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The Hirin'

Mary Cumiskey

Reproduced, with the Society's permission, from the 1987 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society

Mary Cumiskey

I met two brothers, grand gentlemen who are now in their seventies. They both hired at the age of twelve or thirteen years in the early decades of the century and they had some amazing tales to tell. One of the brother's first experience was working for a farmer for 6 shillings a week. His bed in an outside loft was very damp and cold and his bedcovers were jute meal-bags. He was up and about in the yard by six o'clock in the morning to clean out the stables and byres, feed the horses and cattle and then milk 15 cows. His breakfast was two pieces of bread with a mug of tea and if he was lucky he got a few fried onion rings. He then went out to the fields to do general farm work for, although he was only a young boy he was expected to do a man's work.

During his stay in this place the daughter of the house died from T.B. The day was Monday and he was tidying around the house and yard in preparation for the wake and funeral. The mistress of the house came out and asked him if he had finished cutting the hedge along the road. He replied: "No". "Well", said she, "get to it". He felt ashamed to be working along the road while people passed on their way to and from the wake. The boy would have been well aware of the tradition in his own area, where, as a mark of respect for the dead, no one worked in a field within sight of a wake-house. This is a further illustration of the accepted belief by all the people to whom I spoke that these hard-headed farmers were relentless in their determination to keep the hired hand stretched to his limits at all time. In my last article (Creggan Vol 1/Issue 1) I mentioned speaking to a lady who overheard her sick mistress say to the son of the house "Whatever you do, if I give in, keep the hired cuddy running".

He next hired in the May hiring in Dundalk. His wages were 9. The duties were much the same as in his first place. His day started at 6.00 a.m. and often didn't end till 10.00 p.m. As it was summer-time the cows were away to grass some four miles from the house and the boy had to walk this journey night and morning to milk the cows and carry the milk back in cans. The food was of poor quality, the only addition was, on the odd occasion a small 'pinking' of bacon at dinner time. The household consisted of the farmer, his wife and their son and his wife. The boy was not allowed to eat with the family but was relegated to an old back scullery. One day he was partaking of dinner, a plate of champ and a mug of water when a neighbour of the farmer's came in by the back door, saw him at the champ and said: "God, that will put a bone in you". The farmer, who had heard the neighbour come in, appeared from the dining room and retorted: "The day you want a man to work is not the day you start feeding him". The boy went out to the yard and he gave a skip and a cheer. The farmer remarked: "Isn't he airey after his champ". From that day until the day he left he was given one cut of bread for breakfast and supper instead of the two which he had been getting up till then. The farmer obviously thought the boy was being over-fed.

One of his next hiring experiences was with a farmer who lived near Scarva, and this time he got 12 for the six months. The farmer had 10 milking cows and about 14 calves to look after night and morning. His work was general yardwork as the farmer also had a ploughman. He hired in May and his only break was on the 15th August. He was allowed to go home for the day but was asked to return in the evening. He walked the thirty miles home arriving in the late afternoon and in no mood to turn round and head back to Scarva. His mother suggested that he take a few hours rest and return early next morning. He did not have the time to go to Blackrock for the day, as most of his neighbours would have done. ("The 15th" was the big day for the farming community in the area, indeed, it was the only outing in the year for most of them.) He left home at 4.00 o'clock next morning and arrived at the farm gate at 7.45 just as the buzzer was blowing in Tandragee. The farmer met him at the gate and instructed him to put the cows (already milked) to Doringans (outside Farm) and then to go on to pull flax at a neighbouring farm. Breakfast was already over so none was offered. He did as he was told and arrived at the flax-pulling to find 30 men and women lined up, each pulling his set up the field. One of tee men shouted across at him "come on the leavin's of the 15th". He pulled his set up the field along side this man who asked him if he had any breakfast "I had something at 3.30 this morning" said the boy. "Jump the style at the top of the field and nip over to the house said the man. The boy gladly did as he was instructed and found tea, bread and a green duck egg awaiting him.

Another hiring he recalled was with a farmer near Kilcurry. His wages were 13. A genuine house was his verdict. He had to work hard, but was well treated. Indeed he stayed for seven years until as he said "I buried them all". The mistress died first, the farmer. died four years after her, and then the farmer's sister died. (She had been the housekeeper from the time the mistress died.) The son of the house hadn't much heed for farming so he let the land and went off to work in England. The boy had earned a good reputation in the area so he was approached by three brothers to work for them. This he did and was very happy with them. They were fond of the drink but nevertheless one or other of the brothers opened his bedroom door each night to enquire "Boy did you have your supper tonight"? One of the brothers was the cook and was very kind to the boy and often used excuses to bring the boy in from the field to give him a snack. He told of an amusing incident which happened during the harvest. The day was Saturday and all hands worked exceptionally hard in the fields. About seven o'clock they adjourned to the local pub where they slaked their thirst in style until about 11 o'clock when they returned home in good spirits to bed. The following morning was Sunday so after the milking and yardwork was finished they began dressing for Mass. It was then that they noticed the carts on the road heading for the Monday market in Dundalk. To their utter astonishment they had all slept through from Saturday night to Monday morning.

One of his less pleasant experiences was his hiring with a farmer at Essexford. The farmer was well off but was a hard man. He didn't believe in feeding his workers. One of their summer jobs was cutting turf in the nearly bog. The dinner was always 'champ' and was brought to the bog to save time There were many people cutting turf at the time, and they soon got used to the 'champ' arriving each day, so as soon as they sighted the farmer they set up a chant "Here's Duke the Beetle". He also recalled the time the farmer, shot two pigeons which were eating the hayseed off the stooks. He shot the two with the one shot and brought them home and asked the servant girl to prepare them for Sunday dinner. She plucked and cooked the birds forgetting to clean out their inwards. They had a poor dinner that Sunday. Another incident he recalled vividly was on a August day in the harvest field, he was extremely hungry and eagerly awaiting the dinner. He saw the farmer's wife coming into the field with a basket and in anticipation he, and two other hired hands sat themselves down on some sheaves. The woman handed each one a bowl and a spoon. The bowl contained the red 'bestlings' of a freshly calved cow. Two of the boys refused to eat the stuff, the other one did so and was extremely sick for the rest of the day. No other food was supplied, so the boys had to resort to eating vetches which grew in profusion in the cornfield.

'Bestlings' was the milk of a freshly calved cow and was often boiled to form a thick jelly-like substance which could then be fried. According to people who eat the stuff it was quite palatable. The very first milk was rarely used because it often contained a lot of blood clots which gave it a reddish colour.

The second of the brothers hired at the age of twelve and he too had some curious stories to tell. He emphasised that although many farmers were mean and greedy there was some decent and caring ones as well. He was lucky in his first hiring. He slept under the same roof as the farmer and ate at his table. His wages was 7 and he stayed for six months. His next experience however was the worst of his life and he spoke of it, even now, with some trepidation. He went with his Mother to the May hiring in Dundalk. As soon as he arrived in the fair a farmer from Dunleer approached him to hire. He instantly took a dislike to the man and so did his Mother but the farmer 'hurded' him all day; meaning he hovered around and if another man showed an interest in the boy the 'hurder' * moved in and indicated that he was already negotiating which effectively prevented the boy hiring with anyone else. At intervals during the day he ran over to the boy saying "Its time we were heading for the train". By evening the boy conceded, took the 'earnest' money and the amount of wages was agreed. His Mother wasn't very happy with the arrangement, however she went to a shop and bought him a shirt and off he went with the farmer. After his tea he was taken out to the field to milk the cows. While at this task he noticed a woman eying him from the far side of the field while shading her eyes from the evening sun with her hand. He didn't know the significance of the watcher at the time but he was to meet the lady later on the same night. The farmer showed him to his bed on an outside loft and instructed him to do two things before he retired for the night. Firstly he was told to bolt the door securely from the inside and secondly to extinguish the light. The loft was big and draughty and the young boy was terrified, he had never slept outside in these conditions before, so he decided to keep the light on.

This term was also used for dealers or 'tanglers' in the fairs. They usually selected 'once a year' farmers; bid a poor price for his animal, hovered all day 'hurding' the farmer thus spoiling his sale. Towards evening the unfortunate farmer had no choice but sell to the tangler.

He noticed another bed on the loft but didn't dwell on it too much at the time because he was trying to get himself settled in his own bed.

About 12 o'clock there came a loud knocking on the door. His first thought was that the farmer had to come to reprimand him for keeping the light on. He opened the door to find a very tall man and woman standing there. The man asked him if he was hired that day. The boy said "That is so". "Well" said the man. 'You'll have to leave here in the morning. We don't allow anyone to work here as there is a dispute between myself and my father. He doesn't allow us into the house and we have to sleep on this loft". The boy was very young but he realised he had got himself into a very difficult situation between the two parties. He decided there and then to leave the place. He had accepted the 'earnest' money which of course was a binding contract so he had to avoid the farmer at all costs. At day break he arose, gathered his few belongings and left; the man on the loft offered him two half crowns to cover his train fare back to Dundalk. He took off running, his only thought was to put as many miles between himself and the farmer as possible. He had boots on when he started out but he found they hindered his speed, so he took them off, slung them over his shoulder and ran on barefooted. He ran for many miles until he came to a labourer's cottage where he stopped, related his story to the owner and was given some breakfast. The man suggested he go back to the train station and travel to Dundalk by rail. The boy didn't fancy travelling this way as he knew there was a good chance that the farmer would come to the station looking for him, so he took off running again, without direction and in fear of getting very lost. His next stop, many hours later, was with a roadman who was spreading shingle on the roadside. He was working from two carts and was just finished emptying the second cart. The man was curious to hear the boy's story and he invited him to come home with him for some dinner. He climbed into the cart and from sheer exhaustion he fell asleep and was woken up back in the yard of his kind friend. He was treated to a good dinner and set on the right road to Kilkerly.

He soon recognised the countryside around him and the remainder of the journey was easy. He arrived borne tired but happy that the nightmare was over. However the young mind soon forgets the bad times for by the next Monday he had hired again in Dundalk (there were three hiring Mondays in May and November each year). This time he was lucky, the farmer was a caring man, the boys' bed was in the dwelling house and he had his meals with the family, his wages were 13 for the six months, and he liked the place so well that he stayed another six months. His next hiring was with a farmer from Inniskeen, the wages were improving, for this time he got 22 for the six months. The work was hard and the food inadequate. The dinner was mainly potatoes with a few mushrooms on the odd occasion. His piece of bread night and morning had no butter on and he was frequently hungry. The farmer's son and his wife lived in the house as well. The young wife was treated as a servant girl would be treated and her life was no better than the servant boys. She was in sympathy with the boy's plight and when the occasion arose she often secretly gave extra bread and milk. One early morning while passing through the kitchen he noticed a cake of bread sitting on the dresser. He picked it up held it up to his chest and tried to cut off a piece when the farmer appeared and shouted at him. "And what do you think you are doing". The boy put the cake down and ran for his life. He was allowed home every other Sunday afternoon but was required to return in time for milking. If he missed the evening tea he got nothing till morning. He had another bad experience with an Inniskeen farmer. The wages were 34, the work was hard and the food barely adequate. When the time came for payment the farmer said he had no money until he went to the Bank in Dundalk. He used this as an excuse because when approached on several occasions the to following week he refused to pay up. He then tired bargain with the boy, attempting eventually get his money but by this time he had to pay him less than was agreed. He did eventually get his money but by this time he had heard that this particular farmer tried his dirty tricks with all the boys who hired with him.

He told of many more stories of hardships endured by the hired hands. The really rough mean farmers demanded the same volume of work summer and winter. The boys were not allowed to slack off even on the very worst days of winter. On such days the farmers togged themselves out in oilskins and with an umbrella stood over the boys in drains and shores to ensure that the work was done. The unfortunate boys were soaked to the skin and even worse they had no means of drying off the wet clothes and often put the same wet clothes on again the next day. These uncaring farmers had no interest in a boy who got sick while hired, his welfare never entered into the scheme of things. One boy who was very ill because of constant wettings was told by the farmer "This is no hospital boy". The boy had to leave and make his own way home even though he was weak and hardly able to walk.

I next spoke with a grand old gentleman who was born in June 1897. He was hired during the second decade of the century and in 1919 he went to work in Scotland.

He first hired at the tender age of 12 years with a man called Gibson who lived near Armagh. His wages for the six months were 3.12.6. The food was reasonable if somewhat monotonous. Porridge was served for breakfast and supper and was frequently overcooked or burnt. He did however get some bacon even though it was the meat of an old sow which the farmer cured himself - A young boy called Robinson was hired with him at the time He joined up at the beginning of "The Great War" and was killed in action in France His next hiring was with a man called Loughran who lived near Markethill. This time he got 10.10.0 for the six months. This was a good place and he was treated well. H was his own boss for most of the time as this farmer was also a horse dealer, and was often away at fairs leaving the boy to look after the horses and cattle on the farm.

He then hired with a woman who lived near Armagh City. She had two young children and she owned a fair sized farm and a large orchard. She also employed a ploughman who lived locally and was paid weekly. The young boy had to do all the yardwork as w( as general work on the farm and in the orchard. Some of the land was hilly and con be ploughed downhill only, resulting in soil loss at the top of the fields.

One of his less pleasant tasks was slipeing the soil back up to the top in a drug. The widow had an old mare with a spavin* and it was used for odd jobs like this. He said he didn't like a woman boss, she grumbled all the time and you could not please her no matter how well you worked.

Her particular speciality was in the orchard. She grew plums and apples and she was an expert at grafting young apple trees. The workers helped in the orchard in the springtime and also in the Fall at fruit picking time. The apples were always packed in barrels and sold to Lambe's factory in Richhill which was nearby. Another of his less pleasant tasks was drawing the burnt-out coke residue from the Gas Work in Armagh and which was used on the land as fertiliser. He had to handle two horses and carts on this job, sitting up in the first cart, the second horse and cart following on behind. Once while passing the outer wall of the asylum (now St. Luke's Hospital) he noticed a man leaning across the wall. The man shouted to him. "Have you got any tobacco?" The boy replied: "I don't smoke". "Then" said the man "you are on the wrong side of the wall". The inmates of the asylum were allowed out to work on the neighbouring farms under the supervision of the warders. This was cheap labour, the only pay the patient got was a ration of tobacco each evening although the hospital authorities were paid a levy for each one hired out.

The following was an incident which happened in the area at this time. A warder was handing out the tobacco ration one evening, and he mounted a ladder to give the tobacco to a patient who was on top of a rick of corn. Another of the patients grabbed a pitch-fork and stuck in very firmly in the warder's backside. He then shortened the fork handle by breaking it in half, defended himself from capture with the shortened fork and then managed to escape into the nearby Castledillon demesne. He hid out there for three weeks living on the vegetables from the estate gardens. He then slipped out from the estate and headed North towards Lough Neagh where he remained for a few more days. He was eventually brought back to the asylum in Armagh. No action was taken against him because of diminished responsibility and the warder happily recovered from his injuries.

His next hiring and possibly his last was with two cousins called Lyons who lived near Milford. They had a reasonably sized farm and they also took conacre. Their main crop was flax. He liked working for the Lyons and remained with them for four years. Only once however was he enticed away and he related the following. A neighbour had asked him several times to come to him to work so one day he decided to give him a try. At bedtime he was shown his bed, an old straw mattress with no covers on. He put out the light and attempted to settle down. His rest was short-lived because when the bed warmed up with his body heat the fleas in the mattress emerged and attached him in force. He jumped up and let up the hurricane lamp to discover that the bed was crawling with bugs. He was sitting up in bed when two boys, who also worked in the place, returned from the local pub. They were surprised to see him there with the light on, they said the fleas didn't brother them at all, but then they were well fortified with strong spirits and no doubt fell asleep quite quickly and were thus oblivious to the fleas nocturnal pursuits. He returned next morning to the cousins, arriving just as one of them was coming down the stairs. He greeted him "I knew the fleas would chase you back to us". The year he left was a bad year for flax growers. The bottom fell out of the market and prices dropped drastically. The Lyons' had twenty stacks of flax ready and they couldn't find a buyer. In desperation they burnt the twenty sacks, they were ruined financially and could no longer afford a servant boy so he reluctantly left them. Shortly afterwards he went to Scotland to work, first in the steelworks and then the coal mines. I asked him if he found work in the coal-pits hard. He replied: "Not really. I had a long apprenticeship. I was hired at the age of twelve years and remained hired for ten or twelve years. Then I endured the heat of the steel furnaces as well as handling the pig iron, (each piece weighted two and a half cwt) for some years. The coal mining wasn't too hard after that.

Some Pictures:

Mowing Corn with scythes
Reaping the corn
Pulling and tying flax
Bringing home the spuds

* Disease of hock in horses marked by bony tumour or excrescence and caused by strain....Back

Photographs courtesy of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

Other Articles and publications by Mary Cumiskey:

Articles in the Creggan Journal

Journal No.4 - 1990: Sir Thomas Jackson
Journal No.5 - 1991: The Cardinal's Family and School days
Journal No.6 - 1992: A Look at Crossmaglen in the 30s
Journal No.7 - 1994/95: Folk Memories of the Famine
Other publications:
The Famine in Creggan Parish - 1998