threshed. Hayseed was very small and light and it took quite a while for a bag to fill and, when filled, the bags were easy to handle. It was a different story when the threshing of the corn started, especially if it was a high yield crop. Two slots would then be in constant use. The bags were a great deal heavier and quite awkward to unhook and lift to one side.

There would be two or three men in charge of carrying the seed up the concrete steps to the loft. The hayseed would be left in the bags unemptied, to be sieved and sold later. The corn would be emptied out in a pile on the loft floor, which would have been cleared and thoroughly swept a couple of days previously, and the empty bags returned to the mill.

There would always be two men pitching from the stacks onto the mill where the loosers opened the sheaves and threw them over to the feeder. If the last stack was out of reach of the mill, the sheaves were pitched from it onto the middle stack and from there onto the mill. Although laborious, this was much preferable to the major task that would be involved in moving the mill again.

The threshed hay and straw was churned out by a mechanism that resembled kicking feet at the extreme end of the top of the mill, from an overhang above the heads of the “bagmen”. It was the job of the forkers to keep this area cleared. The threshed material was carried by them to be built on new butts which had been prepared a couple of days previously on the right hand side of the haggard. The hay was built in a single stack, being pitched up to the builder who used both his arms to build and his pitchfork to shape the growing stack.

The straw was always built in a long, wide rick. There were always at least two men building this. As in the case of the seed, the straw was much bulkier than the hay, and the forkers were kept very busy keeping the mill area cleared. When the rick reached a height where the forkers could no longer pitch the straw to the builders, ladders were placed against the side of the rick.

When the threshing was in full swing the haggard would be in constant motion, with people moving in all directions, some covered in the unending cloud of chaff being blown out from the mill. If an untrained observer were watching he might well think that it was a scene of complete chaos. However, it was a chaos that was at all times under control. Each man there knew exactly what his role was and he fulfilled it with an expertise that to him was mere routine.

Inside the house, as dinner time approached, the two halves of the polished American table, which always stood in two separate rooms, were brought into the kitchen and joined together. These had been brought home by my father’s uncles RIP many years before and were treasured items. As a single unit they filled almost all the available space. The kitchen was what nowadays, I suppose, would be called the dining room. Each household had a kitchen where everyone sat at night and where meals were eaten on special occasions, and a back-kitchen where the meals were cooked, and eaten on normal days. The large table seated fourteen and there would always be at least two full sittings.

This was the only time that the mill man would relax and loosen up a little. The women would be fussing around him and carrying on what could only be called a mild flirtation. They would ask him how he was getting on with 'the widow'. When the mill man would protest, with a smile breaking on his face, that he didn’t know what they were talking about they would nudge him and keep at him - 'Aw, you’re the sly one! You think we don’t know what you’re up to, you and the widow. We have our spies, you know!'

By this time the mill man would be chuckling with delight as he played his role in this double game that was played out every year. I don’t know why it was always 'the widow' that he was supposed to be having the affair with. However it always put the mill man in good form and set him up for the rest of the evening.

In the afternoon, the highlight of the day came as the stacks came closer and closer to the butts. Like the 'Cailleach', all the rats and mice that had taken up residence in the stacks kept moving inwards towards the centre as their surroundings diminished. As the pitcher stuck his fork into the last sheaves of each stack everyone who was on the ground, including any dogs that were on the farm, would be gathered around.

As the last sheaves were whipped away there would be an eruption of rats and mice cascading in all directions to the shouts of men and children and the barking of dogs in hot pursuit. Although many met their waterloo in the combined onslaught, a healthy number always escaped, enough at least to ensure the future welfare of the species!

There was always a sense of satisfaction and relief when the threshing was over. Relief because it was the most complex task of the harvest season and subject to many hazards, not least of which was the unpredictability of the weather; and satisfaction as it marked the end of the farming year and guaranteed security for the future, for at least another year.

However, unknown to anyone then, great changes were lurking in the background, changes that were destined to cause a major disruption to this seemingly timeless and stable way of life. With the ongoing and inexorable demise of the small farmers, who were not being replaced, and the eventual arrival of, first the binder, and later the combined harvester the rural scene was utterly transformed.

No longer would groups of men be seen working in field or haggard. The reaping, stacking, threshing, were all now obsolete. The mill man was stripped of his crown and shrank to his normal size, a small, thin, and suddenly insignificant man. Deprived now of all his power and mystique, he lived out the rest of his days in a meagre existence, almost unnoticed.

Hugh A Murphy, reproduced by kind permission of RoSA. All rights reservedRhythms

Words lie on these mountains,
Stone syllables before me,
Honed into rhythm
Beneath my people’s hands.

They walked these hills composing
Their text in mountain ditches,
Their syntax tracing ridges
Governing from the past.

I now walk these mountains,
Their stones whispering verses,
Assonance of pathways
That rhythms me to them
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation