Do you remember “The Harvest Army” which was raised in September 1946 to save crops flattened by weeks of torrential rain and wind. The then Minister for Agriculture, Dr. James Ryan, called on every able-bodied adult to lend a hand to save the oats, wheat and barley which it was feared would be lost because machinery could not be used in the waterlogged fields. Almost 250,000 men and women volunteered for the harvest work, with women making up about half of that number.
Here in Athy volunteers were marshalled by the local Gardai, while Brother Nelson, Superior of the local Christian Brothers, allowed the senior pupils to lend a hand in the national effort to save the harvest. For many of the young pupils it was their second time to be called upon in this way. During the war years the Christian Brothers in Athy had to cut turf in the bog at Killart and sow wheat in the field behind their Monastery to overcome war induced shortages. The entire community assisted by a number of pupils were involved in cutting, footing, heaping and clamping turf on the bog during the spring and summer months. A contemporary account of the saving and reaping of the winter wheat amply demonstrates the many kindness’s extended at that time to the Christian Brothers by the local people. All the machinery, horses and man power required for the task was made freely available to the Christian Brothers. It was only in the saving of the wheat that the expertise of Brother Zachary O’Regan in his skillful use of a scythe was called upon. The rest of the community and their helpers were involved in binding the sheaves and stooking the corn. The corn was taken to the local premises of Minch Nortons for threshing and drying and in time the grain was sent to Ballitore Mills for grinding before it was returned to the Christian Brothers Monastery to be stored ready for use.
Harvesting techniques have changed over the centuries. Flax, which at the start of the 19th century was widely grown in Ireland was almost always harvested by hand. Hay was cut using hand held scythes, while most grain crops were reaped using sickles or reaping hooks. Horse drawn mowing machines first exhibited in Dublin about five years after the ending of the Great Famine soon thereafter came into general use, particularly in the eastern counties of Ireland. The change over to horsedrawn powered machines caused a considerable fall in agricultural employment which up to then was the mainstay of many town based families especially during the summer months. The fall in agricultural employment continued over the years and accelerated with the introduction of reaper binder machines and later still combine harvesters.
Women in employment were traditionally to be found in agriculture or in domestic service. Indeed in 1926, up to 60% of all women working outside the home were so employed. The five weeks spent in saving the harvest of 1946 was the last time women were to work in any large numbers in agriculture. In the 1940’s there was little or no alternative work for women outside the home. Factories in Athy such as the I.V.I. Foundry and the Asbestos Cement Factory provided jobs for men only, while female employment was to be had in Bachelor’s Pea Factory in Rathstewart. The tradition of female labour was also carried on in the fruit farms operated throughout the country by Lambe Brothers. They had three farms in Co. Dublin and two in South Kildare, located at Fontstown and Barley Hill, Moone. The Kildare farms had been purchased during the latter part of World War II. The Fontstown Farm had 156 acres, with 30 to 40 acres of fruit while the Barley Hill farm extended over about 500 acres of which 75 acres were in fruit. Most of the fruit grown was soft fruit comprising mostly of strawberries, gooseberries and blackcurrants.
Harvesting of the fruit commenced in June each year and continued unabated until September during which time up to 1,000 females and young persons were employed. The fruit pickers were drawn from the surrounding areas as far away as Carlow and Newbridge but with Athy as the focal point. Family members were transported early each morning to the picking fields of Barley Hill or Fontstown. The fruit workers were generally female, mothers and daughters with some young boys, as the work tended not to be favoured by men or young male adults.
Gooseberries were the first fruit picked and buckets were used to hold the glossy green fruit as it was stripped from the bushes. When the time came to pick the raspberries punnets were used of which there were 12 to a tray. Everyone was paid on a piece rate basis and the quicker you filled your tray or punnet the more money you earned. Teams of fruit pickers spent their time stooped between the ripening fruit from early morning until evening time.
Gooseberry picking was guaranteed to give even the most experienced fruit worker thorn pitted hands. You were warned not to eat the fruit, but to young fruit pickers the first day in the fruit field was an opportunity to assuage a hunger for fresh fruit. The first mornings work always meant a slower rate of fruit picking. Once the hunger for fruit had been satisfied the work rate increased and the almost mechanical movement of hand to fruit to bucket or punnet continued without pause or hesitation throughout the day. Times were hard but the fruit harvest at Lambe Brothers brought its own financial harvest to the families who flocked each year to Barley Hill and Fontstown.
I am interested in interviewing anyone who worked on the fruit farms in the 1940’s or 1950’s or as a member of the harvest team of 1946 as part of an ongoing study of female employment in South Kildare. If you would be willing to share your experiences of those days with me I would be delighted to hear from you.
In the meantime I must mention the Water Festival which will take place in Athy from the 16th to 18th May. It will open with a funfair in the back Square and the Waterways Association will be encouraging its boating members to come to Athy for the weekend. It promises to be a great occasion and one which everyone in the town should support.
One other matter which I have mentioned in the past and which I must come back to again is the 1798 Memorial commissioned by Athy Town Council to commemorate the bicentenary of the Rebellion. Is there any possibility that the local Council will ensure that the Memorial is put in place before the bicentenary of Emmet’s Rebellion comes around on 23rd July? Robert Emmet is perhaps one of the most romantic heroes of Irish history and the involvement of Nicholas Gray of Rockfield House, Athy in the planning of Emmet’s rebellion makes the bicentenary celebration of particular relevance to us. More about that again, but in the meantime could I appeal to the Town Council to have the 1798 Memorial in place before 23rd July.