Going Forward Holding Back
Going Forward Holding Back
Granny’s Farm – David Sherry

Going Forward Holding Back

by Ian Sherry of Rostrevor, Northern Ireland
photos by Stasia Sherry

My granny’s brother Eoghan had travelled right across America and up to Alaska. Then for fear that wasn’t enough he went to New Zealand. I worked with him in the fields. He told me ‘I went as far as civilization would take me and then I walked.’ We had a very good school and many of the men in the valley had travelled – my grandfather crewed a boat trading Seattle/Alaska; so it wasn’t lack of education or travel that caused our valley to remain rooted in the past.

Whatever it was – everything changed in the late 1950s and changed fast. With plumbing and electricity came the tractor, bigger breeds of sheep and cattle and farms increasingly part time. Labour intensive crops like potatoes, oats, flax disappeared. Hedges and stone walls were taken away – to make our small fields more readily worked with machinery – and silage became the stable fodder crop. I have a sense of a further change at the moment. Tractors and vehicles generally have become huge; small two roomed dwellings (long unoccupied) have afforded planning permission for mansions; I gather with offices suitable for professionals to work from home. There is much talk of preserving the past; even to a Folklore Commission.

I’m always bemused when the binder (for tying sheaves) is highlighted as a vintage agricultural machine. To me it’s a fairly new device. This is because I have tied corn after the scythe and gathered a field of potatoes dug with a spade. My uncle Pat mowed steep fields, banks with craigs and spinks and around the edges of perfectly flat fields to ‘open them out.’ He ‘opened them out’ to such an extent it would have been simply a waste of time to harness the horses and put them in the reaper – so he went on to mow the rest. He must have loved to mow, to tow two lifters after him on upland harvest days.

Going Forward Holding Back
Holding Back – David Sherry

For a couple of years before I graduated to tie sheaves after him I ‘held the rod.’ This skill is known in the wider Mournes as ‘holding back.’ Long before ‘Health and Safety’ became an issue I would hold a six foot sally rod against the stocks of corn (we always referred to oats as corn) leaning them back to facilitate each swipe of the scythe. The mower crouched and moving forward; the boy facing him, holding the rod, inclining the corn, moving back.

In time I went on to ‘lift corn’ to tie sheaves after the scythe. The lifter follows the mower collecting the cut stalks until he has enough for a small armful to be placed over the knee and tied with a band pulled from the top. Not too tightly and closer to the grain that to the butt. A good scouldin’ would befall the careless fellow caught bundling his sheaves too big or tied too tight.

Then there was stookin’. Principally in the heel of the evening; every four sheaves were stood up pyramid style. Imperative to have the knots on the inside of the construction – they would hold the rain if facing out. In time forty or so stooks would be built into a larger pyramid, a shig. A more permanent structure normally safe from the elements, until traced into the haggard for thrashing or to be stored in a stack. I pitched to the man building a stack. I picked the driest sheaves for the heart and placed the rest of them right to hand (butts out) as on his knees he went round the outside row after row until he turned the ring, and circle by circle worked the stack into a not too sharp point. A structure thatched and roped.

Going Forward Holding Back
Our neighbour’s ‘Big Blue Tractor,’ I’m standing on the second step. Original Ford Ferguson T20. It’s still in residence.

Then in the late 50s Uncle Pat bought a T20 Ford Ferguson tractor, Uncle Peter bought a record player and 78s by Elvis and Hank Williams. On top of that I bought a Little Richard record and John Fagan bought a baler. To go with his thrasher; and we thrashed and baled shigs direct – and that is why I never got to build a stack. But I did get to write a verse.

I’m going forward ‘holding back,’ in farming’s ancient almanac.
Uncle Pat he’s mowing corn. We haven’ changed since cuneiform.
The scythe has just replaced the hook. And we still work in sheaf and stook.
Uncle Pat he loves to mow. Stoic as Geronimo.
His principles are set in stone. That we should work with muscle, sinew, bone.
He senses it’s decreed by God. It falls to me to ‘hold the rod.’
That’s why I’m going forward ‘holdin’ back.’ I take the strain I lose the slack.
Going forward holdin’ back.

Along the river. North of The Wee Holms; on a spink above Puldavy, Uncle Pat he’s mowin; Johnny Green and Red Paddy there liftin’.

And that is where I am – Going forward. Holdin’ back.

Going Forward Holding Back