John Corbett with a selection of memories of life in the Irish countryside

On the farming scene, all grain crops would have been dealt with, so the main action centred on potatoes and other root crops. In our village each farmer sowed approximately an acre of them and this would be enough to feed them and their families.

Mechanisation was still some way off so manual labour was the only way of harvesting them. Larger farms used a horse and plough to split the drills. Potatoes were picked into buckets before being pitted.

Some did the job as they walked along carrying the buckets but others went on their knees to scoop out the tubers. This was called ‘croobing’ and those engaged in it sometimes attached bags to their trouser knees in order to protect themselves from damp clay.

Things speeded up considerably when mechanical diggers came on the scene. Its rotating blades scattered the potatoes in all directions and larger numbers were needed in order to gather them. As with most new ideas, there were those that disapproved of the mechanical diggers. They claimed that they did much more damage to the crop than the traditional method of harvesting.
But, of course, change was inevitable. The new machines took over from the horse and plough and, as for spades and buckets, they would only be used in the small, house-gardens from this time forward.

In the early 1950s families frequently kept children away from school to help with harvesting but there was less need to do so when the machines took over. Readers might be interested in having a look at Brian Friel’s The Potato Gatherers, which was once prescribed reading for secondary school students.

In it, the author manages to capture the enthusiasm of the two young boys as they set out on their adventure early in the morning. It’s in stark contrast to the journey home that evening as they begin to realise that they would gain very little in return for their hard day’s work.

Digging the potatoes was just the first phase of the operation. Next they were piled and pitted. The usual method was to put straw on top of them before covering the pit with clay. Once this had been done, the pit was sealed and made weather-proof. Some farmers placed traps or poison close to the mouth of the pit to protect it from rodents. It was opened and resealed whenever supplies were needed.

Those that sold them for export would take them to sheds where they would be graded. Bags were spilled onto a wooden structure where they could be checked for size and soundness. Much of this work was done at night. Sturdy storm lanterns provided illumination.

When all this process had been gone through, they were scrutinised by special Inspectors and if they passed the test they were carted away in lorries ready for export. After some time elapsed, growers finally received payment.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own