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James Rea written account – life in the home

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In this week’s blog, James Rea gives us an insight into what life was like in the home.

“I can remember my aunt and uncle weaving linen on hand looms in their home. They would purchase the chains of yarn as they called it and carry it home approximately three miles. That material was set up adjacent to the loom, where it passed over it passed over a wooden roller and was threaded through a set of gears, which consisted of strong twine. The operator sat on a stool or bench behind the looms. Foot pedals operated the so called gears up and down, which also drew the yarn over the rollers. The operator also operated the shuttle by hand at the same time, which travelled fast and sent the linen threads back and forth cross wise to make the finished product. Many things I have forgotten about the operation of the old wooden looms. One thing I do remember about the shuttle is that when they jumped the track, they sure travelled. They were about one foot long and pointed at both ends with brass tips and a space in the centre to hold the bobbin or spool of linen thread.”

Image: The shuttle of the loom that can be seen in operation in Ballydugan Weaver’s House at the Ulster Folk Museum. Photo courtesy of Roisin Aiston.
The shuttle of the loom that can be seen in operation in Ballydugan Weaver’s House at the Ulster Folk Museum. Photo courtesy of Roisin Aiston.

“Turf was the main source of fuel. It was interesting to see the different types taken from the ground and processed. The ground that produced it was mostly flat and covered with heather. There were not many such areas in that particular part of the country. The closest one was about five miles from our home. It was close to Lough Neagh. Landowners similar to farming areas inhabited it, but their only livelihood was cutting and selling turf. The top layer of turf was actually peat moss. This was fast burning. The next layer was somewhat heavier. We called this spade turf. Deeper down was the mud turf. It was shovelled out and spread on the ground to a depth of four inches to partially dry. After it had dried here it was chopped up and stacked, where it would finish drying. Heat wise, it was almost equal to coal. The landowners with a donkey and cart did turf delivery. After supper, when the chores were done, we would sit around the turf fire on an open hearth and listen to stories being told.”

Image: A turf seller, County Donegal (HOYFM.WAG.1998).
A turf seller, County Donegal (HOYFM.WAG.1998).

“Cooking was usually done in cast iron pots. These pots had handles designed to allow them to be hung over the fire. An iron post was installed to one side of the fireplace under the chimney opening. This post rested on a piece of recessed metal built into the floor, which was usually glazed tile or earthen. A flat metal arm extended from that post directly over the fire. This arm was about three feet long and had several holes bored in it so that more than one pot could be used at the same time. The pots were hung in the holes with steel hooks. The pot could be raised or lowered by another flat steel bar that extended down about two feet. This was called the crook stick. A small hooked rod was used to draw and swing the assembly off the fire. Pots could be filled or emptied without standing too close to the fire. The three main gadgets around the fireplace were a poker, set of tongs, and set of hand bellows…Those that did not have bellows to blow air on the turf fire used other methods. The woman of the home would sit on a low stool and fan the fire with her apron. This was accomplished by holding the two bottom corners of the apron, which was very long, and using an up and down motion to fan the fire. Others would use a piece of cardboard as a fan.”

Image: Cooking over an open hearth at the Ulster Folk Museum.
Cooking over an open hearth at the Ulster Folk Museum.

“Paraffin oil was used for the lamps to light the homes. We always had a supply of wax candles in stock and also a stock of matches. Some rooms were lit with candles and when we ran out of paraffin oil it was candles. We would carry them from one part of the home to another to find our way. Some people had candlestick holders, which resembled a fruit dish or small plate with a small metal socket in the centre to hold the candle and a finger clip on the edge or the holder to carry it by. If there was no candleholder available, we used another method that worked very well. The location that the light most needed was selected, and then the candle was lit and tilted sideways to spill a few drops of hot wax. The candle then was stood up in the wax. This served as a very good holder for the candle. It was messy but easy to clean up.”

“There was no hydro, no telephone, no radio or television. There were no washrooms, toilets or sinks. Bathing or washing was done in a galvanized washtub. The water was heated over the turf fire. When it was necessary to go to the toilet there was a pot or chamber that was kept under the bed. When it was convenient it was disposed of in the trash pile, where all the ashes and refuge from around the house were also piled.”

“Not too many homes in the rural area had wells, except farms. Community wells were available. Some had hand pumps, while others were open holes eight to ten feet in diameter. One particular well was almost a half-mile from our home, and we went down two stone steps to fill the pails. Wooden barrels were placed at down pipes from the roof to catch rainwater.”

Image: Jean Bell’s well, Bellaghy (HOYFM.WAG.1845).
Jean Bell’s well, Bellaghy (HOYFM.WAG.1845).

“In those days pollution was an unknown word. I remember working on a farm where the horse barn was at the rear of the dining room and the cow barn was in line with the front of the house. Both were attached to the house and built with the same material. It gave the impression of a well-maintained L shaped house with a uniform thatched roof throughout. They had a dug well about ten feet from the cow barn, and twenty feet from the horse barn. The manure pile was at the rear of the house.”

Next week will be the last blog post in the series. In it, James recounts his memories of leaving for Canada.