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16 October 2014
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Fermanagh Flax Hole

I've also been talking to John Pattison about my flax dam painting.

Article by Brian Willis.

ML 1030

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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


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.


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

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