Exhibition Details

Working the Land

The land was once the main source of livelihood for most of the rural population. Work on the land was unremitting and often done by hand with a small number of implements. It gradually became easier with the introduction of machinery.

Potatoes were the main vegetable grown. In small farms they were often grown in ridges, a type of raised bed. These were made with spades, of which there were many local types. Apart from potatoes the other main vegetables grown were cabbage, onions and carrots.

Early in the summer, turf was cut to provide fuel. Transporting turf away from the soft bog, meant that certain types of transport survived late in parts of Ireland – the donkey with panniers in the west and the wheeless slide car in parts of the east.

The most common cereals were wheat and oats. Ploughs did not come into common use until the early 19th Century. After ploughing, a harrow and then a roller broke the soil further and made it ready for seed.

A scythe was used to cut the crop before the advent of mowing machines. Scythes were used to cut hay too, which was the largest crop of all and used for animal feed. Scythes did not come into common use in Ireland until the early 19th Century. Sickles or billhooks were used before the heavy scythe was introduced, and continued to be preferred by some, particularly women. 

Flails were used to beat the grains of cereal free from the husks. Winnowing was the process by which the chaff was removed, leaving just the grain. A winnowing tray -- a bodhrán -- was employed. Later on, threshing machines would thresh and winnow the grain, while combine harvesters would mow it as well.

Most Irish farm families owned a few domestic animals. Cows, pigs, sheep and fowl provided valuable food and sheep provided wool in addition. Horses were essential for heavy farm work such as ploughing, and could pull a heavily loaded cart long distances. The donkey was the poorer man’s horse and was more common in the west of Ireland.   

Sea Fishing

The Irish fishing industry in the past was very undeveloped. Much fishing was done from small boats. The tarred and canvas currachs, which originated from hide boats, were a distinctive feature of parts of the west coast of Ireland. In recent times they are increasingly made from fibreglass. Most small-scale sea fishing took place in the summer when the fish were more plentiful and the weather was less dangerous for small boats.

Fishing was done by line as well as with a net. In deep water, fishermen would use a spillet line: a weighted line with many hooks. The fishermen would set the line and leave it overnight strung across the sea bottom. 

Fishermen often made their lines themselves, twisting pieces of thread into longer lengths using a line twister. Hand lines were also used to catch mackerel, pollack and bass from a boat or even from a cliff.

Drift nets were used to net salmon and left out overnight. Another netting technique for herring and mackerel was seine netting, where two boats formed a purse of the net around the fish. A technique called draft netting was used in estuaries, the net played out from the shore by a boat.

Fishermen used pots to trap lobster and crab, usually for commercial sale, much as they do today. In the past, pots were made from willow rods or even heather. 

Some shellfish could be collected from a boat using a rake or dredge, while others were gathered by hand or prised off rocks. 

Freshwater Fishing

Freshwater fishing was generally a supplementary activity. Some of the most prized rivers were in private ownership, which led to poaching. 

Some ancient techniques such as spearing survived. Spears of differing types were used to catch eel and salmon. Eel fishing was generally legal but spearing salmon was illegal and often took place at night using a light.

Traps made of wicker or netting were set in rivers to catch fish. Snares and large hooks called stroke-hauls were also used to catch salmon or trout.

On certain rivers net and rod fishing for salmon took place under licence. However, poachers used illegal nets which might be set in weirs or pulled through the water. A leather coracle, called a currach locally, was used to set salmon nets on the River Boyne into the 1940s. On the flood-lands of the River Suck, a raft of bulrushes was used for fishing and fowling – a unique craft in northern Europe in modern times. 

In this Exhibition
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