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16 October 2014
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Flax: a crop for 2004

The blue of the flax flower has disappeared from the Northern Ireland countryside, but Tullylagan Vintage Owners Assoc is growing flax near Cookstown.

Fred Faulkner (right) explains the workings of a  fiddle  to John Gregg

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In 1952 about 18,000 acres of flax were grown in Northern Ireland, but today in 2004 there is virtually no flax grown. In a small corner of Tyrone however, not far from Cookstown, the blue flower of the flax plant will be seen this summer thanks to Tullylagan Vintage Owners Association. YPAM reporter John Gregg was there on a sunny April evening when Fred Faulkner sowed about a third of an acre with the crop.

Tullylagan Vintage Owners Association have 14 acres at Berkeley's Farm, in the townland of Gallanagh (meaning white marsh) just off the Cookstown/Dungannon road, which Lafarge Blue Circle Cement Ireland Ltd allow them to rent for a minimal sum. Here the association keeps the traditional methods of farming alive.

Gunthers chain
Gunters chain
When John arrived Fred Faulkner (Chairman of the Association) was handling a heavy looking chain. This chain was apparently the original method used to measure land. A 'Gunters chain' is 22 yards long (the length of a cricket pitch), with brass swivel handles at each end and is divided up into 4 perches or sections (each 5.5 yards in length) which are separated by little brass tags. Fred and another member, Robert Stewart, stretched the chain out across a grassy field. They then moved along, with the chain between them, dividing the field up into triangles (you only need to do this if the field is not square), using the chain to work out the measurements. As Fred talked about multiplying this and the square root of that, John wished he could remember more of his maths from school!!
The silky feel of flax seed
Flax seed
Flax seed is brown in colour, very fine and has a lovely silky feel to it. As he ran it through his fingers, Fred thought it felt like soft soap - not surprising really as the seed is made up of 40% oil. One Tullylagan vintage member remembered his father saying that if a horse was in poor condition, after a month feeding it on flax seed its coat would have a good shine.

Fred explained to John that the plan was to sow about a third of an acre and that around half a bushel of seed should be required.

Fred Faulkner operating a fiddle
Fred Faulkner operating a fiddle
A seed fiddle is the traditional piece of equipment that was used for sowing. There is a bow at the front which you move back and forth to rotate a dispenser which throws out the seed. A bag on top holds the seed and you can alter the calibration on the side to control how much you want to spread across the ground. Before starting, Fred marked the edge of the field to ensure that he would walk up and down the field in a straight line when sowing the seed. Then the still spring air hummed to the rattle of the fiddle as Fred slid its bow back and forth spraying seed in an arc in front of him as he paced it out over the upturned earth.

If the weather is kind, the Association aim to harvest the resulting flax crop in the autumn. Your Place & Mine will be there to record it being gathered in. Let's hope the Association's first attempt at growing flax is a great success.

A fiddle
Click on picture to
watch flax sowing
The online team donned their wellington boots, video camera in hand, to record this planting of flax in the old fashioned way.

Watch the result by clicking here.

Related web links

View a painting of a flax dam by Brian Willis and read about the research he carried out beforehand.

Listen to a radio programme from the BBC archives featuring farmers in the Eglinton area talking about growing flax.

John Pattison recalls growing flax in Co Fermanagh during World War II - find out more

John Pattison's grandchildren had a go at growing flax themselves and they decided to visit the Linen Museum in Lisburn as well.

Brian Willis visited the Aviation Heritage Centre at Langford Lodge to see how Irish Linen was used on wartime aircraft.

Read about the history of Herdmans mill, which has been involved in the spinning of flax since the middle of 19th century.

Read Isa Lilley's memories of her mother working in the weaving factory in Larne.

Find out more about the lifestyle and working conditions of linen mill workers in Ulster.

Helen Mark visited Wellbrook Beetling Mill near Cookstown for BBC Radio 4's Open Country and was taken through the many stages of the linen making process - eavesdrop on her visit.

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