Flax


For hundreds of years flax was one of the main crops grown across much of Ulster and provided the basic ingredient of the province’s linen industry. This continued to be the case up until the 1950s, having been given a boost during wartime. However, by the end of the 1950s the quantity of flax grown in Northern Ireland was negligible.

The flax harvest, which took place at the end of the hay season, was one of the high points of the summer and was one of the main occasions in the farming year in which outside help was brought in. Roisin McLernon remembers that 20 or more men could be on their farm to help with harvest. ‘It was always a great day for us’, she recalls, with much excitement generated by the arrival or so many people, all of whom received an ample tea.

Flax – or lint as it was frequently referred to – was pulled, not cut, and this was a laborious job. There was ‘mair work with it than enough’ remembers Mary Moore, while Frankie Dale called it ‘backbreaking’. Although neighbours frequently provided the labour, professional flax pullers could also be employed. Edmund O’Donnell recalls a firm of lint pullers in Ballymena who were paid so much an acre. He remembers that pulling lint was ‘a very rushed job’. When he was a schoolboy, Graham Andrew recalls, he and his brother were asked to pull a field of flax. They were paid a penny per ‘beet’ – 12 beets made a stook. The pulled flax then had to be tied up into sheaves. Bessie Quinn recalls that while she did not pull the flax, she did help with the harvest by going round the fields with the bands for tying up the sheaves.



The flax was then put into a dam; most farmers had their own dam. The water supply to dam had to be cut off and then the sheaves of flax were placed in the dam and covered with stones to weigh them down. The dam was then flooded with water to cover the flax. This process was known as retting and what everyone who experienced it remembered was the pungent smell of the retted flax. While in the dam the flax was tramped, a task Bessie Quinn and Frankie Dale remember doing. The flax remained in the dam for a week to 10 days, or perhaps a fortnight. Then it had to be thrown out; this was ‘a stinking enough job’, remembers Graham Andrew. The retted flax was then carted to a field and spread out to dry. Afterwards it was lifted and taken to a scutch mill where the fibre was separated from the woody stems.

In the early to mid twentieth century there were still significant numbers of scutch mills in the County Antrim countryside. John Cushinan remembers three scutch mills within a short distance of his home in Derryhollagh. There were also several scutch mills in the vicinity of Doagh and Cogry. Robert McConnell vividly remembered the scutch mill at Fourmileburn and the men who worked in it. He pointed out that scutching was a dangerous job and that the scutchers’ hands could easily be hurt.

Robert McConnell recalled the scutch mill at Fourmileburn:

If you looked into a scutch mill, in through the door, there were two of them in there – yin of them roughing and the other finishing the flax. You couldnae have seen them. You talk about health and safety. You couldnae have seen them for stour! Nae masks or nothing. Whenever they came oot that was all clinging on to their beards, their clothes, their eyelashes and everything.

One of the scutchers at Fourmileburn was a one-eyed man who was known as ‘Slasher’. During a fight part of his nose had been bitten off – he had bitten off part of his opponent’s ear. Robert recalls that he had a loud voice – ‘you’d have heard him at Doagh’. The Magiltons also worked in the scutch mill. Robert recalled the Magiltons burning the ‘shows’ (the waste from the scutching process) in their home fire which left a strong smell. Robert’s mother always knew where he had been if he had called with the Magiltons and there was a fire burning at the time.

Leslie Bell’s father grew flax, though this was not for the linen industry, but rather for thatching the house they owned at Gloverstown which was dismantled and reassembled at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. The house had been an inn at the side of what was then the main road from Belfast to Derry. Later it was used a court house with a ‘whipping post’ for punishment. After that it became the Church of Ireland rectory for Duneane parish. The flax grown by the Bells was dry-retted, not dam-retted. Leslie’s father supplied other thatched houses with flax for thatching. In fact, one of the first places that Leslie delivered thatching flax to, when he was 17-18, was the Mellon homestead near Omagh in what is now the Ulster-American Folk Park.

 
South Antrim Living Memories Project wishes to acknowledge the assistance of: