Noel looks back on the days of Compulsory Tillage
Hanley’s farm in Kilbegnet, Creggs will host the 2019 County Roscommon Ploughing Championships this Sunday (7th) and while this is the first time that Hanley’s farm has hosted the ploughing event, the fields that will feature at next Sunday’s ploughing match have been traversed by many ploughs over the decades and centuries.
Noel Hanley is a familiar figure to many people the length and breadth of County Roscommon and beyond and he has been fascinated by ploughing and tillage since his childhood.
During the Second World War, approximately 50 acres of Hanley’s farm was selected as suitable for local farmers to till plots as part of the Compulsory Tillage Order, and during subsequent years the farm was a hive of activity as local families congregated at Hanley’s to plough and till the soil and harvest the resulting crops.
It was a time of great upheaval in Hanleys. Noel’s father Jack died in 1942, leaving his mother Elizabeth (nee Dolan) to oversee the running of a large farm while also raising three young sons. At the time of his father’s death Noel was aged 9, the middle of three sons, his brothers being Colm and Brian.
Noel recalls: “My father died in 1942. Then the following year, the Compulsory Tillage came in for the farm. The land was mapped and they picked out the land good enough to plough. A good deal of our land had holes and hollows in it and that wasn’t put in.
“I remember Michael Kilby from Creggs, he used to come down and have an auction in the evening at the beginning of each year. There was 13 acres one side of the house and 12 the other side and 20 acres in off the road on the site where the ploughing will be.
“Local families would take an acre or two to till and would sow oats or barley. A lot of families were from Skehard. We were going to school at the time and I remember there was great excitement when the crops were cut. When the crops were ready, Al Mullaney from Ballincurry would come with a big chain tied to the bike and I would have to stretch it out for him and he would measure the length and breadth of every plot of tillage and calculate the acreage.
“The people that took the tillage would do their own ploughing and sowing, usually they would have an acre each but some people took two acres. They would bring their own horses, every two farmers would be in ‘co’ (working in co-operation). Farmers were only able to keep one horse and they would work with a neighbour and bring their own plough and plough and harrow and sow the tillage. There was no such thing as a spray to kill thistles, they would be spudding thistles with a spade”.
Noel remembers many of those who took the tillage during the 1940s.
“Willie Fannon’s father Paddy Fannon (Lenamarla) had a pair of horses and he would take a couple of acres because he was out on hire at the time. Then there was his brother Pete and Tom Madden and Jack Quinn in Skehard. Tom Whyte, Mick White and Pake Ward, (neighbours in Kilbegnet) they worked together and took tillage on the land inside.
“When the crops were ready, they cut it and stooked it and brought it home and put it into the garden and threshed it in the back end (of the year). Tim Lohan and Johnny Lohan had a thresher with donkeys at the time. There were six or seven donkeys pulling this big thresher. Tim and Johnny used to do an awful lot of threshing work at the time.
“At that time most people were working a Pierce plough. There were wheel ploughs and swing ploughs. The swing plough had no wheels and you had to hold it with your hands. With the wheel plough you could set the wheels in place to help you. Then there was spring tooth harrow or a wooden harrow for the harrowing.
“If it was a bad year, sometimes it had to be cut with a scythe and in a fine year they had a mowing machine with a tackle on it to make the sheaves and a gang of men would be stooking the sheaves. At that time it took two days to plough an Irish acre, there were four roods to an Irish acre and three roods to an English acre, but it was all Irish acres during the compulsory tillage,” Noel said.
Heavy Clydesdales were the preferred horses at the time, having the strength to pull the plough and a steady gait to ensure a straight line of ploughing. Noel remembers many good ploughmen of that era.
“John Keegan from Rushfield, known as Rebel Keegan, he’d open any field and he would have the scraw as straight as a die. Jack Keane from Kilbegnet (Bina’s brother) he was out on hire at the time and he was a great ploughman, as was Paddy Connelly from Carton, who later married and lived in Goff Street, Roscommon. Paddy was well known in the region as a buyer of sheep and cattle. Bill Keane from Kilbegnet also had a machine at that time.
“Threshing was the big day and you would have a meitheal of men around the place and jars of porter for them to drink and bacon and cabbage for them to eat. Some farmers would have big stooks of oats and they would take two days to do the threshing.
“Mostly they brought the oats to the mill and would keep what they wanted for themselves, to feed horses and to crush for feeding sheep and cattle. Some people had hand crushers but it would take a long time to crush a barrel of oats by hand. Mick Roarke in Creggs had a crusher and he would crush a big bag of oats”.
Farrell’s Mill in Castlecoote was the destination of much of the oats and barley grown in Hanleys at that time.
“Before my father died, he used to have tillage, he’d have three or four acres of turnips and mangels but my mother packed that in after he died. He had 20 or 25 stall feds in the sheds and stables and most of them would go to Prussia Street or an odd butcher from Roscommon would come out and buy one of the cattle for the butcher’s shop.
“We used to send them off from Donamon Station to Prussia Street in Dublin, at that time that was the big cattle market. Then they got rid of it because the cattle had to go through the streets of Dublin to be loaded on the boats and the market in Prussia Street was moved to County Meath.
“We would walk the cattle from here to Donamon station. Michael Hussey in Gortnadieve (father of Tom and John Hussey), was a great cowman. He would go and get a wagon for 12 or 14 cows and they would be loaded in Donamon and be sent off on Tuesday for the market in Prussia Street on a Wednesday”.
Prussia Street market in Stoneybatter in Dublin was the country’s agricultural stock exchange in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957 almost over 249,000 cattle were sold at the market and in 1960 over 425,000 sheep were sold there. Increasing opposition from business interests in Dublin and better road transport led to the eventual closure of the market in May 1973.
“Michael Hussey would go to all the fairs around and about and would keep the cattle at the house and every week he would have a wagon load for Dublin and any calves they had, he would sell locally,” Noel remembers.
As a youngster Noel was impressed by the work ethic of the men he saw working at the tillage on the farm, men like Owen Toolan and Peter Fannon.
“As a gosoon, I’d be watching Peter Fannon, he could cut an acre in a day with his two horses. He was a great man to work. There wasn’t too many able to do it. He would have a young crowd tying the oats and stooking it after him”.
Often those working on the farm and working at the tillage had long journeys to make home on foot.
“Jim Tighe from Cloonfaughna worked for years in our place and when he was going home at night he had two rivers to cross. He’d be heading home in the dark with a flashlight and as a gosoon I often thought that he’d get lost, but he knew the way well. In later years his sons Tommy and Paddy would be with him, they would be here when they’d get the holidays from school in July, their father would bring them out spreading the turf for my father”.
Many of the ‘villages’ that Noel recalls the farmers coming from are now greatly diminished, few more so than Derryhippo.
“Jimmy Mulvihill from Derryhippo worked here when I was a young lad. At the time he was working here there were 31 houses in Derryhippo, there’s only a handful of houses there now”.
The end of the war brought an end to the Compulsory Tillage Order and with it an end to the hive of activity on the Hanley farm. Tillage continues to be a feature on Hanley’s farm. Noel’s farm is now farmed by his sons John and Brian, with John concentrating on tillage and cattle while Brian concentrates on dairying and horses.
However, on Sunday, the spectacle of horse ploughing will return to Carnaglough with numbers not seen in the townland since the heady days of Compulsory Tillage in the 1940s. Apart from the usual features of a county ploughing match, this year’s County Roscommon Ploughing Championships will feature the inaugural Connacht Horse Ploughing Competition. The competition is confined to competitors from Connacht and attracts a prize fund of €1,000, kindly sponsored by the Sweeney family from Strokestown.
Apart from memories of tillage in the 1940s, memories of yesteryear will also be evoked by a wide range of arts and crafts displays on the day, ranging from coppercraft to woodland crafts, hurdle making, wool spinning, basket making and a traditional blacksmith. There will also be a sheepdog trials on the day.
All are welcome to Hanley’s Farm on Sunday 7th April for the County Roscommon Ploughing Championships for what promises to be a fun day for all the family.