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Leitrim Ploughing Championship - A History
 
The two largest land-owners in the parish were the Gores of Woodford and La Touches of Dublin (formerly French). Others were Lord Leitrim of Mohill, who owned property in the village as well as much of Newtowngore and the Godleys of Killegar, the only family to survive in the parish to this day. The system in Carrigallen was reasonably benign. The third Earl of Leitrim had been known to evict people from the village of Carrigallen, and in the Newtowngore area and the townland of Druminiffe.

There were other landlords but all were bought out gradually. The farms varied from good, sixty-plus acres to very small nonviable patches which have merged with neighbouring holdings. The land is a mixture of limestone (Newtowngore and surrounds, and patches near the town); the largest topography being drumlin hills with soil of a good average plough depth of top-soil. Whins only manage to survive in the dry ditches, so that land is not really dry or sandy.

On the other hand rushes were not prevalent, which shows the land was not over-abused or waterlogged. Pre-war Carrigallen, like much of Leitrim, was a mixed farming area-four or five cows (ten or twelve in larger farms), a sow or two, and bacon pigs for sale (one for the family), a good kitchen garden, one to two acres of potatoes, a couple acres of oats and maybe some wheat. Summer pasture and meadow for winter hay made up the bulk of the land. Dwelling houses ranged from two-storey slated to three or four-roomed thatched houses.

The out-offices left much to be desired. The cow-byre was often too stuffy with poor ventilation. Farmers did not realise a cow has a tremendous high normal temperature of 103°F (39.4°C), so she sheds much natural heat. The modern byres correct this by ventilation naturally. The pig, in contrast, was often housed in a veritable vault. Bonhams especially are as protected. So winter was a hazardous time especially. The sow, who often suffered from deficiencies, was hard to corral and often ate holes in the wooden door.

Galvanised roofs added to the problem. A dry sow could get a lot of protein balance from good grass but, even though she does not chew the cud, she had not a good pasture to graze on, especially in winter. So she rooted the fields; (her primordial instinct for which she inherited her nose) and thus, she found herself locked up. The piglets suffered several minor deficiencies, in the house, because they are natural rooters also, and they could not be let out for most of the year. So they often died of convulsions which was really iron deficiency. The typical diet was boiled potatoes, high starch, with imported Indian corn, also starchy, with a balance of protein from skim milk. This produced a slow growth and a very sweet fat bacon. This system all changed in the fifties. The long lean breeds came in.

Home-grown grains, balanced with animal products fed dry, came in. Pig-rearing became an exact science. The sow or two disappeared from the farms, to be replaced by the large units, for rearing hundreds of pigs-a veritable factory with insulated houses including cavity floors, automatic feeding silos and computer feeding.

Cattle and milk producing had its problems in those far-off days. The traditional ways were carried on from generation to generation. The same fields were pastured from year to year; the same fields were invariably meadows for the winter hay. The potatoes were the usual crop to benefit from farm-yard manure plus fertilisers. The corn crops that followed usually made do with the residual nutrients. The meadows might get a dressing of dung, often at the expense of a blade badly blunted at mowing time from stones, pieces of iron etc. The pastures were the most neglected in the mistaken idea that grass is eternal which of course it is not. The Emerald Isle looks green, but not everything is grass. Pastures and meadows produced rosette weeds (low growing wide-species) which took the place of grasses and clovers. The drumlins of Leitrim are naturally acid and therefore, while naturally favouring good healthy potatoes and oats, they limited good grass sward and ruled out barley and most wheat species.

So there were naturally low milk yields, often poorly fleshed cows; and store cattle needed costly housing to get them ready for the fair. The big problem was the universal hay diet over a long winter-September to May often. Even if there was a good aftergrass on the meadows, wet years brought poaching, and late growth closed down. Silage making was yet unknown. Another problem was the changing back to grass after tillage. During much of the forties, huge acres were ploughed for tillage all over the country. This was of course compulsory. Carrigallen had an advantage here because, in pre-war days, a department-appointed instructor, the late Dan Keenan, spent much of his time here instructing ploughing. Jack Nixon and John Carthy were two of his finest students. Thus, the district produced many all-Ireland champions as well as good average ploughmen. Most farms boasted a good plough, and a pair of horses. Tractors were slowly appearing, first the old Fordson with its long training plough but later the tidy Ford and Ferguson models with the tidy hydraulic three-point linkage.

All this tillage left the farmer weakened. Fertilisers almost disappeared till after the war. Changing back to grass was traditionally to under-sow grass, seeded with the last corn-crop. If this grew well, it caused endless trouble in the arvesting, being green when the corn was cut, and so hindering the proper drying of stooks and stacks, which was the only way to harvest corn. In severe cases, and in bad harvests, dark fusted corn was the result. Direct seeding was unheard of. In the late fifties a vocational teacher (an agricultural graduate), Mick Duignan persuaded the late John Carthy, a champion ploughman, to plough and harrow a fallow field and direct seed it with good grass-seed and clover complete with fertilisers and the requisite lime complement. The field that everyone thought would be idle for so long, bloomed into a magnificent rye-grass clover sward in six to seven weeks. John was convinced and he proceeded to direct seed several fields. His neighbours were equally convinced, so the method came to be common practice. The addition of ground limestone to ploughed ground was more effective than spreading it on grass.

In those years Carrigallen had its problems with waterlogged soils. The Land Project came in 1948, bank-rolled initially by post-war American Marshall Aid. A pity it came so late because dry land is a basic. Drainage was mainly done the hard way in the west at least-with the spade or loy and shovel. No suitable machinery was available. Small fire-clay pipes were laid in trenches 27 inches deep, herring-bone fashion across the hills, seven yards apart; Sand or gravel was then added and the drain was topped up with top-soil. The sub-soil had to be painfully removed. All credit is due to the generation of farmers and their children who undertook this task.

The scheme was grant-aided but it was a well deserved grant. In some cases, a farmer might have the means to mole-drain across the drains, and thus speed up the job. Seven yard intervals were too wide a spacing to drain the drumlins. In the sixties, a deputation headed by Fr Browne (Roscommon) who was national chairman of Muntir na Tíre in the sixties, and others from Carrigallen persuaded the Land Project (through and Minister of Agriculture of the day) to give a limited grant for mole-drainage alone. The provisions were suitable catchment drains at regular intervals, and good outlets to open drains to be provided. The moles were to be at four-feet intervals. By that time, heavy caterpiller tractors were becoming available which had power and grip to drain up against the hill and pull the large three-inch moles. This scheme released much needed waterlogged meadows and pasture to almost instant fertility.

The passing of the hard war years and the return to grass farming brought many changes. As said before, a dramatic change came in pig husbandry; equally, a change came in cattle husbandry, and many farms became identified with an intensive way of farming. Tillage of all kinds (sometimes even the kitchen garden) disappeared; spacious cow-byres were constructed. Large slatted houses were built for dry stock. Other farmers opted for single suckling calves at the mothers' feet, in the same padlock. By then, rural electrification had reached practically every farmer. The huge jump in machine milking rather than the glow grind of hand milking, the huge quantities of fertilisers and lime being used and the introduction of silage making enabled cow-herds to increase enormously.

The traditional breeds of cattle also began to change. From the neat herd of Aberdeen Angus, the beef Shorthorn and the larger Hereford, farmers now introduced the Charolais, the Holstein or Friesian (mainly dairy but also with a large beef carcass), the Limousin etc. These are large animals and demand high levels of fodder, but are large producers in turn. It follows that the farms had to be geared to meet them. Another development was fresh water, not just in the fields but in large byres for high yielding cows (a thousand gallons of milk or more in a lactation). Farmers provided water from group schemes or bored wells.

The introduction of silage came slowly, from recognition of the fact that short leafy pickled grass was the nearest thing to field grass. Bad summers and the invention of forage harvesters were the two great incentives. The early efforts were painful: long fodder had to be painfully collected by buck-rake and shaken laboriously to get out the air pockets, thus precluding moulds. Sloped walls in silo-pits, heavy tractors to compact the grass, early forcing of grass, and the forage harvester to chop it up, brought a whole new concept to producing fodder.

The last few years saw the introduction of the baler, and later still the large round baler that wraps the fodder tightly in black plastic, thus eliminating the time and trouble to cart in fodder to hay-sheds or silos. The traditional way of bygone years is gone-the hand-cocking, trimming and roping, the drawing in to the rick or hay-shed. Then, there was the belief that the hay could not be carted in for several weeks, in order to let it fully save. This was a ridiculous waste as the tops and the bases were rooted or moulded. There may be accidental or careless waste in silo pits, but this can be avoided with care and know-how.

Another torment on the farm of yesteryear was the prevalence of so many parasites. Cattle hosted three deadly parasitic worms: liver-fluke in dry stock and cows, stomach and intestinal worms in dry stock (cows, harboured these but were not affected), and hoose worms in the lungs and air passages of young calves. Remedies were poor and not effectively applied. Veterinary personnel was very scarce, and vets were not noted for the volume of information they passed on. Other pests were bacterial, chiefly blackleg in young stock, trichomaneisis (failure of cows to bear calves), bacillus brucellosis (cows aborting calves) and of course the omnipresent tuberculosis. While veterinary care and more powerful drugs have left most of these scourges a bad memory, TB and brucellosis persist. The two-winged gad or warble fly that made all bovines, flee for their lives in hot weather, could not be stopped by the older derris powder.

Thankfully, new washes have left this scourge a bad memory. Horses had their share of parasitic worms too, plus the insidious bumbly horse or bot fly, that spent its larval stage attached to the stomach wall. Those and poor nutrition plus the poisonous ragwort or buachallán made a wreck of many a working horse. A farmer can get a mechanic to work on his tractor nowadays, but his father usually had to bury the horse-his main source of power. One of the best innovations to-day was the invention of the cattle crush, a simple steel or wooden device for holding animals for drenching and other simple operations that are so necessary. Not all ills or course have vanished from the farmyard, but there is now less reason for losses than in years gone by.

Then, there were diseases of progress. For example grass tetany killed many good cows. This was a deficiency disease caused by the loss of the minor element magnesium, which is temporarily depressed when high applications of the major elements were supplied. This and other problems are now solved. When stocking numbers rise, vigilance is all important. Of course, the modern farmer has not the endless chores of his father, the sprin ploughing and sowing, the tedious preparation for potato growing and later spraying, digging, etc, cutting and saving turf and hay the hard way, weeding and thinning etc. etc. The tractor out-classes the horse in speed an volume. Yet there seemed to be a charm of its own to the old style. The farmer worked all the hours of light God gave him to get everything done. The winters were restful. Second level education had not become the norm as now, so there was more time for the family to work on the farm, and share the burden. They did not seek summer work as often happens with teenagers today. There was no work available anyhow.

What of all the modern improvements in the past forty years or less? Is there a price to pay? Yes. In the bygone days the farmer was to a large extent self-sufficient. He supplied the basic food for his family and his stock. So his outlay was small. He had to because his income was minuscule. But he had no big bills to pay, for light, fuel, phone, groceries, car etc. The expenses of the modern farm are enormous. But the, wretched prices farmers got for stock years ago were a terrible handicap. The entry of the Republic to the EC in the seventies was a great epoch. Prices and markets were guaranteed for the first time and a boom period followed. It is true that the cost of other things rose too. Nevertheless, a nation like ours with an agricultural background cannot be successful when its farmers are poor. There had to be adjustments the EC regulations to prevent over-production, but nonetheless improved things especially for farmers.

One final word about the farming housewife. Gone are the free-range hens and baskets of eggs, the temperamental bronze turkeys carefully nurtured for the Christmas market, the cart of shining bonhams several times a year. The sale of these commodities was usually the housewife's personal pin-money, as she did the lion's share of these chores. The modern housewife does not miss these perks, one imagines. She has a much better income. The social structures have changed down the years. In pre-famine times, farmers had nothing to pass on. They owned no land themselves. Young couples could get a patch of land and build a cabin or even set up house in the end of the parents' hut, a few split bags forming the only privacy to the nuptial bed. After the Land War, the parents formed a fierce attachment to the house and land. Dare any outsider enter as a bride! Thus, towards the end of the century and into the twentieth, the age of marriage rose. The heir apparent had to wait until all the other siblings were gone and he had to get a dowry with his bride. Even then, it caused friction as it really meant two generations in the one house. DeValera advocated dower-houses in the thirties, but he was scoffed at. Of course, the economics of the times did not favour the situation, but it is interesting to note that the dower-house is very much part of the farming scene today. In conclusion, the social history of our country has often been more turbulent than our military history. We have survived many calamities. Our farmers have been the bed-rock and the progenitors of most of our race. Long may they prosper.
 
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Last Updated: March 27, 2012
 
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