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Armagh Apple Blossom

The advent of the apple blossom in the month of May brings a stunning scene to County Armagh.

Apple Blossom
 
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Armagh Apple Blossom
(Article written May 2004)

Few scenes could be more beautiful than rural Armagh during the Apple Blossom season each May. ‘The Orchard County’ or ‘The Orchard of Ireland’, as it is known, comes alive with colour as the pink flowers of apple trees blanket much of the deep green landscape. Look more closely and you will find that the blossom ranges from a delicate shade of pink to vibrant fuchsia.

Listen - Armagh Tour Guide Barbara Ferguson describes the glorious sight of the apple blossom in full bloom.
Apple Blossom Barbara Ferguson

A Little Bit of History

The history books tell us that apples have been grown in Armagh for over 3000 years – St Patrick himself is said to have planted an apple tree at Ceangoba, an ancient settlement east of Armagh City. In the early records of the Culdee Monasteries in Armagh we find that at festival times the brothers were not allowed to increase their intake of bread at meal times, but they were allowed certain treats including the apple.

Another theory is that the Crab Apple came from Europe and Western Asia during the Roman period.

At the time of the Plantation of Ulster tenants were encouraged to plant orchards including apples, plum, cherry and pear trees, with an enclosed ditch and white thorn hedge.

The growing importance of apple trees is made clear in the Brehon Laws,

“The penalty for cutting down these is a fine of five cows, with lesser fines
for cutting down the limbs or branches.”
(The Apple in Ireland; It’s History and Varieties
Prof JGD Lamb)

Listen - Barbara ponders some of the theories on the arrival of the apple in Ireland.

It is also said that William of Orange quenched his thirst with the cider of the Orchard County, before his victory at the Battle of the Boyne. The King sent his cider maker, Paul le Harper, to Portadown with a handful of equipment to make sure his army wouldn't go without their favoured tipple.

The modern history of apple growing in Armagh can be traced back to the village of Southwell in Nottingham. In 1809 Mary Anne Brailsford planted a seed, which would become known as Bramley’s Seedling, in her garden. A number of years later Mary Anne’s property was bought by Matthew Bramley and although he played little part in the development of the tree, it bears his name.

Matthew Bramley
Matthew Bramley

In 1856 nurseryman Henry Merryweather recognised the commercial potential of the tree and it received a first class certificate from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1883. One year later Mr Nicholson of Crangill bought 60 Bramley seedlings from Henry and introduced them to Northern Ireland. By 1921 the Bramley had become the principal variety in Armagh.

The Bramley Orchards

Although the Bramley Orchards have declined in size since then, to around 1800 hectares, more inventive production methods mean the total yield remains similar at 40,000 tonnes.

Listen - Barbara talks about the hard work involved in maintaining trees.

Blossom

Listen - Barbara chats about the family business tradition with orchards and the industry today.




Around 90% of the crop is peeled and diced for the bakery trade and for the production of apple sauce. The remainder of fresh packed apples are sold to retailers or pressed for juice production for juice or cider.


Memories of the Orchards

The Orchards conjure up happy memories for many people from the area, including he sweet taste of the locally grown Kemp apple. The story goes that the Kemp was such a favourite that the Belfast market men would stand on ceremony waiting to take delivery of the fruit - it was a real bestseller in years gone by.

Listen - Barbara recalls some orchard raiding after school and talks about a few of the delicious apple recipes made by her mother, including Potato Apple Bread.

Apple Customs and Traditions

  • Drinking a toast to the apple trees was usually carried out under the best yielding tree.
  • St Brigid's Eve was the time to save apples for the last night of January when old fashioned griddle apple cake was made. In some places this was known as St Brigid's tea.
  • At Halloween apple dumplings were made by roasting apples, which were then sweetened with sugar, flavoured with nutmeg and washed down with a glass of whiskey. Apple peelings were thrown over the shoulder of a single person to discover the initials of the person they would marry.
  • Superstition says that if you pull apples from a tree bearing blossom and fruit together, there will be a death in the family.
  • A wet St Swithin's Day is said to indicate a bumper crop of unusually large apples.
  • Apples were once used to treat ulcerated wounds. Sorrel was gathered, crushed, then mixed with apple juice and placed on the wound. Crab apples poultices were also used for injuries.

Armagh Orchard Trust

The Orchard Trust was set up in 1995 to establish an orchard to preserve the apple varieties which have been associated with fruit growing in Ireland. The Trust also has plans to set up a museum dedicated to the preservation of the apple production culture of Armagh.

The introduction of the Bramley Apple around 200 years ago led to the decline of many heritage varieties. Work is now underway with the Heritage Orchard, located in the historic walled garden of Drumilly Estate in Loughgall, where planting started 2 years ago. Around 100 old varieties are being researched including the Bloody Butcher, Vicar of Brighton, Milltown Cooker and Keegan's Crab. Even the wrought iron gate of the walled garden is decorated with the shape of an apple!

Armagh Orchard Trust is keen to find more varieties, so if you have an old apple tree in your garden, you never know, it could be one which is missing from the Heritage Orchard. All you need do is contact the Orchard Trust and bring in the fruit from your tree at harvest time. Get in contact at 028 38 892312/892344

As well as being of historical interest these old varieties are being protected with a view to discovering more about the apple trees which flourished before the wide spread use of chemicals on pests and diseases, and had a natural resistance to diseases such as scab.

They also had over extended flowering periods, flowering characteristics to avoid late frosts, high quality fruit and longer harvesting periods. With this is mind, it's hoped that these elements will be transferred through breeding to modern varieties.

Gates at Walled Garden Heritage Orchard April Queen
The entrance gates to the Heritage Orchard are styled in the shape of an apple. Around 100 varieties are being grown in the heritage orchard. The Ross Nonpareil is just one of the varieties which appears to be flourishing.


Listen - Frances Ward works for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Let her take you round the Heritage Orchard and explain their work.

Peadar MacNeice was a founder member of Armagh Orchard Trust, a man who was passionate about the preservation of native apples. Although Peadar died in 2002, his work is carried on by his fellow apple hunters and colleagues at the Orchard Trust. Peadar was also a poet and shared his love of orchards in this work.


THE FUTURE

The verdant growth on the apple trees
Bearing their fruit in a July Breeze,
With grace and strength
They stand alone,
Each one an identity,
Not a clone.

Listen and you'll hear them,
Almost say
We await through time,
For the human day,
When the fruit we bear
Will be given with tear,
And once more we stand
For another year

Here, we'd rather be
And stay,
With the hares below us
Intent on play,
And the bee, from each foxglove
Onward goes,
To honeysuckle, hawthorn
And hedgerose.

Do you have memories of years gone by in the 'Orchard County'? Does the sight of the apple blossom lift your spirits? Maybe you have a recipe for Potato Apple Bread? Share your stories and comments here at Your Place & Mine by filling in the form at the bottom of the page.



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