Thursday, February 21, 2002

Yates Family and Tobacco Growing in South Kildare

It started with a photograph from the 1940’s which showed a number of farm workers harvesting tobacco leaves on a South Kildare farm. What an unusual sight you might think and certainly one not normally to be seen outside those countries where warm climates afford the ideal growing conditions for growing tobacco plants. But this was during the hard economic days of the Second World War when Ireland’s merchant navy was beset by belligerent U-boats and dangerous cross Atlantic trips were justifiable only when the cargo was life giving food products. Tobacco, that noxious weed so beloved of film stars and star gazers alike, in those distant days, was a luxury item which found little space in the holds of ships which then crossed and re-crossed the war torn seas and oceans of the world. It was the resulting shortage of tobacco leaves which saw a number of enterprising farmers in South Kildare undertake the growing of a crop which was previously foreign to our soil.

But let me return to the reason why the photo was shown to me in the first place. I was intrigued by the story of a young Church of Ireland family who left Ballincarrig, Co. Offaly at the start of the 1900’s and came to these parts of County Kildare to take over three separate farms. The young men and their sisters all bore the name Yates and to Grangemellon House arrived Jonathan Yates and his sisters Phoebe and Sarah. The last named was the only member of the triumvirate to marry when in 1915 she wed Jack McCullagh of Sawyerswood, both of whom later emigrated to Canada. Her brother Jonathan, a single man had died two years previously and he was buried in Kilberry where his sister Phoebe was to join him in January 1924. When the Yates’ came to Grangemellon, their brother Tom took up the tenancy of a farm at Lipstown, Narraghmore and it was from there that Tom Yates came to Grangemellon following the death of his brother Jonathan in 1913. The photograph mentioned at the start of this article captured a scene on Tom Yates farm in Grangemellon approximately 30 years later.

Another brother, William Yates came from County Offaly as the tenant of a farm at Ballycullane and it was he who patented in 1908, the Yates hay lifter, a model of which is to be seen in the local Heritage Centre in the Town Hall. William married a Miss Jackson and later moved to Leinster Lodge which he sold on retiring in the late 1930’s. Two other male members of the County Offaly Yates family were James, a civil servant who moved to Belfast and Henry a Minister in the Church of Ireland who later became Archdeacon of Killaloe.

Why was it that three branches of the Yates family set up homes in South Kildare at the turn of the last Century? Was it an extension of the policy first put in place by the Duke of Leinster in the 1850’s to strengthen the established Church in South Kildare by giving farm tenancies to members of that Church or was it merely a co-incidence that most of the best farmlands in South Kildare passed from one Church of Ireland tenant to another? The question raises issues which could form the basis of an interesting study of the relationship between land succession and religious adherences in South Kildare during the later half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century. Howsoever the various Yates family members from County Offaly came to live in close proximity to each other in South Kildare, the unfolding history of their lives saw Ballycullane passing out of their hands when William Yates left for Leinster Lodge. The Lipstown Narraghmore lands initially farmed by Tom Yates subsequently passed to his eldest son Garret. He it was who eventually sold on those lands to Willie Fennin leaving the Grangemellon holdings as the only farmland still in the ownership of the Yates family. It was Tommy Yates Junior who took over Grangemellon from his father in 1961. He was the youngest member of the five children of Tom Yates and Annette Hewitt of County Longford who married in 1926. Of Tom’s three sisters, Freda is a retired School Teacher, Sheila is married to Billy Shaw of Carlow while Joan who married Dan Connolly of Ballyfoyle has passed away.

The farm at Grangemellon has an imposing residence. Grangemellon House was built probably in the middle of the 18th Century. The farm land was a mixed farm of about 200 acres with cattle, sheep and tillage requiring a workforce of five or six men in the 1930’s and a complement of six horses. Tobacco growing in the early 1940’s was perhaps one on the more unusual farming activities of the time. Tom Yates Senior propagated tobacco plants in glass protected hot beds of which he had about twenty during those years. The plants grown from seed were bedded in clay enriched with horse manure and when strong enough, the plants were sold on to neighbouring farmers. As well as propagating tobacco plants, the Yates farm was also involved in growing and harvesting tobacco leaves. The young plants were transplanted to drills of about 36 inches wide and during the growing season they were treated in much the same way as tomato plants. When the tobacco plants reached maturity, their leaves were harvested and drawn into the tobacco house. In the photograph accompanying this article, the leaves are shown hanging from the frame of a horse drawn dray. When the frames were full, the dray was returned to the tobacco house where the frames and the hanging leaves were lifted off and left to hang in a wood lined drying room. Coal braziers were lit to dry the leaves and when that primary drying process was finished, the leaves were sold onto Greene’s of Kilkea Lodge where they underwent further drying. It was there that the Excise men graded the tobacco leaves for the purpose of quantifying the duty payable. The finished plant was then sold onto the factories to provide the raw material for the Irish Tobacco Industry.

Tom Yates Junior who married Shirley Armstrong from Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim some years after she came to work in Shaw’s of Athy is with his son Bruce, the present occupiers of Grangemellon Farm. Tom has seen many changes in his time and recalls the farming emergency of 1947 when the weather caused a national crisis and threatened that years harvest. The mixed farming of earlier years has given way to agricultural specialization while the combustion engine signaled the death knell of both the farm labourer and the farm horse alike. Times have changed but the unfolding story of life on an Irish farm is a never ending one where memories of tobacco growing days in the 1940’s provide a unique insight into the ingenuity and foresight of the men who worked the soil.

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