School Days, — February 16, 2009 10:59 — 0 Comments

Potato digging/flax-pulling

I hated potato picking.  It was cold, clammy, backbreaking drudgery, following the digger up and down the field, hoking for the tubers in the stony clinging clay, dirt under the fingernails, aching arms and legs and sore back from the constant bent over posture. 

Since it was October the weather was generally damp and there seemed to be a perpetual cold northern wind, driving dark brooding clouds through the ever grey and gloomy sky.  I cannot recall a single sunny day.  I always went home exhausted and fed up.


Flax was extensively grown, as there was until the late 1950s a thriving linen industry in Northern Ireland.  Richardson‘s mill in Bessbrook, a village built to house its workers, employed many hundreds of local people and was supplied with raw materials by dozens of scutch mills in Counties Armagh and Down. 

The flax was not cut but pulled up by the roots, by hand.  I never did this so I cannot say what it was like but it must have been hard work.  

The flax was then placed in pits filled with water, weighed down with stones and allowed to soak for some weeks. This was known as retting and during the process the countryside was permeated by the noxious smell of retting flax. The process separated the outer shell from the inner fibre. The flax was removed from the pits and spread on the land to dry before being taken to the scutch mills where the outer sheath was removed by beating. This was a dusty and ultimately unhealthy process. The sheath residue, that had the consistency of dust and seemed to have little value, was called shous. The pits were a rich source of newts, which we used to capture in jam jars.


… more later …

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