This article first appeared in 1978, in Volume 6 of The Glynns. It is reproduced here with additional photographs. Further commentary is provided by Pat McCambridge (Cushendall) in an interview he gave to the Glens of Antrim Historical Society as part of the recent Oral History Project. (The interview in full is transcribed and stored on our Projects pages).
The Linen industry has been the backbone of Ulster’s economy since the seventeenth century. In the early days of the industry, landowners rented out the land in plots (about 5 or 6 acres) to small farmers who grew potatoes and flax, and kept a few animals. The flax was spun and woven into linen cloth in the homes of the people, and this combination of farming and weaving supported a dense population.
Putting flax to ret in the dam. Retting is the process of separating the flax fibres from the rest of the stalk; the first step is to rot away the inner stalk from the outer fibres which remain intact. Image courtesy of National Museums Northern Ireland. Ref: BELUM.Y13303. Collection Ulster Museum.
Cloney Farm, Knocknacarry, County Antrim, c1914. Lint (flax) would be soaked in water, in a man-made dam in order for the fibres to be separate from the straw stalk for spinning into flax thread. Image courtesy of National Museums Northern Ireland. Ref: HOYFM.WAG.1062. Collection Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.
The ‘brown linen’ was sold in the markets at Belfast, Lisburn Hillsborough, etc. and was bleached in the bleach-works which grew up in Belfast, Lisburn and the neighbouring towns. The power for the mills came from the streams which flowed from the Antrim Plateau. The farmer-weavers produced unbleached linen, and the finished product from the mills was exported through Belfast.
Scutch mill at Lubitavish, County Antrim. Scutching is the process of dressing flax in preparation for spinning, such as removing straw and woody stem from flax fibres. Image courtesy of National Museums Northern Ireland.
The introduction of spinning mills for both cotton and linen in the nineteenth century brought about a radical change in the linen industry. Now the spinning was done in the big factories which grew up in or near Belfast, and flax spinning soon declined as a home industry. Later, weaving factories were established and the rural weavers began to drift towards the city.
Ewart’s Linen Factory, Belfast, 1897 – Photo by National Library of Ireland
The disappearance of the farmer-weavers brought about a general increase in farm size and a change in farming patterns, but farmers continued to grow large quantities of flax to supply the ever growing demand of the spinning mills. However, by the end of the Second World War, flax growing had ceased as it was now possible to import flax more cheaply than to grow it in Ulster.
Like every other branch of rural life, flax growing had its own customs. One of these was the holding of a lint-pulling dance. On smaller farms the day-to-day work was done by the farmer and his family with a day’s labour lent now and again to another farmer. However, when it came to lint-pulling, many hands were required. Sometimes there would be a ‘meithal’ a voluntary gathering of neighbours doing the work in one day for each of their number in turn. More likely a group of casual labourers (men and women) known as a ‘boon’ would be employed.
Flax Harvest 1957. Picture courtesy: Belfast Telegraph.
The flax was harvested by hand. This was an absolute necessity, as the plant had to be pulled out of the ground roots and all, so that the greatest possible length of fibre could be obtained. Since the lint-pullers were paid at a certain rate per stock, they had to work almost non-stop in order to make a decent day’s wages. The continuous stooping made it back-breaking work and the tough fibrous stalks cut deeper and deeper into the workers’ hands as the day wore on. All in all it was hard work.
Photograph Courtesy: Malachy McSparran
It is highly likely that at the end of such a gruelling task the workers were rewarded with some recreation — a lint-pulling dance. There was a similar custom in America; it was usual for a farmer who wished to build a new barn, to call in his neighbours for a ‘working’ and finish the job in a short time after which a dance was ‘thrown’.
The lint-pulling dance was held in a barn — preferably one with a wooden floor. Wooden floors in barns acquired a polish from the straw and sacks stored there, which made them ideal for dancing. In addition, a wooden floor lent itself to impromptu percussion from the farm boots of the dancers and non-dancers. As Phil the Fluter said ‘The better would the music be for battering the flure’. However, the lint-pullers did not object to a cement floor so long as the music was good. At the flax pulling time the barn would be nearly empty so there would be plenty of room for dancing.
Illus: Joe McFadden. A Wheen O’ Things That Used To Be – Glens of Antrim Historical Society
The music was generally supplied by a fiddler or a melodeon player. In more recent times there would have been one or two accordion players plus a percussionist who played what was then known as a jazz outfit. This consisted of a bass drum which was beaten by means of a foot pedal, a side drum and a single cymbal. But very often the rhythm was supplied by an enthusiast drumming his fingers on a biscuit tin or tea chest.
A good fiddler was highly treasured on these occasions. Writing of barn dances, O’Sullivan tells us that ‘In general the choice of the dances is left to the girls; but before they have made up their minds the fiddler starts another eight-hand reel and they prepare to comply.’ There is a certain humour in this, because the custom required the musician to be paid after every eight-hand reel, so naturally it is his favourite dance!
In some parts of the country the music was auctioned. A man would be made M.C. or Fear a ‘ Tighe for the evening. He would hold a tin plate in his hand and in it he would auction the music. Every man would bid for his choice to please his partner and he who bid most put his money on the plate and called the tune. Hence the saying “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”
I have often heard it said that in the several ballrooms which operated in days gone by, in Ballycastle, on the Hiring Fair and Lammas Fair days, dancers had to pay the musician a penny after each set of the Lancers. I often wondered about the significance of the Lancers. From the musician’s point of view this was a good time to exact payment since the Lancers was a very popular dance (with eight dancers in each set) there would be a good number on the floor and so a substantial revenue would be guaranteed. On the other hand the Lancers consisted of five figures, lasted for about fifteen minutes and was hard work for the musician. Normally the musician would tend to avoid the Lancers but the scheme whereby he received payment after each set of Lancers ensured that the dance was repeated frequently during the night.
What made the Lancers such a popular dance? In the first place four couples were involved in a set and it acted as an icebreaker at the beginning of the evening. As the night wore on the Lancers acted as a good mixer, as each dancer in the set danced with each of the others in turn. In addition, the five figures in the Lancers provided a variety of dances — including the one-step, the big swing and the chain. The big swing caused great excitement. Here, the four men clasped each others’ hands and the ladies linked arms between each pair. The swing was danced to a fast reel such as ‘The Rakes of Mallow’ and the hefty farm men made a great show of swinging the ladies off their feet with much female shrieking; this was accompanied by wild whee-es and hoohs from the onlookers; and such shouts as “Swing your lassies! Mind the dresser!”
The music from the Lancers seemed to run in cycles. At the end of the last century all the fiddlers around seemed to be playing a selection of tunes including ‘Let Erin Remember,’ The Minstrel Boy,’ ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’ and ‘Men of Harlech’. These were linked with an eight-bar bugle-call which the fiddlers could imitate very successfully.
After the First World War the pattern had changed and the Lancers were danced to `It’s a long way to Tipperary’, ‘Pack up your Troubles’, ‘Mademoiselle from Armemtires’, and ‘Take me back to dear Old Blighty’. In the next decade the Stephen Foster melodies had taken over ‘Swanee River,’ Old Black Joe’, and ‘The Camptown Races’.
The advent of the ‘Talkies’ brought such tunes as ‘Red River Valley’, ‘Cutting down the old pine Tree’ and ‘Coming round the Mountain’.
What other dances were interspersed? The ‘Higland Schottishe’ or Highland Fling was one which could be executed on any type of floor. This dance required tremendous energy, balance and timing. Usually this was only attempted by the more expert dancers. Popular tunes for this dance were ‘The Keel Row’, ‘Orange and Blue’, and ‘Some say the Devil’s Dead’.
Polkas were also popular, as were One-steps and Old Time Waltzes. Perhaps the most popular, and certainly the most appropriate, was the Haymakers’ Jig. There were five couples in a set and the dance was very lively, combining a good deal of step-dancing and hand-clapping. Suitable tunes were ‘Trip to the Cottage’ and ‘The Blackthorn Stick’.
Everyone was on the floor once ‘The Waves of Tory’ was called as this dance required no particular dancing skill. It was a dance in which young and old could join and the poor dancers did not feel shy or embarrassed, since there were no spectators; all were participators. As the advertisement of a certain School of Dancing in Belfast used-to claim `If you can walk, you can dance’, this was certainly true of ‘The Waves of Tory’. The dance consisted of the couples marching up and down, weaving under and over arches formed by other couples. The entire movement was reminiscent of the waves on the seashore and hence the name. Suitable tunes were ‘O’Donnell Aboo’, ‘Kelly from Killan’ and ‘Clare’s Dragoons’.
At an appropriate interval, steaming hot tea would be served along with fresh home-made scones and slims, with lashings of good country butter. Frequently there were thick sandwiches of currant bun, with a filling of home-cooked ham or cheddar cheese; and a wee drop of the hard stuff was available to those in the know.
But the evening would not be all dancing. The M. C. would call out ‘Barney MacNabb for his pleasure’ or some such similar remark and Barney would oblige with ‘The Bonnie Wee Window’ or ‘The Little Old Mud Cabin on the Hill’. Such songs as ‘The Old Bog Road’ or ‘Cutting the Corn Down in Creeslough Today’ would bring tears to the eyes of the tender-hearted, as they remembered a member of the family who had emigrated to America or Australia. However, with the familiar cry of `Take your partners for the Lancers’ brighter spirits would return and the emigrant would quickly be forgotten.
Lint-pulling dances were not held at every farm; perhaps not every farm had suitable accommodation. But some names have slipped into folk history in this connection — Hunters of Cross, MacBrides of the Watertop, McKinleys of Ballyloughan, O’Rawes of Tully, McMullans of Coolnagoppagh and, of course, Castlegreen.
And what of the musicians? These were, as a rule, very skilful players — versatile men who could rapidly change from the march tune of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ to the fast jig — tempo of ‘The Irish Washerwoman’. There were well known fiddlers at the end of the last century like Archie Savage, Charlie McLaughlin and Peter Night of Ballycastle and Danny O’Loan of Cushendall (who was also a well-known fiddle maker). A later group included Jamie McKinley of Lisnakilly, Bob Lynn of Slipin, and of course, the late Mickey McIllhatton, the ‘King of the Glens’; Alex McNabb of BaIlinlea and Paddy McAfee of Ballypatrick, Johnnie and Pat Kelly (piccolo) of Broombeg.
As time went on melodeon and accordeon players took over the music scene. Perhaps as this century progressed there has been a demand for more and more sound, culminating in ear-splitting electronic music. Among the popular box-players were Paddy McNeill of Lealand, George McKay snr, and George McKay jun, Alec Falconer, James McLaughlin, Paddy McBride (better known as Paddy the Smith, because of his trade) and Jim Lynn of Bailinlea. These men were all, appreciated as much in their day as Philomena Begley and her Rambling men or Brian Coll and the Plattermen. They were honest-to-goodness musicians with no electronic or electrical aids. But they gave tremendous pleasure to their hearers through their sheer hard work and dedication and they were not over paid — Paddy McNeill recalls receiving a penny from each of the dancers after a set of Lancers and this hardly amounted to a fortune. But these people were not in it for the money; they were glad to be of service to the community — they were social workers ahead of their time.
Unfortunately the lint-pulling dance is no longer a feature of our countryside, neither is the ‘Harvest Home’ nor the Potato Gathering Dance’. Farming is highly mechanised and gangs of labourers are not required. Television has also assisted in the demise of the custom of `ceilidhing’ in neighbour houses. No doubt our rural areas are all the poorer for the disappearance of these customs.
Pat Mc Cambridge adds: …
…….”a lot of the old systems are gone that we were familiar with and of course all the sociable side of has gone now. You go into a field on your owny-oh nearly, and do your work. So there’s not so much time wasted scandalising or talking.
The same thing with flax, flax was a very sociable. Flax had to be pulled pretty well the one day if you had a field of flax. You couldn’t go out and work at it for the next two weeks because it had to be all pulled in the one day and dubbed, put into a lint dub or dam. That meant that it had to be co-operative.
Your neighbours came and pulled yours and you went to pull your neighbours. Again that was a very sociable outing because there was always maybe twenty men in a field and maybe two or more girls and maybe the farmer would have a couple of daughters and he would have a good gathering of men always. The boy with no daughters always had trouble getting enough men to pull his lint !
… and very often there would be certain houses would have a, I suppose our form of harvest ball, there would be a lint pulling dance. No dances much for corn, there was always these lint pulling dances, quite a few of them you see, and you would always have a few girls about helping to make the tea and the dinner and that and then a few more would gather up for the dance and people met each other and it was very sociable and there was a lot of hard work with it too of course. It’s a funny thing I think the harder you worked the more you enjoy yourself afterwards.
There was usually somebody, in those days there was always somebody could play an old melodeon. I have no music, I wouldn’t know whether music was good or bad but they played a melodeon or a fiddle, maybe a couple of fiddles and that. You would always have plenty of musicians and these dances would be in an old barn. There would be no fancy maple floors or anything in my young days, traditional dancing is the big thing now of course.
People nearly forget there was ever any other but when I was young there would have been reels of course, four hand reels and things and there would be lancers and… I don’t know, I’m not a dancing man… Lancers and Foxtrots and Two- Steps and ‘devil and all’- you know and you might have four or five in the district over the season you know. They were very sociable things…