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16 October 2014
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Fermanagh Flax Hole

I've also been talking to John Pattison about the painting. John is intrigued by the subject because, as a teenager during the 1939/45 war

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Fermanagh Flax Hole

I've also been talking to John Pattison about the painting. John is intrigued by the subject because, as a teenager during the 1939/45 war he helped his father, James, on their farm in Cornakill, Knockarevan, near Derrylin, County Fermanagh. John's father grew flax, so he well remembers working at the Flax Hole.


Usually they didn't grow flax in that area of the country because the soil wasn't suitable but during the war the Government encouraged the growth of the crop by paying farmers a subsidy. The reason there was such a demand for linen was because it was used as an outer skin for some aircraft. - I wonder what aircraft we are talking about here? Hurricanes perhaps? Maybe someone could tell me.

A corn fiddle
Corn Fiddle demonstrated by
Francis McLean, Bushmills

The Corn Fiddle

John recalled sowing the flax and how they had to alter the setting on the corn fiddle to allow for the seed, which was smaller than corn. Then once grown - the sight of a field of the blue flowers has been likened to looking across a lake - he and his father and neighbours would "pull" the crop. It was pulled out of the ground, not cut. Flax has a shallow root so although pulling was a backbreaking job your hands were rarely damaged or cut. A big man with large hands reckoned five handfuls would make a bundle or beet. These bundles were then held together with straps made from twisted rushes.


The Flax Hole

The water in the flax hole had to be still, so a stream was no good. John's father made theirs by digging a trench beside the Lough, letting the water in, then damming it up again.

The bundles of flax stayed under the water for nine days. No more, no less. Other farmers in the area used to test the quality of the flax to decide when it was ready for removing, but John's father always stuck to his nine days rule. The bundles were held under the water with large sods of earth. This is unlike the North Antrim scene in my painting where boulders were used for the job. Boulders were not so plentiful in John's part of Fermanagh.

After nine days, these bundles were removed by laying a ladder or plank across the hole and the flax removed using rakes. Of course the inevitable happened and workers would often fall into this stinking quagmire. And stink it did - practically every farm had its own flax hole and the smell of rotting flax permeated the air during the season.

John Pattison
John Pattison

Drying

The soggy bundles were undone and the plants strewn in long thin lines across the field to dry. They were then taken about nine miles to the nearest scutching mill at Lisnaskea to begin the long process of being made into fine linen and, in this case, no doubt to find its way high over the battlefields of France. When the war ended so did the growing of flax in the Derrylin area, leaving John Pattison with his memories of historic times in Cornakill.


UPDATE. Since writing this article John's grandchildren have grown some flax.

FOOTNOTE.

When I was talking to Francis McLean, the Bushmills farmer who lent me his corn fiddle for the photograph, he told me of a trip he made to Belgium several years ago where he saw flax being "dew retted". Once pulled, the flax was not put into dams, as in Ulster, but laid in fields to be rotted by the dew and rain.

Next stop Langford Lodge

So where next? I have been invited to the Ulster Aviation Heritage Centre to see the type of aircraft that used Irish Linen during the war. Care to join me? Then Click here and off we go

Return to first page of Flax Dam Painting

Your Responses

William Mc Cormick - Apr '07
I was very interested in reading your article about growing and scutching flax. This brought back memories when I was a child living on the farm at Castlefin, County Donegal in the early fifties. My dad had a large farm with a water powered scutch mill. We grew approx 10 acres of flax each year and also scutched the flax for the local farmers. You did a good job in describing the process from growing, pulling it by hand to putting it in the water dams to forment (rot). After drying it in the fields it was gathered with hand hooks and hauled to the mill for scutching. At this point I wll try to describe what transpired in the mill. We had large roller like gears that meshed together, the flax was fed through these gears to break the fibre so it would scutch easier. From here it was given to the scutchers who would grab a handful of flax and hold it against a steel plate as large wooden blades (like airplane propellors) spun past and beat the fibre off. This was a skilled!
job as it was very dangerous and you could lose a hand. After the fibre (shews) came off, each handful was given a few twists and was laid in a neat pile to keep it from getting tangled up. ( if it was tangled up the Flax Board would reduce the price) From here it would be shipped to an auction site and was sold. As you said it went to the mills to be woven into canvas for airplanes and other household products. . I now want to mention the hazards with all this flax process. (1) The water in the dams were extremly posionous after the flax was taken out so the water had to be flushed over the fields and not let into the rivers as it would kill all the fish. (2) There was so much dust generated in the scutching that there was a fire and explosion hazard plus the scutcher men were choking and spitting up gobs of dust. (no dust masks in those days). The fibre (shews) were hauled off by the locals to burn in their open fireplaces or used as bedding for animals. I might mentio!
n this mill was driven with a large water wheel and really cos!
t nothin
g to operate. Fire Insurance was near impossible to obtain due to the fire and explosion hazard so we had to take our chances. I hope this helped in more understanding of the growing of flax and the finished product.
Yours sincerely. William Mc Cormick, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.


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